And the word of Samuel came to all Israel. In those days the Philistines mustered for war against Israel, and Israel went out to battle against them; they encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle was joined, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. When the troops came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord put us to rout today before the Philistines? Let us bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, so that he may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” So the people sent to Shiloh, and brought from there the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the Ark of the Covenant of God.
When the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth reounded. When the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” When they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, the Philistines were afraid; for they said, “Gods have come into the camp.” They also said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, in order not to become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”
So the Philistines fought; Israel was defeated, and they fled, everyone to his home. There was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
In his story about the healing of the leper, Mark stresses the supremacy of faith. Our heart must be open to grace and to God's personal nearness to us. The externals of religion are meant to facilitate interior communion with the Lord. The pure heart, when silence prevails and distraction is kept at bay, is the true Ark of the Covenant where God is present. Sometimes the externals of religion on which we rely are allowed to collapse, just as the Ark was captured by the enemy. Tried and tested religious practices suddenly seems inadequate to the needs of our time, and this leaves us feeling pretty helpless. We need to cross this desert to again find how to share Jesus with our present world.
Discerning real faith from false religiosity is not always easy. The people of Israel were hardly to blame for rallying around traditional religious centres, the Ark of the Covenant and the miraculous power of God. Who then is to blame? Religious leaders carry the main burden of keeping religious practice pure. Earlier in Samuel's story Eli's sons Hophni and Phinehas were guilty of serious wrongdoing. They were reserving the best portions of the meat sacrifices for themselves and offering to God only the offal, along with other scandalous actions. Religious leaders are supposed to guard agains the spread of superstition and selfishness, and helpthe people to distinguish true from false forms of religion.
Each of us has religious influence in one way or another: as parent or teacher, as priest or minister, as neighbour or friend. In all of these capacities we influence others and are responsible for the moral attitude and strength of faith in others. The Scriptures question us: Do I use my position of authority to dominate others or to acquire personal benefits or to further personal career? Do I seek not to be the centre of attention, so that my words and actions lead others to prayer and recollection in God's presence?
Often in the gospels Jesus heals people by means of his word. In healing the leper, however, Jesus not only spoke to him, but he touched him. In touching the leper, Jesus did what no one else would have done. For obvious reasons, people kept lepers at a distance, and lepers were expected to keep their distance from others. Jesus, however, kept no one at a distance, not even lepers. No one was beyond his reach; no one was untouchable. He came to touch our lives in a very tangible way, all of our lives, regardless of our condition. The leper wasn't sure whether Jesus wanted to heal him, as is clear from his opening words to Jesus, "If you want to, you can cure me." Jesus showed he wanted to heal him, by touching him. Jesus wants to touch all of our lives, because he wants to bring life to us all. Nothing we do or fail to do, no circumstance in which we find ourselves, need place us beyond his reach. As Paul says "nothing can come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus." The Lord touches our lives, where we are, as we are. All we need is something of the leper's initiative in approaching Jesus.