“I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it,” Jesus says. But what can he mean? I think today’s mass readings provide a helpful depiction of how Christ fulfilled the law of Moses, given in the first books of the Old Testament. Some might like to interpret today’s gospel reading as depicting Jesus rejecting a cruel and outdated teaching that discriminates against those who have a disease. This interpretation does not do justice to the nuance of the texts chosen for the liturgy, nor does it capture Christ’s adherence to the law of Moses. Even as he transcends this law by working a miracle of healing, he submits his miracle to the Levitical procedure.
The first reading, from Leviticus, reads almost like a public health decree (the whole chapter even more so: see Leviticus 13). If someone appears to have a leprous sore, he must be brought before Aaron, the priest, who will declare him unclean. The leper then must provide visible and audible signs of his disease: he must tear his garments and cry out a warning to others as he passes by. What’s more, he must leave town; he must live in the desert apart from the community.
Such a consequence for disease might seem harsh by today’s standards. Yet it is not so far from the way we treat severe contagious diseases today: examination, diagnosis, communication of the news to the community, quarantine until recovery. It was not so long ago that a sign in the window of a house warned visitors that a member of the family had scarlet fever. In the vulnerable Israelite community, then, such a procedure seems far from irrational or hateful. It is only in the distortion of such a law – enacting it without charity – that it becomes cruel. When we refuse to see the humanity of a sick person, when we secretly enjoy discriminating against them, when the impulse of “I’m glad it’s not me,” is stronger than an impulse to compassion, then we are no longer following the law as Leviticus intended.
Curiously, however, the first reading does not include text from chapter 13 that explains how a person may be declared clean and readmitted to the community (Lev 13:5-6). We have to wait until the gospel reading for an implicit reference to this text.
In the Gospel of Mark, a leper approaches Jesus and offers a humble petition for healing: “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Christ responds, “I do will it. Be made clean.” The Latin text depicts his simple and beautiful confirmation of the man’s desire: Volo: mundare. Christ heals him, and then instructs him to show himself to the priest, in keeping with the Mosaic law. This alludes to the procedure from Levitical law that the first reading did not mention!
The first reading and the gospel, then, seem to form a narrative arc at which Christ is the center. The excerpt of the law that explains diagnosis and isolation is interrupted by Christ’s miracle. Only after this do we have an implicit reference to the part of the law that explains how a person is deemed cured and readmitted to the community. Christ upholds the original intent of the law – to preserve life – and elevates it. He then submits his own miracle to the Law of Moses. (One clue from Christian artwork: iconography like the image featured here depicts Christ holding a scroll – perhaps the law – while healing.)
Perhaps most mysteriously, the gospel passage ends with Christ in the wilderness. Because the leper told everyone about the miracle, it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. Christ’s fate, here, is much like the fate of a leper. He has chosen to make himself vulnerable in order to heal the vulnerable, to displace himself in order to re-instate an isolated man. The story of the Incarnation, and of our salvation, is encapsulated in the story of Christ healing the leper.