Rev. John McKenzie, the noted Scripture scholar, once remarked that one of the criticisms leveled against Jesus and His first followers revolved around their habit of associating with those in the community who were situated below the bottom rung of the social ladder. “Fortunately,” Father McKenzie said, “it didn’t take the Church long to silence such criticism.” The think I remember most about Pope John Paul’s visit to St. Louis three years ago happened at the airport as he was about to depart. National, state and local politicians lined his path, each expecting to be provided with an invaluable papal photo-op. The pope grasped a few of their outstretched hands and arms, then gradually veered away from the “official line” and walked over to a roped-off section where people with disabilities were placed. He began touching and talking with each individual. Had Mark been able to observe the pope’s actions, he would have smiled and said, “He got my message.”


There’s no greater disability in ancient Judaism than leprosy. The first reading (Lev 13: 1-2, 44-46) simply creates the background against which we’re to listen to the Gospel) Mk 1: 40-45). Our liturgical selection gives us only five of chapter 13’s 59 verses. The author uses more than 50 verses just to explain what is and what isn’t leprosy. Then he takes another 57 verses in chapter 14 to outline the ritual procedures to be followed after the leprosy disappears, including having the priest at a local shrine official examine the healed person and declare him or her “clean.” Even a casual reading of these two chapters shows that, in the ancient world, the category of leprosy included most skin diseases. (There’s even “leprosy of the house!”) But within our paltry five verses is the statement that makes Jesus’ actions significant: “The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’...Since he is in fact unclean, he shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” Father McKenzie taught what all Scripture scholars teach about the historical Jesus: one of the reasons the authority structure hated Him was because He lived His life as though categories of “in and out” didn’t exist. He drove them crazy. For Him, nobody was out; everybody was in. Jesus intended His all-inclusive behavior to be a sign that Yahweh doesn’t discriminate between ins and outs.

Touching moment

Notice how Mark has Jesus cure the leper. “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out His hand, touched him, and said, ‘Be cured.’” The touch is important or Mark wouldn’t have mentioned it. According to the laws in Leviticus, Jesus isn’t supposed to do that. Lepers are obligated to live in such a way that no “clean person” ever touches them, even by accident. Yet the very action the law forbids is the action which cures. In almost 40 years as a priest, I’ve yet to experience anyone coming back only because they were put out. People only return to the community when someone in that community reaches out to them and touches them in all their “impurity.” Of course, the “ins” usually cast out the toucher along with the touched. Perhaps the reason we still do what Jesus insisted we stop doing is found in the second reading (I Cor 10: 31-11:1). Paul reminds the Corinthians that he constantly reaches out to others because he’s seeking “not (his) advantage, but that of the many, that they may be saved.” Is it possible that, down deep, we who represent the institution are more worried about saving our own reputations than about saving the “many?”