6th. 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 who had been pronounced ‘unclean’ by an officially appointed priest because of a manifest skin disease, was obliged to separate himself or herself from society and live apart: alone, that is, or with other similarly diseased and therefore ‘unclean’ 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 who were clear of leprosy:
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 -- in the popular estimation -- as good as dead so far as normal society and normal human contacts were concerned.
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 missionary labours, as we 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.
For many of our contemporaries, however, this principle is neither clearly understandable nor readily acceptable; consequently, although as a divine principle it is for the common good, nevertheless, today, it is mainly religious bodies who alone have sufficient conviction to resist prevalent western hedonistic tendencies and doctrines, such as abortion, and homosexuality when accepted and presented as an alternative life style to that of heterosexual love and marriage. 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 as an optional and sexual life style -- as distinct from being personally recognised and accepted as a preferred emotional, but non-sexual, relationship (as was the case with David and Jonathon in the Old Testament) -- satisfies only the passions of the individuals concerned at the expense of society which is thereby debilitated and frustrated, as modern experience in this country and abroad shows.
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 Elijah in the second book of the Kings (5:6-7) 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.’
Now, St. Mark in our Gospel reading told us that:
A leper came to Jesus, and kneeling down begged Him and said, "If You wish, You can make me clean." Moved with pity, He stretched out His hand, touched him, and said to him, "I do will it. Be made clean."
Here we can recognise the faith which sustained the leper; for, risking public disapproval and official punishment, he sought Jesus out and, with humble confidence and faith, cried: ‘If You wish, You can make me clean’. In response, Jesus -- powerful in word and deed -- reached out and, touching the man, said “I do will it”, whereupon the man was completely cleansed of his leprosy. Learning from that short Gospel incident we can, in a certain measure, take to ourselves those words of the letter to the Hebrews (11:3):
By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God.
For, that creative word of Jesus is expressive of the very essence of God, and it helps us understand why, in Mother Church, we have sacraments given us by Our Lord, the Word of God made flesh, consisting of words and specific actions -- symbolic of divine grace and human agency – reminiscent of Jesus healing the leper by His divine word of power whilst at the same time stretching out His human hand to physically touch him.
If we continue to look more closely at Jesus, trying to understand and learn from His human attitude, it can 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.
According to the Torah -- the God-given law binding all practising Jews -- anyone affected by leprosy was, as you have heard, to be pronounced unclean by a priest and banished from society. Likewise, on being healed (should that ever occur), such a person would then have to present himself again before a priest in order to be officially recognised and pronounced clean, whereupon he or she would be authorized to come back into human society. Therefore, as you heard, Jesus told the man He had healed to go to a priest, adding 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 their official authority, whilst, at the same time, it would bring to their attention the fact that here was Someone Who, by His very word, could cure leprosy; cure, that is, what for centuries had been recognised as incurable by mere men.
However, as you heard:
The man went away and began to publicise 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 told him to keep quiet about the cure and the man began to talk freely about it. Since it was a matter of his own personal health being restored and his own great distress relieved, one can easily think up excuses for him; but, in fact, his publicising of the cure made things much more difficult for Jesus, because it meant that:
It was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places.
Before this incident the leper had been obliged to remained in deserted places outside ordinary villages, towns and cities, Jesus had cured him and now the former leper was free to mingle with men while Jesus had apparently taken the man’s leprosy upon Himself being unable continue His saving mission in the towns and villages of that area.
That incident is again a helpful insight for us in our understanding of Our Blessed Lord Who later on, dear People of God, would even become ‘sin’ and ‘a curse’ for our sakes!!
For He (God) made Him Who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’). (Galatians 3:13)
Jesus had come to cure the whole of 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, he must talk of what had happened to himself; and, as a result of such forbidden praise of his Healer, Jesus, we are told, found it:
Impossible to enter a town openly.
Of course, people today like to think that because the man was obviously so grateful to Jesus, so happy in his new-found health, he is therefore not to be blamed. But in fact, although that man’s ignorance of Jesus’ overall purpose is perfectly understandable and blameless, the fact that He ignored Jesus’ express command to ‘keep quiet’ turned out to be not only reprehensible for him personally, but positively damaging for others. because He -- the Healer, the Master -- was no longer able to continue His healing, saving, mission in that vicinity.
What unknown harm, People of God, do our sins, our failures to obey the Lord’s commands in our lives, cause for others in need of God’s saving help and strength?
At this point we should call to mind Our Blessed Lord’s words which explain His own Personal attitude in all such matters of obedience, an attitude that would lead Him to embrace death out of loving obedience to His Father and for our salvation (John 12:50):
I know that His (My Father’s) commandment is eternal life!
People of God, Jesus came to take away the sins of the world, and our personal needs and desires are but miniscule elements, however important to us, in 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 our brethren.
As in the case of today’s cured-leper, often enough in the lives of the faithful, individuals can rise to occasional situations that seem to evoke from them memorable actions and/or words which are subsequently seen as worthy of praise and admiration by others; but the steadfast and almost unnoticeable-to-men obedience which God wants above all, calls for a moral strength, a humble selflessness, and a devout faith of a much superior order, which, far from meeting with human praise and approval, often enough leads to remarks such as ‘how boring your life must be’ or ‘I would find such a life terribly frustrating’; and such attitudes from those around can all too often lead Catholics and Christians as yet only learning to become true disciples of Jesus to feel themselves to be nobodies, only asked for simple prayers, only capable of a modicum of ordinary and very routine sacrifices …. and how the imaginations of modern life-seekers, and alas, even some modern God-seekers, want to fly higher than that!
Because we are too self-centred, we therefore need to constantly remind ourselves that none can cure mankind’s malady of sin but Jesus the Christ, sent by God His Father for that specific purpose, Who is ceaselessly at work by His Spirit in and through His Church; and if we want to be His co-workers, become faithful instruments to bring about His purposes, we have to cease thinking about, seeking for, some niche that might be rich in acclaim for ourselves, and resolutely seek only His glory, await patiently His will, proclaim always His goodness.
Our modern Western society is so ostentatiously committed to human rights -- the rights of the individual -- that the good of the whole is easily overlooked; and the result of this is that individuals can become in some measure out of control, to the detriment of both the security and the cohesion of society as a whole. This is the case because individual rights are only valid to the extent that 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 unable to support the continuing viability of its member nations: several of which are dying out, dying on their feet, so to speak. Again, lack of discipline in our schools -- due in no small degree to the slavish application of what are thought to be human rights for children who are as yet unable to appreciate that rights and duties are inevitably co-related -- is leading to an educational and social crisis, because any educational system that is not able to teach its children and students self-control and personal responsibility by the imposition of recognized and necessary discipline cannot produce true citizens. Indeed, such a system is liable to turn out a number of young adults who are a potential danger to their neighbours and to society as a whole, because their emotions are not sufficiently subject to control, and the only rights they are aware of are their own ‘personal’ rights, rights which -- they like to think -- should in no way be restricted or overruled by any ‘supposed rights’ of the larger body of society.
In His time Jesus was regarded as a rebel because He was never intimidated by the expectations of contemporary popular thinking nor by the pressures of self-serving officialdom; and we, as His disciples, should likewise practice independence from the pagan attitudes of people around us whilst maintaining, with Him, a right humility before lawful authorities established for the good governance of society. Throughout His life Jesus recognized His Father as the exclusive ruler over all the decisive events of His life on earth, as the only guide for all His Personal attitudes, and as the supreme goal for all His Personal actions and decisions. And so for us, the good of the individual, though necessary for the good of the whole, is nevertheless subordinate to that good of the whole, a subordination that is not always recognized or proclaimed by modern society. And that balanced good is an integral and necessary part of the true and ultimate good prescribed and wanted by God the Father and proclaimed by Our Lord Jesus Christ; a good that we, as living members of His Body, have to seek, work and pray for, in the power and under the inspiration of His most Holy Spirit.