By Father Paul Nord, O.S.B.
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
First Reading: Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46; Response: Psalm 32:1-2, 5, 11; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1; Gospel: Mark 1:40-45
Our first reading, from Leviticus 13, is concerned with skin diseases in the context of Israelite purity laws. These laws describe how an Israelite man or woman could be considered pure for the purpose of participating in certain cultic acts. An Israelite who was “ritually impure” could not enter the Temple in Jerusalem. Faithful Israelites usually went to Jerusalem for major religious feasts, including into the Temple precinct. Thus a ritually impure Israelite would be unable to participate in major feasts if he was impure according to the purity laws.
There were several ways that an Israelite man or woman might become “unclean” in this sense, but there were also rites of purification by which he or she might again become “clean” according to the purity laws. Skin diseases were one category of impurity in Israelite law.
Priests were charged with the responsibility of declaring a person to be “clean” or “unclean.” Priests were also entrusted with the cultic activities of the Temple – such as the offering of sacrifices to God. Therefore it was logical that priests were responsible for declaring a person to be clean – and thus able to participate in cultic activities at the Temple.
This reading describes the tragic circumstance in which a person is determined to have a serious skin disease. These verses obligate the priest to declare such a person “unclean” according to the Israelite law. If the skin disease was incurable, such a person would remain “unclean” for the rest of their life. They would be unable to participate in normal Israelite life and community. This tragic isolation is described in the final verses of our reading. Such a person was responsible for warning others about his disease by crying out, “Unclean, unclean!” Thus he must also “dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.”
This first reading (Lev 13) gives us essential information for understanding today’s Gospel reading, from Mark 1:40-45. According to Jewish law, this leper was considered to be “unclean.” Thus he was required to keep his distance from everyone who was free of the disease, such as Jesus. But the leper had clearly heard about Jesus’ many healings – as recorded in the preceding verses of Mark 1. Therefore the leper approached Jesus for healing.
Although the leper was “unclean” due to leprosy, Jesus did not view the leper as a threat to his health. Quite the contrary – Jesus “stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean.’” Normally if a Jew like Jesus touched a leper, then Jesus would be considered ritually unclean also. But Jesus’ action shows that he does not fear becoming “unclean.” He has the power to heal as the son of God. Instead of the leper making Jesus ritually unclean, Jesus’ divine power heals the leper of his disease. Jesus has made the leper “clean” according to Jewish law.
Jesus sends the healed man to the priest so that the priest might verify that the man is healed and thus is ritually pure. Jesus commands the man to fulfill the requirements of the Jewish law – not only showing himself to the priest, but also offering the sacrifice required by the law of Moses for such an occasion. In this way, the former leper will be able to return to normal participation in Jewish society. His tragic social isolation is over.
Note that Jesus tells the man not to tell anyone about Jesus healing him, but that the man disobeys, and thus news of his healing spreads widely. The final words of today’s Gospel passage recounts that Jesus’ many healings caused him to be constantly approached by people seeking healing. Thus Jesus remained outside the cities in deserted places. Despite this, people kept hearing about Jesus and seeking him out for healing.
Today’s Responsorial Psalm is a beautiful prayer of thanksgiving for God’s forgiveness of sin. In the second stanza (verse 5), the psalmist says the same thing three times: “I acknowledged my sin / my guilt I covered not / I confess my faults.” This three-fold repetition creates emphasis – and also builds suspense for God’s responding action: “You took away the guilt of my sin.” A dramatic reading of this verse would have short pauses after the first two synonymous phrases. After the third phrase, a longer pause would precede the final phrase delivered as the strong climax: God “took away the guilt of my sin!” In thanksgiving, “be glad … rejoice … exult, all you upright of heart!”
Finally, our second reading is 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1. In the preceding verses, St. Paul gives the Corinthians advice on buying and consuming food in a society in which some food is sacrificed to idols. In short, Paul tells them to only refuse eating food if someone specifically says that the food was offered in sacrifice. Paul is relieving these early Christians from needing to constantly question the full history of all food that they consume at a meal in someone else’s home, or food that they buy for their own homes.
Thus Paul advises his fellow Christians that they need to avoid scandalizing anyone by knowingly consuming food sacrificed to idols. A few verses before, Paul said: “‘Everything is lawful,’ but not everything is beneficial”(10:23). Paul does not consider accidentally eating such food to be morally unharmful, but he does realize that he and the Corinthians need to avoid scandalizing others.
Paul says: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). This is Paul’s advice – that we should seek to please God in all things, and thus to give him glory. Paul insists on pursuing the well-being of other people – instead of pursuing his own benefit.
As Paul gives the Corinthians this advice, Paul says that he is following his own advice. Paul considers himself to be an imitator of Christ in these matters. Therefore, Paul asks the Corinthians to imitate both himself and Christ in these matters (11:1).