Evil exists but is not invincible
During the crossing of the desert, Moses had given to the people this provision: “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 a contagious 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 pure people belonged, to the second all pagan gods and all that recalled sin. 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 the biographical chronicle. They are a message in place 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.”
First Reading: Leviticus 13:1-2,45-46
“One who is suffering from leprosy does not enter into the city nor maintain 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.
It is at the same period and the same mentality that today’s proposed passage of Leviticus dates back.
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 “festering 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 set out. 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 whose meat, not consumed by all those who had offered them, was taken to the market to be sold. Therefore unclean meat, because it came from sanctuaries where the idols were worshiped.
Some 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, right to the truth: 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.
The 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.
In addition, the community must not only avoid the scandals but also become a missionary, so it must reflect the life of Jesus (2 Cor 4:10), who always and only thought 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 in all. 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 11:4-5). 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 of all the physical contact with the leper. Jesus lets himself be approached and he touches him. 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 the Lord does not appear as the Pharisees imagined: holy, separated from the impure. He accepts the lepers and caresses them because, in every man, even one who has fallen into the deepest abyss of guilt, he sees a supremely lovable son.
At the beginning of his public life, at the time of John’s baptism, Jesus has already shown to be 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 communicates to these people his strength of life. Light is always stronger than darkness: if you open the window of a lighted room, it is not the darkness that comes in, but the light that comes out.
How come Jesus assumes an attitude so provocative against the law which prohibited to approach 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 shows that faced with the humiliating condition of the leper, he was moved with pity (v. 41). It is this very human feeling that leads to ignore any scheme and custom which do 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 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 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 who had done any of these signs. It would become clear to everyone that he was the awaited Messiah.
This identification would certainly be desirable, but as long as it was clear to all of which the Messiah it was about: not a winner, but a loser, not a ruler, but a servant of all. The people, however, was 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 to bring down fire from heaven, like Elijah. Jesus considered these images of the Messiah diabolical temptations, for this he did not accept that they talked of him as the “Messiah of God” before the events of Easter, before having shown to which path the Lord leads people to life. Until then everything had to remain 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 from spreading among the people; the religious leaders instead, priests 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 run 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: to 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 in 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 made the experience of liberation are able to explain to others the wonders that the word of Christ can work.
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 who 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, 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.