Those who pay the price for evils and injustices are the just, not the unjust. The world is full of people, whom we do not even consider as such, who are paid for the evil done by others: they are the excluded.
In ancient times lepers were the excluded ‘par excellence’: one who has been stripped of all dignity as a person, a non-person. The leper is perceived as a walking corpse, which slowly deforms and whoever touches it is quite easily contaminated: the leper represents absolute evil and visible death. The law of the leper is complete exclusion, ostracism, banishment: they were the ordinary citizen dead, the living dead, not yet physically dead but cut off from any and all family ties and relationships. The leper also represented that fundamental death which is solitude followed by that real death, illness, which was the cause for exclusion.
The leper is an extremely powerful image to expose to view, that humanity lives its entire existence accompanied by a fear of death and that, moving forward, they become old, and if all goes according to plan, will loose only a few bits and pieces. In some respects, therefore, life is nothing more than decay: a discarding of the flesh and then, first and foremost that profound form of leprosy which is expulsion, solitude and exclusion.
Mark 1:40-44 “A man with leprosy approached and, kneeling before him, begged him, “If you choose to do so, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately, the leprosy left him and he was cured. Jesus then sent him away at once, after first sternly warning him, “See that you tell no one anything about this. Just go and show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed. That will be proof for them.”
“Jesus then sent him away at once, after first sternly warning him, “See that you tell no one anything about this. Just go and show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed. That will be proof for them.”
We are witnesses to a multitude of transgressions. The first being that the leper actually approaches Jesus: the lepers where prohibited from approaching let alone getting close to someone. The second, surprisingly, is that Jesus physically touches him: healthy citizens were prohibited from touching lepers, otherwise they too would become unclean. Thirdly, we are filled with wonder at what Jesus actually said to the leper “See that you tell no one anything about this” and then sends the leper away in order that he may present himself to the priests at the temple … sorry… hang on a minute… am I not to say anything to anyone or should I speak? The fourth being that the leper, instead of making his way into Jerusalem, goes to announce the good news. The fifth is that from that moment onward Jesus stays away and tends to remain in deserted places, just like the lepers who are made to stay away from everyone and have to live in deserted places, far from villages, towns, cities, a total exclusion from the human community.
“A man with leprosy approached and, kneeling before him, begged him, “If you choose to do so, you can make me clean.”
We have a right to go to God. Not because we are good, beautiful or even true adherents of Christianity. All that excludes us from life is the title we have to go toward God: just as someone would go to a doctor when they are ill. Over the years I’ve heard many people say “I’m not worthy”: no; instead, this is the only title we have. A leper, therefore, embodies every human being and their leprosy and consequently, a leper is every human with his lepers, their banishment, their solitude, the feelings of guilt they are burdened with.
The leper supplicates, on his knees. Man for himself is in vocation and prayer. Falling to his knees, he lets go of his modesty: we always seem to be ashamed to ask and recognize that our limitation is our need for others. This person finally wants, prays for a beautiful and good life, integrated, physically and socially and religiously and with all of humanity. The word prayer has the same root word as precarious ‘precārium’ to entreaty or petition: it means that you can live on what someone else has given you and can also take away from you again, but he has given it to you. All of us basically live off what the other gives us, our existence is based upon the relationship that others grant us. If they cut us off, we are finished.
So, every relationship is the object of prayer: you cannot misappropriate a relationship if it's not a relationship. Prayer is the fundamental covenant of humanity; an animal will simply take something they want by force if its stronger, whilst a person tends to asks for something they want. What satisfies is not that you have stolen or taken something, but that which is given to you out of love or mercy, out of goodness. This is the essence and significance of prayer which exists within every single relationship. We are all precarious in the sense that it actually constitutes who we are, aware of the limits, of the need we have for others and therefore the request, ‘the prayer.’ In every relationships we cannot demand or insist on anything at all from the other because that person would not give it to you: its a gift.
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!”
In translations of this passage, one usually reads that Jesus was “moved.” Though many codexes state that he was ireful, angry, and it sounds bad, but if something sounds bad, its generally far more genuine. Jesus gets angry in front of evil, while we resign ourselves. He will also be angry at the Pharisees, at moral evil. Wrath is salvific if it is not against a people but against evil. Also this reading, “Angry,” is quite captivating: when God becomes angry it is always a good sign, it means “I am tired of this now, I have lost my patience, we need to change the situation.” It should be stressed that this feeling of rejection is in regard to the disease, compared to something that makes you a prisoner, with the attitude that seems to have taken hold of a person, but not with the person themselves.
The result of this ire and emotion is Jesus holding out his hand. The hand is power: with a hand God brought Israel out of Egypt, with their hands mankind acts. Using one’s hands and no longer one’s bite are the principles of humanisation. The sensation of touch is the only reciprocal action that exists: I can look but not be seen, listen and not be heard, but if you touch me then I have been touched.
Violation of the law. The law serves to prevent the spread of evil. In the case of leprosy, the first law is that the leper cannot come near anyone, the second is that he must not be touched; and if one does not respect these rules, leprosy spreads and everything is over. Undoubtedly, there is a rationality to this. The law judges a person and condemns them, but it does not save: it condemns not so much the evil committed but the criminal, used as a deterrent against evil. Jesus, on the other hand, does not condemn evildoers but frees them from evil, therefore its no longer the law. Jesus' dissension with the law is not because he believes that the law is wrong, laws indicate whom society considers to be right and who has erred, and those who are sick, yet if one is sick, what would a doctor do? Does he eliminate them? No, he cures them.
Immediately, the leprosy left him and he was cured. Jesus then sent him away at once…
It seems surprising that Jesus sends him away. Why? Because there is something far more profound beneath his action: its not as though Jesus heals a person in order to get something in return or to make someone his dependant. When Jesus redeems the leper from isolation, sending the leper back into the fabric of relationships, Jesus hands him back his freedom as a person.
“See that you tell no one anything about this. Just go and show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed. That will be proof for them.”
Jesus wasn't seeking fame or notoriety, nor for people to come to him in order for a miracle to be performed: Jesus was far more interested in people living as children of God, as brothers and sisters. When Jesus’ asks the leper “not say anything to anyone,” almost immediately the opposite happens: in fact, the law prescribes the exclusion of lepers and that any healing that may have occurred must be confirmed by a priest [When duly confirmed as the Law requires (see Leviticus 14:2-3), the cure of a leper will attest to the priests the power of Jesus over an evil that destroys humans]. Now we shine a light on upon that controversy, being against the law it becomes a constant within the following passages: there is one who has transgressed the law of exclusion because he has touched the leper, and the leper has touched him, yet the leprosy was cured. This testifies to the fact that there is something other than the law: it is the gospel, the good news. The good news is that man can finally be free and therefore enables them to re-establish their relationships.
Cover picture by Davide Disca, «Benedizione», watercolour on handmade paper, 34 x 34 cm, © 2011
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