Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 12 February 2012
Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46; Psalm 32:1-2, 5, 11; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45
The Old Testament law includes a purity system which designated certain people, things and conditions ‘unclean’. For example, someone with a skin disease had to be separated from the community until the disease cleared up. In a society with very little medical knowledge, such caution may be explained in terms of preserving the health of the community by guarding against the spread of contagious diseases. But it also had a religious rationale, and extended beyond contagious diseases to various kinds of foods and events such as childbirth which rendered the mother unclean for a period of time. Because God is holy, God’s people were to be holy. The system of classifying things as unclean and the rituals associated with cleansing all underlined the holy nature of God and God’s people. One had to avoid the unclean, such as people with a skin disease, since uncleanness contaminates.
In addition to showing us the compassionate heart of Jesus, the story of the healing of the leper tells us something very significant about the Kingdom of God, something which undermined the religious system of Jesus’ day. Jesus does not simply heal the man; he reaches out and touches him while he is still unclean. Jesus does not understand holiness as something to be preserved from contamination but as something that has transformative power. Holiness, or wholeness, is contagious, not uncleanness! This is why Jesus touches lepers and eats with tax collectors and prostitutes. God is not a holy God who remains apart, but a loving God who connects with the outcasts. This is one of the reasons that Jesus encountered such fierce opposition from the religious authorities. He was disregarding the rules and regulations that separated people into categories which gave some privileged access to God while excluding others.
The leper discovers in Jesus not only the healer, but the one who completely accepts him, just as the psalmist discovers in God the one who forgives and removes all guilt. When we come in our sinfulness and brokenness before God, we do not sully God, but find ourselves transformed.
When Paul discovered this, it freed him up to be the apostle to the Gentiles, to those who did not follow the religious laws according to which he himself had been raised. He realised that Jesus had set aside many of the laws which were about enforcing separation between God’s people and the rest of the world. God’s people are supposed to stand out as different, yes, but not because of endless lists of do’s and don’ts. Now when Paul made decisions about what to do or abstain from, his basis for deciding wasn’t in terms of keeping himself pure and undefiled by others, but in terms of reaching others with the love and the salvation of God in Christ. It wasn’t what he ate or drank that made him holy, but the way he lived his life out of concern for others and their wellbeing. This didn’t make him an anarchist, because he wasn’t living any old way he wanted. These verses suggest some helpful questions to ask ourselves regarding our actions if we are to follow his example: Is this for God’s glory or my own? Am I needlessly offending anyone? Am I acting for my own benefit or for the benefit of others? Is my concern the wholeness of the other? Is this what Jesus would do?