The Leper’s Message

The Gospel read at Mass two Sundays ago was Mark’s story of Jesus healing the leper. At my parish, the visiting Maryknoll priest, who had the mannerisms of a hairdresser, turned the story into a plea about “touching” the people society considers untouchable. Whatever. For all I know, there wasn’t a shred of political content in his homily – I don’t know the guy – but the priest did pass over one really interesting aspect of the story.

After our Lord has made clean the unclean man, He says to him: “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” As we know, that’s exactly what the leper did not do:

The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere. (Mark 1:45)

As is true of almost every Gospel story, this one has layers upon layers one might peel back.

My earliest sense of the leper’s disobedience to Christ’s admonition to silence was that the man was a kind of Sammy Glick, a Rivington Street hustler who turns the good fortune he received into attention-getting self-aggrandizement. But that was before I became a Catholic. Now I think of the erstwhile leper as a man so full of joy that he simply cannot contain himself, he fairly jumps out of his formerly scarred and scabrous skin to give witness to the miracle.

Did Jesus know the man would react in this way? It’s hard to believe He didn’t. In fact, did the God Incarnate say what He said precisely because He knew the man would “publicize” the healing? Well, that’s a question I can ask but can’t answer. Still, telling someone to keep something secret is, often as not, a guarantee that the secret won’t be kept.

Of course, there is touching in the story. Jesus reaches out His hand to touch the leper and send power coursing through the man’s body, electrifying every cell, neutralizing the pathogen bacteria leprae and lepromatosis – and this as easily as He had transformed water into wine.

Christ Cleansing the Leper by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, 1864
Christ Cleansing the Leper by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, 1864

We don’t know who may have witnessed the healing, but whether it was one or more or all of the apostles or included members of the synagogue they’d just visited or townspeople passing by at the moment, it must have caused gasps to see Jesus lay hands on the man, because there was no contagion more feared then than leprosy. And when the man is healed and Jesus sends him off to see the priest, the “tell no one anything” part may have applied only to the period between the healing and its certification of authenticity as “Moses prescribed.”

That was the subject of the Old Testament reading at the Mass: from Leviticus 14, the ritual of purification for a leper found to have been cured, a ritual involving two birds and cedar wood and scarlet yarn and the herb hyssop. The man would have washed his clothes and shaved off all his hair and finally bathed. One of the birds was slaughtered; the other was set free to “fly away over the countryside.” At the end of a week, the man would bathe and shave again – shaving even his eyebrows. Then followed the slaughter of lambs and a viaticum-like ritual of oil and grain and blood . . . well, it was some process and expensive, although Leviticus also prescribes a less costly ritual if “a person is poor and cannot afford so much.”

Perhaps the Lord directed the formerly leprous fellow to go straight to the priest, so there could be no question that the healing was truly a miracle. This is rather in the spirit of His comment to the reluctant Baptist concerning His purification through water: “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:15)

In all His miraculous creativity, our most intimate God, coming not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, dots every “i” and crosses every “t.” And to all those witnesses, it’s all so unexpected.

The understanding among the scholars I’ve read seems to be that Jesus requested the man’s discretion, because He knew He’d be besieged once the story got out. Who am I to argue with scholars, especially so because they grasp the Greek. And, as at that wedding in Cana (the water, the wine), when the Son told our Lady that His time had not yet come, it’s certainly credible to suppose that bringing things to their fullness may have required intervention on His part, nurturing the messianic secret.

Yet every synapse of my unscholarly mind tells me Jesus knew exactly what the man – healed – would do. Exactly.

Nothing – and I mean nothing – fascinates me more than the hypostatic union, a much debated, often mind-numbing concept. It’s good enough for me that Augustine and Aquinas believed that Christ’s knowledge, from His human conception and birth, was perfect. Fully human; fully Divine.

And this adds a final, stirring subtext to Mark’s story of the leper. Jesus knew the man, as God knows each of us – intimately (recall the beginning of Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you . . .”). He knew the man’s past and his future, therefore, He knew the man could not be silent, for who can be silent knowing the Truth?

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.