Commentary: 6th Sunday Year B

First Reading: Leviticus 13:1–2, 44–46

  1. Leprosy Laws: lepers brought “to Aaron the priest” or “his sons the priests” (13:1-2)
  2. Priestly Judgement: the priest shall “pronounce” the man “unclean” (13:44)
  3. Separation from Community: the leper shall cry “unclean” and “dwell alone” (13:45-6)

The Church has chosen a very brief selection that really helps bring to life what it would’ve been like in the Old Testament times, or the time of Jesus, to be a person with leprosy… they provide the necessary background for understanding Jesus’ response to the man who had had leprosy.

Q. What do you think it would have been like to be a leper in Old Testament times? Have you ever experienced an illness or infirmity that caused you to be “quarantined” from others? What was that like, and what light does it shed on the effects of sin?

Psalm: Psalm 32:1–2, 5, 11

The Responsorial Psalm, which is about confession and the joy of forgiveness, is provided today to help us see the spiritual symbolism of leprosy and go beyond the skin disease to see what is really at the heart of Jesus’ healing miracle today.

The ancient Church Fathers commonly used leprosy in the Old Testament as a “kind of visible outward sign that symbolized the spiritual reality of sin. In other words, leprosy can kill you, leprosy makes you sick, physically. Well, what does sin do spiritually? It makes you sick and spiritually it is deadly, it can kill you. Leprosy separates you from other people, right, separates you from the worship of God; it separates you from the community. Well, what does sin do? Sin divides us. It separates us from God and it separates us from our neighbour” (Dr. Pitre).

Old Testament type of sacrament of Confession — we need to go to a priest to be declared clean.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1
Gospel: Mark 1:40–45
40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him,

Leprosy described:

There are debates about whether the leprosy in the Bible applies broadly to any skin disease or whether it’s the same as what today is known as Hansen’s disease. Since the book of Leviticus gives regulations for what to do if your leprosy is cured, it seems to apply more broadly. Leprosy is like being the walking dead. Leprosy begins with an unaccountable lethargy and pains in the joints. Then there appear on the body, especially on the back, symmetrical discoloured patches with pink and brown nodules and the skin becomes thickened. Gradually the symptoms move to the face and the nodules gather especially in the folds of the cheek, the nose, the lips, and the forehead. The whole appearance of the face is changed till a person loses his human appearance and looks more like a lion. The nodules grow larger and larger and they begin to ulcerate, and from them comes a foul discharge of pus. The eyebrows fall out and the eyes become staring. The voice becomes hoarse and the breath wheezes because of the ulceration of the vocal cords. Eventually the whole body becomes involved. Discoloured patches and blisters appear everywhere. The muscles waste away; the tendons contract until the hands look more like claws. Next comes the progressive loss of fingers and toes until a whole hand or foot may drop off. It is a kind of a terrible and slow, progressive death of the body. The disease may last from ten to thirty years and ends in mental decay, coma, then finally death. Yet this was not all. The lepers had to bear not only the physical torment of the disease, but also the mental anguish and heartache of being completely banished from society. They were forced to live outside of town in leper areas. Everyone they knew and loved was lost to them and could only be seen from a distance. In the middle ages, when people were diagnosed with leprosy, they were brought to the Church and the priest read the burial service over them, for in effect they were already dead, though still alive. ~ William Barclay, Msgr. Pope, Brant Pitre

“If you choose, you can make me clean.”

What about us spiritual lepers? How are we to find healing? Today’s Gospel suggests four steps to find healing from the spiritual leprosy of sin:  Admit the reality — the man knows he is a leper; he knows he needs healing. Do we know our sin? All of us are loaded with sin. We can be thin-skinned, egotistical, unforgiving, unloving, unkind, mean-spirited, selfish, greedy, stingy, lustful, jealous, envious, bitter, ungrateful, smug, superior, angry, vengeful, aggressive, unspiritual, and un-prayerful. Even if everything on that list doesn’t apply to you, certainly many of them do, at least at times. And that list isn’t even complete! We are sinners with a capital S and we need serious help. ~ Msgr. Pope

In light of the Old Testament story of Naaman, the Syrian — in 2 Kings 5 — the king of Israel replies that only God can cure leprosy (2 Kings 5:7).

41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!

Jesus is moved with pity The English word “pity,” though often considered condescending, comes from that Latin pietas, which refers to familial love. Jesus sees this man as a brother and reaches out to him in that way. Jesus’ touching of the leper was an unthinkable action at that time; no one would venture near a leper let alone touch one. Lepers were required to live outside of town, typically in nearby caves. But Jesus is God and He loves this man; in His humanity, He sees this leper as a brother. ~ Msgr. Pope

Origen of Alexandria: And why did [Jesus] touch him, since the law forbade the touching of a leper? He touched him to show that “all things are clean to the clean” (Titus 1:15). Because the filth that is in one person does not adhere to others, nor does external uncleanness defile the clean of heart. So he touches him in his untouchability, that he might instruct us in humility; that he might each us that we should despise no one, or abhor them, or regard them as pitiable, because of some wound of their body or some blemish… So, stretching forth his hand to touch, the leprosy immediately departs… Let us consider here, beloved, if there be anyone here that has the taint of leprosy in his soul, or the contamination of guilt in his heart? If he has, instantly adoring God, let him say: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” (Origen, The Healing of the Leper; translation in T. C. Oden and C. A. Hall, Mark, p. 26).

John Chrysostom: He touched the leper to signify that he heals not as servant but as Lord. For the leprosy did not defile his hand, but his holy hand cleansed the leprous body. (John Chrysostom, The Gospel of St. Matthew, 25.2; trans. in NPNF1, 10:173).

42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

Jesus has “immediate” power of leprosy.

43 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44 saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone;

The Messianic secret emerges here again. The reason is made clear later in the passage. Jesus did not want His mission turned into a magic show at which people gathered to watch miracles occur and see “signs and wonders.” This man’s inability to remain silent means that Jesus can no longer enter a town openly and that many will seek Him for secondary reasons. ~ Msgr. Pope

but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.

Two of the duties of the priests in the Old Testament were to recognize leprosy (from other ailments and to declare banishment from the community if leprosy is contracted) and to instruct those who were cured of leprosy of how they could enter back into the community and temple worship through offering certain sacrifices.

“Two birds would be offered, one would be sacrificed and one would be let free, kind of like the scapegoats in the book of Leviticus. And then also, two lambs would be offered as a sacrifice. And then also when that took place, the person who was healed would wash themselves, wash their clothing, and then after offering the sacrifice, they would be reinstated into the community” (Dr. Pitre).

Jesus wants the man to be formally re-integrated into the Temple and the community by virtue of a public testimony from the official Temple priest. This shows how Jewish Jesus really was — He was obedient to the Jewish Torah.

“Of course this is a metaphor for sacramental confession. What does the priest do in a sacramental confession? He assesses a person’s spiritual condition. If he sees God’s healing mercy at work in the person’s repentance, he reconciles him. In the case of a serious sinner who repents, the priest readmits him into the full communion of the Church. It is God who forgives, but He ministers through the priest. To us spiritual lepers, the Lord gives the same instruction: go, show yourself to the priest …” In other words, “Go to confession.” The Lord tells us that we should offer for our cleansing what is prescribed. That is to say, we should offer our penance. Why should the leper bother to do that? After all, the Lord has already healed him. To this we can only answer, “Do what Jesus says: show yourself to the priest and offer your penance.” It is true that God can forgive directly, but it is clear enough from this passage that confession is to be a part of the believer’s life, especially in the case of serious sin.” ~ Msgr. Pope

45 But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

Announce the result — When God heals you, you feel that you have to tell someone. There’s just something about joy that can’t be hidden—and people notice when you’ve been changed. Hence it is clear that we need to shout what the Lord has done for us and give Him all the glory. When God acts in your life, there is joy that cannot be hidden or suppressed. If our healing is real, we cannot remain silent. To quote Jesus at a later point (when the Temple leaders told Him to silence His disciples), I tell you, if they keep quiet, the very rocks will cry out (Lk 19:40). ~ Msgr. Pope

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