Sixth Sunday In Ordinary Time
The first reading for this Sunday is from the Book of Leviticus. This is the third book in our Bible. It is also called the Third Book of Moses or the Third Book of the Torah (teaching or law) or the Third Book of the Pentateuch (of the five scrolls). The Hebrew title of a biblical book is taken from its first word or words. The first word of Leviticus is a verbal form meaning, “And he called,” that is, the Lord called Moses. The title Leviticus, derived from the word Levite, indicates its contents. The Levites were set apart by God for divine service. Therefore Leviticus regulates worship, sacrifice, the priesthood, the laws of purification from “uncleanness”, which prevented participation in worship, etc. Uncleanness had to be remedied because of the presence of God among his people. The Lord says in Leviticus 26:11-12, “I will make my abode among you…, and I will walk among you. I will be your God, and you will be my people.”
And that brings us to the laws of segregation for leprosy in Leviticus 13 – the topic of this Sunday's first reading. Leprosy was not restricted to what today is called Hansen’s Disease. Any kind of skin eruption or lesion would have subjected the afflicted person to the laws for leprosy. Among those laws, separation from the community and, in case of the disappearance of the skin problem, the ritual for purification. Thus we hear in the opening words of the first reading, “If someone has on his skin a scab or pustule or blotch which appears to be the sore of leprosy….” A teenager with acne, especially severe forms of it, would have incurred the laws for leprosy. Nor does the Torah restrict this “disease” to humans. Houses and clothing could contract leprosy, probably a form of mold. The reason for the selection of this reading – in today’s gospel Jesus cures a leper.
The Responsorial Psalm, (32), picks up on the suspected connection between disease and sin. As the leper in the gospel turns to Jesus for relief from his disease, so the people’s response speaks of turning to God, “I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.” The Psalmist urges the fulfillment of a condition for attaining the joy of salvation, “I acknowledged my sin to you. I confessed my faults to the Lord, and he took away my guilt.” Confession of sin to God brings about a suppression of the record of the repented sin, as the Psalmist sings, “Blessed is the one whose fault is taken away, whose sin is covered, to whom the Lord does not impute guilt.” In the Old Testament this thought is also expressed in Isaiah 38:17, “You have cast all my sins behind your back,” and 43:25, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will remember your sins no more.” In the New Testament,
Colossians 2:13-14, “Having forgiven us our trespasses, he canceled the bond which stood against us…, set it aside, nailing it to the cross.”
The second reading continues the series of selections from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.
Paul composed this letter about the year 54. He had spent 18 months in Corinth and often had a difficult relationship with his new Greek converts. He returned across the Aegean Sea to Ephesus. There he received letters and personal reports from visitors about the problems of this new Christian Community. Before their Christianization by Paul and others, they had gone to pagan temples to worship their gods and participated in the banquets and sometimes in the sexual immorality that followed upon the banquets. As Paul expressed it, “The people sat down to eat and rose up to play.” The reference was to the golden calf episode in Exodus 32. Paul applies it anew to the participation in pagan worship still engaged in by his new Christians. The meat left over from the temple banquets would later be sold in the public markets. May a Christian eat such meat which had been sacrificed or dedicated to idols? Paul does not strictly forbid it but lays out a practical rule, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God, but avoid giving offense (scandal) to Jews or Greeks or the Christian Community.”
In the gospel the leper’s faith in Jesus compels him to approach Jesus contrary to the laws of Leviticus as we encountered in the first reading, “…he shall keep his garments torn, cover his beard (mouth), and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean! He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” By touching the leper, Jesus would contract ritual uncleanness, but Mark writes, “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and made him clean.” The cure is instant. Strangely Mark writes that Jesus “warned him sternly.” A better translation “threatened him.” Mark’s unusual expression here is so problematic that Matthew and Luke when copying the miracle from Mark’s gospel, omit this expression. Best to apply the implied threat to Jesus’ command which follows.
Jesus does not ignore entirely the laws for leprosy. He says to the former leper, “Tell nothing to anyone,” again the shunning of publicity. Why? Difficult to say, but we know from the gospels that huge crowds overwhelmed Jesus, demanding his attention so that at times he literally had to escape into the countryside for rest or simply out of fear that mob psychology would seize the crowds of people and lead to public unrest. He continues, “…but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed….” The priest represented the community. The law gave him the authority to judge whether the afflicted person could be re-admitted to the community. Disease implied sin. Therefore a type of atonement was necessary. The “price” was steep – two lambs, but for the poor, just one lamb and two turtle doves. For us Catholics, the parallel between the laws for purification from leprosy and our Sacrament of Reconciliation is obvious. See Leviticus 14 for the rituals of purification.