Healing of the Lepers at Capernaum, James Tissot, 1886–1894, Brooklyn Museum
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Leviticus 13:1–2, 44–46
February 14, 2021
Today’s first reading from Leviticus might seem to have little to teach us other than the primitive nature of ancient medicine. It does reflect this but much more as well. Before looking at the passage itself we need to examine three issues: the role of the tribe of Levi, the nature of holiness and what ailments were considered skin diseases.
Although counted among the twelve tribes of Israel, the tribe of Levi was not given land of its own after the conquest of Canaan. This was not a punishment but a reward for their faithfulness and zeal for the Lord and his Law. They earned this honor when Moses had returned to the Hebrews camp to find the people worshipping a golden calf.
Moses stood at the gate of the camp and cried,(Ex 32:26–29)
“Whoever is for the LORD, let him come to me!”
All the Levites then rallied to him, and he told them,
“Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel:
Put your sword on your hip, every one of you!
Now go up and down the camp, from gate to gate,
and slay your own kinsmen, your friends and neighbors!”
The Levites carried out the command of Moses,
and that day there fell about three thousand of the people.
Then Moses said, “Today you have been dedicated to the LORD,
for you were against your own sons and kinsmen,
to bring a blessing upon yourselves this day.”
From them come the Priests and all who serve in the worship of God. The book of Leviticus is one of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) and tells the Levites what they are expected to do. One of their duties is to know what is clean and unclean and enforce the borders between.
Chapters 11 to 16 of Leviticus concern what may be considered clean. Clean means that the person or object is free of anything which would prevent him, her, or it being associated with the sacred or from being part of worship. Uncleanness can be either permanent or temporary. Animals, pigs most of all, are permanently unclean and must always be avoided. It is no doubt true that the flesh of a pig would be difficult to keep safe in the hot temperatures of the Middle East, but it is unclean because it does not fit the definition of a mammal. A mammal to be complete and thus free of imperfection must both “chew the cud and have cloven hooves”. (Deut 14:4-6) Pigs do not. Contact with a dead body made one unclean. Decaying bodies are unsafe and so before embalming needed to be buried quickly. Yet they were unclean because a human being is meant to serve the LORD and death is the ultimate “imperfection.”
The Levites not only were called to know the law and enforce it, but also to know how to return the person to the clean state to worship and be part of the community. We should note that sin is not implied in these beliefs. The greatest prophet could be unclean, the greatest sinner clean. It was a reflection on what they considered “holy,” able to participate in worship. Thus, a person with a skin disease needed to go the priest to be declared clean.
I am careful not to use the word leprosy. Leprosy, Hansen’s disease, may have existed then but the descriptions of skin disease, mercifully skipped over in our passage today, go far beyond it. As with unclean foods and decaying bodies, contact with a person with a skin disease had a medical dimension. Unlike some communicable diseases, this was easy to spot and realize that one had to keep a certain distance. But again, more important was the sense of holiness and ability to worship. Skin disease was the most visible example of decay and deterioration. Imperfection made real. This visible nature was taken so seriously that the walls of a house could be considered unclean and made people impure if they had mold, the skin disease of the inanimate. The job of the priests was to diagnose what kind of skin problem this was—temporary or permanent—and then to either permit the person to return to the community or to cast him or her outside.
As long as the sore is on him(Le 13:46)
he shall declare himself unclean,
since he is in fact unclean.
He shall dwell apart,
making his abode outside the camp.
The concern is with protection of the world of holiness, centered at the sanctuary, from defilement by ritual impurity.
For sake of convenience, we will call all those who have been removed from the community lepers.” It was truly a tragic condition under any circumstances, but more so if someone with a minor skin infection was placed among people who were seriously afflicted and caught their disease. Without better means of diagnosis and treatment, many people, especially family members, were no doubt spared great physical suffering, but the isolation of the leper must have been agonizing. Although leprosy has been conquered in most of the world there are still leper colonies today including the famous leprosarium on the Island of Moloka’i in Hawaii.
For us, the question of clean and unclean persons, animals, places, and things, may seem irrelevant at best. Yet it points to the question of holiness and more directly, how to live a holy life. That which is related to God is holy, but God is so different from us and so much greater than we are that contact with him is dangerous. We read in proverbs: “The beginning of wisdom is fear of the LORD” (Prov. 9:10) and the Psalmist tells us “Serve the LORD with fear; exult with trembling” (Ps 2:11) The Israelites as we have seen were afraid that contact with him would be fatal. (Dt 18:16) Yet he formed a convent with them. This was an offer of great intimacy. Indeed, not only did Moses see the face of God but we remember Job from lasts weeks reading. (Job 42:5)
The Jews had the right to be confused about what holiness meant in everyday life. God was beyond their wildest imaginations, all-powerful and all-knowing yet he extended love and friendship to them. This is a dilemma that was “solved” when Jesus took on flesh. Yet we may find ourselves taking this relationship with Jesus for granted and forgetting that God is always great and worthy of fear and awe. It is good for us to spend time with the Jews and their dilemma. The idea of clean and unclean points to the great reality of the awesome power of God’s majesty and only be realizing this can we genuinely appreciate the even greater power of his love.