A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”
Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. (Mark 1:40-45 – NRSV)
Both Matthew (8:1–4) and Luke (5:12–16) draw on Mark for this same story.
The man may have had leprosy (ie Hansen’s disease) but is more likely to have had any one of a range of skin disorders. In Leviticus 13-14 there is an extensive discussion concerning these skin disorders. The person concerned had to call out “Unclean! Unclean!” when other people were about so there would be no contact and therefore no contagion. It was in fact a sentence of separation from the community.
The man does not ask to be healed of the leprosy, he asks to be “made clean”. There are no references to healing in this brief account but there are four references to cleansing. We can reasonably interpret this as a plea to be restored to the full life of the community.
Anyone who touched such a person would also be “unclean”. Jesus, in fact, became “unclean” by touching this man. Jesus became an outsider in order to make this man an insider.
Last Sunday’s Gospel had Jesus taking Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand. This gesture of touching the leper must be linked with the phrase “moved with pity”. The word “pity” translates the Greek word splanchnistheis (σπλαγχνισθεὶς), from splanchnon (σπλάγχνον), literally meaning “guts”. In the Christian Scriptures, the expression never appears outside the Synoptic Gospels, and except for three occurrences in the parables it is always used directly of Jesus himself. It is a powerful expression that is largely missed by our English word “pity”. Add the notion of what is going on in Jesus’ guts to the touching of an “unclean” man and we may begin to get some understanding of what is happening here.
Together with Jesus’ obvious disregard for laws and rituals that oppressed people, he did observe Torah. According to Torah, the priests had to examine the person to ensure that they no longer had the skin disorder and were therefore “clean”. So Jesus sends him off to the priest.
As we become more identified with Jesus we begin to experience human laws and rituals and statements of belief – even those laws and rituals and statements of belief made in the name of God – as instrumental and relative. They are means to an end. They are not ends in themselves. To treat them as if they were ends or absolutes is to engage in idolatry.
Notice the action of the leper: He kneels before Jesus, an “unclean” man blocking his way instead of getting out of his way. This fellow has some nerve! When Jesus tells him to “say nothing to anyone” he goes and tells everyone. As for observing the law and showing himself to the priest and making the necessary offerings, this man has more important things to do!
I wonder what Jesus’ reaction to the man and his response was?
We constantly stand in danger of giving too much importance to our laws and rituals and statements of belief. John XXIII reminded us, in his opening speech at the Second Vatican Council, that the deposit of faith is one thing and the presentation or expression of that faith is quite another thing. We must not alter the first, we must constantly adapt the second. Our inability to adapt will become a source of oppression to many. Ecclesiolatry is always there, just off stage, sometimes right on stage.
As the second meeting of the Synod on the Family approaches, I pray that those participating in that meeting can distinguish between the deposit of the faith and our various attempts in history to understand and express and concretise that faith.