Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) (11 February 2024)

Gospel for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) (11 February 2024)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM

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)

Introductory notes


Matthew 8:1-4 and Luke 5:12-16 depend on Mark here.

“The healing of the leper (1:40–45), the only such healing in Mark, seems almost like an awkward appendix to the two summaries of healings and exorcisms (1:34, 39). The text would flow very smoothly from 1:39 to 2:1, with Jesus travelling throughout Galilee and then returning to Capernaum. The story lacks the specific location of the other mighty works in this section (in a synagogue, in the house of Simon and Andrew). Yet it is the most vivid of the narratives thus far. In contrast to those healed previously (the demoniac and Simon’s mother-in-law), the leper is shown in action by the use of three closely linked participles: beseeching, falling to his knees, and making a request. Moreover, his request (‘make me clean’) is explicit. The language of requesting and falling on one’s knees attributes a virtually divine status to Jesus, as does the statement that through an act of his will he can effect healing. Leprosy, or the various skin diseases included in the term, was the most dreaded of all diseases because it separated people from family and community and thus constituted a ‘living death’. Indeed, rabbinic sayings compare the cure of leprosy to raising the dead (a divine prerogative). …. The evangelist may well have placed this narrative here as a christological paradigm for the subsequent narratives. Jesus, the stronger one predicted by John (1:7), has power over the dreaded leprosy, and yet he is a figure of compassion who, for the sake of a suffering human, will violate ritual laws. Like the healed leper, those in Mark’s community who have been touched by the life-giving power of Jesus are to become missionaries proclaiming and broadcasting ‘the word’ far and wide. This narrative also prepares for the controversies of 2:1–3:6, which will end with the first explicit plan to kill Jesus (3:6) precisely because he violated the Sabbath” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 91).


A leper: From the Greek leptein meaning “peel off”. This could imply any number of skin diseases. It is not to be taken as the disease we have come to know as Hansen’s disease. The passage, together with Matthew 8:1-4 and Luke 5:12-16 – which are dependent on Mark’s account – and the story of the healing of the ten lepers in Luke 17:11-19, are the only occasions where it is said that Jesus healed “lepers”. One scholar writes: “‘A man with leprosy came to him’ understates a highly provocative and offensive encounter. Leprosy was a widespread disease in Palestine. This is apparent not only from the several lepers whom Jesus encountered in his ministry but also from the plethora of instructions about the disease in the Mishnah. Leprosy was then as now a subject of superstition and fear. Leprosy is a skin disease, and like all skin diseases it is difficult to diagnose and heal. Its conditions are discussed in two lengthy chapters in Leviticus 13–14 that read like an ancient manual on dermatology. The Hebrew term tsara‘at covers other skin diseases besides leprosy, including boils (Lev 13:18), burns (Lev 13:24), itches, ringworm, and scalp conditions. Scribes counted as many as seventy-two different afflictions that were defined as leprosy. In the OT leprosy was generally regarded as a divine punishment, the cure of which could only be effected by God (Num 12:10; 2 Kgs 5:1–2). The dread of its contagion is reflected in the following passage: ‘The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’. As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp’ (Lev 13:45–46).

“This is not simply the description of an illness. It is a sentence, the purpose of which was to protect the health of the community from a dreaded contagion. Elaborating Leviticus 13–14, Mishnah tractate Negaim (‘Plagues’) discusses the spread of leprosy not only among people but also among garments (m. Neg. 3:7; 11:1–12) and houses (m. Neg. 3:8; 12–13). Lepers were victims of far more than the disease itself. The disease robbed them of their health, and the sentence imposed on them as a consequence robbed them of their name, occupation, habits, family and fellowship, and worshiping community. To ensure against contact with society, lepers were required to make their appearance as repugnant as possible. Josephus speaks of the banishment of lepers as those ‘in no way differing from a corpse’ (Ant. 3.264). The reference to Miriam’s leprosy in Num 12:12 prompted various rabbis to speak of lepers as ‘the living dead,’ whose cure was as difficult as raising the dead. The diagnosis of leprosy thus encompassed both medical and social dimensions. Leprosy contaminated Israel’s status as a holy people (although it did not contaminate Gentiles since they were already considered unclean, m. Neg. 3:1; 11:1). Other illnesses had to be healed, but leprosy had to be cleansed (e.g., Matt 11:5). Mark’s account of Jesus and the leper is a mirror image of these tragic realities, for there is no reference to ‘healing,’ but there are four references to ‘cleansing’ in six verses.

“The offense of the leper’s action is immediately apparent. Lepers were required to ‘stand at a distance’ (Luke 17:12) of fifty paces. If a leper’s entrance into a house contaminated it (m. Negaim 12–13), or his standing under a tree polluted anyone who passed under it (m. Neg. 13:7), then this leper’s approach compromises Jesus’ ritual cleanliness. Nevertheless, the leper risks everything, breaking both law and custom, on the chance of being healed and restored by Jesus. No obstacle, not even the decrees of the Torah itself, prevents him from coming to Jesus. His obsequious approach and posture, ‘beg[ing] him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean,”’ betrays the long humiliation of his affliction. But contained within the leper’s plea are the beginnings of faith that Jesus can save him. His faith is revealed by the fact that he does not question Jesus’ ability to save him, only his willingness to save him. The leper’s longing is profoundly human, for it is not God’s ability that we doubt, but only his willingness—if he will do what we ask” (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002, 68-69).

Moved with pity: There is some disagreement over the translation here. Some manuscripts have the Greek word orgistheis meaning “anger”, others have splanchnistheis meaning “compassion”. Most favour “pity” or “compassion”. “This (ie ‘compassion’) translates the participle splanchnistheis, which is one of the more disputed textual readings in Mark. The root of the verb (the noun is splanchnon) designates the seat of affective feeling and emotion (our ‘guts’), and is often translated ‘heart’. Some Western manuscripts read orgistheis (‘being angered’), and on the principle of lectio difficilior potior (the more difficult reading is to be preferred) many commentators translate ‘being angered’. The argument is that copyists (embarrassed at the anger of Jesus) would more likely change ‘anger’ to ‘compassion’ than vice versa. In favor of ‘moved with compassion’, however, are the weight of the best manuscripts and the fact that copyists have not altered other passages that present Jesus as angry (3:5; 10:14). Moreover, Jesus appears as compassionate in two other healing narratives (6:34; 8:2) and in curing the possessed boy (9:22)” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, op cit, 89).

Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him: Jesus’ compassion prompts him to violate the ritual laws as laid down in Leviticus – see above. This is one of many occasions in the Gospels where Jesus places compassion for people ahead of cultural and religious law and custom. It is very clear where his priorities lay. Still, he orders the man to show himself to the priests as the law demands. “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.” “Commands and prescriptions seem to have little power in this narrative. Rather, the humanity and compassion of Jesus and the experience of freedom that the healed man enjoys are the main centers of attention” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, op cit, 91).

Tragedy and grace

In today’s Gospel – Mark 1:40-45 – we are told “a leper came to him . . .” Pause there. Freeze frame! We have an image: The “leper”, Jesus, the disciples, the crowd, the religious authorities, all in a particular culture and a particular historical moment. A slice of humanity. How might this scene speak to us of what it means to be a human being?

If we asked one hundred people to complete the sentence, “Life is …”, we would get many different responses. How many, do you think, would say, “Life is tragic”? That life as such – not just this or that moment, this or that set of circumstances – but life is tragic.

The tragic dimension of our lives is evident in the often troubling distance between the ideal and the real, in the moral ambiguities we must face, in the sheer ordinariness and tedium of our days, in the apparent triumph of evil over the good, in the suffering of the vulnerable and the innocent. It does not do to wish this away by pumping oneself up with “positivity” and optimism. That will not change the structure of reality. Faith in “positivity” and optimism is especially inappropriate for those of us who believe in Jesus who suffered and died for us. The Christian life asks more and gives more – much more! – than such self-manipulating behaviours can possibly offer.

One author writes: “A refusal to countenance the tragic vision renders the church’s message shallow and banal. If human finitude and suffering are not taken seriously, Christ’s triumph over evil becomes merely sentimental, and the life of faith degenerates into an idiotic optimism” (Ralph C Wood, The Comedy of Redemption, University of Notre Dame Press, 1988, 4).

Civilization and culture are fictions. They are necessary fictions. This fictional arrangement is, however, fragile. At its best, it enables us to get on with our lives more or less constructively, and at its worst, it can become a source of terrible violence and oppression. At the same time, reality can, on the one hand, engender an illusion of control and, on the other, sound a warning: “Until further notice!” The primal disorder that is masked by the fictional order, keeps re-asserting itself. That is inevitable. The Good News is that it is also the place where we encounter grace. Redemption is on offer here.

“A leper came to him”. He is doubly oppressed, firstly by his illness and secondly by his culture – a religious culture. It is tempting to blame the culture, as if we have progressed beyond such things and we are now too sophisticated to do that sort of thing. Really? The potential for oppression and violence is within us all, in every age. Anxiety, fear and ignorance can easily provoke it.

Jesus acts from within the fictions of civilization and culture. Through him, with him and in him, we are set free within – not from – those fictions.