Let the Scriptures Speak
Who Is a ‘Leper’ Today?
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron,
“If someone has on his skin a scab or pustule or blotch
which appears to be the sore of leprosy,
he shall be brought to Aaron, the priest,
or to one of the priests among his descendants”
First, a necessary note that is both linguistic and clinical: in our Bible translations “leper” has a meaning different from how we define it today. The people ministered by Fr. Damien on the island of Molokai had Hansen's disease; and that is what we commonly call leprosy. In the Bible there is a group of skin diseases called tzaraat characterized by scaling and peeling. The Hebrew word, which Everett Fox leaves untranslated in his English version of Leviticus, refers to that cluster of skin diseases which were thought to render a person ritually polluted. (Leviticus also includes rules for dealing with tzaraat of the walls and tzaraat of textiles and implements.) Persons beset with those skin diseases were instructed to absent themselves from the community, to set themselves apart by dress, and to warn those approaching them with cries of “unclean, unclean.” That people regularly recovered from such diseases is presumed in the Levitical rules that come after those quoted in the First Reading, the very regulations that Jesus alludes to when he tells the healed man to show himself to the priest and to offer for his cleansing what Moses commanded (in Leviticus 14). The translations “leper” and “leprosy” persist in our Bibles apparently because there is no English word that embraces the group of skin diseases mentioned in Leviticus.
The encounter between Jesus and the “leper” in this Sunday’s reading is instructive. First, though the Law commands the man to keep his distance, he dares to approach Jesus. The source of his confidence is expressed in his words: “If you wish, you can make me clean.” He knows that Jesus can mediate healing. It is telling that he asks for “cleansing”—a word that refers to the removal of ritual pollution. For him, to be restored to the worshiping community is as important as to be healed from the discomfort of the skin ailment.
Jesus’ response, Mark tells us, springs from compassion. He stretches out his hand, touches the man, and says, “I do will it. Be made clean.” Notice that this gesture technically puts Jesus in violation of the Torah, for coming in contact with the ritually unclean would render him ritually unclean. Still, because the man's greatest suffering is his exclusion from the community, his status as an “untouchable,” Jesus touches him. What is more, by mandating the healing in terms of ritual purity (“Be cleansed!”), Jesus is taking upon himself the role of the Temple priest. And yet, Jesus is quick to honor another of the Levitical rules by insisting that the healed and cleansed man get checked out by the priest and offer the required sacrifice.
This is a powerful illustration of the way Jesus related to his tradition. He is a Torah-keeping Jew. Always, he affirms the theological and moral vision of the Law of Moses. However, he will sometimes transgress ritual or ceremonial law when meeting a human need calls for it. Thus he eats with the unclean and heals (does “medical work”) on the Sabbath. But these exceptions are always in the service of the essential commandment—love of God and love of neighbor (Mark 12:28-34; Deut 6:4-5; Lev 19:18).
This episode invites us into the life of grace in two powerful ways. We can place ourselves in the sandals of the “untouchable” man and present ourselves to Jesus the healer with the “leper’s” profound confidence in Jesus’ compassion and power to restore us. Or we may be led to acknowledge some “outsider” in our own lives who could use our compassion and readiness to reach out.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
**From Saint Louis University