Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year B

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Paul W. Galetto, O.S.A.
Church of Our Mother of Good Counsel
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania

Readings
Lv 13:1-2, 44-46
Ps 32:1-2, 5, 11
1 Cor 10:31–11:1
Mk 1:40-45

At the time today’s first reading from the Book of Leviticus was written, people were ignorant about the cause and cure of leprosy, but they did know one thing and that was the devastating impact the disease had on the society of the Jewish people. It is for this reason that the Levites (who were the lawgivers of the people) applied such harsh measures and ostracized those afflicted with this disease; they were afraid of these people and wanted nothing to do with them. We are a bit more fortunate and knowledgeable than our biblical ancestors. Leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease) stems from a bacterial infection that is normally transmitted by extensive contact with another person. About 95% of the people who contract the bacteria do not develop the disease. Today leprosy is cured with a multi-drug therapy. Now it is possible for people who have leprosy to live with their families and go to school and work. In 2018 there were 209,000 cases of leprosy worldwide down from 5.2 million cases in the 1980s. Besides pink blotches on the body, one of the signs of leprosy is nerve damage or numbness – the inability to feel pain. Leprosy is more likely to be found where poverty and malnutrition prevail. Eighty percent of cases of leprosy come from three countries: India (60%), Brazil (13%) and Indonesia (8%). In the United States there are between 150 to 250 cases per year.

The story in today’s Gospel takes place in the very first days of the ministry of Jesus. As we have heard in the previous Sundays’ Gospels, Jesus has just four named disciples at this point: Peter, Andrew, James and John. He is giving them a first-hand lesson in the kind of ministry he wants them to follow. Imagine what the scene must have been like. Jesus and the four disciples (who are just entering adulthood) are walking along the road talking, joking, and filling the time and space with some aimless chatter. I’m sure there were some serious questions and answers as well, but their conversation must have included their complaints about the work of being fishermen and how tough it must have been. I imagine Jesus is looking for an opportunity to have them focus less on themselves and their problems and more on the needs of others especially those with serious issues. In the distance they hear clanging; immediately they know what this means. Next, they hear the voice of the one crying out: “Unclean, unclean.” The young men want to turn around and go the other way, but Jesus will not be deterred. The society in which these new disciples grew up made them prejudice to the situation. Jesus sees an opportunity to teach his novice followers what he wants of them and all who come after them.

The five of them encounter this lone leper. At first the leper is as scared as the disciples are. He has been looking for Jesus, but he never thought he would see him this soon and in this way. He had heard of the other miracles and became a person of hope on his way to becoming a believer. He did not know immediately that it was Jesus but the leper reasoned that if this man had the courage not to run or avoid him (as everyone else did) he must be Jesus, the one he sought. Tentatively the leper approaches and kneels saying in a faith-filled way: “If you want, you can heal me.” The leper believes! This belief fills Jesus with pity, with mercy. Jesus now does the most extraordinary thing – he reaches out to touch the leper. I’m sure the impetuous Peter must have screamed: NOOOOOOOOOO! DON’T TOUCH HIM!! WHAT ARE YOU DOING???? But before he could stop Jesus, the deed is done. Peter went from shock to amazement. Immediately the man was cured. What had he just witnessed? What had he and the other three disciples just learned?

The lesson for Peter, Andrew, James and John is the lesson for us. We are probably not going to meet any physical lepers in our lives, but we are going to encounter many emotional, social, and economic lepers – the poor, the elderly, the unemployed, the homeless, the addicted, the social outcast, people of another race or religion. There is something about us that thinks they are unclean, but we are mistaken. In some ways we are as ignorant as the Levites who wrote today’s first reading, and that ignorance stops us from doing what our call to discipleship demands of us. We are not living out our call to be followers of Jesus if we are indifferent to the pain and suffering of others; if we run the other way when we encounter people in need of healing. Many times, we make excuses to keep ourselves separate from these modern-day lepers. We must have the courage of Jesus to reach out and touch those in need when and where we can.

Knowing that one of the symptoms of leprosy is numbness – the inability to feel pain, I wonder sometimes if we are not the ones who need to be cured. Poverty is one of the contributing factors in the spread of leprosy. Are we poor in mercy and compassion and therefore making ourselves vulnerable to becoming outcasts in our own community? Maybe the lepers can be found by looking in the mirror.

On this Valentine’s Day weekend, we are called to love. Let us expand our circle and our world and reach out to touch those who need to feel love, compassion, reconciliation, and healing. We will be faithful to our calling to be disciples of Jesus if we do.