Sixth Sunday of the Year – February 12, 2012 – St. John’s
Much in the brief story we have just heard may appear foreign to us. Leprosy is very rare among us, and appears to be disappearing elsewhere. We know that it is a disease, what causes it, and how to treat it and prevent it. None of that was known in the time of Jesus. Because of that ignorance, the only way to prevent its spread was to forbid lepers to live in the towns and cities, to isolate them apart in leper colonies or in leprosaria, as is still done even today in some parts of the world. (St. Peter Damien went to the island of Molokai to work among the lepers there.) In ancient Israel leprosy was also considered to render people ritually unclean, and to touch them was to make oneself unclean, too. The passage was easy to the conclusion that the disease was the result of sin and the work of the evil one. Lepers were among the most outcast of people at the time, doomed to wander muffled in a cloak, crying out in warning: “Unclean, unclean!” There was a rabbinic saying that it was harder to heal lepers than to raise the dead.+
Hence the drama of this little incident which comes at the end of the first section of Mark’s Gospel, which began with Jesus’s announcement of the coming Kingdom of God and here reaches a climax with this demonstration of the power of God at work in and through Jesus. The healing of the leper becomes what in the Fourth Gospel will be called a “sign,” a dramatic symbol of what the words of Jesus announce and he brings. The leper’s cry for cleansing becomes a symbol of the human need to be cleansed from sin. Jesus’s shocking breaking of the taboo against touching a leper becomes a symbol of God’s breaking of barriers, and the man’s healing a symbol of the reconciliation to God and the restoration of community that Jesus effects. The Kingdom of God has come: repent and believe the Gospel.
There is perhaps another source of alienation that we may experience. St. Mark, and the Church in this liturgy, clearly intend us to see ourselves in the leper. But surely not many of us ever think of ourselves in such dramatic terms–as outcast lepers, unclean, alienated from God and from others. We live in a culture that does not like to make such judgments about others or even about ourselves: “I’m O.K. You’re O.K.,” the saying goes–or as a classmate of mine who couldn’t get out of the 1960’s once put it, “I’m not O.K., and you’re not O.K., and that’s O.K.” We don’t like to use a word like sin–not of others and not of ourselves–it is more comforting to speak of psychological complexes or, even more reassuring, of chemical imbalances. We tend to feel guilty about using the word “guilty” either of others or of ourselves. A couple of decades back the famous psychologist Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled Whatever Became of Sin? A Lutheran theologian, hearing a sweetened version of “Amazing Grace” that changed the words “a wretch like me,” exclaimed: “If I’m not a wretch, then grace isn’t amazing.”
There are such things as chemical imbalances, of course, as also psychological complexes. But it is rare that these are so severe that we entirely lose our effective freedom, our ability to take responsibility for our lives, to direct them, to give them purpose; and this is an ability that can lead us to make our lives something beautiful and valuable and even holy, or to make unholy messes of our lives and of the lives of others. It is to that drama of sin and grace, not simply known as words theologians use, but experienced as the issue at stake in our use of freedom–it is to that drama of sin and grace that the Gospel is addressed. Notice I said that it is the Gospel that addresses it, the good news, “tidings of great joy,” as we call it at Christmas. The Christian Gospel does not end with the word “sin”; it does not even begin with it. It begins with the announcement of grace, and in fact it is grace that first reveals by contrast the depth and range of sin and then overwhelms it. “Where sin abounded,” St. Paul said, “grace has super-abounded.”
If there may be, even among us, some so crushed by an awareness of their misuse of freedom that all they can utter is a kind of secret, self-directed cry of “Unclean, unclean!”, there is this story of the Gospel, of one who reaches across the widest gulf of alienation and dares to touch us and to declare us and to make us clean. “I said, ‘I confess my faults to the Lord,’” the Psalmist sings today, “and you took away the guilt of my sin.” This is no small gift, no small confession to be able to make, the confession of one’s sin and the confession of God’s mercy in Christ. It may not, then, be so hard after all to insert ourselves into today’s Gospel story.