When chickens look sick, we separate them from the other chicks so that the disease won’t spread. Chapters 13 & 14 of Leviticus take the same approach. Anyone has any signs of serious skin diseases, such as leprosy, must separate himself from the community, wear ripped clothes and call out “unclean, unclean” as a warning to people who might come close. If a person touches a leper, he also becomes unclean.
This separation from family and friends must have been painful for the sick person and for his or her family. In today’s Gospel (Mark 1:40-45), a leper breaks through the crowd and walks to Jesus. He kneels before Jesus, saying, “If You will, You can cure me” (Mk 1:40).
St. Thomas Aquinas reflects on these actions, “first he came and then he adored … he confesses Christ’s power … he comes by faith and adores in humility … Then he puts his trust in God’s mercy” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew).
The man trusts in Jesus’ wisdom: “He appeals only to His will; for He knows what is needed better than he. Therefore, he left it to Christ’s wisdom” (Commentary on Matthew).
The Gospel tells us, “Jesus was moved with pity” (Mk 1:41). These few words give us a glimpse of Jesus’ human heart, which mirrors the love within the Trinity.
“Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him” (Mk 1:41). St. Thomas reflects: “Christ stretches out His hand, when He gives help … He touches, and this is when He produces a change” (Commentary on Matthew).
In touching the man, Jesus breaks the taboos because He is able to make a change. St. Thomas comments that touching a leprous person was forbidden because of the danger of infection but “because He could not be infected, He could touch” (Commentary on Matthew).
Jesus’ touch reveals His humanity, as Thomas explains, “He touched in order to show his humanity.” Jesus healed the man by His divinity but His humanity was the instrument. He reached out to the man in a human way.
As Jesus touches, He also speaks, “I do will it. Be clean” (Mk 1:42). Jesus sent the man to the priests so that he could be declared to be cured and return to ordinary life.
When the Gospel is read, it tells us something about what Jesus did one day but it also tells us what Jesus is doing today. St. Thomas says, “The infirmity is leprosy, which signifies our spiritual infirmities” (Commentary on Matthew).
The leprous man’s example models how we come to Jesus, adore Jesus and acknowledge His power to heal us. This man’s sickness is obvious. Our sins and weaknesses may not be so obvious.
Thomas compares the healing of the leper with the Sacrament of Reconciliation. According to Thomas, we have to acknowledge our shame: “first, to be ashamed of sin.”
St. Thomas recalls the words of Isaiah: “They proclaim their sin like Sodom, they do not hide it” (Isaiah 3:9). Sirach suggests that shame can lead to grace: “There is a shame that brings sin, and there is a shame that brings glory and grace” (Sirach 4:25).
Jesus tells the man, “Show yourself to the priest.” Thomas reflects: “He should show himself to the priest by confessing: ‘Confess your sins to one another’ (Jas 5:16). And here the Lord seems to command confessions” (Commentary on Matthew).
Thomas recognizes the similarity between Jesus’ use of signs and the sacraments. Just as Jesus made the man clean by stretching out His hand and by His words, so the priest stretches out his hand and speaks the words of forgiveness. St. Thomas says,
“Again, he touched him in order to manifest the doctrine concerning the power in the sacraments; because both touch and words are required, for when the word is joined to the element, the sacrament comes to be” (Commentary on Matthew).
Thomas affirms that man’s turning to Jesus healed him: “And immediately he was cured, because in the very contrition when one proposes to confess and to avoid sins, the sin is forgiven, according to Psalm 32 (v. 5): ‘I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’; and then you forgave the guilt of my sin’” (Commentary on Matthew).
Thomas notes that Jesus respects the Jewish law: “He teaches observance of the commandments, when He says, offer your gift … He teaches observance of the commandments, when he says, as Moses commanded” (Commentary on Matthew).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
The English and Latin versions of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew may be found on the website, http//dhspriory.org/Thomas/. An English translation is available: Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, trans. Rev. Paul M. Kimball. Dolorosa Press, 2012.