Martin Henry: Touched by the untouchable
The message of the gospel is unambiguously clear, says Fr Martin Henry - that there is something that is higher than health and reputation, and of even greater value than life itself
THE end of the opening chapter of St Mark's Gospel relates the story of a leper's encounter with Jesus.
The story turns ostensibly on the cure of the leper. But clearly it isn't only about that. Otherwise, why would Jesus appear to attach so little importance to the cure as such?
One would think that someone who had performed such a great miracle of healing would want the good news of the cure to be spread abroad.
And that especially the person cured would want to talk about his miraculous healing to all and sundry - as the leper in the story in fact does.
This would be all the more to be expected when one thinks not just of what a terrible physical illness leprosy was and is, but when the social consequences involved in suffering from leprosy are also borne in mind.
In the time of Jesus, perhaps even more than today, leprosy was an illness that excluded people from the rest of society.
Lepers were considered ritually unclean and had to live in separate locations, outside the main towns and villages where the rest of the population lived, for, among other reasons, fear of the infection spreading.
Apparently the name Leopardstown, a district outside Dublin city where lepers of former times were accommodated, itself derives from the term 'leper'.
Leprosy was therefore not only a physical disease, but it also deprived those afflicted with it of their place within society.
There's hardly any need to underline just how familiar this now sounds in the middle of a pandemic, when those with coronavirus or exposed to it are constantly ordered to self-isolate and quarantine for fear of infecting others.
Yet, despite the fact that the healing of the leper was of such significance both for the man's health and for his ability to return to normal society, Jesus still tells him not to talk to anyone about what has just been done for him. What are we to make of this?
At least part of what it means must be that Jesus is trying to convey to the cured man that while his regained health and place within society are undoubtedly things to be grateful for, at the same time they are perhaps not the most important thing there is.
For Jesus, the religious meaning of the event seems to be even more important than the healing itself and what it meant to the leper for his future.
Which is surely why Jesus, though telling the man not to speak about his cure, does tell him, indeed "sternly orders him", to "show [himself] to the priest, and make the offering for [his] healing prescribed by Moses as evidence of [his] recovery" (Mark 1:43-44).
There's hardly any need to underline just how familiar this now sounds in the middle of a pandemic, when those with coronavirus or exposed to it are constantly ordered to self-isolate and quarantine for fear of infecting others
As far as religion is concerned, therefore, health as such and social acceptance as such can seemingly never be regarded as the highest value we can know or cherish.
That may sound harsh, and indeed it is harsh. It's a hard saying, and it would be foolish to try to pretend otherwise.
It's relatively easy to say that health isn't our highest value, when we actually have our health.
And it's relatively easy to say that social status isn't our highest value when we actually have a more or less secure place in society, and don't seem to be in any immediate danger of losing it.
But the message of the gospel is unambiguously clear. It says that there is something that is higher than health and reputation, something that is of even greater value than life itself or our own existence, and that is quite simply God himself who created us and wants to redeem us by sharing his life with us.
In a curious and ironic sense, the unhealed leper in the gospel account, living outside normal society, might possibly be a more potent and dramatic symbol of the 'holiness' or 'separateness' or 'untouchability' or 'otherness' of God, than the healed leper.
Perhaps for that reason, the story ends with Jesus changing places, so to speak, with the leper and going off outside the town to "places where nobody lived".
But Christianity isn't only about the otherness and untouchability and incomprehensibility of God; it's even more essentially about the unknown God's outreach to us.
Hence, the element of the story that is of perhaps greatest significance is simply Jesus' touching of the leper.
So, while it might, at first sight, be frightening to realise that in life things like health and reputation are in fact so precarious, and can be so easily damaged, if not lost entirely, at the same time it is surely consoling to be aware of the other side of the coin.
This is that our redemption, or our place in God's life, is always possible for us, even if we lose everything else.
For God, our creator, is not bound or limited by the limitations that mark our existence, because he made, and thus is greater than, those limits.
And in redemption God can reach out and touch his creature in ways beyond our imagining.
This truth of faith is the pearl of great price, the prize offered to us if we are prepared to accept the loss of everything else, that is to say, the loss of everything that is less than God for the sake of a share in God's own eternal life.
Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor.