Gospel Reflection Sunday February 11th 2024 – Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time By Fr Brian Maher OMI
Gospel Reflection for Sunday February 11th 2024 | 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
All of us in the last few years have come face to face with serious illness and death in the form of Covid-19. According to the World Health Organisation, a conservative estimate of three and a half million people have died from this disease since 2019, with some estimates putting the figure well above six million. I think it is safe to surmise that every one of us, no matter where we live on the planet, has experienced this disease in ourselves or with family members, friends, work colleagues and neighbours. Illness, serious illness and death visited all of our families in some shape or form.
Even more than that, I’m sure that we remember the fear, sometimes almost panic, that beset communities. We remember the terrible isolation and agony of not being able to see loved ones afflicted with the disease. We remember the shutdowns of entire cities or even countries and the difficulties we had accessing food, health care, education and even places of prayer and worship. It is truly a sign of how resilient we are as a species that we have recovered so quickly and go about our daily business with few reminders that the disease still exists.
Of course, Covid-19 was by no means unique as a bringer of death and serious illness to our world. While the ease of world travel and the numbers of people working and holidaying abroad meant that Covid-19 quickly became a global pandemic, deadly infectious diseases, plagues, and viruses have wreaked havoc in our world from the dawn of history. Indeed, some of the ten deadly plagues which led to the freeing of Moses and his people from Egypt bear an uncanny likeness to real-world infections and viruses.
In this reflection, I invite you to carry all of these memories of Covid-19 with you as you read or listen to today’s Gospel. I say this because the man with leprosy who dared approach Jesus was, I believe, suffering far more than anybody suffered with Covid-19. Likewise, in reaching out to this man and curing him, Jesus was making a statement about God that required both courage and insight.
For a few moments, join me in entering the world of the man suffering from leprosy.
At some point, the first symptoms of the disease manifest themselves – maybe you discover some skin discolouration, or you develop swellings on the face or feet. In fear, you present yourself to the Priest who looks at your symptoms and declares you ‘unclean’ or not, depending on the symptoms evident.
It is worth noting here that the disease was assessed and diagnosed, not by a doctor, but by a priest. Having this terrible and chronic disease was not just a sentence of physical death but also a sentence of spiritual death. By declaring the person ‘unclean’, the Priest was saying that he/she was a sinner and that the sores, lumps, disfigurement, etc., were nothing more than the physical signs of God’s displeasure and punishment.
Imagine, if you can, the incredible heartache of being told by your community that you are a sinner and being punished by God without having any idea of what you are guilty of!
Imagine wracking your brain day after day, trying to find some sin you might have committed and forgotten about! Convincing yourself that you are a sinner, that you must be a sinner because you carry the marks of God’s punishment.
Imagine family and friends shunning you because any contact with you risks being tainted by your sin and displeasing God. Your isolation is total. You can’t hold a job, shop in a market, own property, live at home, touch, hug, hold hands. You have to carry a bell to warn others that you are near. You are also banned from all inclusion in worship – even at a distance.
Imagine watching your disease progress and deteriorate, feeling that God is more and more displeased and punishing you increasingly. As you become physically sicker, instead of feeling the comfort and support of others, you become even more isolated. You wait to die without family and friends and without God.
Now, let’s return to our memories of Covid-19.
All of those with the disease were supported by society, family and friends. Because of the need for isolation, we are all aware of the harrowing stories of loved ones dying in hospital, unable to be visited and held by those closest to them. We have also heard how wonderfully caring nurses held mobile phones to the ears of dying people so they could hear the voices of loved ones.
These situations, as we all know, were unthinkably distressing and traumatic. However, everyone did what they could to be with the suffering person.
The man who risks approaching Jesus in today’s Gospel does so, knowing that he is seen not as ill with a disease but as a sinner being punished for his sins. The absolute aloneness he must have felt kneeling before Jesus is difficult to imagine.
Is it any wonder he begins by saying, “If you want to, you can make me clean.” ? Labelled a sinner, carrying on his body the signs of God’s punishment, he must indeed have expected rejection. Why would Jesus, or anyone, want to help him? Almost certainly, he accepts what he has been told, that he is a sinner whom God is punishing. He must anticipate that Jesus, who preaches the Kingdom of God, will see his sin and cast him off as unworthy of God’s Kingdom.
It is in this context that Jesus’ reply to him must be understood.
“Of course I want to,” is said with a passion and conviction coming from very deep in Jesus’ psyche. It is not, “…I want to heal you.” but, “…of course, I want to heal you” There is a sense of Jesus saying, “…how can you think that I would not want to heal you?” Is there a hint of anger or frustration in Jesus that this poor, suffering man thinks that God might want him to suffer on? Is Jesus somehow saying to himself, “…how can anyone believe that God wants them to suffer?”
I try to imagine – and can’t – what he must have felt when Jesus spoke the words, “Of course I want to,” and followed them with, “Be clean.” By saying ‘be clean’, Jesus is not just curing him of his disease, but he is declaring that he is not a sinner being punished by God, but he is once again ‘clean’; restored as a child of God and once more one of the ‘chosen ones of God’.
Let me call attention to another tiny but important detail: “(Jesus) reached out and touched him.” It would have been unthinkable for a ‘clean’ person to touch an ‘unclean’ person. To risk not just getting the disease itself, but maybe being tainted by the sin and having to share in the punishment, was unimaginable. Yet Jesus does it…and he does it before he cures him.
We can never fully know how Jesus understood the theology of sin and suffering. In truth, maybe Jesus didn’t know himself or care! He saw a man kneeling before him, sick, dejected and alone. He saw a man who did not even have the confidence to ask Jesus to cure him. He only said, “If you want to, you can make me clean.” And Jesus instinctively reaches out to him and touches him. Almost without thought, Jesus does what God does – he touches, he heals, he forgives, and he ‘makes clean’.
We must note that Jesus makes sure the man follows all the rules laid down in Mosaic Law. Just as it was a priest who diagnosed the man as ‘unclean’, so now it is a priest who must declare him ‘clean’ again. Jesus might question the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders about their sincerity and hypocrisy, but he was born, lived and died a committed and practising Jew.
The last little piece, where the cured man tells everyone that Jesus has to hide away in the wilderness, is interesting, but it is probably more of a structure Mark uses to link his stories than anything else. It’s not central to the message of this Gospel.
So, what can we learn from this encounter between Jesus and the man with leprosy?
In a stark and very powerful way, we once again meet a God of infinite compassion and forgiveness. Every word Jesus speaks oozes God’s love for us. Does God want to heal and forgive us? Of course, he does! How could we ever think anything else?
We also meet a God who reaches out to everyone – even the ‘unclean’ and the rejected. Jesus had a unique way of accepting and welcoming everyone who came to him. He looked for, and he saw, not wealth or poverty, Jew of Samaritan, clean and unclear, but the image of God dwelling within us since the beginning of creation.
Remember, at the Last Supper, Jesus washed his disciples feet, and he said to them, “I leave you an example, so that you should do what I have done to you.” Today, we must hear Jesus say the same to us.
Finally, there is, I think, a warning for us. The idea that pain and suffering are in some way a punishment for sin is rejected by Jesus in this Gospel. God always wants to heal us and take away our pain. Of course, God wants that, and we must never doubt it. However, the idea that misfortune and suffering are linked to sin and displeasing God may be more ingrained in us than we sometimes think.
I remember the 1970s and 80s when HIV/AIDS was at its most infectious and deadly. Sadly, indeed sinfully, I heard it called so frequently the “Gays Disease”, the inference being that because a large number of homosexual men contracted the disease, that it was God’s punishment for what they saw as the sin of homosexuality. More recently, I have heard people say that Climate Change was God’s punishment on the world for X or Y.
Once we start down this road, we find ourselves meeting a God who is petty, cruel and unjust; a God who lashes out in temper, delighting in pain and death, indiscriminately punishing innocent and guilty alike.
This is not the God we meet in the Bible.
It is not the God revealed to us by Jesus.
… And it is not the God of today’s Gospel.
If you have any comments, questions or thoughts on this scripture reflection, please feel welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
|Mark 1:40-45 ©
The leprosy left the man at once, and he was cured
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