Sixth Sunday In Ordinary Time (B)
Lv 13:1-2,44-46; 1 Cor 10:31-11:1; Mk 1:40-45
In 1944, my mother was in her early twenties and was stricken with polio. It happened at home, and the doctor was called. Upon diagnosis, the city health authorities were notified. Their intent was to move Mom to the hospital, where she and her disease would be "held captive" (in the words of my grandmother). Nana wouldn't hear of it, and asked about the option of keeping Mom at home. After a fair amount of negotiating, it was agreed that Mom would indeed stay at home, but that there would be a large QUARANTINE sign posted on the front of the house. It was polio in the 1940's. What are the dreaded diseases of today that are fearfully contagious? If not illness, what other conditions are feared and avoided by the good and well in our culture? This is a fitting backdrop to the readings of this Sunday.
Those who compiled these readings might have been thinking about the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew's Gospel, where Jesus says: "You have heard that it was said. . . but I say to you. . ." For, that is exactly what is happening in the Leviticus reading and the Gospel reading for today. In contemplating the readings, we are given cause to reflect on three things: the role of the leader of a basic community, the understanding of "clean and unclean," and the question of "who is in" and "who is out" of the community, indeed, of the reign of God.
In the first reading, God speaks to Moses and Aaron, directing that anyone in the community with a skin disease be brought to one of the priests, who then had the role of deciding if the person is indeed leprous and unclean. Thus, the priest has the singular role of judgment. To be clear, that judgment is for the good of the community. The people of the time must have experienced the contagion of skin disease, and so to declare one "unclean" and to expel that person from the community was for the common good. For us, it sounds pretty harsh, and not good for the individual being excommunicated.
We get an insight into the label of unclean as we hear in the first reading that the leprous one shall "keep his garments rent and his head bare and shall muffle his beard. He shall cry out 'Unclean, unclean!'" The tearing of garments is traditionally done at death, when one experiences the loss of a loved one. Here, the leprous one literally loses himself. His head is bare, not covered as a member of the covenanted community. To protect others from contact, the person is to cry out their uncleanness. The sickness is viewed as sinful and seems to become a crime for which one is punished in the most severe way.
With this Leviticus reading in mind, the Gospel story is quite startling: the leper comes to Jesus, not to be judged by the priest as in Leviticus, but kneeling as if before a king to beg for healing. Jesus is not a judge, but a compassionate healer who responds to the heartfelt request of the leper. In the Gospel story, the leper comes to Jesus who "stretches out his hand and touches him." Stretching out his hand may be a sign of blessing, and then Jesus exercises healing touch, clearly outside the Jewish law which prevented contact with one who was unclean. In Jesus, there is no judgment or indication of uncleanness, sinfulness, or separation. One is reminded of John's Gospel where Jesus heals the man born blind. Because blindness was thought to be a result of sin, the question is posed to Jesus: "Who sinned? This one, or his parents?" Jesus replies firmly that it is neither. The man's blindness was so that God's glory would be revealed. In the Gospel healing today, God's glory is indeed revealed.
Finally, both stories have a message about belonging to community, "who is in" and "who is out." In the Leviticus story, the leprous one seems mercilessly expelled, outcast. In the Gospel story, Jesus advises the one who was healed to return to his community, showing himself to the priest. It seems then that he goes on to become an evangelist - telling the whole world about the deeds of Jesus.
So: what about us? Is our first response judgment or acceptance of those who are different from ourselves, who may be "unclean" in some way? In our world, our country, our cities, our churches, our lives who are labeled "unclean"? Whom do we welcome to belong with us in our basic communities?
My grandmother wouldn't allow Mom to be labeled unclean when she was diagnosed with polio, but kept her in the family home in the very midst of the community there. And, with such care and compassion, she recovered and walked and married, and like the leper-turned-evangelist of the gospel, lived a life of faith always telling the good news of what God had done in her.
By Sallie Latkovich, C.S.J., Director of Biblical Study and Travel
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