Meditation of the week

Caring for the outcast

Mark 1, 40-45.

To contract leprosy in biblical times was to become an outcast.  The uncleanness and contagion associated with leprosy prevented the leper from taking part in public worship. The danger of contagion required that the leper be ostracised from  family and community, and go and live in remote places. Laws dealing with the treatment of lepers focused primarily on protecting the community from infection.

The cleansing of the leper in today’s gospel, (never described in Mark as a healing), breaks most of the rules regarding lepers. Rather than approaching Jesus, the leper, should have been running in the opposite direction, protecting Jesus from contagion. Instead of asking to be cleansed he should have been crying out “Unclean, Unclean.”  Rather than feeling sorry for the leper, as Jesus did, anybody else would have been extremely angry with him for approaching him.

The leper must have heard about Jesus’ miracles and his unique attitude to people on the margins of society, and took this chance of a lifetime to approach him. His faith and courage were vindicated. Touching the leper, a gesture which legally made Jesus unclean, he cleansed him.  His reply to the leper ”Of course I want to cleanse you” sums up his intense compassion for this outcast. The phrase “the leprosy left him”, (like the fever left Peter’s mother-in law), combined with Jesus “sternly ordered him” sounds like the language for the exorcism of a demon. In commanding the leper to report his cure to the priest, Jesus shows respect for the Law. It was in the leper’s own interests to be cleared by the priest as cleansed, after which he could re-join his family and society.

Jesus’ command to the leper to tell nobody about the cleansing produces exactly the opposite effect, “for he talked about it openly, everywhere,” with the result that Jesus having “to stay in places where nobody lived,” has been reduced to the leper’s status.  Jesus commanded silence about the healing, probably to avoid being made into a celebrity miracle-worker by the people. This theme of keeping his miracles and wonders secret, (e.g the Transfiguration 9,9), runs through Marks’s gospel. It raises the question of whether it goes back to Jesus himself or whether it is a literary technique employed by Mark to sustain the suspense of who Jesus is until the Roman Centurion tells us (15,39)?

The healing of the leper shows Jesus concern for the total good of the person.  He restores his body to health and him to his family and society.  Most important of all, he gave the leper an experience of God’s love, compassion and power, which was spiritually transforming and life-changing for him. He became a new person in the fullest sense through his contact with Jesus. Jesus can do the same for each of us, if, like the leper, we ask and accept his help.

“Jesus felt sorry” for the leper.  Try to imagine/ share Jesus’ inner feelings.

Who are the untouchables/lepers of our society? Jesus relates to them primarily through us?  He has no hands now but ours etc.  How do you relate to them?

Miracles happen for people who have the faith and daring of the leper to ask for them.  “Uncaged” by Neil Harvey is a brief but gripping story of how  the Lord changed a modern- day,  hopeless drug-addict into a dynamic, inspiring  evangelist.

Father Geoff O’Grady