Suffering in its rightful place
By: By Father Dominic Garramone, OSB
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Feb. 15
Leviticus 13:1-2,44-46; Psalm 32:1-2,5,11; 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1; Mark 1:40-45
The Book of Leviticus, from which our first Sunday reading is taken, is a collection of regulations and restrictions, many of which deal with ritual purity. Ritual purity is a concept based on the belief that contact with certain foods, substances or activities rendered one unfit for participation in public worship and/or the life of the community. For the Israelites, external purity and cleanliness was a mirror of their intimate relationship with God, so anything that violated that purity separated you from God and therefore from the community, God’s holy people.
There were five categories of substances or activities that caused ritual impurity: blood, sex, death, disease and certain foods. Sometimes the mere passage of time removed ritual impurity; for other forms, ritual washing was prescribed, sometimes requiring just the washing of the hands, and at other times requiring full immersion. More serious forms of ritual impurity might also involve the offering of a sacrifice at the Temple.
The people of Israel considered leprosy among the worst forms of ritual impurity, because they considered it the outward sign of God’s punishment for sins committed. Exactly what condition leprosy referred to is debated.
Generally, most biblical scholars today would agree that leprosy in the Bible and the modern leprosy known as Hansen’s Disease are completely different conditions. It seems “leprosy” was a blanket term referring to various skin ailments, along with mildewing of fabrics and the growth of fungus on the walls of homes.
When the Hebrews were a nomadic people, lepers were forced to live “outside the camp” presumably to avoid infecting others. This practice of isolation continued when the Israelites moved into the Promised Land and began to live in towns and cities. Lepers were forced to live on the outskirts of civilization, cast out of the daily interactions of community and expected to repent for whatever supposed sins were the cause of the leprosy.
Knowing the social and religious background of leprosy in biblical times, we can see that Jesus’ healing of a leper was a radical, even shocking act to his contemporaries: “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.’ The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.” (Mark 2:40-42)
The text is quite specific: Jesus allowed a leper to come near to him — something no observant rabbi would ever do — then reached out and touched the leper to heal him, thereby risking ritual impurity himself.
Jesus’ act of healing was no doubt a relief to the leper, who would have been overjoyed to be freed of a dangerous and painful condition. But even more importantly, Jesus restores the former sufferer to his rightful place within society, ending his isolation from the everyday life and communal worship of his neighbors.
The evangelist Mark recorded this story not only to show us Jesus’ healing power, but to prefigure his even greater work of mercy yet to come: reaching out to heal the painful condition of human sin, restoring us to our rightful place within creation as beloved children of the Father.
This ministry of reconciliation is now ours as members of the Body of Christ, acting as his hand of love reaching out to those isolated by sin, illness, poverty, or suffering, and restoring them to the midst of a loving Christian community.
Father Dominic Garramone, OSB, heads the religion department and serves as drama director at St. Bede Academy in Peru. He is also subprior at St. Bede Abbey.