The Leprosy-Sin Analogue

And other commentary on Readings for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

The First Reading and Gospel for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, focus on leprosy. The reading from Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46 (one of the few times that Old Testament book appears in the Lectionary) prescribes procedures for determining if one is a leper and how he was to conduct himself if he is. The Gospel (Mk 1:40-45) recounts a leper who seeks healing from Jesus. Jesus heals him, instructing him to adhere to the prescriptions in Leviticus (14:1-32, not in the reading) regarding healing from skin diseases. Jesus also unsuccessfully enjoins the man not to publicize His role in his healing; the ensuing publicity encumbers Jesus’ public ministry.

The Second Reading (I Cor 10:31-11:1), in keeping with a continual reading of the Pauline corpus independently of the other readings, speaks of Paul trying to be all things to all people — specifically by “not giving offense” — in order to bring them to Christ. He calls on his listeners to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

Let us reflect on these readings in light of contemporary circumstances.

In the Bible, leprosy is a symbol of sin. As Fr. Paul Scalia remarked, leprosy was a living death; the leper’s skin was already physically decomposing even while he was alive, not unlike the sinner dead to sin while feigning life. For us Christians, the leprosy-sin analogue is something with which we are familiar. The Jewish and Christian tradition teaches that sickness and death are consequences of sin. They may not have a one-to-one correlation (as Job’s “comforters” attempted to prove) but, for the Judeo-Christian tradition, the broad lines are there. Sin is fundamentally a disruption and disintegration of relationships: with God, one’s fellow man, even one’s self. We are internally divided, with emotions blindly pulling often towards pleasure alongside an intellect confused but, even when certain, at war with a will that wants to “do it my way.” Yates’s observation — “things fall apart/the center cannot hold” — is first of all true of man after the fall.

But we should not forget how alien that insight may ring to the contemporary world. Lepers, after all, are no greater sinners than the 18 victims of a collapsing tower in Siloam (Lk 13:4); shouldn’t they rather be subjects of our concern? Aren’t we double victimizing them by associating their pathology — something seemingly not in their control — with moral evil that is?

Now, I don’t blame lepers. I only want to flag that the basic Biblical nexus between the universal sinfulness of human beings and the disintegrative consequences that befall them — including sickness and death — have some connection. That is not to say “sin A leads to sickness B.” But it is also not to pretend that man’s disintegration, even on the physical level, has nothing to do with the prior disintegration of his relationship to God.

That non-judgmentalism finds expression today. The Centers for Disease Control warned recently about an uptick in syphilis, including among babies who acquire it through parents. That is not to attribute any guilt to those children. But it does recognize that moral choices — most venereal diseases also have some correlation with morally evil choices [see here] — can also have physical impact, even on others.

Further, Jesus’ injunction against disclosing His involvement in the leper’s cure deserves attention. Jesus cures the man but He also prescribes that the man observe the Law — the Law God revealed to Moses — to certify his cleansing and express his thanksgiving. (Remember when Jesus asks where are the nine Jewish lepers when only the healed Samaritan one returns to thank Him?)

Jesus does not want the man “evangelizing” for Him. Jesus repeatedly imposes His “Messianic Secret” — don’t talk about me — in Mark’s Gospel, even on His Apostles (e.g., on the way down from the Mount of the Transfiguration). It’s precisely because of today’s outcome. Historic Israel had expectations of its Messiah: a victor who would throw out the occupying Romans and restore Israel to the top of the heap. The Israel of Jesus’ contemporaries had expectations of Him: miracle healer. Neither set of expectations (as well as the Apostles’ skewed expectations about their own prominence on the day of judgment) were Jesus’. He eventually lifts the Messianic Secret, telling the Apostles to go into the whole world to proclaim Him. But that happens only after His Passion, Death, and Resurrection, when it is now impossible to speak of Jesus without taking His Good Friday kingship into account. That’s still in the future for this leper and Jesus’ other interlocutors, who enjoy bread and healings. They’re not bad. They’ve just got limited vision.

The paradox here is that Jesus, who “went out to the peripheries” by touching the leper (cf. Lv 5:2-6) and thereby restores him to the community from outside the camp is the one who “now remained outside in deserted places” because His reputation for healing made it “impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.”

St. Paul’s comments on not causing scandal seem relevant to our day. Paul does not want his listeners to “avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or the Greeks or the church of God” in order to accommodate them or their mores, but because giving scandal is a bad thing. Here Paul is speaking of real, moral scandal. Earlier, in his reproaches to the Corinthian community, he singles out the scandal of a man publicly known to be living in an incestuous union with his mother (I Cor 5:1-5), behavior “even pagans do not tolerate.” Paul is quite unwilling to give scandal to others regarding things that are really scandalous, i.e., which are the Church’s teaching, properly understood (and not as wrongly understood by, say, a local church like Corinth or Germany). Paul also does not want to “scandalize” those whose faith could be undermined by or amidst confusing or ambiguous behavior or situations, even if there is some way of interpreting that behavior or situation in line with the Gospel, e.g., eating meat previously offered to idols (see I Cor 8:4-6, 9-13). Paul does not dismiss those scandalized as a “special case” but rather recognizes the scandal as sinning against Christ (v. 12, and certainly not being an “imitator” of Christ).

But Paul is quite willing to give “scandal” to others — even boasts of it — when the matter at stake is “scandalous” not by the thinking of the Church but only by the standards of the mindset of his times. He happily promotes the “scandal” of Jesus Christ crucified, stumbling block to Jews and absurdity to Gentiles according to the “wisdom” of their Zeitgeist (see I Cor 1:23).

Perhaps we should draw some lessons.

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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