In today’s Gospel reading, we have a simple account of Jesus healing a leper, except, of course, that it is not so simple. As Jesus hears the leper’s request to be cleansed, we read that Jesus was “moved with pity.” But if you read footnotes and commentaries, you come across the fact that in some early copies of the Gospel, the passage does not say “moved with pity,” but “moved with anger.”
Most translations stick with “moved with pity,” and it makes sense in terms of Jesus reaching out and touching the man, even though it would have made Him unclean in the eyes of the leaders and the people. But I, as well, as many Scripture scholars, have been intrigued by considering how Jesus may have been moved with anger. There are various explanations for this. One of them is that some scholars see Jesus’ cleansing of the leper as driving out an unclean spirit, and so Jesus’ anger is at the forces of evil that bring suffering to people.
I find myself trying to hold the pity, or compassion, and the anger together. It’s important to remember what it meant to be a leper in ancient Israel. Once it was determined by the priest that someone had leprosy (which included various skin diseases), that person had to wear rent garments and cry out as he or she approached anyone, “Unclean, unclean!” (See our first reading from Leviticus). This was to warn people not to touch them lest they become ritually unclean themselves. Imagine what it would be like to have to warn others of your coming so they would not accidentally touch you and become unclean. Lepers were also not allowed to live in the town or village. They had to “dwell apart.” Think of the isolation and loneliness and hopelessness. Right now it might be hard for me to imagine, but I would think that there may be African-Americans, Japanese Americans who had ancestors during World War II, Jewish people who survived or had relatives who survived the Holocaust, and native Americans, and people who are living with AIDS, and many others, who know exactly what it was like for the lepers in Jesus’ time.
Is it any wonder that Jesus was moved with compassion? But what about the anger? I wonder if Jesus might have been angry at some of the other consequences of being a leper. I would think, that given the “theology” of many people of Jesus’ time, and of many people today, the lepers were not only “quarantined,” so to speak, but judged. I’m sure many people saw their leprosy as a punishment from God for some grave sin. Perhaps Jesus was angry at how the lepers were perceived and treated. It’s bad enough that you are forced out of the camp, but judged to be deserving of it? By the way, does that not sound like any rationale you have heard to justify prejudice and discrimination?
We can be all too ready to judge others as “unclean.” I remember when I was in Birmingham, and there was a meeting of church people about the homeless. There was a man who looked homeless, and my first assumption was that he heard about the meeting, figured that there might be free food there, and showed up. Much to my dismay at being so convicted, that man gave a talk to tell us about the reality of being homeless in Birmingham. A lesson learned.
So perhaps what we need is to ask Jesus to make us clean; to enable us to act with compassion and reach out and touch those considered “other” and “unclean.” Just as Jesus was willing to cleanse the leper, He is willing to cleanse us.
Fr. Phil, CP