Feb 11, 2018: 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

1st Reading – Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron,
“If someone has on his skin a scab or pustule or blotch
which appears to be the sore of leprosy,
he shall be brought to Aaron, the priest,
or to one of the priests among his descendants.
If the man is leprous and unclean,
the priest shall declare him unclean
by reason of the sore on his head.

“The one who bears the sore of leprosy
shall keep his garments rent and his head bare,
and shall muffle his beard;
he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’
As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean,
since he is in fact unclean.
He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.”

The book of Leviticus was written primarily for the priests of Israel, the Levites. It draws together various bodies of law and ritual, starting with the laws concerning the Levites themselves; in fact, this book can be considered a kind of manual for conducting the liturgy. Catholic scholars acknowledge the Mosaic authorship of this book, although they also allow that later additions may have been made.

Leviticus is almost entirely legislative in character.  Generally speaking, the laws it contains serve to teach the Israelites that they should always keep themselves in a state of purity as a sign of their intimate union with the Lord.  Ritual cleanness was demanded for almost any communion with God in the ceremonies of the Temple or the home.

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron,

Aaron is Moses’ older brother, who served as Moses’ assistant and spokesman (Exodus 4:14-16).

“If someone has on his skin a scab or pustule or blotch which appears to be the sore of leprosy, 

Various kinds of skin blemishes are addressed; the Hebrew term translated here as “leprosy” does not refer specifically to Hansen’s disease, which today is commonly called leprosy.

he shall be brought to Aaron, the priest, or to one of the priests among his descendants. If the man is leprous and unclean, the priest shall declare him unclean by reason of the sore on his head.

Clean and unclean were religious designations, and so the priest was involved in making such determinations.

“The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean. He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.

In a Mediterranean climate like Israel/Palestine, untreated chronic skin diseases can be quite distressful.  However, the real tragedy of such an affliction was not the physical discomfort but the social estrangement and religious alienation that was imposed because of it.  Lepers were banished from the community and required to keep their distance.  If someone unknowingly approached them, they were to issue a warning by crying out “Unclean!”

It was also widely held that leprosy was a punishment for some sin (Numbers 12:1-10; Isaiah 53:4); in addition to being social and religious outcasts, they were considered morally reprehensible as well.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1

Brothers and sisters,
Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do,
do everything for the glory of God.
Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks or
the church of God,
just as I try to please everyone in every way,
not seeking my own benefit but that of the many,
that they may be saved.
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

In our second readings for previous Sundays, Saint Paul has been answering questions posed to him concerning proper behavior. Today, Saint Paul sums up his teaching on the topic.

Brothers and sisters: Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.

Previously in this letter, Paul has discussed the delicate balance between the freedom enjoyed in the faith in Christ and the need to conform to those to whom he was preaching.  He did not wish to burden his hearers with obligations that were extraneous to the gospel. Here, he is directing the Corinthians to do the same.

He refers to eating and drinking as a case in point.  Many religious traditions have food customs that govern what the members should eat or drink, when they should eat or drink it, and with whom.  Judiasm and many of the religious sects of the Greco-Roman world had such regulations.  Without insisting that new converts to Christianity observe any such customs, and without dismissing them as irrelevant, Paul maintained that the glory of God must be the measure by which every custom should be judged.

In other words, whatever practices the Corinthians retained or assumed, their religious value was no longer found in their former importance but in their accommodation to faith in Christ.

Avoid giving offense, whether to Jews or Greeks or the church of God,

In addition to the glorification of God, sensitivity to the consciences of others should be the driving force in the lives of Christians.

The complexity of the makeup of early Christian communities complicated their adherence to this principle.  The communities consisted of a diverse group of Jews and pagan Greeks which had varying regulations regarding food that often conflicted, such as ritual cleanness and consuming the meat of animals sacrificed to idols.  When Christians sat down to share a meal, these issues often surfaced.

Paul is stating that the policy to follow at such times was to avoid giving offense.

“Let all the things which you undertake and accomplish have this root and foundation, namely, that they tend to the glory of God. … When Paul said ‘whatever you do’, he has enclosed our whole existence in a single word, desiring that we never perform any act of virtue with an eye to human glory.” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 388), Baptismal Catecheses 6,10]

just as I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved.

Paul underscores his point by emphasizing his own example, which lends credibility to his message.

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

The passage ends with a final admonition.  Paul has adapted himself to the needs of others, and he has done so after the example of Christ.  The Corinthians are exhorted to do the same.

“If you imitate Paul as he imitated Christ, then you will be imitating Christ as he represented God.” [Saint Clement of Alexandria (after A.D. 202), Stromateis 2,136,5]

Gospel – Mark 1:40-45

A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said,
“If you wish, you can make me clean.”
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand,
touched him, and said to him,
“I do will it. Be made clean.”
The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.
Then, warning the him sternly, he dismissed him at once.

He said to him, “See that you tell no one anything,
but go, show yourself to the priest
and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed;
that will be proof for them.”

The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.
He spread the report abroad
so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.
He remained outside in deserted places,
and people kept coming to him from everywhere.

For the third week in a row, we hear a gospel account of Jesus demonstrating miraculous power, yet demanding that word of the amazing event not be publicized.

The location of the healing which we hear about today is uncertain; all we know is that it takes some place in the region of Galilee.

A leper came to Jesus 

The man was suffering from the kind of skin ailment described in our first reading.  Note that although he is socially alienated and ritually unclean, he defies the laws governing lepers and boldly approaches Jesus.

It was probably not an accidental encounter; it is likely that he had heard of his miracles.

and kneeling down begged him and said, 

The man prostrates himself before Jesus and begs.  He is clearly showing humility and shame.

“If you wish, you can make me clean.”

Interestingly, he asks to be made clean, not to be cured.  This suggests that social and religious acceptability might be more important to him than physical healing.

Moved with pity,

The verb used is splanchnízomai, a word that suggests deep inner groanings.

he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” 

Jesus matches the man’s boldness with a bold move of his own.  According to Mosaic law, touching an unclean person would render one unclean as well; the state of uncleanness was considered contagious.

If the gospels tell us anything about Jesus, it is that he regarded human need as more important than ritual regulation.

“If He cleansed him merely by willing it and by speaking it, why did He also add the touch of His hand? For no other reason, it seems to me, than that He might signify by this that He is not under the hand of the Law, but the Law is in His hands… He touched the leper to signify that He heals not as servant but as Lord.” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 370), Homilies on The Gospel of Matthew 25,2]

The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.

Astonishingly, the touch that was expected to render Jesus unclean actually healed the man and restored him to the state of ritual purity.

Note that the disappearance of leprosy was regarded as one of the blessings of the messianic times (Isaiah 35:8).

“And why did He touch him, since the Law forbade the touching of a leper? He touched him to show that ‘all things are clean to the clean’ (Titus 1:15). Because the filth that is in one person does not adhere to others, nor does external uncleanness defile the clean of heart. So He touches him in his untouchability, that He might instruct us in humility; that He might teach us that we should despise no one, or abhor them or regard them as pitiable, because of some wound on their body or some blemish for which they might be called to render an account.” [Origen (ca. A.D. 245), The Healing Of The Leper]

Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once. Then he said to him, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.”

Since cleanness was a ritual designation, it had to be verified by a priest (Leviticus 14:1-32).  Jesus instructed the man to observe this requirement because he would need approval from the priest to re-enter the community and participate in religious life.

The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.

We are not told whether the man did as Jesus prescribed, and fulfilled the prescriptions of the law.  However, we are told that contrary to the stern command not to tell anyone what happened, he publicized the event far and wide.

He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.

The man’s broadcasting of the news indicates that he went out among people, and the fact that Jesus was subsequently engulfed by crowds indicates that they believed the man had been cured.  Either he had been certified by the priest or the effects of the cure were obvious to all.

Once again the news of his marvelous power seems to have prevented Jesus from going about his mission as he would have desired.  He wanted to announce the good news of salvation, but the people were captivated by the wonders he performed.  They sought him out in order to witness these marvels themselves, and perhaps benefit from them.

Consequently, Jesus “remained outside in deserted places,” choosing seclusion rather than the press of the crowd and their misunderstanding of his mission.

Connections and Themes

Our reflection on the harshness of life begun last Sunday continues this week, as we consider the toll that suffering exacts of us.  Although the disease of leprosy itself may be foreign to modern life, the fear it engendered and the anguish it caused those afflicted illustrate some of the personal and communal consequences of human suffering.

The price of suffering.  Sometime in life everyone will have to endure physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual suffering.  We know this is the case, so we try to prepare ourselves for the inevitable.  Yet when it comes, as prepared as we try to be, it can overtake us with such a fury that we fall back defenseless.  We look to others for support and assistance, and if we are fortunate, we find it.  However, even in the most supportive of communities suffering may exact a price we are not prepared to pay.  It tends to alienate us from those who are healthy and secure.

Leprosy may be an extreme example, but it reveals several aspects of suffering.  First, there are the circumstances of the misfortune itself.  These might include pain, anxiety, diminishment, and ultimately, death.  In addition, suffering can sap our energy, jeopardize everything we have achieved, and leave us unproductive and feeling worthless.  There are also social consequences.  Suffering reminds us of our own finitude and the contingent nature of all of life.  It threatens people sense of order, which is why people often tend to dissociate themselves from those in pain.

God’s reign includes all.  Jesus is not deterred by human suffering.  He welcomes all who approach him; he touches what might repel others.  His healing touch reincorporates those who have been ostracized; his loving embrace reassociates those who have been alienated.  In the reign of God there are no outsiders.  All belong to Jesus, and, therefore, all belong to each other.  Those who have been shunned because of some physical condition or social status have been brought back into the circle of the community, and the community is made whole again.  The one afflicted belongs to the community, and the community is now an authentic manifestation of the inclusive reign of God.

The one who suffers evangelizes.  Too often we merely endure suffering and miss the opportunity to reap the benefits it can yield.  In suffering, we witness to human vulnerability and our desperate need of each other and of God.  There, at the edge of life and on the fringes of the community, we may experience the tenderness and compassion of God, the loving touch of Christ that can heal our souls if not our bodies.  It is there that we may most authentically participate in the cross of Christ.  Joined to him, we are anything but unproductive or worthless.  If we turn to the Lord in time of trouble, we will begin to experience the joy of salvation, and our lives will proclaim it to others.

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