Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, year B, February 14, 2021
Leviticus is a book primarily about the holiness of God, and the ritual holiness or cleanliness needed to serve God worthily. For Levitical priests, that included not being a leper and avoiding contact with lepers.
In pagan Corinth, many people sacrificed food and drink to their gods. The idols didn't eat it, and their priests resold some of it as groceries. Christians wondered if they could eat such food. Saint Paul gives a wise answer in a broader context.
Jesus touches and heals a leper in this passage. In the ancient context, that touching was more remarkable than the healing.
Our Liturgical Setting: In today's gospel, from our year-long sequence of readings from Mark, Jesus cures a leper. The first reading gives us background about the place of lepers in that society.
The Literary Background: Relatively late translators titled this book "Leviticus" because almost all of it concerns the ritual duties of the many priests in the tribe of Levi. But ancient Hebrew writings took their titles from the first word of their text. In this book, the first word means "and he called," that is, "and the Lord called Moses." Called Moses (and the Israelites) to what? To holiness, as in the frequent refrain in the book, "Be you holy as I, the Lord, am holy." Now there are many definitions of holiness, but I maintain that the original one, and the genius of Israelite religion, is the call to be "separated, distinct," as in
(Ironically, a holiness that started as separateness becomes communion. The later Christian doctrine that the man Jesus is the incarnation of the Son of God, one person truly God and truly human, sharing the human condition even unto death, takes this meaning of holiness even further. The Spirit of Jesus at work in his church wasted no time in prompting the church to broaden the call to holiness to a universal one. In God's long secret design now revealed, all people are called not to separateness but to union. That's as far as the idea of holiness will get in our lifetimes. But we are ahead of ourselves.)
This is a subtle call, as evidenced by the number of times you had to read the preceding paragraphs. To make this commandment of holiness practical and concrete is difficult. It requires unusual wisdom, patience and courage. Sometimes the best that priests could do was to stress the need for ritual purity. That may seem like a pale substitute, but we shouldn't judge the ancients too harshly. It was a long journey from magical, materialistic religion to a spiritual one. Our notions of individual responsibility and the importance of intention, not just action, hadn't dawned on these folks yet. For now, as the introduction to Leviticus in the 1970 edition of the New American Bible says, "Generally speaking, the laws contained in the book serve to teach the Israelites that they should always keep themselves in a state of legal purity, or external sanctity, as a sign of their intimate union with the Lord."
The Historical Background: And this is the trouble with lepers. If you are one or if you come in contact with one, you're not "looking good" enough to do your ritual duties. The issue is not contagion as a threat to physical health. (The condition here called leprosy wasn't contagious; leprosy as we know it didn't enter the Middle East until later.) It's that you have to be fit to come before the holy God, fit even on the outside.
Proclaiming It: Here is a periodic and general reminder to speak slowly while proclaiming the word of God. So that your listeners begin to "get it" as early as possible, read the one- and two-syllable words of the first sentence slowly, making sure everyone hears the vivid words "scab or pustule or blotch." In the rest of the sentences, emphasize the word "unclean."
The Historical Background: Corinth was a Greek seaport. The combination of sailors' morals, Greek philosophy, and religious ideas shipped in from all around made for a potent brew. Categories hadn't begun to harden into simple "Protestant, Catholic and Jew." Saint Paul worked to help the nascent Christian community find the truths that would keep it distinct from its pagan neighbors (see above).
So questions came up that, from our distant vantage point, seem bizarre. One such question was, "Is it OK for us to eat foods that have been previously used in pagan worship rituals?" Apparently the thrifty pagans sold or took home what the gods did not consume; a Christian could find himself shopping in a market or invited to a home where such goods were offered. In prior verses Paul has told them of course they cannot participate in pagan worship, but of course they can later buy or eat such food "without raising any question of conscience." But if someone objects "That food has been offered to idols," the Christian is to refrain, not because the idols mean anything, but in order not to scandalize the other person.
Then he sums it up, "All things are lawful, but not all are advantageous" (verse 23), and, in our selection, "whether you eat or drink, whatever you do, do it for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jew or Greek or the church of God."
Proclaiming It: Read this slowly and with authority, as if you were summing up the preceding teaching (which is what the author was doing). Now you know the subtleties behind the words. Speak them with the conviction that comes from that understanding.
Interior of the high-level isolation unit at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University in Frankfurt during the management of a viral haemorrhagic fever case in 2006. From a highly technical article about high-level isolation units in Europe's hospitals.
This page updated January 2, 2021