Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Readings: Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46; First Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45

In biblical times several forms of infectious skin disease were given the name of “leprosy,” and those afflicted were isolated completely from the community. This included their residing outside the city, wearing torn clothing, covering the face and head and shouting “Unclean, unclean,” when they appeared in any public place. The underlying factor was fear of contagion.

All of this added to the isolation and sense of rejection by all that lepers had to endure. Deprived too of participation in Temple worship lepers were even denied the consolation of religion.

We know this kind of rejection of those with mysterious or incurable disease went on right to modern times. The heroic work of the Belgian Blessed Damian DeVeuster (died 1889) and the American Blessed Marianne Cope (died 1918) among the lepers of Molokai, Hawaii, for example, come to mind in this regard.

Today we approach things differently, with a better knowledge of disease, medicine and prevention. There is still work to be done in accepting those afflicted with incurable disease, but great strides have been made.

In ancient times seeking the common good of the many meant sacrificing the lepers who were to be isolated, with little or no personal worth being given them by those who were not victims of disease. This meant even greater suffering for those declared unclean, above and beyond the physical hardship itself.

This is the context of the appeal of the leper to the power of Jesus as described in the Gospel passage for this Sunday.
A leper seeks out Jesus for a cure. Filled with great fear perhaps, but at the same time deep faith and confidence, the leper knelt before Jesus with the urgent request to be cured. Moved with pity, and clearly unafraid of the stigma associated with relating to lepers, Jesus touched the man and cured him but also gave a stern warning to keep the matter to himself.

So filled with joy, astonishment and gratitude, though, the leper who was cured could not restrain his jubilation. As a result Jesus had to be more careful about where he went so as not to be mistaken for being simply a wonder worker, since his mission was to include much more than working miracles.

The underlying message of this Sunday’s Gospel passage is the need for us to have a deep faith in the power which Jesus possesses, capable of freeing us from sin and death, bringing us the gift of immortal life. Our faith has to be rooted in what transcends the physical, the deeper life of communion with God and the saints.

In a materialistic and secularized world this can be a difficult challenge, when so much that surrounds us tells us that this is all there is, that there is no existence beyond this one.

Our Christian faith over and again is assuring us otherwise, that what we can see and touch is certainly part of the picture, and under God’s provident care, but that there is much more going on than just our physical existence.

The leper in the Gospel says to Jesus, “If you will to do so, you can cure me.” We can use these same words in our prayers each day. We may add specific requests to that prayer, for better health for ourselves or others, for example, or for resolutions to problems, but for whatever we ask we have to believe that God hears our prayers and gives answers that may not be what we expected, but answers nonetheless.

“As you will to give it, Lord, may I receive it graciously,” should always be included in our prayer. “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” needs to be our conviction, as we say so often when praying the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father.

Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the leper, and in bringing about a cure Jesus incurred the wrath of religious officials, but more importantly formed a deeper bond with the leper than had previously existed. Jesus constantly acted and continues to act to widen the circle of God’s family, drawing in all, especially the outcasts and neglected, who were called in Old Testament times, the “anawim,” the poor of God.

We who follow in the footsteps of Jesus are called to carry on the work of widening the circle of those who belong to God’s family. Saint Paul, writing to the Corinthians, encourages his hearers to do all for the glory of God and to imitate Christ, seeking the good of all those with whom one lives and who cross one’s path.

Our culture often teaches us to stay out of each other’s way, to tend our own garden, as they say, but Jesus teaches us to be involved and to do good to all. “Whatever you do,” and even the most ordinary action, “do all for the glory of God,” Saint Paul clearly teaches (1 Cor. 10:31) his hearers, drawing the message on the words and deeds of the Lord Jesus Christ.

We too must strive to honor God in our actions, at all times and everywhere. Our attitude toward co-workers, neighbors, members of our community or parish, is to be a continuous effort to imitate the example of Jesus, who never acted selfishly (see Romans 15:3), but loved us and gave himself up for us (see Ephesians 5:2).

Returning to the amazing and spontaneous compassion of Jesus who stretched out his hand and touched the leper, thereby curing him. In his commentary on this Sunday’s Gospel, the late Fr Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P, points out that it is noteworthy that in his earthly life, Jesus regularly gravitated to the village on the outskirts of Jerusalem called Bethany, where his friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus resided.

The word “Bethany,” means “Dwelling-place or House of the Lowly” (from beth, meaning, house; and anaw, meaning, the lowly or poor).

Fr. Stuhmueller writes:
“Bethany was the closest point that lepers could come to Jerusalem. From its hilltop they could see the temple and the holy city. While in Jerusalem Jesus made his home at Bethany!”(from “Biblical Mediations for Ordinary Time: Weeks 1 – 9,” Paulist Press, p.240).

Like the leper in the Gospel, may we always turn to the Lord, in good times and bad. We trust that our God can bring us peace and salvation, so let us confidently approach the Lord. We ask God to cure us of whatever separates us from belonging fully to our family and community, where we are called to work each day for the good of all.

Fr Christian Leisy, OSB
Monastery of Christ I nthe Desert
Abiquiu, New Mexico