Lent is drawing ever closer. This last weekend before Ash Wednesday brings us Scriptures relating to the issue of leprosy as we read both from the Book of Leviticus and from the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus meets a leper. Some critical information is necessary if we are to understand these readings.
First of all, leprosy as we know it – or Hansen’s Disease – is something other than the issue discussed in the Book of Leviticus. The first recorded case of Hansen’s Disease does not appear until the fourth century before Christ. Leviticus dates back further. So the sacred writer is addressing a separate issue.
Secondly, the issue of ritual purity or cleanliness is related to the experience of Israel’s exile in Babylon. While Leviticus appears in the Torah or first five books of the Bible, chapters eleven through fifteen of Leviticus were written in response to Israel’s fall from favor in the eyes of the Lord. Ezra the priest had come to the conclusion that the Babylonian captivity was occasioned by the fact that Israel had not heeded the Lord’s commandment “to be holy as I am holy.” Through their disobedience of the covenant Law, they had become unholy or unclean and were no longer worthy to be in the Lord’s presence.
The laws of ritual purity concern themselves with dietary regulations (what enters the body), childbirth (what issues forth from the body of women), leprosy (what fluids are expelled through the skin of the body), and involuntary genital discharges (the fluids that are released by the body). In other words, one is judged as “unclean” by virtue of whether the boundaries of a person’s body are not breached to allow that which is meant to be inside and not outside the body.
The arbiter in this issue is the priest. He determines who is clean and who is unclean. If the person is declared to be “unclean,” he is to dwell outside of the camp so as not to pollute the community itself. This is not a matter of contagion. It is simply a matter of the community remaining “holy as I am holy.”
Dwelling outside the camp (or alone) might not seem that big a deal to those of us who live in the Western World. People of our culture and societal structure view themselves as independent and able “to go it alone.” For people of the Middle East, who view themselves as members of the group or community, living alone would be extremely difficult. While we would simply gather a supply of books and magazines, our CD’s and palm pilots and personal computers to entertain us until the quarantine is lifted, these people would liken such isolation to a virtual death.
So when Jesus appears among them and touches a leper, thereby incurring ritual impurity himself, he is making a bold statement about how to relate to such people. Rather than cutting them off from society, Jesus is accepting them and including them in his outreach. By cleansing the leper he reinstates the person to his rightful place in human society. Notice that Jesus does not invalidate the Law as he sends the person to the priest to be certified as clean. Just the opposite is true. However, by touching the leper he negates the notion that such issues make a person a source of “unholiness.” The disease does not render them or the community as “unclean.”
The Law which developed from the Sinai Covenant erected walls between God and people, between people who were healthy and those who were ill, between Jew and Gentile, between city dwellers and those who lived in the fields (shepherds and farmers). Jesus came among us to tear down those walls. This is simply a logical extension of the content of his preaching ministry through which he announces that “the Kingdom of God is among you.” God is not interested in erecting walls of separation. Through Jesus we have gained access to God. Through Jesus the walls of sin are destroyed, and we can once again call ourselves “God’s holy people.”
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator