At Mass recently we heard a reading from Leviticus, describing how lepers would get kicked out of camp. No contact with anyone clean. His clothes were to be worn ‘rent’, either to show a state of penitence or to prevent him from hiding his disease, I don’t know which; and he was to shout, ‘Unclean’ whenever someone came near. Harsh and hard, but it was the only practical way to deal with a highly contagious disease with no cure. No matter how much the priest may have personally cared about the individual man suffering from disease, he would have to resist sympathy or compassion. The survival of the community was at stake.
Then, the Gospel reading tells of another leper, already living in the outskirts of town. The man reminds Christ that, if He wants to, he can heal him; and instantly, Jesus does want to. He touches the man, and he is healed. In the first reading, the priest sends the man out into the outskirts. He’s cast out of the camp, out of safety, out of companionship, out of the community. In the second reading, Jesus is cast out. The two readings are nicely symmetrical – up to a point.
Jesus sternly warns the man not to tell anyone what happened, but to go straight to the priest and follow the procedure to be re-admitted into society. But the man, jubilant to be cleansed, tells everyone.
He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.
He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.
There are a few hypotheses about why Jesus it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. I always assumed that, because the man blabbed, He knew He’d be flooded and hounded with requests for more healings. He wouldn’t be able to go about His business without being mobbed, so He had to keep a low profile.
Another theory: When Jesus touched the man, he actually contracted his disease. He cleansed the man by taking the sickness (signifying sin) onto Himself; and that’s why He couldn’t enter a town. Like any leper, He was required to stay on the outskirts until He was healthy again.
Another possibility, which seems more likely to me: Because the leper told everyone that Jesus touched him, the townspeople would have considered Him ritually unclean. He didn’t actually contract the disease, but there wasn’t a clear distinction between physical and spiritual contamination. This would explain why He told the man not to tell anyone. He was willing to heal the leper, but not eager to put up with the precautions of Mosaic Law that He knew were medically and spiritually unnecessary.
In any case, the point of the Gospel is clear, and the symmetry is appealing: He takes our place. It is His will that He should suffer what we deserve. Rather than allowing the man He meets to continue as an outcast, He becomes an outcast in his place. For anyone familiar with the idea that Jesus takes our place, takes our sin and punishment onto Himself, this part of the story may be edifying, but it’s not startling.
Here’s the part I can’t figure out. Jesus is willing to perform a miracle, upending the laws of nature by curing disease with a mere touch. He is not, however, willing to upend the laws of Moses, at this point. He willingly stays on the outskirts of town after coming into contact with the man.
And that doesn’t make any sense.
The Old Testament story does make sense. The Old Testament solution to the problem of sin and disease is brutal and harsh, but it is effective. It’s the right choice from a practical point of view: If you want to save the entire community, you have to sacrifice the one individual. Too bad for him; but it’s the most efficient way to manage the situation. And Jesus’ approach is completely impractical. He wants to save the entire community, and he starts by saving the one individual – and then telling him to keep it quiet, so he doesn’t have to deal with all the hullabaloo it will cause if people know he’s a miracle worker or people know he’s ritually impure.
So let’s review: Upending nature: Check. Messing with social structures: Ehh, not right now. Why? I have no idea.
If He was capable of healing with a touch, surely He could have performed some other kind of miracle that would have changed everyone’s mind about Mosaic Law, or He could have made the man incapable of spilling the secret, or He could have done a thousand other things to get out of the bind the man made for him when he spilled the beans. The way He chose to do it is impractical and confusing, and it doesn’t make sense to me.
So why did he do what he did? I think maybe he found the leprous man . . . irresistible. And that would account for the wild impracticality of it. It probably wasn’t His plan to heal anyone that particular day. He had business in the city, and meeting this man threw His plans into turmoil. But there the man was, and what was Jesus going to do? Say, “Too bad for you?”
When you meet someone you love, you’re not thinking about what’s practical. You’re not thinking about efficiency. You’re not even necessarily thinking about consistency.
You’re just thinking about your beloved. Love makes us do strange things.
What is it that Christ found so irresistible in the leper? Two things: woundedness, and humility. He needed help, and he knew it. Christ finds these two things irresistible in any of us, and will not stop to think if it makes sense to heal us. The survival of the community of mankind is at stake – and He intends to deal with it one person at a time, one confession at a time, one healing at a time. It’s terribly impractical and inefficient. Love makes us do strange things.
And this is why we get this reading right before Lent begins. We’re still on the outskirts, still wounded, still contagious. But look, who’s that in the distance, approaching your squalid-like camp? You know who it is. Get ready to meet Him. He will find you irresistible.