Leviticus 13:1-2. 44-46; 1 Corinthians 10:31 – 11:1; Mark 1:40-45
Where did the leprosy go? We are told in today’s gospel that ‘the leprosy left him at once’ and he was cured. So what happened to it? Where did it go? And since leprosy in the Scriptures is supposed to be an image of sin we might well ask the much more important question, ‘Where does sin go? When Jesus forgives sin what happens to it – does it just evaporate?’
Leprosy does to an individual physically what mortal sin does spiritually. It makes him unclean, it makes him ugly, it cuts him off from the community and, finally, it kills him. Likewise, mortal sin makes the sinner unclean, ugly, cut off from the community and spiritually dead.
The Book of Leviticus (13:38-39) has this to say: A man infected with leprosy must wear his clothing torn and his hair disordered; he must shield his upper lip and cry, “Unclean, unclean”. As long as the disease lasts he must be unclean; and therefore he must live apart: he must live outside the camp.
The only way a leper could remain alive was to beg people to throw him money or leave him food. If anyone was silly enough to touch a leper they would contaminate themselves and would themselves be excluded from the community for a certain number of days, after which the priest would examine him and, hopefully, declare him to be clean.
So the leper in the gospel was way out of line in approaching Jesus; he should not have come anywhere near him because he was, in fact, ‘excommunicated’. That he dared to come within arm’s reach was the height of impertinence.
If you want to … you can cure me.
The leper had come to Jesus and fallen to his knees. Now he was pleading for a cure. His words are subtly ambivalent, almost suggestive of a challenge to the compassion of Jesus, but confident of his power.
Neither disease nor sin is part of God’s plan and Jesus immediately felt sorry for him. He had come to restore, to heal, to make whole and without hesitation he does the unthinkable; he: stretched out his hand and touched him.
Of course I want to ! … Be cured! And the leprosy left him at once and he was cured.
Perhaps we can see in this incident a kind of reverse of the miracle of next week’s gospel about the paralytic (Mk 2) who was let down through a hole in the roof. To the paralytic Jesus said: My child, your sins are forgiven; and then, when the scribes were scandalised he said: I order you: get up, pick up your stretcher, and go off home.
And we might well ask the question Jesus asked the scribes: Which of these is easier: to say to the paralytic, "Your sins are forgiven" or to say, "Get up, pick up your stretcher and walk?"
The physical points to the spiritual just as the spiritual points to the physical and we may well ask whether the leper’s sins were not forgiven, just as his body was made whole.
Jesus sternly orders the man not to speak of Jesus’ part in this healing but to go and show himself to the priests who would examine him and declare him clean. (Is this not what a priest does in the sacrament of reconciliation?)
Instead the man speaks of his healing freely and spreads the story everywhere. We might well wonder if the poor man shared Jeremiah’s (20:9) experience of: a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones. The effort to restrain it wearied me, I could not bear it. Perhaps if he had remained silent in obedience to the Lord’s words: the stones would have cried out (cf. Lk 19:40).
At any rate, the consequences for Jesus are serious; he is now known to be ritually unclean because he had touched the leper and he: could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived.
So who’s the leper now? It is Jesus who bears the punishment of this disease. He becomes a leper without leprosy – as he became a sinner without sin – so that we might live.
Ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried. On him lies a punishment that brings us peace, and through his wounds we are healed (Is 53:4-5).