We're still listening to the beginning of Mark's Gospel (Mk 1: 40-45). He continues to present the main themes of Jesus' teaching and ministry, which he'll develop throughout the rest of his work. That's why he deliberately places Jesus’ healing of a leper at this point.

In the first reading (Lev 13:1-2, 44-46), we hear the horrible restrictions Judaism (and all other cultures) placed on people suffering from chronic skin disease. The consequences of being a leper are so horrendous that, to avoid "whisper campaigns," only a priest can officially declare an individual leprous.

Though the five verses which comprise our liturgical selection are just a small part of the 116 which the author gives to the subject, the last verse perfectly sums up the public's attitude: The leper "shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp." In other words, lepers aren't permitted to be part of Yahweh's people.

Healing hand

Today, we must judge Jesus' Gospel actions against the background of such restrictions. Mark's key phrase seems to be, "Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him." Jesus deliberately touches the man before He cures him. He touches him while he's still a leper.

Jesus certainly knows that Torah law forbids "clean" Jews from coming into contact with "unclean" persons. The slightest touch transforms the clean into the unclean, subjecting them to a long period of purification -- a length of time which must be scrupulously observed before they can again offer the sacrifices and perform the rituals Yahweh demands. The irony here is that Jesus risks becoming unclean in order to make the leper clean.

I recently read an article about someone I knew in the seminary 40 years ago: Larry Rosebaugh. An Oblate of Mary Immaculate, Larry now ministers in Guatemala. But back in the '70s, he responded to an invitation from Dom Helder Camara and lived homeless for six years on the streets of Recife, Brazil.

Larry became one with the abandoned, the prostitutes, the down and out, the beggars, the hungry. As the article states, he chose "to travel the path that nobody else would take. He chose to be poor,...to be unconventional,...to bring the message of Jesus Christ to uncharted places." He made himself unclean to care for the unclean.

Larry's unorthodox orthodoxy crated tensions. "Friends feared for his safety. Police considered him a Communist. Some traditionalists in the Church thought it was inappropriate for him to be living with society's castaways." Unlike many of us who claim to minister in Jesus' name, Larry actually imitates the Jesus of Mark's Gospel.

Become unclean

No wonder Paul speaks (I Cor. 10:31-11:1) of "avoiding giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks or the Church of God, just as I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ!"

Both Mark's theological picture of Jesus, and Paul's broad imitation of Him demonstrate that we, as other Christs, aren't just to break down the wall separating the "ins" from the "outs." Even before the wall falls, we're to go over it, and through it to become one with those on the other side. Our Sacred Authors believe there's no other way to bring God's salvation to those who most need salvation.

During our seminary days, I don't remember Larry having any special intellectual talents. He certainly didn't appear overly pious. But he obviously was developing a gift most of us at the time didn't think that important, the one gift all of us should have been developing: the gift of imitating Jesus.