6th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Feb. 15, 2015
Mark 1: 40-45
St. Ursula, Mt. Vernon
“A leper came to Jesus and, kneeling down, begged him and said, ‘If you wish, you can make me clean’” (Mark 1: 40).
This is the last Sunday of OT that we’re going to see until June 14, and the gospel we just read is the last of our sequential readings from St. Mark until then. We’ll jump from the 6th Sunday of OT (today) to the 11th Sunday in June, and our gospels will leap forward from the end of Mark 1, where we are today, to Mark 4. (Don’t be afraid to pull out your Bibles at home and see what we’ll be missing in public.) In the meantime, as we go thru Lent and Easter over the next 13 weeks, and then the feasts of the Holy Trinity and Corpus Christi, we’ll read thematic passages from St. Mark and St. John.
Over the last few Sundays we’ve read from Mark 1, which has been a summary of Jesus’ public ministry. He announces the nearness of God’s kingdom and calls for repentance. He preaches in the synagogs of Galilee, gathers disciples around him, cures illnesses, and drives out demons.
Today a leper approaches him and begs to be cleansed. Note the difference between being cured and being cleansed. That difference has to do with the perception of leprosy—or any other skin disease, such as eczema or even a bad rash—in the ancient world: seen not just as a disease that was feared, loathed, and not understood—like AIDS or Ebola in our time, especially in the undeveloped world—but as a disease that made its victims “unclean” in a moral and religious sense too. The leper was effectively excommunicated—cast out of the Jewish community. If you’ve seen Ben-Hur, you’ll remember the leper colony where Judah eventually finds his mother and sister. That effective excommunication of the afflicted is a treatment too often inflicted in our time on those suffering from AIDS or Ebola, including even disease-free family members of Ebola victims. E.g., a good number of the orphans whom the SDBs are caring for in Liberia and Sierra Leone have been rejected by their extended families and home villages.
So this leper comes to Jesus asking for more than healing; he desires: to be cleansed. Cleansed, he’ll be restored to the community of Israel; will be able again to take part in the life of his family and his people, in daily life and in ritual. That’s why Jesus, having healed him, does something he hasn’t done with other people he’s healed, like Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31) or the possessed man in the synagog (1:21-27). He sends him to show himself to the priest and offer the prescribed sacrifice so that he can be publicly certified as clean and be readmitted to the community of Israel (1:44).
When Jesus sees and hears the leper, Mark says, he’s moved with pity. He has a feeling of compassion from deep inside himself for this suffering human being, and he acts on that compassion, stretching out his hand to touch the leper—which makes Jesus himself unclean in the eyes of the Law—and heals him (1:41).
There, brothers and sisters, you have an image of Jesus’ entire mission, the Son of God’s reason for becoming human and living among us. We are all unclean with sin, unfit to belong to the community of God. But Jesus announces that the kingdom of God has come to us, calling us to repent our sins and believe the good news: “I do will it. Be made clean” (1:41). He has come to touch us, flesh of our flesh, and make us whole; to restore us to God’s family. “Go and show yourself to the priest” now means “Turn to the Church, which touches us today with the priesthood of Jesus in the sacred liturgy.” “Go and show yourself to the priest” in confession and be cleansed of your sins, be reconciled with God and with his people. “Go and offer the sacrifice that Moses prescribed” is for us an invitation, rather, to offer the sacrifice of Jesus, this Holy Eucharist, which makes present right here his body and blood, his passion, death, and resurrection, by which we are saved.
There’s another aspect to this story, too. Jesus is moved with pity for the suffering of a leper, and his compassion moves him to effective action. Thus he sets for us, his followers, an example: we must exercise a similar compassion for the suffering. As he tells the lawyer who was questioning him, after narrating the parable of the Good Samaritan, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
That’s why we’ve seen—and been moved by—Pope Francis washing the feet of prisoners, embracing the sick and the disfigured, visiting refugees on Lampedusa and in Istanbul. (Those refugee kids from Syria and Iraq at Istanbul, by the way, are in the care of the Salesians.) That’s why the Church all over the world, thru Caritas International, Catholic Relief Services, and many religious congregations, is on the front lines to assist the victims of natural disasters, war, sickness, and discrimination, without regard for the religion, race, nationality, or politics of the people in need of the compassion of Jesus. That’s why the Church operates hospitals and schools, is present in refugee camps, and advocates for the disadvantaged people of the world like migrants, immigrants, orphans, Ebola patients, child soldiers, and the victims of human trafficking. That’s why priests and nuns marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr. and hundreds of thousands of Christians march in our time in defense of unborn human beings. That’s why Abp. Oscar Romero, who will soon be beatified as a martyr, and countless other priests, sisters, and lay people have spoken up, and in many instances given their lives, on behalf of the poor and the powerless against greedy and corrupt governments and social systems in places as diverse as Latin America and India. So Jesus teaches us.
And our Holy Father has taken up this theme in a message addressed to us for Lent:
Jesus “is interested in each of us; his love does not allow him to be indifferent to what happens to us.” Oftentimes, when we live a healthy and comfortable lifestyle, “we forget about others.”
“We are unconcerned with their problems, their sufferings and the injustices they endure. ... Our heart grows cold.” This “selfish attitude of indifference has taken on global proportions, to the extent that we can speak of a globalization of indifference.”
“God is not indifferent to our world; he so loves it that he gave his Son for our salvation.” One of the most “urgent challenges” of today’s world, “is precisely the globalization of indifference.” This “globalization of indifference” is a reality that Christians must confront by going outside of themselves.
“If one member suffers, all suffer together,” from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, reminds us of the Church. The love of God breaks through the barriers of indifference we frequently put up.
“But we can only bear witness to what we ourselves have experienced.” The Pope encouraged the faithful to turn to the sacraments during Lent — particularly the Eucharist — in order to better imitate the Lord. During Mass, “we become what we receive: the body of Christ. In this body, there is no room for the indifference that so often seems to possess our hearts.”
Pope Francis concluded his message by praying that, during Lent, each person receive “a heart that is firm and merciful, attentive and generous, a heart that is not closed, indifferent or prey to the globalization of indifference.”
Therefore, sisters and brothers: let the compassion of Jesus touch your heart and lead you to repentance and spiritual healing, and in turn be the compassion of Jesus for people who are suffering today.