Sunday worshippers listening closely to the readings in the Liturgy of the Word for this day, will delight in the contrast between the thunder of the narrative from Leviticus in the First Reading and the compassion in the passage from Mark's Gospel, dealing as they do with a like subject.
Of the First Reading, I might want to say, as scholars do when they start to simplify, "It is clear that . . ." or, as politicians say, "Clearly, it means that . . .".
But good sense and the lack of sure knowledge about biblical times, and knowledge of the ways of God as reflected in this passage, require caution.
Even so, the verses from Leviticus say something about leprosy in the those times of the Old Testament. That the Lord should speak so clearly suggests that however much the physical signs of leprosy distressed people, they also indicate a moral failing in the afflicted person.
In other words, not merely an affliction of the body, but a manifestation of inner decay - either condition causing the expulsion of the suffering person from the community until relieved in some way by the power of the priest.
If God seems stern in this reading, the Responsorial Psalm immediately following offers the quick relief of repentance: "I acknowledged my sin to you . . . I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the Lord' and you forgave the guilt of my sin."
'The man went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word and people came to Jesus.'
The simple words declare the way to freedom from guilt, a freedom fully realized later in the Gospel Reading.
Wretched enough as the suffering which leprosy brings to the ailing person, its threat in this biblical context, as a sign of sinfulness merits consideration.
Years ago in 1969, Italian scholar, Luigi Santucci put it this way, "The Gospel teems with lepers." Santucci describes leprosy as Satan's masterpiece.
In our age, with the findings of science, we know of its causes and with DNA analysis could likely trace its origins, but that knowledge need not prevent our seeing it in the biblical setting as a symbol of terrifying human weakness.
If we can interpret the meaning of the leprous condition in two ways - one has the leper, like the one whose woeful state moved Jesus so much in today's Gospel, afflicted with a deep infection with its dreadful physical and demoralizing psychological effects.
The other permits us to see the physical signs no less clearly than in the first interpretation, but now as well as indications of moral decay or in more biblical terms, as sinfulness - a condition no less pitiable in Jesus' eyes and requiring forgiveness.
The leper, a sick man on his knees before Jesus says, "If you choose, you can make me clean." Jesus says, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Or the leper as sinful man, in like manner would kneel before Jesus and plead, "If you choose, you can forgive me." Jesus would say, "I do choose."
(Ralph Himsl: firstname.lastname@example.org)