Sixth Sunday of Year (B)
(Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46; 1st. Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45)
In the first reading we heard that, in Jewish society of Gospel times, anyone with a skin disease whom the priest had pronounced to be unclean was obliged to separate himself or herself from society and live apart; alone, that is, or with other similarly diseased people:
As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean. He shall dwell apart; making his abode outside the camp.
Moreover, in order to prevent contact with ordinary members of society:
The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, 'Unclean, unclean!'
As a result, a leprous person was – according to rabbinic teaching and in the popular estimation -- as good as dead so far as normal society and normal human contacts were concerned. Moreover, leprosy made the victim liturgically unclean according to the requirements of the Law and unfit to participate in the worship of Temple or synagogue … and this was interpreted so severely that were such a person so much as to enter a house all vessels therein would be immediately rendered unclean for Jewish use. Worst of all, however, for the stricken one, leprosy was considered as a direct punishment from God by rabbis and lawyers (who had drawn up a list of four possible crimes he might have committed), which meant the sufferer was considered and proclaimed to be one cursed and rejected by God Himself. Consequently, the rabbis considered the cleansing of one suffering from leprosy to be as impossible as raising the dead, and a story we are told concerning Naaman the Syrian shows how clearly Israel and the ancient world recognized that none but divine power could cure it:
Naaman brought (a) letter (from the king of Syria) to the king of Israel, which said, Now be advised, when this letter comes to you, that I have sent Naaman my servant to you, that you may heal him of his leprosy. And it happened, when the king of Israel read the letter, that he tore his clothes and said, "Am I God, to kill and make alive, that this man sends a man to me to heal him of his leprosy? Therefore please consider, and see how he seeks a quarrel with me." (2 Kings 5:6-7)
Now, we are told by St. Mark that:
A leper came to Jesus, and kneeling down begged Him and said, "If You wish, You can make me clean."
There we can recognise the hope (perhaps nearly worn out) still managing to spur on the leper, and the faith (just beginning to blossom) sustaining him, while Jesus in heart-warming spontaneity:
Moved with pity, stretched out His hand (and) touched him.
In this momentous encounter of human suffering and dereliction with divine goodness and mercy, comes to mind some words from a hymn by Fr. Faber:
The love of God is broader than the measure of our mind: we make His love too narrow by false limits of our own, and we magnify His strictness with a zeal He will not own.
For, in response to the leper’s courage and faith, Jesus -- powerful in word and deed – had reached out and touched (some would translate ‘embraced’) the man before having actually cleansed him -- thus totally destroying any possible thought of the leper being one cursed or rejected by God. Only then did He solemnly add:
I do will it. Be made clean.
Here Jesus helps us appreciate what we read in the letter to the Hebrews (11:3)
By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God.
This creative Word is expressive of the very essence of God, and therefore, in the Church, we have sacraments, bequeathed to us by the Word made flesh, consisting of words together with specific actions -- symbolic of divine grace and human agency -- just as Jesus healed the leper by His divine word of power and human touch (or, embrace).
If we would look a little closer at Jesus and try to understand and learn from His very attitude, it could be of much help and might save us from many errors.
Warning him sternly, Jesus dismissed him at once, and said to him: See that you tell no one anything; but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.
In accordance with the Torah He directed the man to a priest that he might be authoritatively recognized as one completely cleansed of his leprosy, and so be pronounced able, once more, to live among men and serve and worship the God of Israel. Jesus told the man that such an action would “be proof for them”; that is, it would testify to the priests that Jesus had both respect for the Law and for them. And, of far greater significance, it would bring to their attention the fact that here was Someone Who could, by His very word of authority, cure leprosy which had always been acknowledged as notoriously incurable for mere man.
Notice how Jesus adheres to the Law set down in the Torah even after previously having most decisively rejected the excessive interpretation given it by the Scribes and Pharisees. Now this law of exclusion embodies a divine principle, both Jewish and Christian, whereby the good of the whole transcends that of the individual, and the individual good should be conducive to the good of the whole. This was one of the guiding lights for St. Paul throughout his many missionary labours, as you heard in the second reading:
I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit, but that of the many, that they may be saved.
Our modern Western society is so ostentatiously committed to human individual rights that the good of the whole is easily overlooked. And yet, individual rights are only valid when, and indeed can only exist if, they are conducive to the well-being of the whole of society; and the validity of this principle is being vindicated in our day by the fact that now, at last, the evil of abortion is becoming manifest to all as the European birth rate is increasingly unable to support the continuing viability of its member nations: several of which are dying out; dying on their feet, so to speak. For many of our contemporaries, however, this principle is neither clearly understandable nor readily acceptable; consequently, although as a divine principle it is, indeed, for the common good, nevertheless, today, none but the Church and some other religious bodies have sufficient conviction to resist prevalent western hedonistic tendencies and doctrines, such as abortion above all, but also homosexuality when accepted and presented as an alternative life style to that of heterosexual love and marriage. For, heterosexual love in marriage is the bedrock of human society, fulfilling the spouses and serving the whole human race through the children they raise as a wholesome family. Homosexuality, on the other hand, when practised, and presented as an optional life style -- distinct that is, from a more noble and perfectly blameless psychological tendency that might be termed homo-empathy (witness David’s love for Jonathan) – can satisfy only the individuals concerned, at the expense of society which is thereby debilitated, as, once again, our modern experience of diminishing home populations in this country and on the mainland of Europe shows.
Again, lack of discipline in our schools -- due in no small degree to the slavish adhesion to what are thought to be human rights -- is leading to an educational and social crisis, because an education that is not able to teach children self-control and personal responsibility by the exercise of discipline can neither produce balanced adults truly at ease with their personal make-up, nor, a fortiori, dependable members of society. Indeed, such faulty education is increasingly liable to turn out young adults who are a potential danger to their neighbour and to society, because their un-recognized and un-appreciated emotions are not subject to their own control, and can be wildly at variance with the rights of other individuals or of the social body as a whole.
And so it was in our Gospel reading, where human emotions apparently served to confer a right:
The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.
Jesus had come to cure Israel, and ultimately the whole of mankind, from the supreme uncleanness of sin, but the cleansed-leper was only able to think of his own case. Jesus had cured him! That was all that mattered. He must go and talk of what had happened to himself!
Of course, today some might think, because the man was presumably so grateful to Jesus and so happy in his new-found health, that therefore he is not to be blamed. But in fact, because of that man’s (understandable) ignorance of Jesus’ overall purpose, and because he (culpably) ignored Jesus’ express command, in other words, because of his self-centeredness (blameworthy, no matter how understandable we might like to consider it), Jesus could no longer enter a town to preach His message of salvation, and perhaps other sufferers were denied the opportunity for a healing such as he himself had received. The Healer, the Master, had said ‘keep quiet’ and the former leper -- carried off by the flood of his own emotions, and perhaps his own ‘human rights’(!) -- ignored his Saviour’s strict warning.
People of God, Jesus came to take away the sins of the world; and our personal needs and desires are but tiny components, however important to us, of God’s overarching purpose, and they must, therefore, be subject to its requirements. It is so easy for us to be totally unaware of, and more or less indifferent to, the needs of mankind as a whole when our own personal needs are pressing upon us; and yet none of us can find fulfilment and happiness apart from our integration into the well-being of the whole body of society. So often in the lives of each and every one of us, we would like -- we would love -- as disciples of Jesus, to make some great gesture, give some generous and remarkable response, adopt some striking initiative, and, consequently we can find it both frustrating and depressing when quiet obedience to God seems to be required of us most frequently and above all else. Whereas we might want to find things happening, to make things happen, have other people see things happening, in our lives as Christians, all too often we can feel ourselves to be mere nobodies of whom nothing more than simple obedience, sincere prayers and a modicum of sacrifice is requested or required …. and that, human self-love can find extremely hard.
Because we are chronically self-centred, therefore, we need to constantly remind ourselves that none can cure the malady of mankind but Jesus Who is ceaselessly, and ultimately infallibly, at work by His Spirit in and through His Church; and if we want to be His co-workers, to become faithful instruments serving His purposes, we have to resist all yearnings to carve out for ourselves some niche of acclaim, and aspire to seek, first and foremost, His supreme glory, await patiently His most holy will, and proclaim always His great and unfailing goodness.
And so for us, the good of the individual, though valid in itself and truly necessary for the good of the whole, must subordinate itself, or be subordinated, to that good of the whole, and such subordination is not necessarily recognized nor always proclaimed by society. Nevertheless, it is that balanced good, the true and ultimate good prescribed by God the Father and proclaimed by Our Lord Jesus Christ, that we should make our joy and privilege to seek, work and pray for, in the power of God’s Gift, the Spirit.
I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit, but that of the many, that they may be saved.