“If you wish, you can make me clean,” the man with leprosy says to Jesus.
The man was weighed down with a disease that not only caused pain and physical distortion but also isolated him from the community. He comes to Jesus with faith, kneeling. He recognizes that Jesus has the authority and ability to heal him.
The request resonates with what we have already seen in this first chapter of the Gospel of St. Mark. Two weeks ago, we heard a passage where the people were “astonished” at Jesus’ teaching and “amazed” at the power of his word when he expelled an unclean demon from a man. They said, “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”
Last week, we saw Jesus heal Peter’s mother-in-law. Now the leper comes to Jesus for healing. One added dimension is the leper’s faith. He knows Jesus can save him.
The growing expression of Jesus’ authority is the slow revealing of who he is and what his mission is about. He is the one who has compassion for the sick, the possessed and those in need. This compassion is love. Gradually, we will realize that this love is the love of God himself.
Jesus’ mission of revealing the Father happens in the context of the covenant, which is represented by Mosaic law. The law was an important step in the healing of man’s condition, which had been broken by sin. Jesus refers to the law when he tells the now healed man “go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.”
The first reading from the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) comes from the Book of Leviticus. On first hearing or reading this passage, we might be tempted to think it is harsh even cruel to have someone go around calling themselves “unclean.” To understand the passage and why it was a good law, we must think about life several thousand years ago, when there were no medical doctors or hospitals. The law is designed to protect the community from contagious disease.
The priest was a leader in the community. The person with the suspected disease would go to the priest, and if the sore looked like leprosy, the priest would declare it so. The requirements for the leper were imposed because the disease was thought to be contagious. The person had to warn others of the condition so that they would not get too close. Lepers were therefore required to call out “unclean, unclean” when moving among people, and they had to live outside the camp. This law was intended to limit the spread of the disease.
Jesus’ encounter with the leper shows a different aspect of God’s care for his people. Jesus represents the Father and comes to heal. The physical healing, in this case, represents something greater than the just the healing of this one leper. The healing represents God’s saving work being accomplished. This is the role of the Messiah. Jesus’ instruction to the man healed included these words: “See that you tell no one anything.”
This command was similar to those earlier in this first chapter of Mark. The reason is that people have to come to understand the role of the Messiah not in terms that they were accustomed to – that of a military leader who would over throw Roman occupation and rule. The saving activity of God is much greater than that, so Jesus cannot be identified as the Messiah in those terms. He is indeed the Messiah, but the popular understanding of that role has to first be changed.
The leper provides us with an example of faith, one that recognizes Jesus’ authority and seeks healing from him. We are invited to have the same faith – to go to Jesus in prayer and the sacraments to seek his healing for whatever ails us, especially our spiritual ills.
As we continue to see faith developing among those who encounter Jesus, we are encouraged to continue to develop faith in our lives, to live by that faith and to be strengthened by it.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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