Reflections for the VI Sunday in ordinary time
Lv 13:1-2, 44-46; I Cor 10:31--11:1; Mk 1:40-45
Homily starter anecdote: St. Francis of Assisi and the leper: Today’s Scripture lessons teach us that the sick and the maimed are not to be objects of scorn, but potential reservoirs of God's mercy for us. St. Francis of Assisi, for instance, understood this. At one time in his life, he had a terrible fear of lepers. Then one day when he was out for a walk, he heard the warning bell that lepers were required to ring in the Middle Ages. When a leper emerged from a clump of trees, St. Francis saw that he was horribly disfigured. Half of his nose had been eaten away; his hands were stubs without fingers and his lips were oozing white pus. Instead of giving in to his fears, Francis ran forward, embraced the leper and kissed him. Francis’ life was never the same after that episode. He had found a new relationship with God, a new sensitivity to others and a new energy for his ministry. There is a beautiful song by Marilla Ness called "He Touched Me." It has a haunting melody, and the words are powerful and moving. "He touched me and oh, the joy that fills my soul; something happened: now I know: he touched me, and made me whole." Today’s Gospel describes how the healing touch of Jesus made a leper whole. (http://stjohngrandbay.org/)
Introduction: All three readings today contain the Christian teaching on the need for social acceptance even when people are different from us. They also tell us that it is purity or holiness of soul coming from God that cleanses our lives.
Scripture lessons summarized: In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Leviticus is known by its first word, Vayikra (ויקרא), meaning "and he called". The word Vayikra means that God called Moses and His chosen people to holiness and purity. That is why the first reading teaches the theme of freedom from bodily and ritual impurity as a sign of internal holiness. This freedom is symbolized by the precautions against contracting leprosy given in the first reading and the healing of the leper described in the Gospel. The first reading shows the ancient Jewish attitude toward leprosy and the rules for segregating lepers. This provides a background for Jesus' healing of a leper. In today's Responsorial Psalm (Ps 32), the psalmist exhorts us to rejoice in the Lord because He purifies us from our sins: “I confessed my faults to the LORD, and You took away my guilt." The psalm serves as a mini-treatise on reconciliation, covering the meaning of the spiritual leprosy of sin and showing how we are forgiven by a sacramental encounter with God. “I turn to You, Lord, in times of trouble, and You fill me with the joy of salvation." In today’s second reading, St. Paul exhorts us to testify to our healing from the leprosy of sin by living changed lives, expressed in our doing “everything for the glory of God” and for the salvation of others. Today’s Gospel describes how Jesus heals a leper, liberating him both from the disease of leprosy and from the unjust and inhuman social isolation and ostracism to which the lepers were subjected.
First reading, Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46, explained: The first reading gives us the background of the sad state of lepers in first-century Palestinian society. The Book of Leviticus contains laws that teach the Israelites that they should always keep themselves in a state of legal purity, or external sanctity, as a sign of their intimate union with the Lord. The first reading deals with very ancient rules and customs. It was the duty of the priests to decide whether a man was infected with leprosy and whether he was healed. Once the priest had examined a patient and declared him a leper, the afflicted person had to live in isolation, away from the dwelling-places of healthy people, in order to prevent the spread of the dreaded disease. In other words, victims of leprosy were segregated from the community on two counts: (1) fear of contagion and (2) fear of the ritualistic uncleanness which resulted from contact with the diseased. Since it was believed that an illness like leprosy resulted from corrupted morals and not from bacteria or viruses, a healing that was spiritually rather than physically oriented was sought. However, some medical historians argue that true leprosy entered Palestine after the first century, and other conditions, like psoriasis, eczema, ringworm, boils, impetigo, acne, ulcers, rashes or dandruff rashes may have been considered as leprosy in Christ’s days. That may have been why many “lepers” were healed by native medicine. Hence, it is likely that the Hebrew word sara'at and Greek lepra, which are translated as "leprosy," do not always describe true leprosy or Hansen's disease.
Second reading: 1 Corinthians 10:31-11, explained: Saint Paul worked hard to teach the young Christian community of Corinth to find the truths that would separate and protect them from the diverse religious beliefs and pagan rituals practiced by their still-pagan neighbors. There were, for instance, pagan temples in Corinth in which animals were sacrificed to the gods, after which a large portion of the meat which had been offered was sold in the market. Corinthian Christians were sometimes invited out to dinner by their pagan friends who might offer them the choice meat that had previously been used in pagan sacrifices. Both Jewish and Gentile Christians had scruples about the eating of such meat because that would be a participation in the sacrifice honoring pagan gods, a declaration in deed that those gods were real and that worshipping them had value for the Christians. Paul's general answer was that since "the earth and all that is in it is the property of the Lord" a Christian could lawfully eat any meat placed before him, and he need not be concerned as to its origin. But if the use of this lawful freedom should scandalize a weaker brother who would think that his fellow Christian was intending to honor the pagan gods, then the Christian should deny himself this freedom. Paul calls each of us to follow our own conscience carefully, without condemning others or trying to change their behavior. “I try to please all in any way I can by seeking not my own advantage.” We, too, must follow Paul's and Jesus' example, responding with sensitivity toward others who are different from us, rather than by passing judgment on them. The glory of God is served when God’s people serve one another and live in loving unity.
Gospel Exegesis: Why did Jesus become “angry” and issue a “stern warning?” Most translations say that Jesus was "moved with pity" when he saw the leper who approached him. But some modern Bible scholars tell us that there are ancient manuscripts that indicate that Jesus was "angry” or even “indignant” when he was confronted by this leper, and that after healing him Jesus spoke sternly to him about showing himself to a priest. A background study reveals that Jesus was not angered by the leper but by the social and religious conditions of the day. There may have been two reasons for this: 1) Jesus could have been angered by the unjust and inhuman social isolation and ostracism to which the lepers were subjected. In Jesus’ day, a leper had no right either to medical care or to other kinds of help from the community. In addition, the Book of Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46 demanded that lepers wear the tattered clothes and uncombed, uncut hair of mourners (Note, Harper Collins Study Bible, p. 172). When meeting any "sound" person a leper had to cover his mouth with one hand and shout out a warning of his/her own "unclean" condition. Lepers were taken away from their families and forced to live in leper colonies or in caves outside the city. Anyone suspected of having contracted leprosy was to be taken before a priest for examination. According to historians, in some cities Jews were massacred at the mere mention of the plague being in the area, even before it had actually arrived.” (René Girard, The Scapegoat). The rabbinic sayings compare the cure of leprosy to raising the dead. Thus, it would be no wonder if Jesus were angry about conventions that forced the leper to live like an animal, without rights or privileges. 2) Jesus could have been angered by the blasphemous religious explanation of the day that all leprosy was God’s punishment for grave sins. Jesus was also angry at the way lepers were treated as cursed creatures by the Jewish religion which sanctioned such inhuman treatment for lepers. Lepers were not only considered physically loathsome but were looked upon as persistent sinners. Even if the lepers were cured, they had to submit to a ritual cleansing and purging of sin before they would be re-admitted to society. Jesus might well have been revolted by the whole notion that lepers were sinners beyond God’s embrace. That might be precisely why He healed the leper by “stretching out his hand, touching” the legally untouchable. By instructing the healed leper to go and show himself to the priest, Jesus may have been challenging the religious authorities to see that God’s healing grace is available to anyone who asks.
Jesus’ identification with the leper: According to some Fathers of the Church, one reason Jesus promptly responded to the leper's cry in today's Gospel story, ignoring the Mosaic Law prohibiting touching a leper and thus becoming ritually unclean, is that Jesus identified himself with the man's condition. Jesus dramatically identified himself with the sufferer in the total rejection and isolation waiting for him. The irony here is that Jesus risked becoming “unclean” Himself in order to make the leper clean. Just as he stretched out his hand to the leper and touched him and made him whole, Jesus stretched out his hands on the cross to make us whole. He touched the leper thus bridging the gap between what is clean and what is unclean, identifying himself with all lepers, with all who are ritually or socially unclean and isolated and with all of us sinners who are spiritually unclean and have no way to change our condition except through His sacrifice and mercy. Thus, He became “unclean” in the eyes of the law that we might be made clean. He allowed himself to be rejected by his family and people so that those who are separated from God might return to him and be healed.
A story about how we judge others as acceptable or not in the community: This is a story about how we treat others on the basis of appearance – both real and supposed. In our society, looks aren't everything. They are the only thing! No wonder if we get feelings of inferiority, looking at all those young, attractive and trim models and superstars in magazines and on TV commercials. As a result, we make rash judgments with far-reaching consequences, making people outcasts in the society. For example, who can live down an accusation of child abuse? Who can really live a normal life in the community if he or she is known to be HIV positive? Who can really walk about as one of us in this age of the war against terrorism if he/she comes from the wrong ethnic group, wears the wrong clothes, or has the wrong skin-color? In today’s Gospel incident, Jesus challenges us to accept others unconditionally as our own brothers and sisters. (Our media gave little attention to those Catholic high-school girls who wore head-scarves in support of their innocent Muslim friends after Sept. 11, 2001). Jesus reaches out to touch us in this very Eucharistic celebration, making us whole and restoring our relationship with him and with one another. Then he grants us a share in his Divine life through the Holy Communion. Healed and graced by Jesus, we, like the leper are each compelled to tell our story, making public the good news that God saves sinners and welcomes them home.
Life messages: 1) We need to trust in the mercy of a forgiving God who assures us that our sins are forgiven and that we are clean. We are forgiven and made spiritually clean from the spiritual leprosy of sins when we repent of our sins. This is because God is a God of love who waits patiently for us. No matter how many sins we have committed or how badly we have behaved, we know God forgives us. The only condition required of us is that we ask for forgiveness with a repentant heart. We need only kneel before him and ask him, "Lord, if you will, you can make me clean" We are sure to hear his words of absolution, "Very well-- your sins are forgiven, and you are clean" echoed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
2) We need to tear down the walls that separate us from others and build bridges of loving relationship. Jesus calls every one of us to demolish the walls that separate us from each other and to welcome the outcasts and the untouchables of society. These include homosexuals, AIDS victims, alcoholics, drug-addicts and marginalized groups such as the divorced, the unmarried, single mothers, migrant workers and the mentally ill. God's loving hand must reach out to them through us. Jesus wants us to touch their lives. Let us pass beyond the narrow circles of our friends and peers and try to relate to those who may be outside the bounds of propriety. Let us re-examine the barriers we have created and approach God with a heart that is ready to welcome the outcasts in our society. Remember the old African-American children’s song reminding us that there is room for everyone in God's Kingdom: "All God's creatures got a place in the choir, some sing low and some sing higher. Some sing out loud on a telephone wire and some just clap their hands or paws or anything they've got." (Fr. Antony Kadavil)