The sociologist Rodney Stark, in “The Triumph of Christianity” (HarperCollins, $27.99), confronts the notion that Christianity is a “pie in the sky” religion that attracted adherents in its first centuries by merely promising eternal life.
“What is almost always missed,” Stark writes, “is that Christianity often puts the pie on the table! It makes life better here and now.” He details how life in the ancient world was almost unremittingly filthy and unsanitary, and that disease and physical affliction “probably were dominant features of daily life.”
“In the midst of the squalor, misery, illness, and anonymity of ancient cities,” Stark says, “Christianity provided an island of mercy and security. Foremost was the Christian duty to alleviate want and suffering. It started with Jesus.”
God did not become man because he needed the praise of men. He became man so he could, in his divine humility, touch us and save us from both physical evils and spiritual destruction.
The reading from Leviticus 13 provides context for the Gospel reading in describing some of the measures required of those who had leprosy, which likely refers to a range of serious skin disorders including Hansen’s disease. Those afflicted had to present themselves to the priests, who would then diagnose the disease and, if necessary, “declare him unclean.” This was in many ways a sort of death sentence, at least relationally, because the leper had to live outside of the community, identifying himself as “Unclean, unclean!”
The Law, then, could identify the disease and provided a practical means to protect the people from the disease spreading. But the Law could not cure the disease; it was able only to acknowledge when the disease had disappeared. This contrasts strikingly with Jesus, the great and holy high priest, who did not merely look upon the leper’s diseased body, but stretched out his hand, touched the unclean man, and healed him: “The leprosy left him immediately.”
Yet Jesus did not use this amazing act as a weapon against the Law, but told the man to present himself to the priests. In fact, Jesus sternly warned the man to say nothing of the healing, an action described several times in Mark’s Gospel (cf. Mk 1:44; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26, 30; 9:9); he wished his identity as the true Messiah — not a military leader or political zealot — to be revealed slowly and at the proper time. Jesus knew how his miracles could be misunderstood and misused by those anxious to overthrow the Romans. But the real Messiah is revealed in humility and mercy, through acts of selfless love and life-giving sacrifice.
A paradox is then described. When the healed leper, against Jesus’ admonition, did spread the word, it forced Jesus to live and carry out his ministry outside the town — that is, outside the camp. The holy one who had healed the leper became “unclean,” a sort of leper, having to remain in deserted places. But what happened then? The people “kept coming to him from everywhere.” The divide between what was thought clean — the sinful people in need of cleansing — and perceived as unclean — the mysterious man who touched the leper — was removed.
The limitations of the Law were revealed, but the Law was also fulfilled by the Law-giving Son of God, the only priest who can see our sins and heal both body and soul.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.