Jesus shows us how to touch the untouchable, to love the unlovable. This moment in the Gospel, when Jesus cleanses the leper, has inspired countless saintly Christians to make a sacrifice of not just their stuff, but to make a gift of themselves to serve the poorest of the poor. I think of St. Damien of Molokai, who even when to the point of disobedience to his superiors in order to serve those relegated to the leper colony in Hawaii in the 1800’s, contracting the disease himself. Or of St. Mother Teresa of Kolkata, whose life became about meeting Jesus Christ in the poor and the dying in the gutters of India. No doubt Jesus has taught many, and continues to teach you and me, how to risk everything to love those most difficult to love.
But, strange as it might seem, that may not be what this Gospel passage is really about.
This Gospel is about God’s desire to bring His people back into right worship. Because remember, we become like who we worship. And if we’re unable to worship God, or refuse to, we’ll worship anything else and pass away just like those idols we build.
First, we have to dive into Jesus’ reactions to this leper. We hear that Jesus was “moved with pity.” This rich word in the Greek is σπλαγχνισθεὶς (splanchnistheis), which literally means an emotional churning of the gut. Jesus feels this at the center of His being. But there is a serious textual question about the use of this particular term. There is a slight possibility that the original word used for this story is actually, οργισθείς (orgistheis), which means to be made angry. Some scholars believe this to be the original reading of the story, and it actually makes some sense. It fits in with some of the other details hidden beneath our softening English translation. For one, when Jesus “warns him sternly” and “sends him away,” the verbs are ἐμβριμησάμενος (embrimesamenos) and ἐξέβαλεν (exebalen). Literally, this could be translated as, “Snorting at him like a horse, he immediately cast him away.” And this casting away is the same word used for when Jesus exorcises demons and kicks people out of the Temple area for buying and selling and making it into “a den of thieves.” This is not the gentlest image of Jesus!
So I’m not saying Jesus isn’t being compassionate. But He most certainly is being passionate. What could He possibly be angry at? Well, it’s not the Temple purity system. He sends the former leper off to the priest to fulfill the sacrifices of that purity system. Maybe it’s the disease itself that has left the man an outcast from his home and from his ability to worship God in the Temple. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus is actually angry at this man. This kind of passion would not be without precedent in Mark’s Gospel. Note, Jesus commands the former leper to tell no one, but to go to the priest and offer the necessary sacrifice for his purification and to enter back into the worship of Israel in the Temple. But instead, not without good reason, he goes off and publicizes everything Jesus has just done. And what’s worse, now Jesus has to take on the role of the leper, confined to the deserted places outside of town. Jesus cleanses the leper, and takes on the role of the leper!
What Jesus seems to care about the most in the story is right worship—casting out the source of impurity that would keep this man isolated and would endanger his whole people. It seems we’ve been mistaken for centuries about what this man we really suffering from. We call it leprosy, with images of bandages and limbs falling of one’s body—a real affliction we call Hansen’s Disease. But as we read from Leviticus 13, this is not what the priests were concerned with when it came to issues of ritual purity. These simply are not the symptoms that cause ritual impurity. It seems to be something somewhat less life-threatening—at least in the physical sense. What Leviticus was really concerned about was a disease we can’t really define, but that still resembled something like death creeping out through the skin. And that’s what it all came down to—death encroaching upon life.
To understand the purification system of ancient Israel, one must understand that the God of life desires to live among His people. But should death begin to encroach on His sacred space, He would no longer abide with them. So anything that caused this ritual impurity was typically more dangerous for the sacred space than it was for the physical health of the people who bore the impurity. Impurity was not in itself sinful. It was actually often something that was a normal part of the rhythms of life and death—childbirth, menstruation, other bodily discharges, and death itself. It only would become moral impurity, or sin, if the person bearing it brought it with them into the holy place. So the whole purity system was not some legalistic wall built up around worship to keep out the unworthy. It was an act of compassion.
As Matthew Thiessen writes in his book, “Jesus and the Forces of Death”:
I would suggest, though, that compassion animates the Jewish purity system; it was a protective and benevolent system intended to preserve God’s presence among his people, a presence that could be of considerable danger to humans if they approached God wrongly…Access to sacred space was heavily restricted, not out of a lack of compassion but out of the belief that this holy God not only was merciful and loving but also was a powerful force that could be dangerous…If impurities were to accumulate in God’s dwelling, God would be forced to abandon it. When Israelites allowed impurities to build up in the tent or temple, they suffered the consequences. The boundaries around the tent or temple functioned to protect both the inside (God’s presence) and the outside (any Israelite in a state of impurity) from the results of impure forces. // Matthew Thiessen, “Jesus and the Forces of Death”
So the purity system that kept this leper from the Gospel outside of the town, and which would eventually symbolically force Jesus out into the desert, was an act of compassion, not an act of exclusion. Approaching God with impurity was sinful, because it put the whole community at risk of losing God’s presence. But something changed when Jesus, God Himself, began to literally touch the sources of impurity. His healing touch is more contagious than the sources of impurity.
All of which means we encounter a passionate, if not “compassionate” Jesus in the Gospel, who desires that we enter into worship, that we be forgiven, that we forgive others and become sources of healing and forgiveness, more than we desire it.
So I am often drawn to St. Faustina’s experience of God’s greater desire that we come to Him:
Once, I desired very much to receive Holy Communion, but I had a certain doubt, and I did not go. I suffered greatly because of this. It seemed to me that my heart would burst from the pain. When I set about my work, my heart full of bitterness, Jesus suddenly stood by me and said, My daughter, do not omit Holy Communion unless you know well that your fall was serious; apart from this, no doubt must stop you from uniting yourself with Me in the mystery of My love. Your minor faults will disappear in My love like a piece of straw thrown into a great furnace. Know that you grieve Me much when you fail to receive Me in Holy Communion. // Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul.
Approaching God has become different now that God has approached us. And because He desires more than we do, infinitely more so, that we can approach Him, He has given us the Sacraments to make our hearts ready for His arrival.