Sin, separation, and salvation: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 1:40–45:

A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once.

He said 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.”

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.

Over the last year, we have all begun to appreciate the biblical narratives of leprosy and the revulsion it produced among people of those times. The lack of understanding of its nature and the incurable character of the disease created fright among the healthy. To keep the disease from spreading, communities would cast out those afflicted, and force them to declare themselves while coming into contact with others by crying “Unclean, unclean!”

The issue of leprosy goes all the way back to today’s first reading from Leviticus, its first mention in the Bible. The Lord tells Moses and Aaron to separate the lepers and keep them “outside the camp,” an unfortunate necessity in those days. Although we sometimes see this as a brutal and backward reaction, it did have some basis in reality. Now known as Hansen’s disease, leprosy is actually contagious, although now the bacterial mechanism for this infection is known and can be defeated if caught early. At that time, however, the only way to stop it from getting passed along was to quarantine those who had it — and quarantine them for a lifetime.

When Jesus comes, however, he makes a particular effort to cure lepers, as he does in today’s Gospel reading from Mark. Nearly half of all references in the Bible to lepers are in the four Gospels, all about Jesus’ healing miracles. In the last of these in Luke 17:11-19, Jesus heals ten at a time, including the Samaritan who alone gave Jesus praise for His miracle.

That passage and our others today present us with analogies for sin and salvation that underscore why Jesus sought out the lepers — and the Samaritans. Both had been separated from the people of God, either through disease or through ancient feuds. Both were considered, therefore, as unclean, in different ways. Although none of this was either God’s plan or God’s doing, it nevertheless mirrors how sin separates us, and how that separation does its own damage even apart from the sin itself.

Sin itself is separation — a separation from the will of the Lord, created by our own self-love over love of Him and others. Unlike leprosy, which has no moral fault, sin enters into us and accentuates our separateness from others. We become more and more enchanted by the boundaries of our own bodies and our own lives and less concerned about the bonds of community which the Lord’s commandments require. And unlike with the lepers, the separation of sin is entirely self-imposed.

This is what Jesus demonstrates in His entire ministry, and not just with the lepers. However, His healing of the lepers is a model of His salvation for all of us. Jesus calls us out of our sinful separation from the Lord and heals us so that we can return to our true selves, ready to form ourselves to God’s will through our own choice. It is in that healing that we are transformed back into health, and back into communion with the Lord and His children.

Jesus gives this salvation freely, but we must choose it. We must still have the ability to recognize our separateness, our sin, in order to understand the need for His healing. For the lepers, every hour of their lives gave them reminders of the cruelty of the separateness imposed upon them by disease. For us sinners, though, the repetitive and addictive nature of sin will eventually deaden us to the pain of that separation, and to the oppressive isolation of unremitting self-love. Until we recall some sense of our true calling from the Lord, we will remain unclean, even if we are the only ones who can’t recognize it.

This is why we need to remain connected to the Gospel and to Christ’s ministry of salvation. And why we must pray for those who exile themselves, either a little or a lot, from their brothers and sisters in the Lord — so that they may finally see the truth and rejoice in salvation, as the Samaritan did in the end.

The front-page image is a detail of a mosaic from Duomo di Monreale, Sicily, Italy.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.