Father Donald Senior, CP

Feb. 11: 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Be imitators of Christ

Lv 13:1-2, 44-46; Ps 32:1-2,5,11; 1 Cor 10:31—11:1; Mk 1:40-45

Some years ago, I received an unexpected call from the head nurse at the leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, the only federal hospital for those suffering from Hansen’s disease (it closed in 1999). At that time, they were preparing a video to educate the public that leprosy was in fact curable, and she asked about the Bible’s view of “lepers.” 

She told me that virtually no patient who had completed treatment at Carville was ever hired because of the taboo about leprosy as being high contagious — a taboo fed by the notorious description of leprosy in the Bible. 

The heart of that terrifying description is found in our first reading this Sunday from the book of Leviticus. Once the priests determined that anyone had contracted leprosy they were condemned to a living death — declared “unclean,” forced to live outside the village or city, required to cry out “unclean, unclean” if any healthy person should approach them.  

Cultural anthropologists tell us that in traditional societies skin diseases, such as biblical leprosy (which was probably not Hansen’s disease but a virulent form of psoriasis), are highly tabooed and seen as a symbol of death itself. For that reason, “lepers” were not to touch any living being or to cross the boundary that stands between the living and the dead.

This taboo or boundary is what gives the Gospel passage for this Sunday such force — Jesus’ healing of the leper, the climactic scene of his first full day of healing in Capernaum. Contrary to the demands of Leviticus, the leper dares to approach Jesus, “kneeling down” and “begging” him: “If you will, you can make me clean.” 

Equally forceful is Jesus’ response. The Greek word used to describe Jesus’ emotional reaction — here translated somewhat anemically as “moved with pity” — is “splagnistheis,” which literally means Jesus’ “guts” (“splagna” in Greek) were stirred. Jesus was deeply and emotionally moved by the plight of this man kneeling before him.  

Also defying the injunctions of the law, Jesus reaches across the boundary of death and touches the man, while fiercely saying: “I do will it. Be made clean.” As the story concludes, Jesus instructs the man to go and show the priests that he is cured, so he can be integrated into the community of the living. 

This is a striking Gospel passage. Both the leper and Jesus risk crossing boundaries to bring healing and to experience life, a phenomenon seen in other Gospel healing stories. We all know that serious illness, addiction or trauma can isolate us from our ordinary way of life. 

People in such circumstances — grappling with physical, psychological or spiritual suffering — can feel isolated, cut off from the vital network of ordinary life. Such an experience can also be on a social level —minorities or migrants, people who because of the color of their skin or the culture from which they come can be excluded, judged as threatening strangers by the majority.  

It is no secret, obviously, that our own country is wrestling with this issue right now. No doubt there are complex economic and legal issues involved in addressing immigration, as well as grappling with the infection of racism that lingers deep in our national soul. 

The dramatic story of the healing of the leper in today’s Gospel does not offer quick solutions for these personal and social issues. But as a powerful expression of the mission of Jesus, who crossed boundaries and reached out to heal those rejected by society, we realize that this is a fundamental perspective of our Christian faith, a perspective or starting point we need to bring to situations when we as individuals and as a society are faced with those who make a claim on our compassion.  

Note, too, that the brief second reading for today from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reflects this same Christian DNA — the apostle strives to be open to everyone, “not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”


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