ordinary time The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

Quarantined No Longer

Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1
Mark 1:40-45

Through the centuries, humankind has been beset by a myriad of illnesses some of which have altered the course of history. For example, in 1348 the so-called Black Death or Bubonic plague first reached Europe from the East. By 1350, more than half the population of the continent had died. Over the next 20 years, the plague reduced the population of the civilized world by 75 percent! In 1918 an epidemic of influenza claimed more than 20,000,000 people worldwide; with more than 548,000 succumbing in the U.S. alone. In the 1940s and 50s, polio swept the world, leaving thousands crippled and maimed in its wake. Nearer to our times, cancers of the lungs, breast, skin, etc., continue to afflict and kill thousands while A.I.D.S. has yet to be completely understood and is far from being controlled. When these and so many other common ailments strike, one of the first reactions is to quarantine the sick so as to protect the healthy. Separated from rest of society, those held in quarantine suffer doubly, first from their illness and then from the isolation. In the ancient world, victims of leprosy knew all too well, this double dose of suffering.

Conquered and controlled only in the twentieth century, Mycobacterium leprae , or Hansen’s disease (as per the scientist who discovered it) was, in effect, a death sentence for those who contracted it. Once it was determined that a person was stricken with sara’at or leprosy, they were, legally obliged to keep their clothes torn, their head bare and to call out the warning, “unclean”, when approached (Leviticus 13:45). Ostracized from their family and neighbors, lepers were made to dwell outside the village or in a separate house (Leviticus 13:45; Numbers 5:2; 12:15; 2 Chronicles 26:21). Many made their homes in caves on the outskirts of towns and villages; all were dependent upon the charity of others for the necessities of life. There is little reason to wonder why those who suffered from this dread disease were referred to as “the living dead.”

However, the term sara’at encompassed more than Hansen’s disease or leprosy per se. Dermatological disorders of every sort, e.g. psoriasis, eczema, impetigo, acne, boils, ulcers, rashes and even dandruff and baldness were so labeled. Unlike leprosy, many of these lesser ailments were curable and the law provided a procedure whereby the afflicted could be reinstated in the community after a lengthy process of purification supervised by the temple clergy. A sampling of the purification process constitutes today’s first reading.

Given the misery that accrued from a judgment of uncleanness and its isolating repercussions, it is not surprising that leprosy became a metaphor for sin. Like the disease which quarantined its victims, sin alienated the sinner from society. However, and as is reflected in the gospel, Jesus behaved in a manner contrary to the social mores of his day. Whereas others would shun both lepers and sinners and relegate them to an existence of suffering separated from acceptable society, Jesus willingly embraced the “living dead.” His ability to heal the leper and restore him to wholeness should be understood an illustration of his power to heal sinners and restore them to holiness. In Jesus’ words and works, humankind is offered a clear message, viz., there is no person, however ravaged by sin or illness who is outside the pale of God’s concern and there is no place, however secular, that is not included in the purview of God’s saving power.

Contemporary believers might be tempted to heave a collective sigh of relief because the challenge of following Jesus’ lead in reaching out and tending to victims of leprosy seems to have been obviated by modern medicine. However, while most of us will never meet a leper or have to contend with this frightening disease, there are other ailments, which can test the authenticity of our Christian commitment. Victims of A.I.D.S. still suffer among us; patients with mental illness and other psychiatric disorders continue to struggle for wholeness. Did Jesus’ policy of refusing to quarantine such individuals die with him or does it continue to be reflected in the ministry of the church? Jesus’ behavior prompts each of us to question the rationale of relegating such victims of illness to sterile hospital wards or isolated hospices. Are fear and discomfort valid excuses for uninvolvement and isolationism? If we continue to prefer the quiet safety of imposed quarantine to the risk of personal contact and caring, then today’s gospel may require a second hearing in our midst.

LEVITICUS 13:1-2, 44-46

In his exposition of Leviticus 13, Nathaniel Micklem, “The Book of Leviticus”, The Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon Press, and Nashville TN: 1953) suggested that Psalm 88 might well be read as the leper’s cry for mercy. Therein the afflicted believer prays: Let my prayer come before you God . . . my couch is among the dead. I am an abomination to my friend; I am imprisoned and I cannot escape. Will you work wonders for the dead, O Lord? Why Lord do you reject me? Companion and neighbor you have taken away from me; my only friend is darkness.” While we cannot know for certain whether a leprous condition prompted this prayer, given what we do know of this dread disease, it is not an unlikely scenario.

Victims of leprosy were quarantined from the community on two counts: (1) fear of contagion and (2) the ritualistic uncleanness which resulted from contact with the diseased. For this reason, the book of Leviticus, which was Israel’s liturgical guide and sourcebook, detailed the measures that must be taken for reinstatement into the active life of the community. According to the rabbis, leprosy in particular was thought to be a direct punishment for serious sins. Although the law presupposed that it could be cured, its healing was said to be as difficult as raising the dead to life.

Today’s first reading represents only a small excerpt from a much lengthier section of Leviticus (13-15) containing legislation on leprosy of the skin, hair, clothing, and houses (mold, mildew) as well as the processes of purification thereof. Notice that the afflicted were not directed to the care of a physician but to the authority of the priests. Our forebears in the faith were not shunning science or the medical profession; rather, because they believed that illness resulted from corrupted morals and not from bacteria or viruses, they sought a healing that was spiritually rather than physically oriented. To that end, they were willing to submit to an oftentimes lengthy and tedious process of personal purification accompanied by sacrificial offerings. At each phase of the process, the priest was consulted; only upon his approval, would the process proceed.

Considering the lengths to which our ancient ancestors would go to receive official approval for full liturgical participation, contemporary believers might be prompted to evaluate their own preparedness for worship. While physical imperfections, disease and/or handicaps pose no threat to full participation, believers are to recognize and readily admit to sinfulness, embrace the forgiveness that has been afforded through the cross of Christ and live lives that are continually rehabilitated and purified by grace.

1 CORINTHIANS 10:31-11:1

One evening, after a brilliant performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, conductor Arturo Toscanini found himself facing a crowd gone wild. They applauded, whistled, stamped their feet and nearly deafened him with shouts of Bravo! Bravo! Toscanini bowed repeatedly and then turned to acknowledge the artistry of the orchestra. With a breathlessness in his hushed voice, he leaned in close and said, “Gentlemen! Gentlemen! I am nothing!” This was an extraordinary admission, given his enormous ego. Then the great conductor added, “Gentlemen, you are nothing.” They had heard that same message countless times during rehearsal. “But Beethoven”, said Toscanini with a tone of adoration in his voice, “Beethoven is everything, everything, everything!” Centuries before Beethoven and Toscanini, Paul had come to the same realization as regards Jesus. Christ was “everything, everything, everything” for the great apostle to the gentiles and he, for his part wished to share his experience of and relationship with Christ with everyone he met.

In today’s second reading, Paul was trying to convince his Corinthian converts of the supreme importance of Christ in their lives. Part of a longer section of his correspondence in which he argued against the Corinthian penchant for self-centered licentiousness, this text affirms the believer’s need for and dependence upon Christ. Whereas, some in the Corinthian community chose to live by the slogan “all things are lawful for me” (10:23) and used their freedoms to eat and drink whatever they chose (including food sacrificed to idols), Paul recommended another slogan and way of life, “whether you eat or drink -- whatever you do-- do everything for the glory of God” (10:31). As Richard B. Hays (First Corinthians, John Knox Press, Louisville KY: 1997) has explained, Paul was trying to move his readers from an anthropocentric view to a theocentric one, from an emphasis on rights to an emphasis or obedience and service. Eating, drinking and all other activities are embraced by this comprehensive mandate. In light of Paul’s wise counsel, we can infer that the glory of God is served when God’s people serve one another and live in loving unity.

In serving one another for the purpose of glorifying God, Paul encourages his readers to avoid giving offense and to try to please everyone in every way (vv. 32-33). Anyone who has ever attempted to live the life of Christ within the context of a multi-cultural, pluralistic and diverse community of individuals will readily admit that this is no mean feat. Nor did Paul underestimate the challenge he proffered to believers. For Paul, Christ was everything, everything, everything. He who was God became man, he who was goodness and holiness became sin for us. He who was light and life emptied himself and took on the darkness of sin and death, “not seeking his own advantage but that of the many that they may be saved” (v. 23). So conformed to Christ was Paul that he too was willing to be emptied, surrendered and sacrificed so as to be like Christ in all things, viz., a man for others.

Therefore, Paul could readily offer himself as a model for all his readers, then and now, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (11:1) (see also Philippians 3:17; 14:9; Galatians 4:12; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9). How many of us could similarly recommend ourselves to others? How many of us have so integrated the faith we profess with the words we speak and the works we do that we are able to offer ourselves as exemplars to others? Only when we can claim with authentic conviction that Christ is everything, everything, everything, will such a recommendation become possible.

MARK 1:40-45

Had it been any other rabbi in Galilee that day, the leper featured in today’s gospel would probably have fared quite differently. With a daring that may have been prompted by his frustration with his illness, despair at the circumstances of his life and/or the rumors that were floating around concerning the carpenter from Nazareth, he approached Jesus. The leper dared to ignore the law’s strict rules of quarantine that separated him from the rest of society. He dared to hope that Jesus might behave in a similarly iconoclastic manner by allowing him to draw near to him despite the resulting condition of uncleanness that would affect them both.

With a daring hope fueled by faith, the leper put his case before Jesus. “If you will…you can cure me” (v. 40). Another rabbi may have deferred the challenge and directed the leper to submit to the lengthy process of purification, prayer, sacrifice and repeated inspection by the clergy (see Leviticus 13:14). Another rabbi may have vented his anger at the audacity of the man whose unclean presence threatened his own purity and ability to perform his priestly duties. Not so with Jesus. With little regard for the rules of ritual purity and with great concern for the suffering of the leper, he breached the quarantine society had imposed and made the man whole.

As Jerome H. Neyrey (The Social World of Luke-Acts, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody MA: 1991) has explained, in all societies, there are special people authorized to “cross the line” and deal with the unclean of that society: police engage criminals, doctors treat the diseased, ministers deal with sinners, etc. These special people might be called “limit breakers”. Jesus was officially designated by God as just such an agent. He did not cross those lines because he belonged to the world of the unclean nor did he become unclean by contact with them. Rather, he had the power to heal, and to make whole and holy, all who were unclean, both by virtue of disease and by virtue of human sin.

Because he allowed the outcast and the forsaken to approach him and because he made a point of seeking them out, Jesus was frequently criticized by the upright of citizens and religious authorities of his day. “See, this man talks with sinners and eats with them”, they sniped (Mark 2:16). Nevertheless, Jesus exercised his prerogative as messiah to redraw and redefine the traditional barriers which separated people from one another and from God. Through his saving words and works, Jesus established a new set of standards based not on race, ritual or tradition but on faith, love and forgiveness.

Was the narrow-mindedness of his contemporaries the reason why Jesus was so moved on behalf of the leper? Although the NAB, NJB and the NRSV translate the Greek word, splagchnizomai as “moved with pity”, the RSV is more correct in its rendering, “moved to anger.” Literally, this very strong term refers to having one’s intestines turn! It is hard to imagine that Jesus was angry with the leper; perhaps his feelings were stirred by the presence of evil. Recall that illnesses in the Bible, were generally attributed to demons. Throughout Mark’s gospel, the popular belief in demon-caused maladies is evident; consequently, Jesus’ ministry is portrayed as an ongoing battle with the forces and effects of evil. This would also explain the rather strange statement in verse 43: “Jesus gave him a stern warning and set him on his way.” Stern warning is the translation of a technical Semitic term for the exorcising of demons.

Jesus’ stern warning, “not a word to anyone now” also furthers the Marcan literary technique known as the “messianic secret.” Stern warnings notwithstanding, the healed man could not be quiet any more than the good news of salvation could be silenced. On the contrary, he freely proclaimed his story (literally, the word or logos). Laden with catechetical overtones, the verb to proclaim or keryssein became the technical term, i.e. kerygma for the preaching of the gospel in the early church.

As we hear the story of the leper proclaimed among us today, we are invited to see in his encounter with Jesus, the paradigmatic experience of every believer. Baptized into Christ and thus cleansed of sin and freed from the finality of death, we have been forever released from the quarantine of separation, isolation and alienation. Healed and graced by Jesus, we, like the leper are each compelled to tell our story, making public the good news that God saves sinners and welcomes them home.

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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