SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME [B]
USCCB link to all three readings
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron,
"If someone has on his skin a scab or pustule or blotch
which appears to be the sore of leprosy,
he shall be brought to Aaron, the priest,
or to one of the priests among his descendants.
If the man is leprous and unclean,
the priest shall declare him unclean
by reason of the sore on his head.
"The one who bears the sore of leprosy
shall keep his garments rent and his head bare,
and shall muffle his beard;
he shall cry out, 'Unclean, unclean!'
As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean,
since he is in fact unclean.
He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp."
Last Saturday, during my presentation on the Fourteenth Century at my diocese’s ministerial day, I discussed the Black Plague and the panic it released throughout Europe. I focused on three specific impacts upon the Church: the religious embrace of radical acts of excessive piety, such as the flagellants who whipped themselves constantly; the increasing need for reassurance of grace and an acceleration of the insurance of indulgences and good works to render one’s chances for salvation optimal; and three, the need for scapegoats for the wholesale sufferings of Christians led to intensification of persecution of Jews, a sad moral blot upon the Medieval Church.
At that juncture a student added an interesting insight. Judaism, almost from its beginning, was enlightened on matters of hygiene. I will return to this point in a moment, but the student went on to explain that Jewish life in medieval times, with its practices of washings, avoidance of unnecessary contact with bodily fluids, sewerage disposal, and its burial customs were a deterrent to the fast spread of infectious disease, and Jewish communities—in some places restricted to ghettoes as in the city of Venice (c. 1140 A.D.)—tended to suffer considerable less illness than did Christians, a point that was not lost upon Christians. Anti-Semitic rage was only fueled by the relatively good fortune of their Jewish populations, though intelligence, vigilance, and hard work were the actual reasons for resistance to disease.
The terms “clean and unclean” in the Hebrew Scripture are probably familiar to most readers, but the genesis of the term and the practice of cleanliness is more complicated. In yesterday’s [Monday’s] stream I addressed God’s passionate personal love of the Israelites and his protection of them when they trusted his ways. The Israelites understood at some level that whatever God had commanded them to do—as in this Sunday’s first reading above—was commanded not just as a loyalty test but as a directive for self-preservation given out of love.
All the Ten Commandments have a self-preservation element based upon common sense and, in the case of health, what was understood at the time. Israel was a small tribe, later a small nation. Fertility was a matter of survival, which is why God commanded Israel to avoid idol worship—usually riddled with pagan fertility rites with no power to produce the desired effects. The sixth commandment, likewise, is another way for God to insure the continuing population of his chosen people.
It is true that, from the distance of almost three millennia, portions of the Law appear harsh. The successful novel and film, The Red Tent, describes how the burden of uncleanness fell importunately upon women, with periodic blood flows and child birthing. [Attitudes toward blood, particularly human blood, are quite complex in the ancient world, and Israel was not exempt from outside influences.] In the story of the Good Samaritan, neither the priest nor the Levite stops to bind the wounds of the man beaten by robbers. The instruction of Leviticus in next Sunday’s Mass may strike us as harsh; the poor man with a scab or pustule is hustled out of the camp, a word indicative of the modest population of the time. It is worth noting that per Sunday’s reading a suspicious case is brought to Aaron the priest or one of his successors. The pronouncement of unclean status is a religious act, though the state of uncleanness can be brought about by sin, carelessness, or just plain bad luck.
In its place in Sunday’s liturgy, the text from Leviticus is paired with the end of the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, where an unclean leper pleads with Jesus to heal him. Jesus, moved with pity, heals him on the spot. The work of Jesus here is considerably simplified; there is no examination, no removal from the site, and no follow-up exam and reinstatement. Jesus cures the disease and the uncleanness. It would be wrong, however, to assume that Jesus is sidetracking the Israelite tradition or the Law itself. He commands the healed man to present himself to the [Temple] priest and make the obligatory healing offering. “That will be proof for them.”
Proof of what? Later in the Gospels Jesus will explain that “I have not come to destroy the Law and the Prophets; I have come to bring them to fulfillment.” Jesus has come to combine the best of the Law and the Prophets in his ministry. What he is “proving” is that the long-awaited Kingdom of God or Reign of God is affecting the gift of the Law in ways never dreamed possible. The leper in Mark’s Gospel is cured, not simply because of procedural rectitude, but because he fell to the knees of Jesus and begged for healing with faith. Jesus has come to do the works of his Father and destroy the curse of uncleanness—be it caused by sin, carelessness, or bad luck.
This is the final Sunday of Ordinary Time until the end of May. The observances of Lent, the Triduum, and the Easter Season will begin next Wednesday. We will continue to reflect upon the First Readings of the Sunday liturgies throughout that time.