February 15, 2015
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading: Lev 13:1-2; 44-46
Have you ever had itchy psoriasis or eczema? Have you ever found mold in your basement or mildew on your clothes? If so, in ancient Israel, you would have needed to invite a Levitical priest to come and look at your clothes, your home, or your skin. Dermatology is not often our first concern when we come to the biblical text, but the mysterious and complex rules about diagnosing skin diseases in Leviticus reveal something deeper. Our status before God is not a private matter, nor is it a function of our own self-perception. Rather, where we stand is an objective state of affairs, and sometimes we need a little clean-up before we are ready to “enter the camp.”
What is Leprosy?
The term for “leprosy” in this Sunday’s reading from Leviticus 13, one of only two such readings in the 3-year cycle, is a catch-all term for scaly skin diseases—eczema, psoriasis, boils, rashes, burns, scars, favid, vitiligo, etc. Leprosy proper, the dreaded Hansen’s disease, is also covered, but it is not the central focus. Hansen’s disease was an incurable illness in ancient times. If a person contracted it, he would be permanently excluded from society so that the contagion did not spread. Hence we hear about “leper colonies” like the island of Molokai, where St. Damien ministered to the afflicted and himself contracted the disease. Treatments for leprosy have been around since the 1940’s and the rate of new cases has dramatically decreased. But in our passage from Leviticus the text foresees some of these afflictions clearing up on their own (14:3) without medical intervention. A person with any one of these skin diseases would be temporarily excluded from the community until his body was healed (13:45-46).
Leviticus in general presents rules for worshipping God with proper sacrifices, laws for maintaining ritual purity so one would be eligible to participate in that worship, and a detailed moral code that applies the principles of the Ten Commandments to daily interactions. Ritual purity is hard for us to understand. It would be easy to think that the rules of Leviticus are merely a primitive way to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, but they are not. They are religious rules for establishing who is and who is not qualified to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer sacrifices. Notice that the priests are mere observers, not healers. None of the rules ask the priests to initiate any kind of therapy, but only to inspect bodies and homes to see whether they are pure or not. Rituals are performed in recognition that the leprosy has cleared up not for the sake of healing the person (Lev 14:3-4). The priest observes healing, but does not transmit it.
Why Bother with Purity?
So ritual purity either included or excluded you from the worship of the Lord, but why did the Israelites bother with all these arcane rules about white hairs and pustules? Specifically, why does the sanctuary exclude skin-diseased people? Skin diseases and certain other bodily conditions (like bleeding) were considered a corruption of the flesh, an invasion of death. The deterioration of the skin in particular looks like early-onset decomposition. If your body is starting to “decompose” then you can’t come into the sanctuary of the God of the living. Bringing an admixture of death in your body into God’s house is incompatible in principle.
Now, thank goodness, most ancient skin diseases can be treated and we don’t have to wear rags and shout “Unclean!” if we wake up with dandruff one morning. But that does not mean that we have no need for purity. Several miracles in Jesus’ ministry restored persons to a state of being ritually clean: the leper he heals in this Sunday’s gospel (Mark 1:40-45) or the woman with a flow of blood (Mark 5:25). While skin diseases and other bodily problems do not exclude us from worshipping God, we can find spiritual significance in these Old Testament rules.
Our Need for Purity
Any person who had taken a step toward death could not worship the God of life. No one who carried death in his or her body was considered worthy. Likewise, when we carry around sin in our souls, we make ourselves unworthy of God’s presence. St. Paul insists that if we receive unworthily we become “guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27), which is why the Church rules that we cannot receive Communion in a state of grave sin (Canon 916). But of course, if you do find yourself in a state of grave sin, always pay a visit to the confessional before receiving Communion. In addition, our need for purification (purgatory) before we see the face of God reveals that the ancient Israelites knew what they were talking about. We cannot come into God’s presence in heaven stained with sin—sin is like a cancer or leprosy that spreads. It must be completely eradicated from us before we are “compatible” with God’s presence. The Catechism teaches, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (sec. 1030).
Jesus frees us from the leprosy of sin. He cleanses us and purifies us so that we can enter his presence. As we seek his face, he continually transforms us and prepares us to see him face to face. Maybe the next time you find a wart on your hand or a scratchy spot on your leg, be thankful that no one will send you out of the camp, nor will your priest want to inspect your skin. Instead, it could be a reminder of our own need for purification, for holiness, a step away from death, and a step toward life.