As I emerged from the sacristy to start Mass, I instantly spotted in the pews a couple of people I hadn’t seen in ages and hadn’t expected to see there and then. We knew each other from a previous parish of mine in quite a distant past. It was a lovely surprise, so much so that, at the end of Mass, I made some real efforts to persuade them to stay for our traditional post-Monday-Mass tea and coffee to chat. Not that they needed a lot of convincing – unlike me, they are very sociable characters and mixed with the Inverurie parishioners as if they had known them since time immemorial. This aspect is crucial to understanding how isolated they must have felt when – due to specific health conditions – they had to shelter themselves well before the first official Covid lockdown. In a way, it resonated with today’s readings’ central theme, though in reverse.
“A man infected with leprosy […], as long as the disease lasts […] must live apart: he must live outside the camp.” Without proper medical knowledge or any means of dealing with an incurable and potentially infectious disease, the harsh prescription we heard in the first reading was the community’s method of self-preservation. If the price of the tribe’s survival was the fate of an unlucky individual, so be it. From our perspective, such inhumane treatment of a sick person seems barbaric. Even more so if we consider that a priest decided whether the exclusion was necessary: “If a swelling or scab or shiny spot appears on a man’s skin, a case of leprosy of the skin is to be suspected. The man must be taken to […] one of the priests. The priest must declare him unclean. As long as the disease lasts […], he must live apart.” So, what were the chances for an individual with a seemingly incurable disease, out of the community and left to their own devices? Zero! Or were they?
Let’s look a bit closer at the prescription in the first reading: “A man infected with leprosy must wear his clothing torn and his hair disordered; he must shield his upper lip and cry: Unclean, unclean.” At first glance, it might look like a way of stigmatising or further humiliating the sick person. However, the shouting wasn’t required to carry on all day long but only when someone else was coming close. If the outer appearance of the sick person (“the clothing torn and the hair disordered”) wasn’t enough of a warning, the cry “unclean, unclean” was the ultimate caution. With the shouting, another medical safety measure was introduced: “he must shield his upper lip”, an equivalent of a modern face mask to prevent air-borne passing of the infection. But why would anyone risk their own lives and health by approaching such dangerously sick people? The answer is simple: charitable care of the sick. Contrary to popular belief, such people weren’t left to their own devices, fending for themselves. They would have had restrictions put on them, but the community would take care of them as much as they safely could.
Here’s where the story of the couple I mentioned earlier comes to the fore. Their self-imposed isolation for the sake of their survival didn’t leave them to their own devices. It was very impressive to hear how members of their local community went the extra mile, took additional steps and extraordinary precautions to avoid accidental passing of the Covid virus while handling their shopping, offering technical support, and so on. The couple, surrounded by their community’s active, charitable love, not only survived until the vaccines were available; they pretty much thrived, considering the circumstances. Similarly, though in reverse, in biblical times, the lepers were put under severe restrictions but not in the manner of “out of sight, out of mind.” The proof was in the causal way St Mark introduced the individual: “A leper came to Jesus and pleaded on his knees.” Nobody around Jesus was shocked, scandalised, protested or reacted badly in a manner worth mentioning.
As we know, the gospels weren’t written as impassionate, impartial biographies of Jesus. They served the purpose of presenting Him as the Saviour of the world. So, the story of the leper in today’s reading has additional spiritual or theological meaning. The leper’s opening request, “If you want to, you can cure me”, was the expression of his faith in Jesus. He had no doubt about Jesus’s ability to do so; he appealed to his willingness to do so. In a broader sense, the leper represented those who were or felt rejected, those in need of saving. Jesus’s response was in line with the renowned phrase from the gospel of St John: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (3:16) He crossed the line by touching the leper; it was a tangible sign of bringing him back to the community; the man wasn’t untouchable anymore. The leper was cured and restored. At this stage, it would be easy to fall into a feel-good trap: sweet Jesus healed the man, and that’s that. However, Jesus gave him specific orders about what to do next: fulfil what’s required by the community: “go and show yourself to the priest, and make the offering for your healing prescribed by Moses as evidence of your recovery.” An official recognition of his healing had to be given in the way prescribed by the Law. The final theological aspect worth mentioning is that Jesus effectively swapped places with the leper: “Jesus […] had to stay outside in places where nobody lived.” It foreshadowed His ultimate sacrifice made on the cross when he was crucified outside the camp, outside the holy city of Jerusalem, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah: “he has borne our infirmities, and carried our diseases; […] he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises, we are healed.” (53:4-5)