By Father Donald Dilger
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 1:45
Because this Sunday’s gospel is the story of Jesus curing a leper, the first reading is part of the Torah Legislation of the Book of Leviticus – rules concerning leprosy in the Israelite communities. Leviticus is the fourth scroll of the Torah and is ascribed to Moses. It served as a handbook for the Levitical priesthood. Aaron, the first high priest, and his brother Moses were of the tribe of Levi. Like the other books of the Torah – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy — it is the work of many authors/editors over centuries, though the influence of Moses is not excluded. Moses lived in the 13th century B.C. The laws, ritual, festivals recorded in Leviticus have a long history. In its present form Leviticus (and the rest of the Torah) is thought to have been compiled and made public after the exile, so after 540 B.C. The section on leprosy is part of a collection of regulations that fit under a title, ‘Various Rules of Conduct.’ A better headline: Miscellania. Here are some puzzling miscellaneous rules. “You shall not wear a garment made of two kinds of fabric.” There goes your mix of cotton and polyester! “You shall not tattoo any kinds of marks on your body.” And there go your tattoo parlors!
The leprosy noted in the Bible was more than what today is called Hansen’s Disease. It included any repulsive, scaly skin disease, perhaps psoriasis or even severe cases of acne. Clothing and houses were also thought to be subject to leprosy. We call it mold. For leprous clothing: Leviticus 13:47-59; for leprous houses: Leviticus 14:33-53. Leprosy was in some way connected with sin, so a cured leper had to undergo a ritual of atonement or purification involving a sacrifice of a pair of lambs without blemish. That could be expensive, so the Torah allowed just one lamb for the poor. To the one lamb the Torah calls for the addition of two turtle doves or young pigeons, “if he can afford them.” In addition, there is a mixture of wheat flour and olive oil plus a container of olive oil. These ingredients are used in the performance of the rites by the officiating priest according to the rubrics given in Leviticus 14. A similar ritual was prescribed for leprous houses as “a sacrifice for the sin of the house.” See Leviticus 14:49-57. After the priest and the former leper complete the ritual, the priest as representative of the community declares the person clean. This restores him to the society from which his leprosy had banned him.
Psalm 32 continues the themes of guilt, atonement, recovery. “Blessed is he whose fault is taken away, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not attribute guilt.” The sinner confesses, “I acknowledged my sin to you. I did not hide my guilt . . ., and you took away the guilt of my sin.” We sinners join the repentant Psalmist in the people’s response, “I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.”
The second reading is the fifth in a series from 1 Corinthians. Last week we saw a sensitive Paul angrily defending himself against accusations of claiming a greedy recompense for his ministry.
The charge was totally false. The background of today’s reading is a discussion of whether a Christian may buy and eat meat from the butcher shops located next to heathen temples. Excess meat of the sacrifices was returned to the butcher shops for sale to the public. Paul allows it, because heathen gods are not real, but only if it does not scandalize a weak Christian. They should pray over the food. So our reading begins, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” Paul appeals to Christians to avoid offense to all. Then a typical Pauline boast, a bit of Chutzpah, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
In the gospel a leper approaches Jesus, breaking the law of social distancing. We do not know how many of the Leviticus rules about leprosy were operative in Jesus’ time, but here is the law of social distancing: “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 (mask?) and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall dwell outside the camp.” But the leper’s faith overcomes the rules. In humble posture he kneels before Jesus. He expresses his faith, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Jesus touches him, (also breaking the law of social distancing), and says, “I do will it. Be made clean!” A strange sentence follows, which Matthew’s version omits and Luke’s version changes. “Then warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once.” Our translation is a cover-up. The Greek says, “Groaning deeply he gave him a stern command and cast him out.” The Greek verb Mark uses for ‘groaning’ is usually used for the snorting of horses. Perhaps the best explanation comes from the fact that people believed that illness was caused by a demon. Jesus’ groaning and casting out could indicate an exorcism of a demon. Jesus casts out the demon, not the poor leper!
Jesus was not through with him. According to the law of Leviticus as described in the comments on the first reading, the priest representing the community gets the final word. Jesus says to the former leper, “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 (of your cure) for them.” There are several explanations of the command to silence. Mark places this command just before the command to go to the priest. Therefore, the former leper was forbidden to say anything until the priest readmitted him to the community. Or was it that only God could heal leprosy, and that identity of Jesus could not be revealed until his death and resurrection? Or was it to preserve privacy for Jesus so he could move about freely without a crowd following? It may be the latter, since Mark adds, “The man spread the report everywhere, so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.” Jesus remained in the countryside, but “crowds came to him from everywhere.” Thus ends Jesus’ first weekend of activity in Galilee, where all knew him as the former carpenter, son of Mary.