Our Lord shows the contrast between the rigidity of the Old Law regarding the disease of leprosy, and His boundless compassion toward the truly repentant sinner.
Gospel of Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
40 A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged Him and said, “If You wish, You can make me clean.” 41Moved with pity, He stretched out His hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” 42 The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. 43 Then, warning him sternly, He dismissed him at once. 44 He said to him, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” 45 The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to Him from everywhere (Mk 1:40-45).
I – Leprosy, an Illness with drastic Consequences
The Liturgy for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, as incredible as it may seem, revolves around an illness, leprosy, whose drastic effects continue to provoke astonishment, even though it is curable in many instances. A tragic illness at a time in which no treatments were available, its progression led to large sores and the loss of body parts, leaving its sufferers disfigured and afflicted with the unbearable odour of putrefying flesh. Without adequate medication or leprosariums where they could be treated, the only hope was a miracle.
Due to the real possibility of contagion, which could devastate entire towns, leprosy was greatly feared. Thus, with the goal of preventing the general spreading of the illness, the Mosaic Law contained some prescriptions fixed by God Himself. Their vehemence may be jarring to our current understanding of things. Taken from the Book of Leviticus, they are summarized in the first reading (Lv 13:1-2; 44-46) of this Liturgy.
Religious concept of the disease
To better understand these precepts, we must look to the customs and the degree of civilization prevailing among the Chosen People, who at that time were making their trek through the desert in search of the Promised Land.
The priests were responsible for registering their findings of a suspected case of leprosy, based on the symptoms, and if this were confirmed, to officially and publicly pronounce the sufferer as impure: “If the man is leprous and unclean, the priest shall declare him unclean” (Lv 13:44). A key point for the understanding of this Sunday’s readings becomes apparent here, which is the religious aspect of leprosy. For the Hebrews, who practised the true religion, this certification held more than a physical implication, for it presumed that the impurity also resided in the soul, due to the intrinsic relationship between the spiritual and physical components of man.
This is clear even in the Gospels, when the Apostles ask Our Lord about a man blind from birth: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn 9:2). The Divine Master gives a balanced perspective of the subject, telling them: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him” (Jn 9:3).
The Israelites, then, believed that every illness was related to a spiritual problem. In other words, it was the result of sins committed by the sick person or his ancestors. There was much superstition in this way of thinking, as well as a type of fatalism. Nevertheless, this belief also demonstrates a more finely honed moral sense than exists today, when people rarely question their consciences when seeking the cause of their disorders.
Now, why did God set the measures regarding leprosy under Mosaic Law, thus ratifying this religious understanding? Firstly, to help His Chosen People avoid an epidemic. On the other hand, the people still retained barbaric customs and, moreover, strong inclinations to sin, as the reading of any episode of Sacred History demonstrates. In the act of being declared unclean by a priest, the leper was separated from society by a religious process, which highlighted the fact that this separation was not just to prevent the transmission of the disease. Having sinned to the point of becoming physically and spiritually impure, he must be placed outside the community, so as not to transmit infection in either of these two spheres. By these precepts the Lord favoured the practice of virtue, for in addition to the fear of contracting the disease, the Israelites were also afraid of suffering this radical isolation until death as consequence of their crimes, which naturally was slow and painful.
The external signs of excommunication
The leper was required to bear several signs indicating his state: “The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, ‘Unclean, unclean.’” (Lv 13:45). Accordingly, he wore a conspicuous and unsightly yellow tunic, left his hair uncombed and hid part of his beard with a handkerchief, which was a humiliation, for the beard was considered the natural adornment of man. If someone unwittingly drew close, he was obliged to call their attention to his uncleanness, avoiding any contact.
It is interesting to note that in those times people dressed with dignity, and to go about with torn clothes and unkempt hair was a sign of excommunication. This is contrary to today’s fashion which, perhaps because it is aimed at spiritual lepers, considers the use of worn and faded clothing – and even torn and shredded items – as desirable…
Finally, the leper should “dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp” (Lv 13:46), a norm that was maintained after the Jewish people settled in the cities of the Promised Land. This meant living in proximity to wild animals, far from protection. Man naturally seeks harmonious relationships with others, the social instinct being the most deeply rooted in the human person. But the leper was a true pariah: condemned by religion, he heard no preaching; socially condemned, he lived only with those in the same condition. Isolated, or worse, reviled by all as a sinner, he could no longer place his hope in others, for he had no one to help him.
Another factor contributed to his misfortune. He acknowledged that he had sinned, but was this the cause of his unfortunate state? Such was the problem of conscience that weighed on him, as he awaited the moment in which his legs would give out, and he would pine away in the place he fell until death overtook him…
The terrible outlook for the Old Testament leper, which remained unchanged for centuries until the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ, adds great wealth to the scene of this Sunday’s Gospel, for it shows us the sublimity of the faith of a person who finds himself in this situation.
II – The Encounter of Faith with Compassion
The leper of this Gospel had no doubt overheard conversations regarding the first marvels worked by Jesus of Nazareth, that unprecedented Prophet who had recently begun to proclaim the Good News… We can imagine a group of people passing by him carrying on their shoulders a former paralytic, cured by the Galilean Wonderworker, or a family who crossed his path happily singing and shedding tears of joy because their blind son had recovered his sight through the touch of the Master. In hearing these reports, grace began to act in the soul of this poor leper, who had lost all hope, giving him to understand that the solution to all his problems was in that Man.
He certainly recalled the great prodigies God had wrought for His people: manna had fallen from Heaven, the crossing, dry-shod, of the Red Sea, water that had gushed from the rock and Israel’s victories over the pagans. These episodes egged on his faith until he concluded: “This Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah!” From then on he lived in the hope of meeting Him…
One fine day, when his faith was at its zenith, he heard a ruckus, in the midst of which he could distinguish the following: “It is Jesus the Nazarene!” Without thinking twice, he quickly set out for he knew that the long awaited time had arrived!
Boldness, fruit of confidence
40a A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down…
The Evangelist St. Mark notes well: “came to.” Being a leper, that man could never take the initiative of coming close to anyone… Perhaps his voice was somewhat hoarse because the disease had affected his throat, and he was no longer able to cry out from afar, as Bartimaeus would later do: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mk 10:47). He needed to be close to Him! Seized with enthusiasm, he broke the law according to which he should be proclaiming his uncleanness and keeping his distance from everyone, for he wanted to come face to face with Our Lord. This meant great courage, considering that he ran the risk of severe penalties, even possible death by stoning. He took this chance because he was certain the Redeemer would treat him with goodness.
Now, no one could easily draw near to Jesus, for there was a large crowd around Him. But the leprosy worked to his advantage… Upon noticing the distinctive signs of the disease, people fled in horror, opening a passageway. In addition to the danger of contagion, those who unintentionally touched an unclean person had to perform a series of ablutions to rid themselves of the legal impurity acquired in the brief contact. Thus, the sick man went forward until he reached Our Lord. The Divine Master allowed him to approach to show us how He will always receive us, regardless of our state.
A bold new endeavour followed, which makes us understand that he had a clear notion of who that Man was: the leper knelt, a posture rare at that time, only seen when the vanquished desired clemency or in similar situations. Therefore, it signified true humility on the part of the leper, who thus acknowledged the undisputed lordship of the One before Him.
Lively, humble and generous faith
40b “If You wish, You can make me clean.”
Every miracle demands faith from those requesting it, and it must be lively, humble and generous. This is clear in the leper’s supplication: “If You wish, You can”; a simple formulation expressed categorically and confidently, for it manifests his surrender into Our Lord’s hands, whom he knew to be merciful and benevolent.
Furthermore, he did not only wish to be favoured, for which it would have been sufficient to say: “Lord, cure me…” By declaring in a precise manner: “If You wish, You can cure me, You have the power to do this,” he also desired Our Lord to be glorified. His words suggest that, without having received a revelation, except in the depths of his heart, the leper perhaps already believed that Jesus was God. Otherwise, he would have said: “If you wish, by your mediation, God can cure me.” What extraordinary faith! It is an example for us, who should be equally daring whenever our soul is troubled.
It merits pointing out that while no teacher of the Law had reached such a conclusion about the Divine Master, the leper received this gift from above. As a social outcast, he never heard the empty preaching of the scribes and Pharisees, who spread spiritual leprosy among the people, and consequently, he had not been corrupted. This shows that a person’s being placed by God in an undesired state of isolation frequently preserves them from certain evil influences and renders them more open to the action of divine grace.
Now, had we met up with this leper, we might have shrunk back and ordered him away, requesting that he be punished for his imprudence. But Our Lord’s reaction was very different…
Infinite readiness to suffer with men
41 Moved with pity, He stretched out His hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.”
Once again St. Mark is precise in using the expression “moved with pity,” since this last word suggests suffering with another. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is a human heart, but with an unlimited capacity to suffer. In this way, the humble attitude of the leper, filled with lively love for One who was superior to him, profoundly moved Our Lord who, as Man, was saddened to see His fellow man covered in leprosy.
The Saviour could easily have said from afar: “Fine, let it be done as you have asked,” and ridded him of the disease. However, He extended His hand – and what a hand! – over the leper and, even more, touched him. This signified a violent break with the laws governing leprosy, reaching an unimaginable extreme, going beyond all limits! Who had created these laws and transmitted them to Moses? He Himself. Therefore, He so acted to show that He was above these precepts.
Finally, Our Lord also manifested His power, for instead of saying “I invoke the Father and ask Him to cure you,” He categorically affirmed: “I do will it. Be made clean.” He made it clear that it was He who did it, and not a spirit or some unknown power.
This is Jesus’ response to the proclamation of an authentic faith, for it involved no desire to appear before others. And this should be the relationship between every superior and subordinate. The former, seeing his charge in need, has compassion and seeks to help him. The subordinate, for his part, complements that authority through admiration, in a marvellous symphony of inequality and hierarchy, in which respect descends and ascends, in a manner precisely opposite to what the devil wishes. Our Lord, who is the Superior – is God! –, before that inferior – a leper! – shows He does not have the least repulsion to any malady we may have, for He only desires to do good. He came to take on our infirmities and is ready to bear in Himself the culpability for our sins.
A resounding miracle
42 The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.
It is sufficient to consider the likely effects of leprosy in that man to assess the magnitude of that “immediate” miracle. Skin sores, mutilated members, blood-shot eyes, malodour… “I do will it. Be made clean.” That horror vanished and everything was instantly reconstituted. The former leper rose, his eyes filled with light and his body entirely cleansed, for Our Lord, adding miracle to miracle, also made the marks of the leprosy disappear and recomposed all of the affected areas. The beneficiary of the miracle not only felt liberated from the leprosy, but, above all, his soul overflowed with joy for being in God’s hands.
What a marvellous scene! When humility is radical and the attitude is one of sincere admiration, requests are superabundantly heeded without delay.
Our Lord’s prudence at the outset of His ministry
43 He said to him, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.”
It was still not the time to seek publicity and, thus, Our Lord firmly commanded he tell no one what had happened. He certainly foresaw the imprudence that the former leper might commit in spreading the deed, precipitating complications for His recently undertaken mission.
On the other hand, to give us an example of how we should respect established norms, He ensured that the Mosaic Law which He Himself created was honoured. Therefore, the beneficiary of the miracle was to fulfil the precept of presenting himself to the priests for examination. This would imply giving testimony that Jesus of Nazareth was the source of his remarkable recovery. Furthermore, in receiving an official declaration of the cure, he would no longer be treated as unclean.
Fervour of the novice…
45 The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to Him from everywhere.
The former leper did not comply with the suggested prudence, owing to his enthusiasm for the mercy he had received, and, moreover, out of love and adoration for the Man-God. Finding himself unable to obey the order and not knowing how to thank Our Lord, he began to spread the miracle about, for he wanted to make known the divine benevolence to others. This authentic gratitude, rooted in faith, led him to spread the name of the great Wonderworker everywhere, with the fervour of a novice!
The consequences were immediately felt. Our Lord’s fame spread and everyone who found out about the episode, enchanted and filled with wonder, sought Him out with such insistence that He could no longer enter the cities.
III – A Symbolic Miracle
Whether the miracle worked in benefit of the leper thrills us for the merciful compassion shown by the Divine Master, or for the exuberant faith of the beneficiary, we will gather more abundant fruits if we consider it from an allegorical perspective of great profit to our spiritual life.
Leprosy could rightly be considered a symbol of the spiritual state of those who, giving themselves over to sin, forsake communion with God and with those who live in His grace; those who, having received Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist, prefer the ways of iniquity.
If a leper, according to the description in Leviticus, was stigmatized and separated from social contact, those who embrace mortal sin, even if they find themselves among others who are living in the grace of God, remain outside the flow of divine life that circulates among them. This is a tragedy that should cause greater horror than the repulsive physical effects of leprosy.
Leprosy infects the blood and affects the entire organism, ravaging its beauty and weakening it to the point of death. Sin also gradually corrodes the beauty of the soul, destroys the entire spiritual edifice and, if the person does not amend his life, leads to hell and eternal death, with consequences much more drastic than bodily death.
To be cured, all it takes is to acknowledge one’s leprosy
Our Lord came to snatch souls from the path of eternal condemnation and set them on the way of salvation, manifesting His infinite mercy with the sinner, just as He placed His hand on the leper of the Gospel without fear of contracting the illness. The state of the leper shows that Providence may speak to us through tragedies, trials and afflictions, for if he had been healthy, perhaps he would have let himself be influenced by the Pharisees and looked suspiciously at the Redeemer.
We too, conceived in original sin and weighed down by the accumulation of our actual sins, have countless opportunities to rise above our pride and acknowledge our wretchedness! In admitting we are lepers, we fulfil the essential condition of saying: “Lord, if You will, You can cure me,” and to receive pardon.
How is this done? By seeking the Physician, and boldly drawing close to Our Lord. He needs lepers to manifest His power. One must only earnestly desire to be cured.
Our Lord Jesus Christ left us an infallible remedy: the Sacrament of Penance. The confessional is the place where people not only reveal their sins in order to be pardoned, but also receive the strength to persevere in the practice of virtue. Jesus Christ Himself awaits them, using the voice of the priest, to say: “I do will it. Be made clean,” curing countless lepers. And just as in the Gospel “the leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean,” the same happens in a good Confession. History has recorded a profusion of miracles since the institution of this Sacrament! Therefore, we should confidently turn to the Divine Physician, for He has taken our leprosy upon Himself!
God needs to manifest His mercy
If we could analyse the sins committed since Adam and Eve until our days, and hazard a guess on man’s conduct until the end of time, we would reach the conclusion that those who keep their innocence intact until the hour of death are few.
Why does this happen? Could God not have created an innocent humanity? Would it not have been more perfect? Beginning with the theological reasoning that whatever He did was best, how can we prove that a world comprised of sinners gives greater glory to the Creator?
Just as God has the capacity to condemn, He also has an infinite capacity to pardon, which if it were not exercised, the work of creation would be defective. If He had made a world of only innocent souls, that mercy which Theology calls curative, would remain unknown. But the Almighty has the means to manifest this mercy over sinners on a grand scale.
With the confidence of the leper, let us consider the open arms of Our Lord Jesus Christ inviting us not to lose heart even if assailed by the worst of leprosies. Let us draw close to Him, so that His divine hand may rest on our head and we may hear from His lips: “I do will it. Be made clean.” ◊