JESUS DOESN’T JUST WISH, HE WILLS TO RESTORE US
Readings: 1st- Lev. 13: 1-2, 44-46); 2nd- 1 Cor. 10: 31-11:1; Gospel- Mk. 1:40-45.
As I read this gospel, I am trying to find out the implications of the healing of the leper in Mark’s gospel. One significant message is the difference between the leper’s request and Jesus’ response. “A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean”. Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean” (Mk. 1:40-41). There are several gestures and actions, together with concomitant statements made in this encounter which could help us see beyond mere physical healing.
The first reading from the book of Leviticus pictures the harsh treatment and conditions of lepers in the Jewish tradition. It reads, “If the man is leprous and unclean, the priest shall declare him unclean by reason of the sore on his head. The one who bears the sore leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, ‘Unclean unclean… He shall dwell apart making his abode outside the camp” (Lev. 13: 44-46). Leprosy is treated as unclean because the sufferers are burdened with thinking that their condition is as a result of divine punishment. Because of its seriousness, it is important to be absolutely sure that the one who bears the marks of leprosy is not suffering from anything that resembles it. Moses said to Aaron, “You must be able to distinguish between what is clean and what is profane” (Lev. 10:10). And once confirmed, the consequences are brutally enormous; sufferers are isolated from family and excluded from worshipping with the community from fear they would contaminate others. They are subjected to public shame, made really unapproachable.
Jesus’ encounter with the leper in the gospel, therefore, sets the tone for total liberation, restoration and integration. The leper gets close to Jesus beyond the Jewish stipulation. He shows desperation, desires to be freed from his physical illness, from mental bondage, stigmatization and from spiritual exclusion. He breaks the boundary set by his deformity. His statement to Jesus is, “If you wish”. “Wish” is a verb of desire which expresses a longing for something. In his case, the leper recognizes his unworthiness. He throws himself down at the feet of the Healer, and begs him. He recognizes that he is unworthy and not qualified by the law to get close to those who are well. Importantly, he recognizes that Jesus can make him whole if he so desires it.
Jesus, on the other hand, takes the leper a step further. His reply is, “I do will it”. The auxiliary verb, “will” is stronger than the request to wish. The verb “to will” plays the same role as the verb “am” which is a form of requirement. That points also to his being; which means it is in the nature of Jesus to heal, to make whole and to restore humanity’s brokenness. Jesus tells the leper, “I am willing”. “I am going to do it”. “I will make you whole”. Legally, Jesus also steps beyond the boundaries of the Jewish stipulations in healing the leper. Hitherto, such person should not get close to others, not even to seek healing. But Jesus “stretched out his hand and touched him”. This man receives healing from Jesus. The expression of touch is a way of restoring him to the community, a way of bridging the physical and spiritual gap, and a way of accepting him as a child of God. It demonstrates Jesus’ ministry of compassion for someone isolated and declared unclean. Jesus’ healing raises the leper’s condition to the dignity meant for God’s children.
Saint Paul reminds us to do everything to the glory of God. He invites us to shun selfishness in the treatment of others, to not seek our own benefit but that of the many. And he concludes in the second reading by saying, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Saint Paul also writes to the Church in Rome, “Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up” (rom. 15:2). He commands us to do things that build others up instead of pulling them down. The Jews in the Old Testament, and I’m sure, those watching Christ and the leper (even in the New Testament), would be shrinking from getting close to him for fear of contamination. They do not imagine the wounds inflicted on the sick man because he is treated as unclean. This is how racism, segregation and division affect others. When we segregate, we destroy the other person. When we segregate, we hurt the body of Christ and the unity of the church. Paul asks us to do three things today:
1). Do everything to the glory of God. Always think of the impact of your action in relation to your faith. How does your relationship and your action towards another person impact the image of God as a loving, compassionate and caring Father? Do you see human beings in compartments- Jews, Greeks, black, white, colored? Does your commitment to one group favor or disfavor another? Do you extend your hand to help another person irrespective of his ethnic, religious or sexual background? Do you consider God’s glory in everything you do to others?
2). Build others up. There are sick people around us. Sometimes, they feel isolated and seen as not worthy before others. Do we treat sick people as the Jews treated the lepers (negatively), or as Jesus treated the single leper in the gospel (positively)? We may not have the healing hands of Jesus, but we can provide temporary healing by giving such persons emotional and spiritual support. We must build the sick up by our compassionate presence.
3). Be imitators of me as I am of Christ. To tell someone to imitate us means we are setting good examples, being role models. We have to be role models in the faith. We have to be role models in love. Christ set us an example, “He loved his own in the world and loved them to the end” (John 13:1); and “God was in Christ reconciling all things to himself, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (Cf. 2 Cor. 5:18). Our strength to ask someone to imitate us lies in setting examples of love. That is what is required of us today. Let our actions and words build others up. Let our actions show acceptance. Jesus has come to restore us to the love of God. He wants us to be agents of restoration and acceptance. The statement is, “I will do it”. Jesus wants us to do it, and to be cleansed of our own uncleanliness of hatred and wickedness, of division and malice. May He make us co-healers of those in need. Amen.