Today, also, we come back to the first words of Jesus, spoken at the beginning of His ministry, announcing the good news that God has come near (Mk 1:14).
But to make clear at once what this nearness of God to humanity means, the path of Jesus is crossed by a leper. In those days, a leper was an unapproachable person that the Law of Moses wanted outside the reach of the grace of God, outside the covenant, outside society. A person that no one could approach and touch.
And immediately we question ourselves: will the Kingdom of God also be close to this leper? And how can the “good news” really be good if it cannot reach all, even those considered distant? If someone is excluded again? In daring to draw near to Jesus, it is the leper himself who, with total trust, utters a plea: “If you want, you can heal me!” (Mk 1:40).
And Jesus does not hold back. Indeed, he exposes Himself to the nearness of the leper by becoming the first to be moved by his suffering: “He had compassion on him,” says Mark (1:41). And compassion is there to tell of Jesus’ choice to let Himself get involved in this man’s history, accepting it and holding it within Himself, not keeping a cold distance. And this is what He, too, wants (Mk 1:41).
And yet, Jesus’ reaction exceeds the expectations of the leper. He could have healed him remaining at a distance, as Elisha had done with Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5:1-4); He could have pronounced words of blessing and healing on him, and of course this would have been enough to heal him. Instead, Jesus goes further, and stretching out His hand to him, touches him (Mk 1:41). He does what He could not nor should not do.
Why does He do it?
He does it to give him the certainty of no longer being unapproachable and untouchable, of no more being distant and excluded: this is the real healing, which the leper needed. He does it to give him the certainty that God wants to get exactly where humanity is lost, where there seems to be no more hope, where misfortune seems to have the last word. There also, God draws near.
Only in this way then the good news is really good, because it is indeed for all. It is good news that God puts His own life at risk with the history of every lost man, reaches him, wherever he is lost, and binds Himself to him.
But this is only the first part of today’s Gospel.
In the second, there is an odd thing, because Jesus, very strictly, immediately dismisses the healed leper, orders him to present himself to the priest for the offering and not to tell anyone what happened to him (Mk 1:43-44). It appears from the text that the leper does not do anything he is ordered to do, and, on the contrary, he immediately starts “to proclaim and spread the fact.” And the Gospel focuses above all on the consequences of this disobedience, so “Jesus could no longer publicly move around a city, but remained outside, in desert places” (Mk 1:45).
And so, it happens that straightaway, from the beginning of His mission, we are informed that this nearness of Jesus with sinful humanity has a price. So much so He identifies Himself with humanity, putting Himself in its place, by becoming an outcast, a reject. It is He that is now unapproachable, that has to stay outside, remote.
How all this is fraught with severe consequences, we will indeed see during the way of Lent, which begins in a few days. At the peak of this way, at the culmination of the history of Jesus, we will see that His solidarity with humanity will bring Him to “share the same penalty with it” (Lk 23:40). It was spoken by one of the two thieves to whom the Kingdom was made so close he can enter it immediately, the same day. And so, the place of damnation becomes the place of salvation; the weakness of man, his sickness, his evil, becomes a place where God reveals Himself in His final and scandalous choice of a love that does not exclude anyone.
The leper, the good thief, today invite us to presume this salvation: for both of them a plea was enough, a few words whispered from the depth of their pain. And their distance from God vanished at once.