Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time
14 February 2021
On Thursday, our collective hearts sank as Premier Andrews announced a 5 day lockdown in Victoria, attempting to forestall a breakout of the highly infectious UK strand of the COVID-19 virus. Just when we thought we could get back to some sort of normality! Here at the college our student leaders had gathered at Anglesea for a retreat reflecting on the hopes and ideals for the year ahead. The Australian Open Tennis was even underway with limited crowd numbers in attendance. Any pretence at a return to normal came to a screeching halt.
When Premier Andrews made his announcement, I was in Queensland for a couple of engagements preparing to return on Saturday. All of a sudden, I had a moral quandary: do I return to Newman in solidarity with everyone else in lockdown or do I stay out of harm’s way doing what I would be doing anyway – by Zoom. It’s just that I would be zooming from 1,000 km away rather than my room at Newman. Having sought counsel, I decided that it was more responsible for someone in his late 60s to wait until the brief comprehensive lockdown was lifted.
Those with the UK strand of the virus must be feeling like lepers in the gospels, awaiting formal clearance and certification that they can return to membership of the community. At first blush, today’s gospel is a simple account of Jesus willingly healing a leper, telling the leper to present himself to the priest in accordance with the law, then trying to go about his mission of preaching and healing without attracting undue attention or speculation about his identity. But on closer examination, there are some problems with this simple reading of the text.
This cleansing of the leper follows immediately upon the healings at the synagogue in Capernaum and at the house of Simon after which Jesus had gone away to pray. When found by his four disciples, he tells them that he is going to surrounding villages and Mark says that Jesus then went into all of Galilee preaching and casting out demons.
But in this very next scene of the gospel, the leper comes forward. Jesus cures him, and Jesus is no longer able to enter any town at all, having to stay in remote places with the people coming to him. So here we are at the end of only Chapter 1 of the gospel and we are being told that Jesus is no longer able to enter any town.
But lo and behold, Mark then tells us at the beginning of Chapter 2 that Jesus returns to Capernaum where people gather around his door and he proceeds to cure the paralytic who is let down through the roof.
This story of the healing of the leper definitely disturbs the flow and consistency of the Marcan narrative. It places both Jesus and the leper outside the fold, on the edges of the community. The leper has been certified as unclean by a priest. He needs to return to a priest to receive a new certification of cleanliness. The leper is an outsider seeking official re-admission to society. Jesus is an outsider to the religious establishment who then finds himself well on the outer for having cured the leper. They are both outsiders and the whole story is outside the flow of the gospel narrative.
Jesus reaches out and touches the leper, but then he warns him sternly wanting nothing more to do with him. This is very strange. The Canadian commentator Carl R Kazmierski points out that ‘In making this request to Jesus, the leper has clearly asked for something that Jesus has no legal authority to do. For him to respond positively as he does in the narrative would seem to be a usurpation of the authority of the priest. Yet the fact that he asks it and Jesus responds in the way that he does indicates a willingness to live with its consequences by both principals in the story.’ There is no point in Jesus’ insisting that the leper not show his healed self. That would be obvious to anyone on seeing him. According to Kazmierski, ‘what he is not to disclose is the whole experience, his approach to Jesus, Jesus’ embrace, and his declaration of cleansing, all of which would have marked both him and Jesus as being in outrageous disregard of the Law.’ Jesus had no authority to cure. He had no power to certify the leper as being clean, as being eligible for release from lockdown and isolation.
The kernel of this story so early in Mark’s gospel is that Jesus like the leper is excluded from the community; Jesus like the leper, is alienated from the religious authorities. This exclusion and alienation cause discomfort to Jesus as well as the leper. Of course, Jesus wants to cure the leper and he does, but he knows that by this very act of healing, he is placing himself at odds with the religious authorities. It’s while on the edges, while in lockdown, that Jesus and the leper find healing, touching each other. Brendan Byrne observes that Jesus’ ‘will and determination to reach out and touch us in all our uncleanness is clear… The cost he inevitably incurs in so doing will come to a climax in Gethsemane.’
It’s while feeling excluded, while experiencing lockdown, that we can identify more with both Jesus and the leper in this story. In his latest encyclical, Pope Francis wonders why ‘it took so long for the Church unequivocally to condemn slavery and various forms of violence’. He says ‘it is important that catechesis and preaching speak more directly and clearly about the social meaning of existence, the fraternal dimension of spirituality, our conviction of the inalienable dignity of each person, and our reasons for loving and accepting all our brothers and sisters.’ It’s only once we can identify with the excluded slave or the isolated person suffering violence that we can come to a right position. It’s easy for us to feel morally superior to our forebears in our universally agreed condemnation of slavery. But who are the individuals and groups being overlooked now who will be the subject of future papal observations, given our present incapacity to include the excluded when considering ‘the social meaning of existence, the fraternal dimension of spirituality, our conviction of the inalienable dignity of each person, and our reasons for loving and accepting all our brothers and sisters’?
As a church community we have a long way to go. If you are like me, you didn’t find cause to be too jubilant this past week when the Vatican announced that for the first time one single woman would be eligible to vote and not just to speak or listen at a future synod of bishops. With my legal background, I have often surmised that bishops are like judges but without spouses or children to keep them grounded.
At the opening of the law year this past week, Tom Bathurst, the Chief Justice of New South Wales gave an address to lawyers telling them that ‘private and public institutions are coming under greater scrutiny. …If there was ever a period where we expected the public to blindly trust institutions, it is long gone. We have learnt that public trust in institutions is fragile. Institutions can no longer simply assume the public will trust in them. Instead, all institutions, and particularly public institutions, must continually ask themselves: how we can build trust across all sectors of the community?’
Understandably his focus was on the state judiciary and not the leadership of our Church. He observed that ‘improvements in the diversity of the judiciary will also strengthen trust in the judiciary by further challenging any perception that the judiciary does not serve the interests of all. When the judiciary is perceived as homogenous (irrespective of whether that is true), it is harder for the public to trust in its impartiality. People are more likely to trust in the judiciary when, and to the extent, they believe that judges “represent social groups to which they feel they belong”. If a community cannot not look at their judges and see men and women they identify with, their trust in the ability of the justice system to do right by them may be compromised’. 
Is there not a lesson for us here when it comes to the leadership of our church? Should not any person in the pews be able to look up at the sanctuary and say, ‘There is one of us. The one who is there is not from just one class or subset of the baptised.’ Let’s hope and pray that the Plenary Council commencing in October 2021 will be a catalyst for a more inclusive vision of church and its leadership.
In this week’s Tablet, the theologian Gerald O’Collins laments the decision by the English bishops to adopt a new translation of the scriptures at mass which ‘indulges masculine language’. For example, ‘It renders into English the words of Jesus about the cost of discipleship: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24–25). The implication is that Jesus envisages only men, and not women, as his followers. As John Barton put it: “The argument that ‘masculine language is meant to include women’ will not wash nowadays, whatever may have been the case in the not-so-distant-past.”’
O’Collins is surely right when he says: ‘Translations that wish to express the meaning of what Jesus said replace the Greek singular by an English plural: “Those who would follow me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (NRSV). Translating “word for word” and not meaning for meaning falsifies what Jesus taught.’ Only a group of exclusively male authority figures could have made the decision taken by the English bishops in 2021, not 1971, to adopt a new translation with exclusive male language in the scriptures at Mass.
Jesus and the leper deserve a place at the table. Neither Jesus nor the leper is an outsider at the Eucharist nor at any plenary council or synod considering how best to evangelise and share the bread of life with a hungry world emerging from lockdown. In the week ahead during a repeated lockdown, let’s look afresh at our world and our Church from the perspective of the excluded.
 Carl R Kazmierski, ‘Evangelist and Leper: A Socio-Cultural Study of Mark 1.40-45’, New Testament Studies, vol. 38, 1992, pp. 37-50, at p. 45
 Ibid, p.47
 Brendan Byrne, A Costly Freedom, St Pauls, 2008, p. 51
 Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, #86
 Chief Justice T F Bathurst, ‘Trust in the Judiciary’, 2021 Opening of Law Term Address, 3 February 2021, p. 2, available at https://www.supremecourt.justice.nsw.gov.au/Documents/Publications/Speeches/2021%20Speeches/Bathurst_20210203.pdf
 Ibid, p. 23
 Gerald O’Collins, ‘The Lectionary Fiasco’, The Tablet, 13 February 2021, p. 8 at p.9
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, the Distinguished Fellow of the P M Glynn Institute, Australian Catholic University, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).