Gospel for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (14 February 2021)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. (Mark 1:40-45 – NRSV)
Matthew 8:1-4 and Luke 5:12-16 depend on Mark here.
“The healing of the leper (1:40–45), the only such healing in Mark, seems almost like an awkward appendix to the two summaries of healings and exorcisms (1:34, 39). The text would flow very smoothly from 1:39 to 2:1, with Jesus travelling throughout Galilee and then returning to Capernaum. The story lacks the specific location of the other mighty works in this section (in a synagogue, in the house of Simon and Andrew). Yet it is the most vivid of the narratives thus far. In contrast to those healed previously (the demoniac and Simon’s mother-in-law), the leper is shown in action by the use of three closely linked participles: beseeching, falling to his knees, and making a request. Moreover, his request (‘make me clean’) is explicit. The language of requesting and falling on one’s knees attributes a virtually divine status to Jesus, as does the statement that through an act of his will he can effect healing. Leprosy, or the various skin diseases included in the term, was the most dreaded of all diseases because it separated people from family and community and thus constituted a ‘living death’. Indeed, rabbinic sayings compare the cure of leprosy to raising the dead (a divine prerogative). …. The evangelist may well have placed this narrative here as a christological paradigm for the subsequent narratives. Jesus, the stronger one predicted by John (1:7), has power over the dreaded leprosy, and yet he is a figure of compassion who, for the sake of a suffering human, will violate ritual laws. Like the healed leper, those in Mark’s community who have been touched by the life-giving power of Jesus are to become missionaries proclaiming and broadcasting ‘the word’ far and wide. This narrative also prepares for the controversies of 2:1–3:6, which will end with the first explicit plan to kill Jesus (3:6) precisely because he violated the Sabbath” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 91).
A leper: From the Greek leptein meaning “peel off”. This could imply any number of skin diseases. It is not to be taken as the disease we have come to know as Hansen’s disease. The passage, together with Matthew 8:1-4 and Luke 5:12-16 – which are dependent on Mark’s account – and the story of the healing of the ten lepers in Luke 17:11-19, are the only occasions where it is said that Jesus healed “lepers”. Leviticus 13-14 treats of “lepers” at some length: “There the Hebrew term ṣāraʿat also describes a fungus that affects fabrics and houses (Lev 13:47–58; 14:13–45). In the ot ‘leprosy’ is frequently regarded as a punishment for sin (Num 12:10–15; cf. Deut 28:27, 35; 2 Kgs 5:25–27; 2 Chr 26:16–21). According to Lev 13:45–46 the person with a leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and have disheveled hair, and shall live alone with a dwelling ‘outside the camp, and cry out “unclean, unclean”.’ Physical contact with such people rendered a person ‘unclean’ too. Leprosy in the strict sense seems to have spread to the Near East from India ca. 300 b.c.e., and so it could have existed in Palestine at the time of Jesus. Leprosy was thought to be like death (most likely because of the pallor of the person and the isolation from community), and a cure of leprosy was considered as marvelous as raising the dead (Num 12:10–12; 2 Kgs 5:7)” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, op cit, 88).
Moved with pity: There is some disagreement over the translation here. Some manuscripts have the Greek word orgistheis meaning “anger”, others have splanchnistheis meaning “compassion”. Most favour “pity” or “compassion”. “This (ie ‘compassion’) translates the participle splanchnistheis, which is one of the more disputed textual readings in Mark. The root of the verb (the noun is splanchnon) designates the seat of affective feeling and emotion (our ‘guts’), and is often translated ‘heart’. Some Western manuscripts read orgistheis (‘being angered’), and on the principle of lectio difficilior potior (the more difficult reading is to be preferred) many commentators translate ‘being angered’. The argument is that copyists (embarrassed at the anger of Jesus) would more likely change ‘anger’ to ‘compassion’ than vice versa. In favor of ‘moved with compassion’, however, are the weight of the best manuscripts and the fact that copyists have not altered other passages that present Jesus as angry (3:5; 10:14). Moreover, Jesus appears as compassionate in two other healing narratives (6:34; 8:2) and in curing the possessed boy (9:22)” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, op cit, 89).
Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him: Jesus’ compassion prompts him to violate the ritual laws as laid down in Leviticus – see above. This is one of many occasions in the Gospels where Jesus places compassion for people ahead of cultural and religious law and custom. It is very clear where his priorities lay. Still, he orders the man to show himself to the priests as the law demands. “But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.” “Commands and prescriptions seem to have little power in this narrative. Rather, the humanity and compassion of Jesus and the experience of freedom that the healed man enjoys are the main centers of attention” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, op cit, 91).
In Mark 1:22-23 the people are astounded with Jesus because he “teaches with authority”. Mark does not tell us what he teaches. It seems fair to assume that the people have sensed something in Jesus himself, something very special. And in today’s Gospel – Mark 1:40-45 – the leper is eager to encounter Jesus: “A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean’”. The leper’s cry and his manner echo the astonishment of the earlier crowd. Both moments are alive with expectation and joy.
Jesus’ response to the leper holds a key to understanding the experience of these people: “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean’”. Jesus’ action is more significant than his words: “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him”. All those present – including Jesus – would have been familiar with the teaching of Torah: “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean’. He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:45-46). Chapters 13 and 14 in Leviticus are given over to dealing with leprosy in great detail. There we learn that to touch the “unclean” is to become unclean.
What is your sense of this man, Jesus? What is it like to be with him? Go back and gently, thoughtfully, re-read the story of the cleansing of the leper. See if you can connect with what is being spoken of there. You might find it helpful to follow the man described by the Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke: “He does not always remain bent over his pages; he often leans back and closes his eyes over a line he has been reading again, and its meaning spreads through his blood” (Cited in Charles Cummings OCSO, Monastic Practices, Cistercian Publications, 1986, 9).
Jesus respected Torah: “Show yourself to the priest etc”. But he also knew there was more to the Covenant than laws. What if we were to think of Jesus approaching us as he approached Torah? In other words, he respects the person we present to him today. But he knows there is much more to us than that. Do we want the “more than that”? Perhaps we are frightened of the freedom Jesus can bring us? Do we dare say to him: “If you choose you can set me free with your love”? Pray those sentiments as often as you can think of it this week. And listen! Be present to him as he is to you.
Being a Christian is not adhering to an ideology or philosophy of life. Nor is it about being moral athletes or pious devotees. Nor is it about being law-abiding and church-going folk. Though it may include all of the above. It is about being loved into freedom. Nothing more, nothing less.