Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :- A distinction seems to be being made between the Old Testament and the New Testament in this weeks readings. In Leviticus (13:1-2.44-46), part of a lengthy teaching on the treatment of those with skin conditions and especially leprosy, the purpose of the regulations was the clear exclusion of the sufferer. It is clear from the rulings that not every skin condition was considered actually leprous and contagious, but the point being made was that the sufferer did not conform to the Levitical ideal of a healthy body; of purity. Such people were deliberately and clearly excluded from the community of Israel and from its worship, until such time as they could demonstrate to the priests that they were healed. This inflicted a severe limitation and cutting off from their families, their means of earning their livelihood and their entire social intercourse. It was a situation to be feared and dreaded. We think of it merely as a hygiene issue and quite understandable, but for ancient peoples it was a nightmare, picked up by the chilling words ‘he must live apart,’ literally, in the Greek, ‘live alone’. It was a chilling exile for the sick person, cut off as they would be from all that was dear to them, all that was familiar, and when we pause to consider that this might befall young and old; children; men and women of all ages, to whom the value of the tribe and the family were vital necessities of life, we get some feeling of its impact.
By way of contrast in our Gospel, (Mark 1:40-45) we find Jesus deliberately smashing through all those Levitical rules and regulations as he embarks on his mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God present in the world in his own being. It is not just that he heals the man with true leprosy; it is the manner in which Jesus approaches this task. First of all we get his reaction, in the Jerusalem Bible ‘feeling sorry for the man’, in Greek, ‘moved with pity’, his guts wrenched at the sight. This is not just some emotional response, though there is that in him, but also the divine compassion in him as Son of God who wills the restoration of all that is damaged and broken in our world. Moreover, Jesus touches the leper. Such is the level of his healing compassion that he does not simply pronounce him healed – which is what the priests will do from the safety and sanitised environment they inhabited. Jesus deliberately touched the man. What a cataclysmic action! God the Son goes out to the needy, and, as the prophet would say, takes our infirmities upon himself. Jesus knows how cruel and isolating, indeed, what a death sentence, a verdict of ‘leprosy’ could be, and he reaches out across that great chasm separating clean and unclean, sinners and righteous. In doing so Jesus himself, by his bodily contact with the sick man, himself becomes unclean, a sinner in his act of total identification and outreach to those in real need of his saving grace. It was an outrage for the religious purists, and one brief action packed chapter later as we see in Mark’s gospel, his enemies will club together in a wholly unlikely alliance to destroy Jesus.
Yet at this point Jesus clearly does not intend his actions to bring such a devastating breach between himself and Judaism, for he instructs the man healed of his leprosy to perform the requirements of the law laid down in Leviticus. He must go to the temple and submit to the scrutiny of the priests and make a sacrificial offering. It appears that it is the healed man who, glorifying God and telling his story and the source of his healing, throws aside the law, thereby bringing to a head Jesus’ relationship with orthodox Judaism.
The picture we have of Jesus here is that he could not do other than the will of his Father, regardless of the consequences to himself. Such was his Kingdom outreach to the world, and it is something each of us is called to emulate. In writing to the Christians of Corinth, (1 Cor 10:31-11:1) Paul will pick up and develop this message in his teaching. The specific problem he is addressing here is that of Christians going to the banquets of pagans when invited. At such events they would be offered meat which had been sacrificially slaughtered in pagan temples as an offering to the gods.
Many from a Jewish background would have found the whole idea of visiting and eating with pagans abhorrent, and converts from paganism to Christianity also clearly had an issue with the eating of such meats. But St Paul, like Jesus is clearly open to being irenic on this issue. The important thing is to work at all times for ‘the glory of God’. Just as Jesus became ritually contaminated by touching and relating to the unclean, so here, too, Paul believed the Corinthian Christian should seize every opportunity to reach out to non Christians – even if this meant that they did not appear as squeaky clean as they might have liked. In great events and small the same surely holds for us too. Our mission is not primarily to save our own souls, for that is in God’s hands; it is our solemn duty to reach out to others in God’s name, following the pattern of Jesus. “Take me for your model, as I take Christ.”