by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“The man went away, but then started talking about it freely and telling the story everywhere, so that Jesus could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived. Even so, people from all around would come to him. Mark 1: 40-45
One of the readings proclaimed in our Good Friday ceremonies comes from Isaiah. It was written by the prophet as a description of a man he identified as “the suffering servant”. The good Friday liturgy applies Isaiah’s words to Jesus: “Ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried. But we thought of him as someone punished, struck by God and brought low. Yet he was pierced through for our faults, crushed for our sins” (Isaiah 53:4). Matthew in his Gospel also applied Isaiah’s words to Jesus: “That evening they brought to Jesus many who were possessed by devils. He cast out the spirits with a word and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah: “He took our sicknesses away and carried our diseases for us.” To appreciate the significance of these words of Isaiah being applied to Jesus, we have to remember that most of the Jews of Jesus’ time believed that serious illnesses like leprosy as well as serious physical and mental disabilities were punishments by God for serious sins committed by the sick and disabled or members of their families. As a consequence, these afflicted people were treated as social pariahs and excluded from even coming physically close to people who enjoyed sound health. Today’s gospel-reading not only illustrates how Jesus demonstrated his compassion by touching a man suffering from leprosy but, for his trouble was branded as a pariah himself and banned from all social contact. Jesus and the leper exchanged places.
Of significance in this reading is the fact that it contains the first of many pleas from Jesus urging people he cured to refrain from broadcasting what he had done for them. However, most were unable to contain their excitement at having been restored to full health and to their rightful place in family and wider society. But why was Jesus so reluctant to have his compassion and good deeds publicised? Commentators have labelled his pleas for anonymity “the Messianic secret”. It would seem that what he was trying to achieve was to avoid being given a reputation as a wonder-worker. He himself was living into what his vocation as the Messiah really involved. He was fully human and, consequently, had to fathom what exactly would be the implications of taking the message of the kingdom of God to the world. He would come to realise that there would be people in high places who did not want their personal comfort disturbed. He would eventually discover that there would emerge a group that wanted him eliminated. He also came to know that resistance and violence would be directed at him.
As he grew into the realisation that his personal integrity would lead him into rejection, pain and suffering, he would eventually get to the stage of telling his disciples about the violent death that awaited him and God’s vindication of his life and mission that would be expressed in his resurrection. All of these things will be disclosed by Mark in subsequent chapters of his Gospel. For the moment, in today’s gospel-reading, we learn of his request to the leper he had just cured not to speak publicly about the healing he had done for him. We can be sure that Jesus did not make such a request out of some sense of false humility, but because people could see only his wonder-working and could not see in him the kind of Messiah they wanted. Moreover, he needed more time to educate his disciples.
Just a few verses earlier in Mark’s Gospel, there are two accounts of Jesus curing a demoniac (Mark 1:23-26) and casting devils out of those who were possessed (Mark 1:32-34). There is deep irony in the fact that the only one who was able to identify Jesus as the Messiah was the unclean spirit whom he had just cast out: “I know who you are: the Holy One of God.” In the second account of cures in Capernaum, Mark noted: “Jesus also cast out many devils, but he would not allow them to speak because they knew who he was.”
All this prompts me to ask myself: “How do I see Jesus?” Do I see him as a man of compassion who brought wholeness to people whose lives had been broken by illness and disease and who were, as a result, categorised as untouchables? Or do I see him as one who personified the love and forgiveness of God and showed us how to live with integrity and to reflect to others something of that love and forgiveness with which we have been blessed? Or, perhaps, all of the above?
This brings us back to the start of this reflection where the focus was on the consequences for Jesus that resulted from his daring to touch a leper. While most of us have never come face to face with people afflicted with physical leprosy, we have met moral lepers, people whose past has led to their social exclusion. How do we treat them? Do we stand in judgement on them? Do we avoid them? Are we afraid of being contaminated by them? Do we blame them because they are jobless and forced to beg? Do we acknowledge their existence by engaging them in conversation? Do we welcome them as our sisters and brothers? Let’s not forget that the Jesus we claim to follow rejected nobody, stood in judgement of nobody and challenged us to do likewise.