The “leprosy” mentioned in today’s first reading and Gospel passage is one of those biblical mysteries whose explanation is lost to history. The “leprous” condition addressed in the book of Leviticus was something that could affect a person’s skin or hair, or a man’s beard. (Leviticus 13:1-46) It could affect even clothing or buildings. (Leviticus 13:47-59) The one thing that is certain about the condition is that it was not actual leprosy, Hansen’s disease, a mildly contagious bacterial infection.
While the medical facts about what the Scriptures call “leprosy” elude us, there is an important aspect of the condition that we can identify with easily. Whatever the Scriptural authors had in mind when they wrote about “leprosy,” we can be certain that it was icky. I hope the technical language used here isn’t off-putting. Rather than icky, perhaps I should say that the condition of ritual impurity described in the first reading and the Gospel was repulsive.
Again, the reason that this particular ickiness, sorry, repulsiveness, caused ritual impurity probably eludes most people today. The “leprous” condition described in the Scriptures caused ritual impurity in a person because of Hebrew religion’s concern with normalcy and wholeness. A person, animal or thing that was abnormal, damaged or unusual in any way was considered ritually impure. Catholics don’t normally think in those terms, but we do often have the same reaction to certain persons and things.
You might have seen the news story that appeared a little over a week ago about the Subway in New York City. A geneticist (evidently, with a lot of spare time), took samples from the trains in the NYC Subway system. He tested the samples to determine their origin. He found human DNA (not surprisingly), but also bubonic plague and a host of other microbes, some of which were unidentifiable.
Anyone who rides the Subway, or who has done so in the past, probably felt their skin crawl as a result of the description of the repulsive things that the geneticist found. How many people, I wonder, considered wearing medical masks and gloves for their next morning’s commute? The logical contradiction involved in those concerns is, of course, that the people who are now afraid to ride the subway are the very same people who left those microbes there.
The repulsiveness of certain persons and things makes us want to push them away. For this reason, the book of Leviticus specifies that a person judged to be “leprous” was required to maintain a distance from other people. (Leviticus 13:46) There is also, however, a logical contradiction about things that are repulsive to us: we want to push them away because they are repulsive, but those repulsive things are us.
Much has been written about the repulsive nature of sin; much of that writing portrays fallen human nature as repulsive to God. I would hasten to point out that fallen human nature is depicted in a very different light in the Gospels. In the miracle in today’s Gospel passage, and throughout the Gospel of Mark, healing (reconciliation), results from a confession of faith. Please note that the leper did not confess his sins; rather, he confessed his belief that Jesus could heal him. He said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” (Mark 1:40) This same pattern holds even in cases where Jesus makes direct reference to the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 2:5)
Jesus responded immediately to the man’s plea. He said, “I do will it. Be made clean.” (Mark 1:41) Let’s, for a moment, consider that Jesus’ words are both a reply to the man’s faith and a revelation of God’s identity. Jesus preached constantly about holiness of life, that is, the Reign of God. Surprisingly, he made sinners and outcasts the focus of his healing miracles. It might seem like a contradiction to us, but Jesus did not push the repulsive away. Rather, he pursued the repulsive in order to heal it. Jesus knew God to be the One who reaches out to us in our sinfulness and selfishness in order to offer us reconciliation and healing.
Mark emphasizes Jesus’ compassion for fallen human nature by explaining to us the personal consequences of this healing miracle for Jesus. The man who had been cleansed “spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly; he remained outside in deserted places.” (Mark 1:45) In effect, Jesus traded places with the leper. Due to his growing reputation Jesus could not go into towns, while the leper’s cure allowed him to return to society.
God does not find fallen human nature to be repulsive. Rather, God knows the extent to which our sins make us repulsive to others and, at the same time, make us consider others to be repulsive. Jesus wanted to heal the man as a reflection of God’s desire to reconcile sinners. Rather than keep a safe distant from the repulsive leper Jesus reached out to touch him. (Mark 1:41)
The religious leaders during Jesus’ ministry failed to understand this truth about the nature of God. Jesus made the repulsive the primary objects of his ministry in order to call unrepentant sinners to conversion. The next time you encounter someone you find to be repulsive, it might be a helpful exercise to ask yourself why you want to push that person away.
If we can be honest with ourselves about the people and experiences we find repulsive, the truth we discover in that honesty might be very surprising. What is it that we really find “icky”? Is it others, or the distance between us and them that results from our lack of repentance and reconciliation?