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Commentary to the 6th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – YEAR B

Fernando Armellini - Sat, Feb 13th 2021

They believed they had locked God in a camp 

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COMMENTARY BY FR FERNANDO ARMELLINI 

Introduction 

During the crossing of the desert, Moses had instructed the people: “The Lord your God walks in the midst of the camp to protect you and give your enemy into your  hands; your camp must be sacred that the Lord may not see anything indecent in it;  otherwise, he will turn away from you” (Deut 23:15). He put this order in the Lord’s  mouth: “Put out of the camp all lepers, and all who suffer from an infection or who  have become unclean by touching a corpse. You must not allow the camp where I  dwell among them to become unclean in this way” (Num 5:1-3). 

To the ancient, the world seemed to be divided into two opposing spheres: one  occupied by the forces of life, the other in the hands of the powers of death. To the  first, God and the good people belonged; to the second all pagan gods and all the  sinners. The lepers, who carried in their bodies the hideous marks of death, were the  symbol of impurity and rejection by the Lord. 

The Israelites thought so; their spiritual leaders have categorized people into clean  and unclean, just and sinners. But does God accept this discrimination? And when it is  done, on which side is God? 

The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ encounters with the lepers go far beyond this  narrative. They are a message of God’s choices: he approaches the impure and caresses them, because none of his creatures is impure, much less his children. Jesus  chose the marginalized, those who were rejected by all; for this reason, he became impure himself, was expelled from the camp and put to death out of the holy city, in  an unclean place. 

Now we know on which side God is. 

To internalize the message, we repeat: 

“I disgust sin, but if I refuse the sinner, I walk away from God.”

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First reading: Leviticus 13:1-2,45-46 
One who is suffering from leprosy does not enter into the city nor maintains relationships with other Persians because, they say, if he is sick, he certainly committed some offense against the Sun.” These are the words of Herodotus who, in the fifth century B.C., refers to the customs of the peoples of the ancient Middle East. 

The passage from Leviticus dates back to the same period and the same mentality. Among all peoples, lepers are always considered unclean and kept away from the  community, for fear of being contaminated. The revulsion caused by this disease has  always been very strong. Even today in some tribes the lepers have a separate burial  place. Nobody wants to be near lepers either in life or in death.  

The Old Testament often regarded leprosy as a punishment from God for sin. The  Egyptians who have committed injustices against Israel were smitten with “pestering  boils on people and animals” (Ex 9:9-11) and the same punishment is threatened against Israel if it will be unfaithful: “The Lord will strike you with the boils and plagues  of Egypt, with tumors, scurvy and itch from which you cannot be healed” (Deut 28:27). 

The ulcers in the lepers’ body constitute the ignominious mark of their sin and the  sign that they must be rejected, marginalized in the name of God. 

The current provisions in Israel regarding these sick persons are clearly  demarcated. It was the duty of the priests to determine who was suffering from leprosy and make the decision to remove him from the community (vv. 1-2). He who had suspicious symptoms could no longer set foot in the village. He was sent to live in  caves in the woods. He was to put on tattered clothes, uncombed hair so he could be  easily recognized even from a distance. If by chance he came across someone he had  to shout: “I’m unclean! I’m unclean!” (vv. 45-46). 

These provisions may appear as hygienic precautions to avoid infection, but exclusion was caused mainly by a different reason, a theological one: the lepers were  considered cursed by God. 

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1 

On the western side of the agora of Corinth, there were, at the time of Paul, six  temples. Many others arose in the different parts of the city, including the two famous ones dedicated to Apollo and Octavia. In each of these temples many animals were sacrificed. The meat from these sacrifices, not consumed by those who had offered them, was taken to the market to be sold. Therefore, the meat was unclean because it came from sanctuaries where the idols were worshiped. 

A pious person explained his anger to Paul: is it permissible for a Christian to buy meat in the shops that are in the vicinity of the temples? 

This passage is the conclusion of the Apostle’s long discourse in response to this problem. 

Some Corinthians had already found the solution: if the gods do not exist, there is  no reason to give up eating the remains of sacrifices in their honor. Paul agrees with this view; however, he invites them to keep in mind another aspect of the matter. 

A Christian cannot do everything that is in his own right, because brotherly love also sometimes requires the renunciation of one’s rights. Concretely, if a certain  behavior is hurting one’s brother it should be avoided, although it is entirely legitimate. In this case, if eating meat sacrificed to idols disturbs the conscience of the  weak, it is best to abstain until they too will be convinced of the legitimacy. 

Additionally, the community must not only avoid the scandals, but also become missionary, so it must reflect on the life of Jesus (2 Cor 4:10), who always thought only of others. Taking up the same theme, Paul wrote to the Romans: “Let each of us bring  joy to our neighbors, helping them for the good purpose, for building up. Christ  himself did not look for his own contentment” (Rom 15:2-3). 

The apostle had done every effort to please everyone. For this he could legally  present himself as a role model. In the last verse of the reading, in fact, he urges the  Corinthians, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” 

Gospel: Mark 1:40-45 

In Jesus’ time curing a leper was equivalent to raising the dead. The priests could only “declare pure” a leper, not “make him pure.” 

They are not able to cure him because the healing of leprosy was reserved to God (2 Kgs 5:7). 

Inspired by some oracles of Isaiah (Is 35:5ff; 61:1), the rabbis had compiled a list of signs of the presence of the kingdom of God. Jesus knew it. In fact, he cites it to the envoys of the Baptist: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, the  lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are brought back to life and the good  news is reaching the poor” (Mt 11:5). The healing of a leper was therefore much more than a prodigious gesture. It was the proof that the messiah has arrived in the world. The first part of today’s Gospel (vv. 40-42) reports the fact. A leper, in  contravention of the provisions of the law, approaches Jesus and begs him on his knees to be “purified.” He is not asking for healing, but to be purified, that is to be put  in a condition to go back into the community. More than the disease itself, what troubled him was the fact of being excluded from civil and religious society. 

In front of his request Jesus is moved, stretches out his hand, touches and heals.  Every detail of the story has a meaning and a message. 

There is first the physical contact with the leper. Jesus lets himself be approached and he touches the leper. It is not just a benevolent and tender gesture to a person in need of comfort, but it is the reversal of the concept of God. In Jesus, God does not appear as the Pharisees imagined: separated from the impure. He accepts the lepers and caresses them because in every man, even in the one fallen into the deepest abyss of guilt, he sees a supremely lovable person. 

At the beginning of his public life, at the time of John’s baptism, Jesus is perfectly at home alongside the impure people. Later, he  never moved away from tax collectors, sinners, who had made poor choices. He has  never been afraid of being contaminated by them. In fact, it was he who communicated to these people his strength of life. Light is always stronger than darkness: if you open the window of a lighted room, it is light that comes out. How come Jesus assumes an attitude so provocative against the law which  prohibited approaching lepers? What is it that drives him to violate the rule requiring exclusion? The evangelist reveals it: he had compassion. Matthew and Luke, who also tell the same episode, omit this detail. Only Mark presents that Jesus was moved with  pity seeing the humiliating condition of the leper (v. 41). It is this very human feeling that leads him to ignore any scheme and custom which does not favor the good of  man. The message is clear: in the face of calls for help, the disciple, like the Master,  always listens to the heart. 

The second part of the passage (vv. 43-45) presents some difficulties of  interpretation. How come Jesus sternly warns the leper? Why send him away in an  apparently abrupt manner? Is it because before forbidding him to spread the news of  healing and then ordering him to present himself to the priests he wants them to see 

the healing? The two commands seem contradictory. In what sense, the cured leper may be a witness for the priests (v. 44)? The leper did not obey; he begins to spread the news and we are not told if he went or not to the priests. How come Jesus leaves and chooses deserts as his dwelling places? Many people were looking for him, and therefore it would be more logical for him to be in a more accessible place.  

We begin to understand the meaning of the prohibition to disclose the news of the healing. 

For many years, the people of Israel expected the Messiah. The prophets—we observed—had shown signs of his presence, and among them there was the cleansing of the lepers. Jesus did not want anyone to know that he had performed these signs. It would become clear to everyone that he was the awaited Messiah. 

This identification would certainly be desirable, but only after it was clear to all what kind of messiah he was: not a winner, but a loser, not a ruler, but a servant of all.  The people, however, were convinced that the messiah would be a glorious king as Solomon, a warrior capable and lucky as David, a man of God who would have  achieved sensational wonders, even bringing down fire from heaven like Elijah. Jesus considered these images of messiah diabolical temptations. For this reason, he did not want them to talk of him as the “Messiah of God” before the events of Easter, before having shown to which path the Lord leads people.  

Until then everything had to remain a secret, to avoid the misinterpretation of the Father’s plan. 

If the fact must remain hidden, why is the leper ordered to present himself to the priests as a testimony to them? 

The leper was considered a dead man. Leprosy was “the eldest daughter of the dead” (Job 18:13). In the Old Testament only two great prophets had managed to cure it: Moses had cured his sister Miriam (Num 12) and Elisha cured the General of Syria, Naaman (2 Kgs 5). To avoid misunderstandings, Jesus does not want the news to spread among the people; the religious leaders instead, must know that a great prophet has arisen in Israel, that God has visited his people and that the kingdom of God has begun. The healed leper must testify to them that the liberation has begun. Also, the fact that the leper runs to disclose what Jesus has done for him has a  meaning. Mark writes this story after the death and resurrection of Jesus and the veil on the identity of the “Messiah of God” has already fallen. Now it is time to proclaim to everyone that Jesus is the messiah. Who is entrusted with this task? Here is the answer of the Evangelist: those who have experienced the salvation obtained in encountering Jesus. In Mark’s Gospel, only two people undertake this  mission: the leper we are talking about and the man possessed by “demons” who  ended up first among the pigs and then in the sea (Mk 5:19-20). 

The message is now clear: only those who have tasted the joy of a new life, only  those who were marginalized and had the experience of liberation are able to explain  to others the wonders that the word of Christ can work. 

Here is the last detail: Jesus could no longer openly enter any town, but stayed in the rural areas, in desert places, and people came to him from everywhere (v. 45). This was introduced by the evangelist to highlight an exchange of residence: first, the leper lived far away and could not enter the villages; now it is Jesus who has chosen to live in the condition of the lepers. He has thus shown his desire to share the fate of all those people considered “lepers.”  

The passage concludes with the observation: people came to Jesus from  everywhere (v. 43). All drew near to him with confidence because he had chosen the  lepers, the last, and those who were rejected. These are the people who, even today,  instinctively should approach the Christian community, sure to be welcomed with gentleness and love.

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