13 February 2024, The Tablet

Jesus heals the leper – the great saving scandal

B6 | 11 FEBRUARY 2024 | MARK 1:40-45

Those who witnessed Jesus’ enounter with this leper, as well as those who first heard it recounted in this gospel, would have been either astounded or repulsed – or both. But the early Church quickly came to see in this brief episode the very quintessence of its faith in Christ as the world’s saviour. What’s more, it helped to crystallise the Church’s mission of care for the poor and the destitute which, in its turn, gave rise to a distinctively Christian innovation, the hospital. (The Catholic Church is still the largest healthcare provider in the world.)

But, to grasp the impact and implications of this healing miracle, we need to remind ourselves that in the ancient world, and even in the modern world until relatively recently, leprosy carried a uniquely indelible social stigma. Until the discovery in 1873 of the micro-orgnanism that causes leprosy, it was incurable. Lepers were excluded from all social contact, even with their families, and banished to colonies in remote, uninhabited places. In the Roman world, they were the social scapegoats of society, reviled and persecuted, epitomising the disorder and chaos that terrified cultivated Romans.

But in Hebrew culture lepers suffered not only social but also religious and ritual ostracism: leprosy was associated with the sins and the misdeeds of those who suffered from it. Consequently, lepers themselves were deemed to be in some way responsible for their disease. Because they were quite literally decomposing, lepers were regarded as living corpses, and were forced to dress in shrouds, to cover their faces, and to wail like mourners, in order to alert people to their threatening presence.

Only among later Christians did this mindset begin to change, even if it was not eradicated entirely. As a direct result of Jesus’ healing of lepers, early Christians came to see in leprosy a distinctively Christ-like suffering. Banished from society and covered with loathsome sores, lepers were thought to bear the image of Christ more perfectly than the healthy. It was even said of lepers that they brought healing to their carers.

So the significance and consequences of Jesus’ healing this leper were profound: it came to signify the dawning of the kingdom of heaven, the new creation, the bringing of life out of death. It powerfully conveyed that in this new world, this new creation, everything is turned upside down: the powerless become powerful, albeit with a power not their own; the reign of those who exploit power for their own selfish ends is nullified; and the blind, the deaf, and the disabled – all “dead” in the eyes of conventional religion and respectable society – are brought to life. The resurrection, the ultimate reversal, is the final fulfilment of this new creation.

The healing of this leper, then, is a parable of what God has done and will do for all of us. Unlike religion in general, in and through which human beings seek to reach out to God, Christianity is rooted in the belief that God reaches out to us. And he reaches out to us while we are still lepers, not waiting until we have changed or have sorted out our lives or become better. God's love, in other words, like all genuine love, is unconditional: it doesn’t come with ties and conditions. On the contrary, what proves that God loves us, as St Paul says, is that Christ “died for us while we were still sinners” – for “sinners”, read “lepers”.

And there’s a striking coda to this epsiode. Because he’s been healed, the leper returns home, from where he had been excluded. Jesus, on the other hand, we’re pointedly told, “could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived”, nobody except lepers, that is.

The implication is that he heals the leper by taking his place. Now cleansed, the leper can move freely in human society again; but Jesus is obliged to live as if he himself were a leper, outside the city. In other words, Jesus saves us by identifying with us so closely that he takes on himself everything that ails and weakens us. And, eventually he takes upon himself even death, crucified outside the city.

But this is the great saving scandal in which our faith and hope are rooted. In reaching out to and touching the leper, Jesus discloses and reveals God in what is, quite literally, a touching human gesture; and in that simple gesture, he quite literally, re- configures our world and makes possible an entirely new way of being by showing that all humanly fashioned boundaries are ultimately meaningless. He inaugurates nothing less than a new civilisation, founded on each seeking the good of the other and all seeking the common good of all: a civilisation founded on compassion, love, and friendship, historically evidenced by the coming into existence for the first time of hospitals.

This encounter with the leper turns out, then, to be a parable of the Incarnation. Jesus comes to be with us where we are, on the outside, to bring us to where he is, on the inside, enabling us to share the life of God, the life and mutual love of the Blessed Trinity. He was rich, but he became poor, like us, so that we could share the riches of God. He became a leper, in order to heal us of our leprosy, and take us home.

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