Sunday Reflections

Liberating the unclean

14 February 2021 - 6th Sunday Year B

What is it to be reckoned unclean, untouchable?  Some years ago my son was watching the old movie Ben Hur in which some lepers appeared, and he was shocked to see how they had to live. He’d heard about lepers but never realised if you had a skin condition you were cast out completely. This is the fate of the leper in today’s gospel, who then does the unthinkable and throws himself down before Jesus, pleading to be cured – ‘if you want to’ – to be made clean, so he might be restored to society. ‘Feeling sorry for him’ Jesus reaches out and touches him saying, ‘Of course I want to, be cured.’ And he’s freed.

The transmitting of infection becomes in Jesus’ touch the transmitting of healing, of God’s liberation. Come before him in faith and God happens. There follows a strict warning that he tell no one and immediately report to the priest, as the Mosaic law stipulates in the first reading. Despite this, the man proceeds to tell everyone his good news, so that Jesus now has to live as the leper once did, isolated, far from the towns he had frequented and had to retreat from, previously; but the news travels fast and people come to him from everywhere.    

Who do we reckon to be unclean, untouchable? Who have we discarded, turned away from? It’s only when we face into the truth of our lives that we can enter into this situation. As Jesus does here and at other liberating moments in the early chapters of Mark’s gospel; and it’s what brings him finally to the cross, to the moment where he faces into the truth of all our lives, and frees us.

But what happens if we change two words in the gospel?  If ‘feeling sorry’ becomes ‘getting angry’. That’s what it says in some of the early manuscripts, but it doesn’t necessarily fit with our idea of Jesus. Is he angry at the leper for defying the law, or perhaps, less personally, at the demonic undoing of our lives? Either might make sense, though the second more so. However, what if he’s angry at the likelihood of his being turned into a celebrity healer, whose healings excite the people and threaten to derail his mission?

Is this why he warned the man not to tell anyone and why he retreated from the towns previously? It’s something we hear being spoken of throughout Mark’s gospel, as when Peter insists on Jesus being a certain sort of Messiah – not one who dies on a cross – and Jesus says ‘get behind me Satan’,  because it’s the cross that will reveal him and God’s love. If we insist on Jesus being a celebrity healer, we’ll miss the truth of his life and our own.

Anger and sorrow meet in this gospel and through them we hear the call to act as he does, bringing us, at last, face to face with one another, before God.

Damian Coleridge

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