These words begin St. Mark’s Gospel on this Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time. To us, they sound familiar and fitting as Jesus’ encounters with lepers are mentioned repeatedly in the Gospels. However, in reality, for people in Jesus’ time and place, this was absolutely radical – as well as being illegal and against social norms.
The first reading reminds us how leprosy was the scourge of the ancient world where, once afflicted with this incurable disease, a person slowly saw their body rot away while they were still alive. Because it was also contagious, lepers were ostracized, removed from their home and families, deprived of work, and sent outside of society to dwell in leper shanties – if there were any – and resort to a life a begging and drudgery until death eventually came. Should they have to move around from place to place, when they saw someone approaching, they had to cry out “unclean”, “unclean” to give them a chance to get away to the other side of road so as to avoid them completely.
Consequently, the fact that “a leper approached Jesus” is significant. Something with Jesus made him disregard the rules, break the law, risk terrible punishment. Why would he do this? Why would he ask Jesus to do something for him that was not possible? Quite simply, the man must have seen in Jesus something different from any other man, any other rabbi, any other person. The man must have had faith! The risk must have been worth it to him. Therefore, nothing could stop him from coming to Jesus! “If you will to do so, you can cure me. I do will it. Be cured.”
We are much luckier than the leper in today’s Gospel. Not because we are fortunate enough to not be plagued by this disease – we have the even worse disease of sin to deal with – but because we have no obstacles to prevent us from approaching Jesus. In most places, though not all, unfortunately, there is no law against praying. There are no security forces preventing us from going to church or arresting us after attending Mass. There is no external”risk” involved.
So, what is it then, that keeps us from approaching Jesus? If it’s not something imposed from without, it must be some kind of obstacle within us. Why can we become comfortable with a superficial relationship with God? What keeps us from totally opening up to Him and pouring out our inner most selves? The leper in today’s Gospel would be the first to tell you that Jesus makes all the difference in the world. What’s keeping us from finding that out for ourselves?
Fr. Eric Orzech