Sunday, February 15, 2009

“If you choose to, you can make me clean.”

In today’s first reading, the LORD speaks to Moses and Aaron: If someone has a swelling or a rash or a blotch on his skin that seems to be leprosy, he should be brought to Aaron the priest, or to one of his descendants who is a priest. Anyone with an infectious skin condition must wear torn clothes, and keep his hair uncovered, but hide the lower part of his face, and cry out “Unclean, unclean!” As long as he has the infection, he will remain unclean. He must live alone, outside the camp.

These are the first two verses of Chapter 13 of the Book of Leviticus, followed by verses 44 through 46. If you read the forty-two verses in between, you will learn that there are many types of skin infection which were treated like leprosy in Old Testament times. Even in the 19th and 20th centuries after Christ, people with skin diseases were isolated from the rest of the community, in leprosaria, such as the one on the Island of Molokai, in Hawaii, and at Carville, in Louisiana.

For the Hebrew people “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”, and we use the same expression. There was great attention paid to the washing of hands and feet, of plates and food. The Mosaic law specified that a leper had to keep a distance of 12 to 15 away from other people, and if the other person was downwind from the leper, the distance was 120 to 150 feet. No leper would dare to approach a rabbi on the street or in the synagogues of the towns in Judaea and Galilee. No, if someone who had been declared a leper believed that a cure had taken place, they were to go up to Jerusalem, and show themselves to the Temple priests.

Today’s gospel is taken from the first chapter of Mark. A leper approaches Jesus confidently to seek his help. “If you choose to, you can make me clean.” What followed was even more unorthodox: Jesus stretched out his hand, and touched him. The touch of Jesus’ hand healed him, not only of his disease, of his feeling that he was diseased, but his sense that that he was a disease. It healed his isolation, his loneliness, his despair, his belief that he cursed by God. Thanks to Jesus, he was not cursed, but cured.

Yet the story is not yet finished. Jesus tells the man to go to the Temple and show himself to the priest, as required by the Law of Moses, and to pay the stipend required in the scripture. He also told the man not to speak to anyone on the way.

Of course, the leper didn’t pay a bit of attention to that last part. He went off and shared the good news with everyone he met along the way. It seems that in every town, people learned of the leper’s healing, and Jesus had to stay away in deserted places. Still, people kept coming to him in droves from everywhere.

In the last chapter of the gospel of Mark, Jesus sends his disciples out into the world to proclaim the good news of salvation. He tells them of all of wonders they will perform in his name, including healing the sick. As disciples of Jesus, we have the capacity to be instruments of healing. Not only do we have a duty to pray for the sick and help them get effective medical care, but also to extend the presence of Christ to all whose lives are hurt and in need of a healing hand, a healing ear, a healing heart.

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