After the pandemic, we might be able better to appreciate what it means for people to be isolated from others because they are suffering from a disease! This is a key theme in today’s readings; and it’s important to understand that Jesus did not only bring healing from the physical disease, but also from the heart-breaking exclusion and isolation from family and community that the dreaded disease brought with it.
Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
This book, the third book of the ‘Torah’ or ‘Pentateuch’, is largely taken up with detailed moral and ritual matters the Jews were to observe and the sections relevant to the Gospel which follows are about leprosy which was greatly feared when there was no remedy. The current medical name is ‘Hansen’s Disease’ and it can now be treated by the drug Sulfone and is no longer the ‘scourge’ it was into the 20th century. For the Jewish people, however, the Hebrew word included various different skin conditions, some of which might be curable, or would disappear in time. But fear of the worst disabling kind meant that people showing any signs of infection were kept apart from others unless the symptoms disappeared. The complex and rather confusing regulations are spelled out in chapters 13-14 of Leviticus. They provided that the sufferer could be re-admitted to social contacts and community worship once the absence of symptoms was verified by a priest. The person was then to offer a sacrifice in thanksgiving. That explains Jesus’ orders to the person he cured.
‘Outside the camp’ – these words in our selection show that this regulation went back to the time when the Jewish people were nomadic wanderings before settling in the land that became Israel.
Psalm 31:1-2, 2:5, 11
The psalm response could be applied to one healed of disease – which like other misfortunes often was (and sometimes still is) thought to be a punishment for sin. But it has a more universal application, and is one easily adopted by a Christian who has confessed wrong-doing – whether in personal prayer or in the sacrament of reconciliation – and rejoices in the sense of being forgiven.
1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1
The background in the Corinthian community to these words of Paul was an issue that arose among the new Christians about buying and eating food that had been sacrificed to idols. Some converts understood that these ‘gods’ were powerless and therefore saw no harm in making use of the food which was then sold in markets, while others believed eating it was taking part in the pagan religions. Paul, while agreeing there is nothing the idols can do to contaminate food, is at pains to protect the conscience of those who are ‘weaker’, that is, more troubled about the issue. He asks that all avoid upsetting any fellow Christians by behaviour which – even if innocent – can be a source of scandal or even sin for others. This is something that can be applied in various circumstances at any time: be careful about upsetting others whose conscience is different on some points.
A second message is a more general application: to understand than everything in daily life we do – eating or not eating is just one example – can be offered to God. Paul’s advice also serves as a warning against judging others.
This follows immediately in the Gospel after last week’s reading in which Jesus, after praying alone, sets out with the disciples to extend his preaching. This intent was to be quickly frustrated by enthusiastic reactions to his healing. Lepers were supposed to stay away from healthy people –as in the Leviticus regulations – and the setting in Mark could indicate that the man encountered Jesus as he was still in the ‘desert place’ where he had gone to pray.
There is no hint of how the leper came to know about Jesus and form such a conclusion; presumably the spreading of the word throughout Galilee (Mark 1:39) had reached him even though he had to stay on the margins of society. He is actually breaking the Law by approaching Jesus. There may be some lack of faith or just delicacy and humility in his request – ‘if you can’. Jesus is deeply touched by his condition and his faith – the Greek word here means a feeling in the very depths of the body, and ‘feeling sorry for’ in our reading sounds much weaker. ‘Deep compassion’ (‘feeling with’) is better for that level of emotion.
Jesus breaks the taboo by touching the leper; the leper considered ‘untouchable’ may have found that action consoling in itself. There is a dramatic reversal: instead of Jesus being made ‘unclean’ by the touch, the leper is made ‘clean’ or healed by Jesus’ touch. The language of ‘clean/unclean’ comes from conditions or behaviours thought unsuitable in temple worship and sometimes just being with others– it was not a moral judgement of good/bad.
Next there seems a change in Jesus’ mood as he ‘sternly’ gives the ex-leper the order not talk about his healing, but go immediately to a priest who will verify the change in his condition. This proof would have been important for the man’s return to community life, but why the command to silence? The clue may be in what happens: when the cleansed leper tells everyone he can that Jesus has healed an incurable disease, the people are so excited to hear that crowds come wanting to see another miracle. Such a mob scene makes it impossible for Jesus to preach the call to conversion to the Dominion/Kingdom of God that will change their lives in a more fundamental way than physical healing.
Jesus speaks of the command ‘of Moses’, while in Leviticus, it is described as the command that came to Moses from God. It is not certain why this change of authority occurs, but Jesus, who will uphold some of the old Law and change other parts, here may be indicating that the rules in Leviticus about lepers were more a human concern for safety than about God’s continual love and care for the unfortunate.
Christians, following Jesus’ example of compassion, have over years cared for lepers, and I personally am devoted to two saints, Fr Damien and Mother Marianne Cope, who worked with those were isolated on a peninsula on the island of Molokai, in the Hawaiian islands where I used to live.
Suggestions for prayer or reflection
My husband Andrew and I are also admirers of Fr Damien and Mother Marianne – now St Damien and St Marianne. About ten years ago, we made the pilgrimage to the place where the patients with Hansen’s Disease were sent, and some final survivors still are. St Damien and Mother Marianne transformed this hard-to-reach spit of land, with traumatised, dying people, from a living hell into a place of caring; eventually it became a supportive community with attentive medical care. Climbing 3,000 feet down the steep sea cliffs, visiting the settlement, and climbing back up was a profoundly moving experience which we will never forget.
It was also a harrowing realisation that even in my lifetime, people were being struck by a disease we often imagine has disappeared, and forcibly exiled from their family. According to the World Health Organization, 200,000 people every year are diagnosed; with Brazil, India and Indonesia reporting the highest numbers. Thankfully it is reliably cured by antibiotics now.
Before St Damien and St Marianne arrived, the little spit of land Kalaupapa was a lawless, distressed, angry, frightened melee of lonely individuals with little or no provision of food and basic sustenance; no structure or governance to the isolated individuals, where of course those who could preyed upon the weak. St Marianne, who soon brought a team of Franciscan nuns with her, recognised the urgent need for what we now call ‘safeguarding’, as children, girls and women in particular were abused and exploited in all the ways you would imagine. Having built a house for the boys and one for the girls, she and the nuns even hid in the girls’ house at night, armed with large sticks, to beat off the men who tried to invade and assault the girls! – Eventually a better ethic and sense of community was fostered and a more supportive way of living together evolved, largely under the nuns’ leadership.
It is a good reminder that when people are suffering in one way, they often become vulnerable in other ways that appear unrelated.
We might not have the gift of physical healing that Jesus could bring. But for those suffering around us – be it from physical illness or injury, or emotional-psychological distress, or social isolation and loneliness, or financial hardship – how else might they be vulnerable? If we cannot bring healing, can we bring some form of ‘protection’ or recognition for their other needs? This could be something to pray about this week.
An excellent book on Fr Damien’s life is Richard Stewart’s Leper Priest of Moloka’i: The Father Damien Story. Richard Stewart is a doctor, so there is a lot of medical understanding in this. It is a historical work, not a devotional one; it is factual and accurate rather than prayerful or spiritual. Andrew and I enjoyed it as a reliable history and portrait of an extraordinary yet ordinary man.
For some reason, the wonderful woman Marianne Cope is much less well-known, but she was able to accomplish far more than Fr Damien could – he died earlier, but also had a more combative personality, constantly battling the Hawaii authorities for resources with passion and tenacity. Sr Marianne on the other hand was a genius both in diplomacy-persuasion and in strategy-management, coaxing and reasoning others into doing what was needed for the stricken community. Unlike Damien, who himself became a martyr to the disease, Marianne lived to 80 – 44 years in Kalaupapa – despite having TB herself. She served others, to the point of exhaustion, while suffering herself all those decades from another dreaded, oft-fatal disease.
When I first wanted to learn more about her in depth, there was only one substantial book, co-written by one of the sisters in her order, Mary Laurence Hanley, with a writer, O. Bushell, who specialised in historical novels of Hawaii (including a novel on the Kalaupapa colony, Moloka’i). Pilgrimage and Exile: Mother Marianne of Molokai, M. Hanley and O. Bushell is a biography that I highly recommend. Since her canonisation, I see that a number of short books of prayers and novenas have sprung up in her honour, though I haven’t read any of these (yet!)