Father Donald Senior, CP

Feb. 14: Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Touching the leper

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

The readings for today focus on the experience of leprosy in the biblical world. There are certain diseases that at a particular time and in a particular culture or society take on a symbolic meaning of dire threat. We know about this in our world today. 

AIDS once played this role. Those who suffered from it were tabooed and isolated until an effective treatment for the disease lessened its threat. Of course, even more pressing is our current experience with the pandemic. We live in fear of contracting COVID-19 and require those who suffer from it to socially isolate.

These experiences help us understand the significance of leprosy, whose symptoms and consequences are described in detail in the Book of Leviticus (our Lectionary passage is a small excerpt from this longer description). Modern medical science suggests that the symptoms described in Leviticus are not that of modern Hansen’s disease but a severe form of psoriasis.

Anthropologists tell us that in traditional cultures, skin diseases are often highly tabooed and treated as a sign of death itself. Those who suffer from them were often forced to live outside villages and avoid contact with other human beings. This is precisely the behavior that Leviticus demands.

That practice continued into modern times when “lepers” (i.e., those suffering from Hansen’s disease) were isolated in leprosariums.

In ancient Judaism, the impact of leprosy was compounded by the notion of ritual impurity. God was the God of the living and the author and source of all life. To encounter God, one had to be cleansed of all symptoms or contact with death, which was the purpose of ritual baths. Thus, contact with a person afflicted with leprosy — with such symptoms of death — was to be avoided.

This backdrop sets the stage for the dramatic encounter of Jesus with a leper described in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel. While this story is an illustration of Jesus’ extraordinary healing power, another important element is on display here. 

To get to Jesus and kneel before him, the leper, in effect, crosses a boundary — one between death and life. Jesus, too, crosses a boundary as he reaches out and touches the leper, whose skin reflected the power of death. 

Mark’s account underscores the intensity of this moment. The Greek word “splagnistheis,” used to describe Jesus’ reaction, is strong. It literally means that Jesus’ intestines were churned, which is what we would call a “gut feeling” or a deep emotional reaction. 

To the leper’s pleading, “if you wish, you can make me clean,” Jesus replies with equal force: “I will it. Be made clean!” The account ends with Jesus sending the man to the priests, as Leviticus required, who will certify that he is healed, and thereby enable him to join the community of the living. 

This story is not only about healing a disease but also about dissolving the deadly isolation those who are ill or have some other condition can experience. By touching the leper, Jesus draws him back into the community of the living and restores his dignity.

Often true healing is not just curing the physical dimensions of an illness or injury but also healing the psychological and spiritual wounds that cause human suffering. To be shunned from society or excluded from participation causes acute spiritual pain and calls us to cry out for healing. As has been the case with other Sunday readings from Mark’s Gospel, we are being informed not just about the extraordinary compassion and mercy of Jesus, but how we as followers of Jesus are to carry out our Christian mission. 

Today, of course, is Valentine’s Day, which is not an official liturgical feast but nevertheless a celebration of the human love we all crave. “Love heals all wounds” is a saying so universally quoted that no one is sure of its origin. But no matter the source, anyone reading the Gospels recognizes that Jesus was driven by God’s own love and mercy to heal “all wounds.” 

Today’s story of the leper reminds us that working to include those excluded from the circle of love is part of our healing mission.



  • scripture