The Prayer of the Leper

February 14, 2015 - Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

© Rev. Thomas J. Hennen

Diocese of Davenport

Director of Vocations

780 W. Central Park Ave.

Davenport, Iowa 52804-1901



     What a world of difference between the first reading and the Gospel!  In fact, there is such stark difference here that, in light of Jesus’ actions in the Gospel, it may be hard for us to understand at all what is being said in Leviticus.  But as Christians we can’t help but to look upon the Old Testament always through the lens of Christ (while of course, respecting the integrity of each).  We tend to judge the past based on the knowledge of the present.  We judge the past in light of later revelation—specifically, that revelation that came through Jesus Christ. 

     Still, somehow, perhaps when read in the larger context of Scripture (Old and New Testaments together) even this passage from Leviticus finds a place, if only to show us that something truly new has come in Jesus Christ.  There were some wounds and some attitudes of the past which only Christ could heal.  I’m not saying that Jesus is “throwing out” the Old Testament by His actions and His words in the Gospel today, but rather that He is showing us its fulfillment in Himself.  So powerful is this fulfillment that what was once “unclean” becomes clean when it comes into contact with the God-man, Jesus Christ.  He is not denying the existence of some “uncleanness” here, but, more than this, actually undoing it, reversing it.  With this understood, I think it is worth looking more closely at this exchange between the leper and Jesus in Mark’s Gospel today.


     First, notice the posture of the leper.  The Gospel says that he came to Jesus and “kneeling down begged him.”  “Kneeling down”—this is already, without any words being said, a statement of faith on the part of this leper.  Then, notice how he asks for this healing:  “If you wish, you can make me clean.”  How often do we approach our Lord in prayer like this?  Do we not more often go to Him and say (in so many words), “If I wish hard enough, you have to help me?”  This is a prayer that relies not on God’s love, but on a kind of manipulation of God (as though He could really be made do to what we want).  To borrow a phrase from a friend of mine, this is the “gum ball machine God” – I put my quarter in and get my gum; I put my time and effort in and God gives me grace. 

     This is a far cry from the prayer of the leper.  In fact, it is even a far cry from the prayer of Christ Himself in His moment of need, in the garden of Gethsemane on the night He was betrayed.  He did not pray, “Father, see all the good I have done; see how fervent my prayer is, even to the point of sweating blood.  You have to take this cup from me.”  No, He prayed, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you.  Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.”  And so, the leper prays in the same spirit of abandonment.  He trusts in the will of God and says, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”  How much more reverent, how much more respectful of God’s sovereignty is this kind of prayer.

     Next, it says that Jesus was “moved with pity,” and He “stretched out his hand, [and] touched him.”  Now this is truly remarkable—not only that Jesus would touch this leper (which, as we heard from Leviticus, was “unclean” and would have made Jesus unclean also according to the Law of Moses), but that Jesus strains to do so.  This is not the reluctant touch of one who is disgusted to come into contact with this man or repulsed by him in any way, but the stretching, straining, desirous touch of one who loves him and wishes to heal him.

     So often we have an image of a God who is maybe disinterested in us and reluctant to answer our prayers, but Jesus’ actions in the Gospel today show us a very different God.

     When I hear this little phrase, “He stretched out his hand,” I cannot help but think of the depiction of the creation of Adam by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.  This is a very famous image that you have probably all seen before.  In fact, this particular image of the creation of Adam is so popular that I have even seen prints and posters of it that are just a “close up” of the hand of God meeting the hand of Adam.  But what is interesting about this depiction to me is that Adam’s hand is barely raised, almost limp; it is passive.  But God’s hand is at full extension as He stretches and strains to bring this new life into being.

     Something of the same is depicted in the Gospel today, and each day in our lives, as God stretches out his hand in order to re-create us.  And Jesus says, “I do will it.  Be made clean.”

     Of course, there is a deeper kind of leprosy that afflicts us all and that we must seek healing for from Christ.  This more virulent form of leprosy is sin.  Just as with the physical disease of leprosy, in sin we begin to “break down,” so to speak.  The integrity of body and soul is compromised.  For that matter, the integrity of the Body of Christ, the Church, is also wounded by sin.  And so, just as we heard in the Leviticus about the leper having to “dwell apart” from the rest of the community, “making his tent outside the camp,” so in this spiritual leprosy of sin we cut ourselves off from the community of the Church and from communion with God.  In sin we “dwell apart.”  But the good news is that the same Jesus who had power over the physical disease of leprosy has the same power over this more devastating spiritual leprosy.  And He is just as eager to make us clean, to make us whole, to restore us, to re-create us in grace.  

     As we begin the discipline of Lent this Wednesday, we are invited in a special way to look squarely at our sinfulness, at this spiritual leprosy that makes us “dwell apart,” not to make ourselves feel bad, as though that is really the goal of Lent, but precisely to invite God’s healing, restorative love.

     Jesus desires so much to heal us of our sin that once again He stretches out his hand, actually, his hands upon the cross.  This is the healing we celebrate and, indeed, experience in baptism, in confession, in the anointing of the sick and in and in each celebration of the Eucharist.  And so, we make our prayer on this last Sunday before the start of Lent that of the leper: “If you wish, you can make us clean.”