Those who are sick shall live outside the camp

  • The Book of Leviticus is a collection laws; many having to do with the proper worship of God.
  • In today’s reading we hear of illness and exclusion from communal life.
  • Because people did not know about the process of contagion at the time, the community banished persons with any skin disease as long as the disease lasted.
SOURCE: Our Sunday Visitor
Fr. Clement Thibodeau

FIRST READING — This Book from the Law of Moses was written as a book of instructions for the Levites who were hereditary servants of God at the Temple in Jerusalem. It contains rules and regulations meant to assure their worthiness as God’s special servants.

Spiritual cleanliness was manifested by bodily cleanliness. No blemish of any kind was permitted in the heart or on the body of anyone serving in the Temple. Skin diseases were considered particularly loathsome.

Persons with such skin diseases were excluded from the fellowship of those who worshipped God. Often the rabbis in later ages came to diagnose the ailment of lepers as a spiritual disease. They were sinners. They, and those who had contact with them, were considered unfit for God’s service.

Cleansing a leper was considered to be close to rescuing a person from death.

SOURCE: © 2017 Portland Diocese / Father Clement D. Thibodeau. Used with permission.
Fr. Eamon Tobin

FIRST READING — In Old Testament times, leprosy is a term used to describe a variety of chronic skin diseases. When the priest determines that one has a contagious disease, the person is declared “unclean” and banished from the community.

If someone unknowingly approaches the leper, he/she must shout “Unclean! Unclean!” for such contact renders the “clean” person “unclean.”

If a leper is cured, he must go to the priest to undergo purification before he can be readmitted to the community.

Because there is widespread belief that leprosy is brought on by sin, lepers are not only physically loathsome and socially dangerous, but are also viewed as morally reprehensible.

SOURCE ©2020 Fr. Eamon Tobin. Used with permission. Table of Contents
Sr. Mary McGlone

FIRST READING — The name of the Book of Leviticus comes from the name Levi which designated the priestly tribe of the people of Israel. Much of the book is concerned with the cult and its priestly functions. Under that general rubric, we find a great concern for holiness which is often connected to wholeness.

When we realize that proof of a scientific germ theory explaining the spread of disease did not become common until the early 1800s, we can appreciate the fact that approaches to disease and sick people that may seem odd or even cruel to us were based on a different worldview. For the ancient Israelites, any skin disease could be considered unclean. To be unclean was tantamount to being unholy. Uncleanliness was contagious in the sense that contact with the unholy made a person unholy or unclean as well. Then to add to the problem, most people understood disease and even bad luck as signs of God’s justice: The afflicted person was being punished. Such a philosophy made it virtuous to avoid people whose conditions might be disgusting, thereby doubling down on the tendency to marginate the afflicted ones.

On a more unconscious level, leprosy is symbolic of everything we fear. It represents the loss of beauty, of bodily integrity and then relationships. As the reading from Leviticus points out, someone with a visible skin disease was to be kept separate from the community. Thus, a “leper,” someone who had a skin disease that could be as simple as acne or as vexatious as psoriasis or shingles, was not only miserable, but really relegated to exist in an atmosphere of the living dead because of their social isolation. People feared lepers because they reminded them of their own subjection to decay. Shunning the leper was, among other things, an unconscious social mechanism that protected the group from facing its own frailty and mortality. Sociologically the “lepers” were scapegoats: Isolating them seemed to offer protection against all that their condition symbolized.

About the only good thing that could be said about their condition was that it was not necessarily permanent. A person whose skin disease was healed could be declared ritually clean and readmitted to society. That, too, offered subconscious comfort to society: the possibility of a reprieve against danger and death.

When we allow ourselves to be conscious of the social tendency to find scapegoats to represent our guilt and suffer the consequences, this reading calls us to remember the counter-example of Christ. He continually reached out to people shunned by society and, at the same time, he frequently criticized those who rejected them as hypocrites who were often guiltier than the people they accused of sin. This can lead us to consider who the “lepers” in our society are and to further ask why we fear them and how they represent that which we reject in ourselves. If we would but follow Jesus in his outreach to the outcast, we would find that we not only do a better job of loving our neighbor, but that greater and honest self-acceptance will appear in our lives as well.

SOURCE: ©2018 National Catholic Reporter. All Rights Reserved. Sr. Mary McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. 2018 Reflections, 2020 Reflections can be read at National Catholic Reporter website.

Commentary Excerpts

Theology of Work Commentary

Dealing with Skin Diseases and Mold Infections (Leviticus 13-14)

FIRST READING—In contrast to the dietary laws, the laws about diseases and environmental contamination do seem to be primarily concerned with health. Health is a critical issue today as well, and even if the book of Leviticus were not in the Bible, it would still be a noble and godly concern. But it would be unwise to assume that Leviticus provides instructions for coping with contagious diseases and environmental contamination that we can directly apply today. At our distance of thousands of years from that time period, it is difficult even to be certain exactly what diseases the passages refer to. The enduring message of Leviticus is that the Lord is the God of life and that he guides, honors, and ennobles all those who bring healing to people and the environment. If the particular rules of Leviticus do not dictate the way we perform the work of healing and environmental protection, then certainly this greater point does.

SOURCE: © 2014 Theology of Work Project, Inc.; Used with permission. (Licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.)
Life Recovery Bible

The compassion of Jesus

13:1–15:33 These detailed health regulations excluded many Israelites from the larger society. They were banned from fellowship with others for being “ceremonially unclean.” Lepers and prostitutes were automatically unclean, according to the law, and were thus ostracized.

This fact should help us appreciate even more the compassionate heart of Jesus Christ. He healed lepers and the woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years; he talked with prostitutes and other outcasts. He cared most about the needy, the unclean. He considered it his work to show them the road to recovery and forgiveness.

SOURCE: Content taken from The Life Recovery Bible notes by Stephen Arterburn & David Stoop. Copyright © 1998, 2017. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries. All rights reserved.

Bible Study

Exegesis Outline

Sunday’s First Reading

  • No exegesis for this week on the first reading.
SOURCE: Richard Niell Donavan, a Disciples of Christ clergyman, published SermonWriter from 1997 until his death in 2020. His wife Dale has graciously kept his website online. A subscription is no longer required.

The Law Concerning Leprosy

by Michal Hunt (Agape Bible Study)

In the First Reading, the prophet Elijah invoked God’s divine name and healed a Gentile leper named Naaman. His act proved that Israel’s God was stronger than any human contagion, whether it was leprosy or sin. The miracle also prefigured the healing and restoration of the Gentile peoples of the earth to fellowship with God as promised by the prophets and fulfilled in Christ Jesus.

Public health duties of Old Testament priests

It was the duty of the priests of the Sinai Covenant to preside over the prescribed communal and individual voluntary sacrifices in the liturgical worship services. They also had other duties to perform for the community recorded in this section of the Book of Leviticus, including public health duties. They were to examine and make decisions on health issues that could become hazardous to the entire community. The procedure for suspicious skin conditions consisted of examination and isolation for seven days before the priest reached a final determination. The chief concern in these public health examinations was, of course, the dangerously contagious skin disease of leprosy. Today some medications can contain and control leprosy; however, in the ancient world, the condition condemned a person to a life of miserable isolation and a slow and disfiguring death.

Unclean state

It was a tragedy for a covenant member to be diagnosed with a contagious skin disease like leprosy. They were expelled from the community and forced to live alone or in groups with others in the same physically “unclean” state (Lk 17:12). They were required to show physical signs of their forced separation by shaving their heads, wearing torn garments, and covering their beards, all signs of death, penance, and mourning (Lev 10:6; Ez 24:17). They could not offer sacrifices in the desert Sanctuary, nor, in Jesus’ time, could they join the congregations of the local Synagogues or worship in the Jerusalem Temple because their unclean condition made them “unfit” for communal worship.

Naaman, the Gentile leper

In 2 Kings 5:8, the prophet Elijah invoked God’s divine name and healed a Gentile leper named Naaman. His act proved that the mercy of Israel’s God was not limited to the Israelites, and He was more powerful than any human contagion, whether it was leprosy or sin. The miracle also prefigured the healing and restoration of the Gentile peoples of the earth to fellowship with God. Elijah’s deed, under the power of the Holy Spirit, proved he was Yahweh’s holy prophet.

Jesus heals lepers

Jesus also healed lepers (today’s Gospel Reading). However, He is far more than a prophet like Elijah. Jesus is God visiting His people (Ez 34:11-12, 15-16) to heal them, restore them, and raise them above their ordinary lives to a holy, internal purity. He will raise them to holiness through the Sacrament of Baptism in His death and resurrection and make them fit for worship in the Kingdom of Heaven.

SOURCE: Michal E. Hunt at Agape Bible Study; used with permission.


Paul J. Schlachter

Points to consider

  • I hear a prescription of the Law dealing with those afflicted with leprosy. I know that Jesus has changed all this. So what is the point of repeating old ordinances that no longer hold?
  • I listen to the ritual words: He shall be brought to the priest, and the priest shall declare him unclean. The people already shun the leper on the human plane. Such hideous illness was considered a judgment of God visited upon that person. But the reason that leprosy is mentioned in the Torah is the ritual implication: unclean. It was in that context that the representative of the people before God, only after an exhaustive examination of the person’s skin condition, confirmed their fears and prejudices as well as God’s obvious judgment. Even the afflicted one must accept the sentence: He shall declare himself unclean because he is in fact unclean.
  • As I rehearse these words, I begin to contrast the pronouncement of the Law with the pronouncement of Jesus in today’s Gospel, and also with the humane treatment of the afflicted person today, not to mention the medical remedies now available for those suffering leprosy in Jewish and Gentile hospitals.
  • One connection to our own day: my listeners and I have ways of marking people who are not like ourselves, telling them apart by their clothes and appearance. We shun them and leave them to dwell apart, making their abode outside the camp. And, by the way, why is Molokai still the least visited island in Hawaii?
  • Another connection: Disaster victims in our own country, or in far-off Africa and Asia, remain out of sight and out of mind when the media cameras turn away from them. They do not have to exchange their clothing, for their desperate state itself is what makes their garments rent and their head bare.

Key elements

  • Climax: The second half of this short reading, where it says: The priest shall declare him unclean.
  • Message for our assembly: Compare this reading to the Gospel reading. Our mission is not to ratify the apartheid already present in the world but to break down barriers among God’s children.
  • I will challenge myself: To make the congregation pay attention and call to mind the way they have divided the family of man in their hearts.
SOURCE: Paul J. Schlachter at LectorWorks.org
Greg Warnusz

Introducing the reading at Mass

Leviticus is a book primarily about the holiness of God, and the ritual holiness or cleanliness needed to serve God worthily. For Levitical priests, that included not being a leper and avoiding contact with lepers.

Oral interpretation

Our Liturgical Setting: In today’s gospel, from our year-long sequence of readings from Mark, Jesus cures a leper. The first reading gives us background about the place of lepers in that society.

The Literary Background: Relatively late translators titled this book “Leviticus” because almost all of it concerns the ritual duties of the many priests in the tribe of Levi. But ancient Hebrew writings took their titles from the first word of their text. In this book, the first word means “and he called,” that is, “and the Lord called Moses.” Called Moses (and the Israelites) to what? To holiness, as in the frequent refrain in the book, “Be you holy as I, the Lord, am holy.” Now there are many definitions of holiness, but I maintain that the original one, and the genius of Israelite religion, is the call to be “separated, distinct,” as in

    “Be you different from the crude, violent, rapacious, self-important, superstitious and unsanitary neighboring tribes, as I, the Lord your God, am quite different from their so-called gods.”

And how is the Lord unlike other gods? Precisely by overcoming the divine-human chasm that dominates pagan religion, and being God with the people: with them in their perilous journey, with them in the Law that can make their lives and their society excellent and humane. And the people are to be holy, that is unlike other peoples, by behaving as people who know their God chooses to be near them.(Ironically, a holiness that started as separateness becomes communion. The later Christian doctrine that the man Jesus is the incarnation of the Son of God, one person truly God and truly human, sharing the human condition even unto death, takes this meaning of holiness even further. The Spirit of Jesus at work in his church wasted no time in prompting the church to broaden the call to holiness to a universal one. In God’s long secret design now revealed, all people are called not to separateness but to union. That’s as far as the idea of holiness will get in our lifetimes. But we are ahead of ourselves.)

This is a subtle call, as evidenced by the number of times you had to read the preceding paragraphs. To make this commandment of holiness practical and concrete is difficult. It requires unusual wisdom, patience and courage. Sometimes the best that priests could do was to stress the need for ritual purity. That may seem like a pale substitute, but we shouldn’t judge the ancients too harshly. It was a long journey from magical, materialistic religion to a spiritual one. Our notions of individual responsibility and the importance of intention, not just action, hadn’t dawned on these folks yet. For now, as the introduction to Leviticus in the 1970 edition of the New American Bible says, “Generally speaking, the laws contained in the book serve to teach the Israelites that they should always keep themselves in a state of legal purity, or external sanctity, as a sign of their intimate union with the Lord.”

The Historical Background: And this is the trouble with lepers. If you are one or if you come in contact with one, you’re not “looking good” enough to do your ritual duties. The issue is not contagion as a threat to physical health. (The condition here called leprosy wasn’t contagious; leprosy as we know it didn’t enter the Middle East until later.) It’s that you have to be fit to come before the holy God, fit even on the outside.

Proclaiming It: Here is a periodic and general reminder to speak slowly while proclaiming the word of God. So that your listeners begin to “get it” as early as possible, read the one- and two-syllable words of the first sentence slowly, making sure everyone hears the vivid words “scab or pustule or blotch.” In the rest of the sentences, emphasize the word “unclean.”

SOURCE: Greg Warnusz at LectorPrep.org


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Bible Project

In Leviticus, God invites Israel to live in close proximity to His holy presence. Which seems awesome, but it’s actually dangerous. This book explores how the sacrificial rituals and purity practices cleared the way for morally corrupt Israelites to become God’s covenant partners.

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Ascension Presents

Fr. Mike Schmitz explains why Christians are called to follow some laws of the Old Testament and not others. Passing on the advice of Pope Benedict XVI, he distinguishes between universal laws, like the Ten Commandments and “case by case” laws, like those to be followed only in the kingdom of Israel and the temple.


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