Homily for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2018
Leviticus 13:1-2,45-46; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45
A story is told of Protestant man who was the only non-Catholic in a rural town. When he died, of course he could not be buried in a Catholic cemetery; that is how things were done in those days. Out of consideration, however, the Catholic pastor allowed him to be buried right outside the fence of the Catholic cemetery.
Several years later, the daughter of this man returned home and of course she went to put some flowers on her dad’s grave, whose location outside the fence she remembered very well. To her great dismay, she could not find the grave.
Very angry, she stormed into the rectory and gave the pastor a piece of her mind. “Not only did you refuse to bury my father in the cemetery,” she told him, “but even in death you dishonour him by destroying his grave.” She went on and on, for quite a while, as the priest listened patiently.
Finally when she was done, the priest told her: “We did not move the grave of your father; we moved the fence of the cemetery, to include your father’s grave.”
Scripture and Theology
Being on the inside is something we all value. When the leper in the gospel asked Jesus, “if you wish you can make me clean,” he was not only asking to be healed physically of the terrible disease of leprosy, but he was also asking to be readmitted into society.
As we heard in the first reading from the book of Leviticus, the Law of Moses prescribed the ostracizing of lepers. After the priest had confirmed a diagnosis of leprosy, thereafter the sick man would be declared unclean. As the reading said: “The one who bears the sore of leprosy . . . . shall declare himself unclean, . . . He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.”
But why did they treat lepers in this cruel way? Because of the limited medical knowledge and medical resources of the time, this was the only way they knew to protect society from what was a contagious disease. And in fact, it seems that the word leprosy was used to describe all kinds of skin diseases, not just what we know as Hansen's disease. Like we did for Ebola patients a few years ago, they kept lepers outside the community, effectively putting them in quarantine. In fact the word “quarantine” comes from the Italian phrase “ ” which means 40 days. In the Middle Ages, ships coming from countries with the plague were required to remain in port for 40 days before they were allowed to dock and the sailors come on land. Similarly, the Law of Moses regarding lepers was intended to protect the physical health of the community.
But this exclusion went beyond the physical and social separation of the contagious from the rest of society. It was also a psychological and spiritual separation. Like all illnesses, leprosy was considered to be a direct result of sin, a punishment for something they had done. Lepers were therefore excluded from worship and indeed from all activities of society. You might say that this emotional and spiritual exclusion was even worse than the physical exclusion.
Given this dire condition, it should not surprise us that this leper sought Jesus out and cried out "If you wish, you can make me clean." He could not bear the physical, social, psychological and spiritual isolation any more. And in healing the leper therefore, Jesus is not simply healing the man physically; he is also restoring this man to society. That is why he tells the man: “go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them." For although the priest is not medical person, he was responsible for both on the one hand diagnosing and excluding unclean people from society and on the other hand, confirming healing and readmitting them to society.
Especially given what is happening in our society today, as a preacher I am tempted to draw lessons from this gospel, for our own practices of exclusion today. For while we might treat better those afflicted with the actual disease of leprosy or Hansen’s disease, we do have a whole host of our own lepers that we ostracize today: people with AIDS and Ebola, drug addicts and alcoholics, the homeless and pan-handlers, refugees and immigrants, Jews and Muslims, Protestants and Mormons and many others. Our society seems to prefer an “us” vs “them” attitude. But Jesus clearly teaches us that Christians must find ways to invite all God’s children into his Kingdom, even as they protect themselves.
But the lesson that I would like to focus on instead is the fact that each of us here, is a leper in some way. You and me must like the leper go to Jesus and cry out: “If you wish, you can make me clean." Just like for the people of Israel for us too, leprosy is a metaphor for our sinfulness, our human brokenness; we need the healing of Jesus.
On the one hand, like the lepers, we experience being excluded from the Church, from society. Our sins or conditions which are in the public domain exclude us, for example, from receiving Holy Communion. But sometimes, through no fault of our own, but because of our social, economic, and other circumstances, we feel like we are outside the fence, on the other side of the wall.
On the other hand, sometimes we self-exclude ourselves, because our consciences remind us of our sins. Sometimes even we go to confession we come away feeling like we have not really been forgiven and so the next time we go to confession, we feel like we must confess those sins again, even those going back 10, 20, 40, 60 years back. We feel like we are on the outside.
Whether we are excluded by others or by ourselves, Jesus is inviting us back inside the house, through his Word, through his sacraments, but particularly through the sacrament of confession. And to reach that healing, he asks us to do the same two things he asked the leper to do after he had healed.
"Go show yourself to the priests" Jesus told the leper and he tells us too. Like the priest of old confirmed the cleansing of the leper, today's priest, confirms the forgiveness of the sinner. That is why during confession, the priest with the absolution by affirming that “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins.” In other words, he is saying that it is God who forgives. And then he goes on to say: “through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit.” The priest confirms what the Lord does through him and the Church.
The other thing the leper was asked to do was to make the ritual sacrificial offering that Moses had prescribed. Similarly for us, we perform the ritual of the sacrament, which involves three main steps: we examine our consciences fully to see those areas of our lives that are not right with God and are contrite for them; secondly we confess those sins we have unearthed; finally we perform some penance given us by the priest, as a kind of therapy to keep us on the path of righteousness and stop us from straying again.
For four Sundays now we have read from the first chapter of Mark’s gospel. And we have heard Jesus heal all manner of sick people: a man with an unclean spirit, Simon’s mother-in-law’s fever, people with various diseases and demons and now today, a leper. Clearly Mark is telling us in many different ways, that the Lord Jesus wishes to make us well, make us clean, free us from various forms of sin, pain, suffering and uncleanness. He is inviting us to say like we did in the responsorial psalm: "I turn to you Lord, in time of trouble and you fill me with the joy of salvation." The question for you today is: "Do you want to be clean?"