by Father Mike Stubbs
Typically, a town will have one neighborhood where low-income people live, where the houses look dilapidated, where crime flourishes.
Everyone knows what boundary marks that neighborhood off, even though it does not show up on a map. Since in many towns that boundary happened to be the railroad track, it gave rise to the expression, “to live on the wrong side of the railroad tracks.” In any case, many people believe that you take a risk in crossing the boundary.
And Jesus was willing to take that risk. He reached out to those who lived on the margins of society — to tax collectors, to prostitutes, to those whom most people would shun. We see a good example of that in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mk 1:40-45.
Two thousand years ago, because a leper was considered unclean, the Law of Moses banned him from living in the community: “He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp” (Lv 13:46). In approaching Jesus, the leper in Sunday’s Gospel has violated that ban, in the hope that Jesus will heal him. Out of mercy, Jesus also violates that ban: “He stretched out his hand and touched him.”
By touching the leper, Jesus made himself unclean. It was not only a question of running the risk of contracting the disease. By touching the leper, Jesus made himself ritually unclean, just as if he had touched a corpse, a pig, or any other unclean object.
By taking upon himself the uncleanliness of the leper, Jesus was putting himself in the leper’s place. It comes as no surprise, then, that Jesus ends up in the deserted places where the leper had been relegated before his healing: “He remained outside in deserted places.”
Jesus has begun to avoid the towns because of his reputation as a healer: “He (the leper) spread the report abroad, so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.” This may sound ironic, in view of Jesus’ desire stated only last Sunday in the Gospel reading, of visiting other towns besides Capernaum: “Let us go to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” It is almost as though Jesus’ success as a healer has deterred him from his goal of bringing the good news to all the people.
But this temporary setback is quickly overcome. If Jesus cannot come to the people, then the people will come to Jesus. Even though Jesus has taken up residence in the deserted places, the people seek him out: “He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.”
By taking on the uncleanliness of the leper, Jesus healed him. This healing looks forward to Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. By taking on our sins, Jesus also heals us. Jesus reaches out to us and touches our hearts. Jesus puts himself in our place, and we receive life. What Jesus did for the leper in the Gospel story, he also does for us.