This story of the cure of a leper is really a parable. Parables are stories that are seemingly about one thing but are really about something else. (Mark 4:11) So here, a man with a skin disease comes to Jesus. This was not what these days we call Hansen’s Disease/Leprosy, but rather, a disease characterised by an often temporary scaliness or peeling of the skin and belonging to whole cluster of skin diseases which were thought to render a person ritually unclean. These days science is unsure just what the physical complaint referred to here as ‘leprosy’ might have been.
Our First Reading sets out the legislation that governed the treatment of such ‘lepers’ in those days. (Leviticus 13:1ff) A person with such a complaint had to report to the priest, who would diagnose the malady and then decide on the length of the quarantine. These days we are all too well aware of how stressful quarantine can be, how difficult it is to live excluded from all social contact. Given that there were no quarantine hotels in those day, to live ‘outside,’ excluded, would have been exceedingly onerous, for the person was just cast out without any help to survive. At the end of the quarantine period the person had to present themselves again to the priest for reexamination, pay the fee to be declared ‘clean,’ and so be readmitted to the community. Seemingly, this process of re-examination, purification and restoration was hard enough that some would choose to remain ‘unclean,’ especially the poor. It is interesting to note that, in Leviticus Chapters 13-14, even clothes and the walls of homes could suffer from ‘leprosy.’
We might suspect that biblical ‘leprosy,’ which made a person unclean, had to do more with sin than with an actual disease, to do more with that which rendered a person ‘unfit’ to be part of the worshipping community — sin, of course, being that which causes a break in relations with God, hence the exclusion. Then, in those days sin was thought to manifest as sickness does: with a blemish, a rash, a swelling … whatever the symptom; such things ‘proved’ a person to be unclean. And like sickness, such uncleanness was thought to be contagious, hence the quarantine. We can laugh at such notions, but we are not so far removed from this way of thinking. When HIV/AIDS first appeared in the West, it did so mostly within the homosexual community. At the time, many were heard pointing to it as a manifestation of the ‘sinfulness of their lifestyle.’ Then, when I was teaching, and a wave of nits or an outbreak of scabies swept through the school community, it was not uncommon to hear talk of those so infected as being ‘dirty,’ that is, unclean.
Anyway, such a man, a dirty/unclean person, a sinner, who failed to maintain proper social distancing, came up to Jesus and said, “If you want to, you can cure me.” (Mark 1:40) In the next Chapter of Mark’s Gospel we are told that ‘as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:15-16) Jesus was likewise one who failed to observe ‘proper’ social distancing. Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees’ question was: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (Mark 2:17) The leper in today’s story probably had good cause to suspect that it was safe for him to approach to Jesus, The Physician, to ask to be cured.
Having been moved to reach out in compassion and touch the leper, at the end of this story, quite puzzlingly, we are told that Jesus sternly admonished the man and immediately threw him out, saying, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” (Mark 1:43-44) Jesus had no wish to become known as a wonderworker — such would be to misunderstand what he was trying to do. When Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick,” he continued, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) Jesus’ miracle stories are really stories about the forgiveness of sin.
To underline this, in the very next story in this Gospel, we are told of some men who brought a paralytic to Jesus for healing: ‘Seeing their faith,’ says St Mark, ‘Jesus says to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” But some of the scribes who were sitting there, said to themselves, “Why does this man speak like that? He blasphemes. Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And to which Jesus replied, “Why do you think such thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and take up your pallet and walk’? But in order that you should know that the Son of Man has power to forgive sins on the earth …” — he says to the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, take up your pallet, and go to your house.” And immediately he arose and, taking up the pallet, went out in front of everyone.’ (Mark 2:5-12) In those times sickness and any kind of malady was thought to be a manifestation of sin. (C.f.: John 9:2)
So, miracle cures are just another way of speaking about the forgiveness of sin. Jesus came to manifest God’s forgiveness of sin, through his cures and by his eating and drinking with sinners — a manifestation we here are about to partake in as we draw around the Lord’s table to eat and drink with him. And as we do so, we repeat the equivalent of what the leper said to Jesus: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Our Eucharist, too, is about the forgiveness of sins.
At the end of today’s story we hear: ‘But, on going out, that man began announcing it frequently and spreading the story about, so that he was no longer able to enter a city openly, but was outside in desert places.’ (Mark 1:45) In touching him, Jesus took on the man’s uncleanness; that the man might rejoin the worshipping community, Jesus took on his exclusion; he had to remain ‘outside.’ As St Paul puts it, speaking of Jesus’ mission: “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) Jesus is to be understood as no mere wonderworker. Today’s Gospel story is, then, really a small parable about our Salvation, a prequel to what Jesus did for us on Calvary.
In our experience of being healed of whatever it is that ails us is a call for us to do as the leper of today’s story did when he was cured: We are to go out and spread it about all that Jesus has done for us in his mercy; we are to ‘go out and proclaim the Good News to all of creation,’ and, as Jesus puts it to us when he gave us this commission at the end of Mark’s Gospel, we, too, are ‘to lay our hands on the sick, who will recover.’ (Mark 1:41; 5:19-20; 16:15, 18) Our world is full of people who are excluded: those with diseases, especially psychiatric disorders, those who are disfigured and/or who are disabled, those who are different — migrants from another race or culture, have a different religion, have different coloured skin to ours, have a different sexual orientation to us — and those who are poor. With all of these marginalised people we are called to do as Jesus did and reach out in compassion and let them know they are not alone. A simple human gesture, a touch, will do much to relieve the stress of their isolation, which causes so much harm, or some small act of solidarity … perhaps, say, join a Black Lives Matter rally. And, just as when Jesus did this, there will be people who will not approve. Should we continue doing it, we may find ourselves being similarly shunned, but this is no reason not to do it; we need only remember that Jesus reached out to us in our ‘shame’ and took it from us, taking it to himself. (Hebrews 12:2)