Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time (B) | Fr Fergus Kerr ponders the issue of secrecy in St Mark’s Gospel concerning the healings and miracles that Jesus does, and asks why this was enjoined upon the leper.
Why does the healed leper ignore Jesus’s injunction to say nothing to anyone but talks so freely that Jesus retreats into the wilds to get away from people — in vain, of course?
Lepers had to keep their distance, in New Testament times, as indeed in many parts of the world they still have to, in isolation hospitals nowadays if they are lucky, rather than in the circumstances so vividly prescribed in our first reading (Leviticus 13): “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be dishevelled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean’. He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp”.
From the description in Leviticus (medical people say) other skin infections were meant, such as eczema, psoriasis, and ringworm, rather than Hansen’s disease, leprosy as epidemiologically defined today — the details don’t fit. In New Testament times, such diseases were regarded as contagious, and so, understandably enough, the afflicted individual was ostracized.
But there is more to this healing. Leviticus takes us back a long way, into a whole cultural and religious world. The text in our bibles dates, so scholars contend, from the centuries (538–332 BC) when ancient Israel was a province of the much older and greater civilization that was Persia (Iran). During this period Ezra the priest reorganized the Israelite state politically, and reformed the religious institutions, shaping what we would recognize as modern Judaism. Nehemiah, a court official in Persia, arrived, a little later, to rebuild the city walls and the Temple in Jerusalem, thus establishing what we call ‘Second Temple Judaism’ (the first was built by Solomon). This was the cultural world in which skin diseases were defined as ‘unclean’ (Leviticus 13), and the rituals for restoring purity prescribed (Leviticus 14). It was the sophisticated culture that Jesus inhabited. He has no hesitation in instructing the leprous individual whom he has healed to go straight to a priest, presumably at the Temple in Jerusalem, to have his disease-free condition verified, to make the required offering, and so be allowed to re-join the worshipping community. Whatever he is reported as doing on other occasions Jesus does nothing here to reject the purity rules as set out in Leviticus — on the contrary, he enjoins compliance with them.
But the focus in the narrative becomes the healed leper’s inability to keep silent about the miracle, unsurprising as that surely was. The language about what Jesus did is quite strong: the Greek could mean that Jesus ‘inveighed against him and drove him away’. Translations usually suggest a much less aggressive scenario — but what if Jesus was exasperated, realizing that he could not make the healed leper say nothing? Doesn’t it look as if the focus of St Mark’s narrative is not the miracle itself but rather Jesus’s inability to stop the healed leper’s celebrating it?
After all, the scenario is repeated. After raising Jairus’s daughter, Jesus ‘strictly ordered them that no one should know this’ (Mk 5, 43); after healing the deaf mute, he ‘ordered them to tell no one’ — ‘but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it’ (Mk 7, 36); he told the blind man, after restoring his sight, to go straight home, ‘not even to go into the village’ (Mk 8, 26); and, most revealingly of all, when he had drawn Simon Peter into calling him Messiah he ‘sternly ordered them not to tell anyone’ (Mk 8, 30)
Repeatedly, in St Mark’s narrative, Jesus forbids people from telling others what he had done for them, or what they had witnessed him do, or, in this last case, what they meant by calling him Messiah. Of course St Mark’s readers knew, as we know, that he is Jesus Christ the Son of God (Mk 1, 1). But as he unfolds this Good News, St Mark emphasizes how impossible it was to identify Jesus. The things that he did, including the healing miracles, were taken in the wrong way — inevitably, as he surely knew. The miracles gave him a misconceived popularity. Only in the light of the end could what happened along the way be understood. For St Mark, as for his readers and of course for us, the centurion’s cry as he saw Jesus die — ‘Truly, this man was the Son of God’ (15:39) — is the key to the whole story. St Mark’s Gospel is ‘a Passion narrative with an extended introduction’, as the German Protestant biblical theologian Martin Kähler said (in 1892). No one back then could have realized Jesus’s identity properly before his Passion and Resurrection — any more than we ourselves can realize it today.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a detail from a paleo-Christian sarcophagus in the Vatican Museum.