“Of course I want to! Be cured” (Mk 1:40-45):
Effect of Encounter with Jesus – holistic wellbeing
Here is a one-line summary of this reflection: The result of an authentic encounter with Jesus is a holistic wellbeing!
Yes, I am convinced that a deep encounter with Jesus brings about a holistic wellbeing at the personal, social and spiritual levels.
The gospel text of today describes the encounter between Jesus and a person with ‘leprosy’. Though there are still some societies where people with leprosy are stigmatized, generally we have a better understanding of the disease today: that it is caused by a bacteria; the development of the disease is associated with malnutrition; it is curable; and once treated it is not contagious. During the time of Jesus – as it may be the case in some societies up to our own times – any condition that involved oozing out of body fluids was anomalous, mysterious and unhygienic. Hence, many taboos were developed around these conditions. This was true of normal menstruation as well as skin-conditions. The Book of Leviticus makes a clear distinction between just a scab on the skin and a condition that forms ulcers (Lev 13:2-30). The ulcerous condition creates secretions and hence the individual with these conditions has to be isolated not only for hygienic reasons but because they are ritualistically impure! Therefore, what is referred to as ‘leprosy,’ in the gospel text of today and in the first reading, was not just a physical condition, but had its social and spiritual implications. Therefore, the cure of the man with leprosy by Jesus was also not just a physical healing, but it involved the re-establishment of the social and spiritual status of the man. The action and instructions of Jesus demonstrate how Jesus deals with this man as a whole person: at the personal, social and spiritual levels.
Intrapersonal wellbeing: “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him” (Mk 1:41)
The gospel text of today begins with these words, “A leper came to Jesus and pleaded on his knees…” (Mk 1:40). By coming to Jesus, the man with ‘the virulent skin-disease’ (as the New Jerusalem Bible rightly has it) has broken the Law. In the Lukan story of the ten men with a skin-disease, “they stood some way off” (Lk 17:12). As we heard in the first reading of today, “the man must live apart; he must live outside the camp” (Lev 13:46). Jesus not only allows the man to come nearby, but also stretches out his hand and touches the man (Mk 1:41). By touching the man with the skin-condition, Jesus has broken the Law. The Book of Leviticus further prescribes that anyone who touches anything made unclean by a dead body, or who has a seminal discharge… remains unclean until evening… (Lev 22:4). Yet, Jesus feels the need to touch him physically so as to offer the man his dignity as a human person. The man now enjoys intrapersonal wellbeing – his personal dignity is re-established.
Human touch is one of the first ways of communication that we ever learnt as babies. A touch, from an exuberant high five to a warm hand on the shoulder, can communicate human emotion more accurately than any uttered word. For instance, studies have shown that students who received a supportive touch on the back or arm from a teacher were nearly twice as likely to volunteer in class as those who did not receive the touch. A touch could mean reassurance, care, and encouragement. Jesus is not sparing in the use of touch as a way of communicating. There is an abundance of instances, particularly in the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus reaches out and touches people, or allows people to touch him (Mk 1:31, 1:41; 3:10, 5:27-34; 5:41; 6:56; 7:33; 8:22-23; 10:13-16). His compassionate touch offers people their dignity!
Interpersonal wellbeing: “Go and show yourself to the priest…” (Mk 1:44b)
Having cured the man, Jesus now orders him to go and show himself to the priest as prescribed by the Law (Lev 14). Is Jesus trying to make up here for his disobedience of the Law in the first instance? Being consistent with his behavior and teaching elsewhere in the Gospels, what matters to Jesus is the life and dignity of the human person. In this case, by showing himself to the priests the man will be allowed to go back to his family and people. Thus his social wellbeing will be re-established.
It seems imperative that a kind act to anyone has to respect their social and cultural context. Otherwise, it runs the risk of alienating them even further. An important lesson for those of us who are missionaries and volunteers in cross-cultural situations, or involved in advocacy work: our very well-intentioned good work with ridiculing comments about the local culture might turn out to be not wholesome, after all!
Supra-personal (Spiritual) wellbeing: “… and make the offering for your healing” (Mk 1:44c)
In the Book of Numbers, when Aaron and Miriam had criticized their brother Moses over his marriage with a Cushite woman, Yahweh’s anger was kindled, and Miriam was struck with a virulent-skin disease (Num 12:1-10). So, skin-disease, in fact, sickness as such, was seen as a punishment from God for human sin. Jesus categorically denies this causal connection between sin and sickness, as we see, for instance, in the story of the blind man in John 9. And here in Mark, Jesus asks the man to make the offering for his healing to assure him that he is not cursed by God. The man’s relationship with God is re-established. Jesus’ healing of the man mediates spiritual wellbeing.
Having had a deep encounter with Jesus, having experienced this three-fold healing, and having been made whole again, how could the man be silent about it? He had to break the order of Jesus. “He started talking about it freely and telling the story everywhere…” (Mk 1:45).
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.