A PRE-LENT REFLECTION ON MARK 1, 29-39
Mark’s was the first of the four Gospels to be written down and he gives us a lot of interesting domestic details that are not in the other versions. For example, there is the casual mention of St Peter’s mother-in-law which is our only indication that he was a married man: the first Pope, married! And as soon as she was cured from her fatal illness she began waiting on the men! That’s how things were, and probably still are, in the Middle East.
As he begins the story of the ministry of Jesus, St Mark sets before us a typical day’s ministry of Jesus in Capernaum. It begins with the healing of the sick man in the synagogue. But there are many others who also need Jesus’s healing.
Now consider this quote from the same text: In the morning, long before dawn, Jesus got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there. In some ways you could argue that this isn’t a particularly human thing to do: how many of us get up “long before dawn” for a few hours of prayer – I don’t: I postpone getting up for as long as I dare.
But in some ways this image of the prayerful and disciplined Jesus, or to put it another way: the Jesus who knows that to fulfill his mission he needs prayer, that is close communication with The Father, and personal discipline, is Mark presenting us with a very human Jesus – a man who knows he needs his regime just like all of us and can’t just say “I’m God so I can cut out this prayer stuff”.
Then a leper comes to Jesus for help. This leper is not presented as having any special faith in Jesus. He does not call Jesus “Lord” or “Rabbi”, as the leper does in the parallel account in St Matthew’s Gospel. It may be that the leper thinks of Jesus as a magician. The world at the time had many magicians. That does not bother Jesus. For him, this man is a human being, an outcast from the human community (lepers then weren’t allowed into the synagogue and lived in isolation because their disease was highly contagious). And people took it for granted that lepers were bad people, suffering for their sins! Worse still, in coming near Jesus, the man may well have broken another religious law. He should have kept a safe distance from Jesus and shouted “unclean, unclean”! So it would have amazed people that Jesus touched the leper, thereby breaking the law himself. Perhaps he is teaching us that the law of love has priority over technical laws, even religious ones!
In his own Gospel, St Luke has an interesting re-reading of St Mark’s story of this leper. St Luke talks about lepers because at the time it was a big issue. Today, we are not going to spot many “lepers and sinners” in the streets where we live, apart from a few homeless people. Most of our “lepers” are in hostels or in prison or in Calais. We are all in a way responsible for this. It was the modem secular world that first promoted the idea of human rights, as we know them today – some say “while the church was asleep”. In our own lifetime the church has belatedly re-emphasised its mission to promote human rights. But that is far from being implemented at grass-roots level.
I believe we all need to rediscover the character, the mystery, of Jesus as he walks down the road, meets a leper, feels sorry for him, touches his leprosy with his hand and says “be cured”. If we insist on saying, without reference to Jesus, that it was the Father who cured the leper, we would not be entirely wrong, but we would have distorted the message the Gospel is trying to convey. In practice we would have by-passed the humanity of Jesus and our own humanity. Without the humanity of Jesus, we have only a vague idea of what human rights really are: and only a limited understanding of their corresponding duties.