Leviticus 13, 1-2, 44-46 + Psalm 32 + 1 Corinthians 10, 31 – 11, 1 + Mark 1, 40-45
Three weeks ago when Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James, and John, repentance was expected, and the change in their lives that began that day was to put people first and fish second in their lives as they left their nets and boats and began to follow Jesus. During their time with Jesus, they learned day by day how to do that, and what it would mean: people first. It is still the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, and he is emphasizing that expectation still. This is the third miracle. The pattern is significant. First it is Sabbath day in the Synagogue. Jesus insists that the freedom and healing of the possessed man is more important than the day of the week. Then it is Peter’s mother-in-law in her home. A woman is healed. Now it is a leper who calls out in faith, and he is touched. In just forty verses, Jesus is on the move, and you have to be blind and deaf not to get the point that there is urgency, and that no one is going to be left out. People come first. The day of the week does not matter. The gender of a person is totally irrelevant. The fact that you are, in effect, an excommunicated member of society – the ultimate outcast, a leper, makes no difference. People come first.
The rule says do nothing on the Sabbath. The society puts no value on women. The law says, don’t touch a leper. However with Jesus Christ, people come before rules, customs and laws, and so today he touches that leper. At the moment Jesus touched that man the crowd and the disciples must have gasped in amazement and even in horror. In a sense, by touching the man, Jesus traded places with him. The one who is unclean is cleansed. The one who had been clean is now tainted. The outcast is sent to the priests as a sign of his return to the community. Jesus Christ is now the outcast whose alienation from the Priests, Scribes, and Pharisees will only continue to grow more pronounced. We know how it is going to end, because those who do not put people first will eventually take the life of the one who does put people first.
In reaching out to touch that leper, Jesus made a statement that the man who called out to him had leprosy. He was not a leprous creature. In reaching out to that man Jesus was identified with the victim. He became one with the one who suffers. There is in this simple gesture an act of freedom: freedom on the part of Jesus to do the right thing, and freedom on the part of that man to walk away from his enslaved condition to the freedom of a full human being.
At its deepest meaning this is an incarnational story. The Word is Made Flesh. It is not the flesh of a glowing model of perfect idealistic humanity, but the flesh of a leper, the flesh of someone no one would touch except God! The outcast becomes the one touched by the divine.
The translation chosen by the church for use in the Liturgy says that Jesus was moved with pity for this man. Many other manuscripts of this text say that Jesus was moved by anger. I like this more passionate translation that suggests a stronger reaction of Jesus at the very thought of someone being an outcast avoided by all is repugnant to Jesus, and so his response is not only to challenge the disease, but to end the man’s isolation and restore him to his rightful place in relationship to the community. That is why Jesus sends him to the priests. That act restores his place in the community and his relationship with the people.
This reversal of roles as one who was at first unclean becomes clean by a touch that renders Jesus unclean now continues as the one who at first lived alone in the desert returns to the community while Jesus must find a refuge for himself in the very deserted places where the leper once hid. That reversal of roles continues for us in the mystery of salvation. Jesus continues to take our place and to offer us his place at the Father’s right hand. This is the mystery and wonder of salvation. This is what we celebrate today our freedom, our liberation from helplessness, and our restoration to what we are created to be: children of God, heirs of the Kingdom, whole and holy.
Only response is possible to those who have experienced this saving mystery, and nothing should keep us quiet.