Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Reflection: Be imitators of Christ



Sometimes a message conveys the inverse of what was intended.

A man with a skin disease begged Jesus for help. Had he already done his ritual shout? Had he torn his clothing? Was he following the rules about beard and hair so that he looked “Unclean!”?

In Jesus’ time, healing lepers was nearly the equivalent of raising the dead. In the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures only two people were healed of leprosy, Moses’ sister Miriam (Numbers 12:10-15), and Naaman, the Syrian (2 Kings 5:1-14). Avoiding lepers had nothing to do with fear of contagion, an idea first introduced in the 11th century by Ibn Sina, a Muslim physician and philosopher. A 16th-century Italian, Girolamo Fracastoro, seems to have been the first to propose the germ theory — an idea that was largely rejected for hundreds of years.

So why the taboos?

The purity system of Jesus’ day attempted to keep the world as it ought to be, with holiness equated with wholeness. Contact with an unclean person or thing rendered a person temporarily unclean as well; the unclean were to be avoided. Because the ban on these people was a socioreligious regulation, it had deep roots in the people’s psyche. The resultant shunning increased the discomfort of people already afraid or ashamed.

“Unclean!” That was the shout Jesus heard more than once. What did he see when someone had to declare that about herself or himself? Mark tells us that the man’s cry hit Jesus in the gut. He felt for the man, and he felt with the man. And so, in a gesture that defied the purity system itself, Jesus touched the man, demonstrating that no person deserves such shunning. Then, demonstrating the absurdity of such dehumanizing laws, Jesus told the man to complete the legal rituals so that the priests could learn that Jesus had the power to free people from systems that destroy innocent people.

In effect, Jesus took up the man’s shout, “Unclean!” But instead of declaring himself unclean for touching the man, he unmasked the system itself as unclean — as something contrary to God’s intention for the world. Of course, the legal eagles were not going to take that lightly. Jesus acted as a subversive, and he was attracting the attention of people who were victims of a system of stratification authorized by powerful people who benefited from it.

Jesus told the healed man not to publicize the matter. Fat chance! Mark doesn’t tell us who else witnesses their encounter, but the very fact that the man could walk in public and eat with others was enough of a proclamation that something new was afoot. It was not going to remain a secret — not from the curious, not from disciples, and certainly not from those who recognized Jesus as a threat to their comfortably established way of doing things.

Today, as last week, St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians add another facet to understanding the implications of Jesus’ behavior. Paul and the Corinthians had been embroiled in legalistic battles over food purity. In this situation, when large amounts of meat had been offered to the gods, the leftovers went to the market. The question: Could Christians eat that meat or was it a communion with idols? Paul insisted that Christians were free from the law, that obedience to the law would never save anyone. Thus, they could eat what they wanted. The real problem was that some people were scandalized by the eating habits of those who felt free. 

Paul’s solution is applicable far beyond the dinner table. He says, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” (Sounds a bit like Ignatius of Loyola.) That instruction brings us right back to Jesus, the transgressor whose rule of life was to promote human thriving. 

Paul said, “You are so free, that you can care for one another above all else. If another is seriously offended by your exercise of freedom, make yourself free enough to practice charity!” That’s the rule for the dinner table. Paul encourages the community to imitate Christ. Christ lived a new kind of freedom as he transgressed the law on behalf of human flourishing. 

The implications of all of this seem almost too obvious to mention. Be imitators of Christ. Imitate the one who responded first to the marginalized, to society’s outcasts, to the ones who feel they can never measure up. These neighbors of ours live next door, barred from schools and churches because of their sexual orientation, they’re at our border hoping to save their lives, they are being injured by our armaments.

How are we to imitate Christ today?

First Reading

(Leviticus 13: 1-2, 44-46)

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron,
“If someone has on his skin a scab or pustule or blotch
which appears to be the sore of leprosy,
he shall be brought to Aaron, the priest,
or to one of the priests among his descendants.
If the man is leprous and unclean,
the priest shall declare him unclean
by reason of the sore on his head.

“The one who bears the sore of leprosy
shall keep his garments rent and his head bare,
and shall muffle his beard;
he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’
As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean,
since he is in fact unclean.
He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.”

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 32: 1-2, 5, 11)

Second Reading

(I Corinthians 10: 31- 11:1)

Brothers and sisters,
Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do,
do everything for the glory of God.
Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks or 
the church of God,
just as I try to please everyone in every way,
not seeking my own benefit but that of the many,
that they may be saved.
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.


(Mark 1: 40-45)

A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said,
“If you wish, you can make me clean.”
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, 
touched him, and said to him, 
“I do will it. Be made clean.”
The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.
Then, warning the him sternly, he dismissed him at once. 

He said to him, “See that you tell no one anything,
but go, show yourself to the priest 
and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed;
that will be proof for them.”

The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.
He spread the report abroad
so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.
He remained outside in deserted places,
and people kept coming to him from everywhere.