Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Leprosy was a term used for a variety of skin conditions that were more or less serious but all of which were disturbing. Today, the leprosy known as Hansen’s disease is curable by modern medicine so we don’t see it much in the West. In ancient times this disease was a death sentence where people were cast out of society and progressively took on the appearance of corpses as their bodies slowly decomposed. The harshest part of this disease was the fact that it caused the person who contacts it to also become ritually unclean or impure. Not only were they sick, but they were cut off from their people and the worship of God.

The first reading from Leviticus gives us a pretty clear account of how serious the illness is, and connects it to social and religious dimensions. It would seem unfair that someone who contacts a horrible disease through no fault of their own should be formally ostracized not only by the human community, but even excluded from offering sacrifices to God. We understand from the Hebrew that the word for impure or unclean relates directly to death and being cut off from the sources of life.

The Gospel of Mark brings out all of this drama while providing a twist. As in the preceding healings, Jesus is not simply facing an illness, but the presence of something demonic.  This is evidenced by the strange attitude of Jesus’ anger and growling or huffing (“sternly charged him”) sending out the leprosy.  Spiritual healing is salvation, it is purification, it is liberation. The physical cures, while essential to the ongoing task of evangelization, are more importantly signs of salvation, purification, and liberation from evil.

The man doesn’t ask Jesus to be healed, but to be made clean. He had no right in his current state to approach anyone in the community. It was the role of the priests to declare someone clean, which means he sees Jesus as something more than a healer. Jesus’ action cleanses the root – something only the action of a priest can accomplish.  A priest is a mediator between God and men, so the leper sees Jesus as able, through healing but beyond it, to reconcile him with God and his fellows.

Jesus, had he been just a man, would have become unclean by this contact.  The complete opposite happens: one who was sick and unclean was restored and made completely whole.  Jesus is not afraid or powerless before any sickness or impurity we may experience.  He reaches out to touch us Himself in our weakness and infirmity – He awaits only our trusting prayer.  We are reconnected to the source of life by His touch.

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