One of the themes that emerge from this week’s readings is the importance of communion, that is: the role of the Church in not only embracing all people in brotherhood, but doing so by means of bringing all people to a place of graced renewal, for the end, as Paul says in the second reading, “that they may be saved.” The device that is used to characterize this is the ancient scourge of leprosy.
The first reading, from Leviticus, skips over an extensive middle section of the Biblical text on the details of the disease, including regulations on distinguishing forms of the disease that would render a person ritually unclean (cutting them off from the community) from superficial skin diseases such as eczema. While in uncertain cases, one or more seven-day periods of quarantine were called for to see how the situation developed before a judgment of cleanness or uncleanness could be made, once someone was declared unclean, the law demanded that “he shall dwell apart” (Lev 13:46).
The Old Testament tells us of only two people cleansed of leprosy. Miriam, the sister of Moses, was stricken with leprosy when she enlisted Aaron to rebel with her against the supremacy of Moses (Numbers 12). Moses prayed for her recovery, that she “not be as one dead” (Num 12:12), and she was subject only to a seven day quarantine to repent in shame, and not a permanent exile. The other person cleansed was Naaman the Syrian, commander of the Syrian army, who is cleansed by the prophet Elisha (2Kgs 5.1-14). Naaman is mentioned by Jesus in Lk 4.27 as an example of how God’s gifts have always been available to gentiles.
Based on the way they read the Israelite King Joram’s reaction to the request from the Syrian King Ben-hadad to cure Naaman’s leprosy ("Am I a god with power over life and death, that this man should send someone to me to be cured of leprosy?” 2Kgs 5.7), the rabbis considered the cleansing of leprosy to be as difficult as raising the dead. This explains, at least in part, the expectation that the cleansing of lepers would be a symbolic manifestation of the messianic age. So, when John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he was the “one to come,” Jesus answered him:
"Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.” (Lk 7.22)
As important a symbolic place the cleansing of leprosy might occupy in the Gospel (and it is surely no coincidence that Christ sends his disciples out to cleanse lepers in Mat 10:8), only a couple occasions of cleansing are actually related in the New Testament: the leper in today’s readings (the story being retold with somewhat less detail in Luke and in Matthew), and the ten lepers outside the gates in Luke 17.12-19 (only one of which returns to thank Jesus). Interestingly, they each present some kind of challenge to the Messianic mission.
In the cleansing of the ten, it is only a Samaritan (whom Jesus refers to as a foreigner) who returns to give thanks to God, which prefigures the rejection of Jesus as the Christ by the Jews, and the extension of the Messianic promise to foreigners (“Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.” Lk 17:17).
On the other hand, the leper in today’s reading was not particularly well behaved. He was not keeping himself apart as the law instructed, but, audaciously, came up to Jesus. After Jesus “sternly” told him not to tell anyone about his healing, but to go show himself to the priest, the man began telling everyone (and there is no evidence in the story of his going to the priest). This caused Jesus to have to avoid going into the towns – despite Jesus having said two just verses before this story: "Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also; for that is why I came out." Mark 1:38 (RSV). So, while the leper who would not remain apart publicized his healing, Jesus “remained outside in deserted places” (Mk 1:45).
It’s well worth considering how we use our gifts from the Lord, and it’s sobering to consider that we may choose to use them in such as way as to be an obstacle to the work of Christ, even as we focus on our own giftedness. It’s great to be brought back from exile and embraced, but Christ’s work doesn’t end with me.