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John R. DonahueJanuary 29, 2000

Very few topics occupy the American consciousness as much as health care and the onset of debilitating illness, a concern of the readings for these Sundays. The tone is set by Job’s lament of endless suffering and sleepless nights. The Gospels portray a Jesus who enters the world of the sick and suffering with healing touches and healing words. Even though Mark is the shortest of the Gospels, it contains the highest proportion of miracle storiestold often in vivid detailthat alert the readers to the extraordinary power of God manifest in Jesus.

The Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time narrates in compact form the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law. Jesus is told of her illness, and without speaking a word he goes over to her, grasps her hand and helps her up. The fever leaves, and immediately she begins to serve them (NAB, "wait on"). Given Mark’s tendency to communicate deeper meanings, hidden from outsiders (4:10-12), Mark’s readers may see the house as an anticipation of their evening gatherings in house churches, and the service of the woman as an anticipation of the diaconal service of women in the community.

The following verses provide a scenic conclusion to the opening day of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign. Crowds of sick and possessed people (which are often equated in that culture) mass at the door, and Jesus heals various diseases and casts out demons, enjoining silence upon them. He then leaves "very early in the morning" (the subsequent hour of his death sentence and of the discovery of the empty tomb [15:1; 16:2]) and retreats to a deserted place, where he had earlier been tested but where he now communes with God in prayer. The disciples find him, and he responds with a renewed commitment to his mission of proclamation and confronting the power of evil.

A new day begins with the healing of a leper (sixth Sunday). Leprosy was not the modern Hansen’s disease, but designated a large number of scaly skin diseases. Still, these caused terror, and the excerpts from Leviticus 13 describe the social stigma attached to lepers as "unclean" and forced to live at the margin of society. For contemporary people, ancient Jewish purity laws are both confusing and often the source of anti-Semitism. "Purity" is not primarily a moral category, but a religious one; its opposite is holiness, not sin. God is primarily the source of life and the all-holy one. What affronts God and creation is unclean. In early rabbinic texts corpse impurity is "the father of the father of all uncleanness" and an offense to the living God. Purity laws surround symbols and carriers of life, and the "leper’s" impurity arises because of the debilitation and white skin pallor, an intimation of death. Since "impurity" could be contagious, leprosy was an especially tragic condition that isolated people from loved ones and society.

Despite his social isolation, the leper approaches Jesus, kneels and utters words of courage and faith: "If you will, you can make me clean." Jesus then reacts "with compassion." This is a better translation than the NAB’s "moved with pity." Compassion is the ability to identify with a suffering person and to enter the person’s world with care and love. This is reflected in the first action of Jesus, stretching out his hand, bridging the gap between the holy and the unclean, and touching the man. Only then does he pronounce the healing words. The leprosy leaves, but Jesus "warns him sternly" to keep silent and fulfill the Jewish prescriptions for verification of a cure. The Greek for "stern warning" can also mean, "groaning with anger," which some commentators interpret as Jesus’ anger at the social conventions surrounding the disease. The man’s paradoxical violation of Jesus’ command and public proclamation continues the theme that the power of God present in Jesus is both explosive and contagious.

These readings pose special challenges today, especially in a health-obsessed culture in which the ancient attribution of illness to sin is now modernized by attributing it to a faulty lifestyle. (The promise of immortality lies in daily exercise and large helpings of broccoli.) Also today people approach Jesus in courage and prayer for healing like the leper, but still remain sick. Yet these readings provide hope. The story of Job, a righteous sufferer, breaks the link between suffering and guilt and gives people permission to lament before their God. A Jesus who enacts God’s reign among the broken and marginal people of his time, is an enduring challenge for the contemporary church. Equally a Jesus who acts with compassionate words and touch is critical today. Often, people diagnosed with horrible illnesses, such as AIDS or different forms of cancer, experience a sense of isolation; friends and even family react with fear and caution. Yet Jesus stretches out his hand and touches someone suffering social and religious isolation. He restores Simon’s mother-in-law to her family and allows the leper to live again with dignity in the human community. Contemporary miracles of healing are often a compassionate word or touch, and the gift of continued presence and welcome to sufferers by the community of family and church.

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