Lectionary #77, Mark 1: 40-45
Leprosy and related conditions are horrific diseases which have afflicted many people from the dawn of recorded history to the present time. Whether or not the illness that beset the man whom Jesus encountered in the Gospel was the same as what physicians today call Hansen’s disease is beside the point: it is clear that the man was suffering grievously in a physical sense, and in addition was an outcast to his community as a result of his disease. For a Jewish man or woman, to be separated from the larger community united to the Lord by covenant would be a great source of anguish, and thus this separation would have caused the leper deep emotional and spiritual pain.
Jesus shows moving compassion to the man, proving his closeness by touching him—an action which in itself would have stunned onlookers, and rendered Jesus himself a man apart from the covenant community—and healing him. Jesus respects the man’s faith in him, witnessed by the leper’s words: “If you wish, you can make me clean”. He also respects the man’s heartfelt desire to remain in a covenant relationship with the one true God who had been revealed through the instruction of the Torah and the words of the prophets; perhaps this is why Jesus tells the man: “Go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed”, a ritual described in detail in the Book of Leviticus (Lev 14:2-32). This action would have restored the man to full standing within the Jewish community, just as Jesus had restored him to full health.
In healing the leper, Jesus was taking one more step toward unveiling the Kingdom of God which he began to announce with his first words in the Gospel. In spite of the drama of this miraculous cure, it is interesting to note that immediately after healing the leper Jesus sternly warns him not to tell anyone what happened—an odd command for one trying to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.
Jesus’ warning is a variation on the same theme present in the last two Sunday Gospel readings, in which Jesus is very cautious about how and when he reveals himself, for his goal in Mark’s Gospel is to announce not himself but the Kingdom of God. The fact that this caution is such a constant refrain in the Gospel is significant: Christ wants the Kingdom and his role in it to be made known on his own terms and in the proper time, so that those who come to him might truly understand that the glory of the Kingdom will only be theirs through the cross. Jesus insists so strenuously on keeping his identity as God’s messiah under wraps that it is sometimes referred to as the “messianic secret” of the Gospel.
The leper and his covenant community glimpsed the Kingdom through the event of his healing, and are continually welcomed to the fullness of that Kingdom, for as St. Paul teaches us “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). We who profess faith in Christ as part of the Church Catholic are summoned to heed his call to the Kingdom in a special way this week as we begin the holy season of Lent. May the purification, the renewal of covenant life in the Christian community, and above all the faith of the leper lead us as well to
“Repent, and believe in the Good News” (Mark 1:15).
Father Edward M. Mazich, O.S.B.