Homily for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

February 16, 2003

(Not delivered; Mass canceled due to ice)

(Based on Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46; Ps 32:1-2,5,11; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1;

Mark 1:40-46)

"He stretched out his hand and touched him."

Today's readings are very straight-forward. The Leviticus reading gives us an account of how lepers were to be treated, and then in Mark's Gospel we get a dramatic account of how Jesus cures a leper.

We're liable to think of it as 'one more cure,' one more miracle in the story of Jesus the healer, the miracle worker. He even has power over the ills of the body, providing instantaneous cures.

But it's not that simple. In fact if we view it that way we could trivialize what Jesus was about, making him a curiosity, a pre-television tele-evangelist. We could miss the whole point.

Did you ever ask yourself the question: who didn't Jesus just go ahead and cure everyone since he had the power? In fact he didn't. The cures he did produce were in function of what we was revealing, what he was trying to get people to understand about his Father's kingship and way of dealing with us. Today's story from Mark takes place early in Jesus' ministry when he is gradually revealing to these new followers what he's all about. He is teaching through it.

To know what he is revealing we need to go back to Leviticus and its account of 'leprosy.' First we find that it is not a case of what we with our present scientific knowledge would call leprosy, Hanson's disease. The word was a generic term covering all sort of skin deformities. The account in Leviticus is not for the faint-hearted or those who haven't eaten breakfast yet. It's rough stuff, all about different kinds of scabs and sores and abscesses.

And the irony is that the whole treatment is not really about physical health and healing at all. It's about religious vision, about ritual purity, about the ability to enter the temple; it's about what kind of people are acceptable to God. It's about who is in and who is out of the faith community.

And it's about distance: what's holy and what you must keep far from you.

And the one thing you would never do is to touch a leper. Because then you are unclean, to be kept outside the community.

Jesus is not revealing himself as some miracle man, the newest TV star. He's revealing something far more profound. And far more disturbing. He's revealing that his Father's kingdom doesn't work the way the religious leaders had set it out for the people.

These external blemishes are not a sign that the man was a sinner and unholy and to be excluded from the holy people. Jesus himself will risk excommunication by touching and healing the man, so profound is his call to reveal his Father's view of things even if it costs him ostracism and rejection.

It seems to be part of our universal sinfulness that we -- you and I and our church -- want to take over and protect our claim upon God by declaring "these people" unclean and pushing them to the margins, 'outside the city.'

In some quarters 'these people' are women, in some they are gays and lesbians, in others they are people of color or newly arrived immigrants. The tele-evangelists and defenders of 'family values' come down on single mothers or mothers who work outside instead of staying at home.

Out city -- every large city -- is embarrassed by panhandlers and the homeless. They make us look at and think about things we'd rather not have to see.

How much of our government's foreign policy is based on unacknowledged fear of these Muslims we don't understand, who hold up the mirror to our consumerism and greed -- who haven't yet been 'saved?'

Jesus will not be that kind of Messiah. His Father does not recognize purity codes. And we must not be that kind of Christians, that kind of church.

There is a final irony in today's Gospel story. Because after the man is cured, after being admonished to keep a low profile, he goes off and tells everyone -- with the result that everyone wants to come to see and draw power from the phenomenon, the great new sensation. And to keep being turned into exactly the opposite of who he was, Jesus himself is forced to become the outsider. He withdraws to 'desert places.' And ultimately he will end where all religious criminals ended, being crucified "outside the city."