Feb 14, 2021: 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 or handbook for Levitical priests. Catholic scholars acknowledge Moses as its author.

Leviticus is almost entirely legislative in character. At its core, the law was the social expression of the people’s covenant relationship with God. The law helped the people remain in right relationship with God, who is holy. In fact, a refrain throughout the book of Leviticus is that the Lord’s people shall be holy, because the Lord is holy.

Today’s first reading is a passage from Leviticus that deals with laws of purity, specifically with contagious diseases.

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.

The Israelites were instructed to 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.

Because ritual cleanness was a religious designation, anyone with a skin disease was required to show himself to a priest in order to determine his particular status.

However, this was not only a matter of religious purity but one of public health as well. Because leprosy was an infectious disease, every effort had to be made to keep it from spreading. If leprosy was suspected, the priest would quarantine the person for seven days. If after seven days the nature of the skin ailment still wasn’t clear, another seven days of quarantine was required.

“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.

Once a diagnosis of leprosy was made, the individuals had to separate themselves from the community. This was not rooted in lack of love for the leper; it was done to protect the health of the community. However, the social estrangement and religious alienation that was imposed on lepers must have been as painful as the disease itself.

Leprosy was often believed to be divine punishment for certain sins (Numbers 12:1-10; Isaiah 53:4). Therefore, in addition to being social and religious outcasts, lepers were often 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’s reading is a continuation of a discussion of Christian freedom.

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. Judaism 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. A Christian should seek the glory of God by always acting with the best of intentions.

“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. 388 AD), 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.

Paul isn’t saying that he gives up his principles to get along with the crowd. Rather, he is saying that he gives up some of his freedom to make the Gospel attractive to the people he is evangelizing.

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 202 AD), 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.

A leper came to Jesus 

To fully understand what is being taught in this passage, we must have an appreciation for the social context within which this event took place. As we saw in our Old Testament reading, a leper was required to stay away from other people and warn others of his presence by crying out, “Unclean, unclean!” Although this man is socially alienated and ritually unclean, he defies the law and boldly approaches Jesus.

This was probably not an accidental encounter; it is likely that he had heard of Jesus’ healing miracles.

and kneeling down begged him and said, 

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

Jesus had every right to be furious with this man for endangering Jesus’ health. The man could have kept his distance and still asked Jesus to heal him; he didn’t need to come so close.

“If you wish, you can make me clean.”

Interestingly, the leper 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,

After setting this alarming scene, Mark then describes Jesus’ reaction. The verb used here 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 ritual state of uncleanness was considered contagious.

Although Jesus often touched people when he healed them, he didn’t always. He didn’t have to. To touch this man was an extraordinary act of kindness.

One of the more striking things the gospels teach us about Jesus is that his regard for human need is much deeper than his regard for 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 (370 AD), 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 has the opposite effect: the man is healed and restored 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. 245 AD), 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,

We once again see the pattern in Mark’s gospel of Jesus telling people not to speak of his miraculous deeds.

but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.”

Jesus directs the man to follow the protocol that would allow him to re-enter society and participate in religious life. Since cleanness was a ritual designation, it had to be verified by a priest (Leviticus 14:1-32).

This story is as much about Jesus reaching out to the marginalized as it is about his healing power. Jesus has not only healed this outcast man, but touched him and saw that he was welcomed back into the community.

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

We aren’t told whether the man went to the priests, as Jesus directed. 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.

By describing the effect of the man’s telling everyone, Mark gives us a hint of why Jesus likely didn’t want the publicity. The news of his marvelous power seems to once again have prevented Jesus from going about his mission as he would have desired. He wanted them to be attracted to the good news of salvation, but the people were instead captivated by, and focused on, the wonders he performed.

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 continues this week, as we consider the toll that suffering exacts of us. Although the disease of leprosy 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.  Everyone endures physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual suffering at some time in life. Knowing this is the case, we often 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, including 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’s 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 are 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.