Gospel Reflections

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Mark 1:40-45

Sunday Gospel Reflection by Sister Camilla Burns

Published: February 15, 2015


There is no hard evidence in the world of the Old Testament for Hansen’s Disease or leprosy as we know it until after 333 BCE when Alexander’s armies returned from India. In the world of the Old Testament, “leprosy” refers to psoriasis, eczema or other skin eruptions. Leviticus clearly views them as diseases, “...the disease is on his head” (Lev. 13:44) but it primarily treats them as social disorders.

Disease of the skin was a symptom of chaos or misuse of power. Skin or clothes are social surfaces or borders that mark the frontiers between cosmos where life is possible and chaos where it is not. Israel’s reactions to this disease reflect their sense of social organization rather than medical knowledge. The protocol for treatment was ritual degradation, a process of death and rebirth. Lepers dressed like corpses, did not cut their hair and wailed like mourners (Lev 13:45). The degradation symbolized a relinquishment of power for powerlessness. When the symptoms subsided, they were readmitted to society. Relinquishing power for powerlessness also heals strangers like Naaman, a royal advisor from Syria (2 Kgs 5: 1-27).

By the time of Jesus, Hansen’s Disease had been added to the label of “leprosy” and was treated similarly as a social disorder. When the leper requests healing, he expresses it in an interesting turn of phrase, “If you choose, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40). He is asking for restoration to the community, to family, to friends, to the worshipping community. His request for healing is a plea to return from the status of outcast.

“Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!” (Mark 1: 41). Jesus became a law-breaker by ignoring the commands of Leviticus to refrain from touching what is unclean. As he often does, Jesus makes an astounding reversal by choosing powerlessness over power; He himself takes on the protocol of ritual degradation.

The Greek word for “touched” is more than a casual brush but it means “He fastened to him,” “He adhered to him,” “He clung to him.” In his relinquishment of his own personal power, Jesus embraced the leper.

We need to call to mind our own list of outcasts. Whom do we not fully welcome into our circle? Whom do we look at and think, “Something about you excludes you from my world of belonging.” Where do we push away those to whom Jesus might well embrace? Whom do we need to restore to our community?

The work of Jesus does not end with healing. He commissions the leper to do his part by going to the priest and giving witness to his restoration to the community. The healing of God does not end with our quietly rejoicing in it. It continues with our conviction that whatever our state, whatever our condition, Jesus is in it with us. God calls us into community, into relationship, and that all persists through our unwillingness and the community’s unwillingness. The Gospel story is a dramatic pronouncement that healing is far more contagious than disease. Our own powerlessness is a source of healing.

 

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