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Christianity: “Pie in the sky” religion or “island of mercy and security”?

On the Readings for Sunday, February 14, 2021

(Photo: designhorf @designhorf/


• Lev 13:1-2, 44-46
• Psa 32:1-2, 5, 11
• 1 Cor 10:31-11:1
• Mk 1:40-45

The sociologist Rodney Stark, in The Triumph of Christianity (HarperCollins, 2011), confronted the notion that Christianity is a “pie in the sky” religion that attracted adherents in its first centuries by merely promising eternal life.

“What is almost always missed”, Stark writes, “is that Christianity often puts the pie on the table! It makes life better here and now.” He details how life in the ancient world was almost unremittingly filthy and unsanitary, and that disease and physical affliction “probably were dominant features of daily life.” Stark states: “In the midst of the squalor, misery, illness, and anonymity of ancient cities, Christianity provided an island of mercy and security. Foremost was the Christian duty to alleviate want and suffering. It started with Jesus.”

Some might be tempted, in reading of the miraculous healings performed by Jesus, to interpret his actions as primarily displays of power and divinity—as if the sick and possessed were props conveniently providing a way for Jesus to say, in essence, “You doubt that I am God, do you? Watch this!” But the power of Christ over sin and death is never separate from the mercy of Christ toward those who suffer from sin and the inevitability of death.

Put another way, God did not become man because he needed the praise of men. He became man so he could, in his divine humility, touch us and save us from both physical evils and spiritual destruction.

The reading from Leviticus 13 provides context for the Gospel reading in describing some of the measures required of those who had leprosy, which likely refers to a range of serious skin disorders including Hansen’s disease. Those afflicted had to present themselves to the priests, who would then diagnose the disease and, if necessary, “declare him unclean”. This was in many ways a sort of death sentence, at least relationally, because the leper had to live outside of the community, identifying himself as “Unclean, unclean!” Leviticus 14 describes the steps of ritual purification administered to those who recovered from their disease, a most happy if uncommon event.

The Law, then, could identify the disease and provided a practical means to protect the people from the disease spreading. But the Law could not cure the disease; it was able only to acknowledge when the disease had disappeared. This contrasts strikingly with Jesus, the great and holy high priest, who did not merely look upon the leper’s diseased body, but stretched out his hand, touched the unclean man, and healed him: “The leprosy left him immediately.”

Yet Jesus did not use this amazing act as a weapon against the Law, but told the man to present himself to the priests as directed in Leviticus 14. In fact, Jesus sternly warned the man to say nothing of the healing, an action described several times in Mark’s Gospel (cf. Mk 1:44; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26, 30; 9:9); he wished his identity as the true Messiah—not a military leader or political zealot—to be revealed slowly and at the proper time. Jesus knew how his miracles could be misunderstood and misused by those anxious to overthrow the Romans. But the real Messiah is revealed in humility and mercy, through acts of selfless love and life-giving sacrifice.

A paradox is then described. When the healed leper, contra Jesus’ admonition, did spread the word, it forced Jesus to live and carry out his ministry outside the town—that is, outside the camp. The holy one who had healed the leper became “unclean”, a sort of leper, having to remain in deserted places. But what happened then? The people “kept coming to him from everywhere”. The divide between what was thought clean—the sinful people in need of cleansing—and perceived as unclean—the mysterious man who touched the leper—was removed.

The limitations of the Law were revealed, but the Law was also fulfilled by the Law-giving Son of God, the only priest who can see our sins and heal both body and soul.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the February 12, 2012, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. The Catholic, Christian Church is the priest(s) that can see our sins and heal body and SOUL. For God works directly through the Catholic Priest, as he did through His Son, that is directly passed down to today.
    Confession, in we are forgiven, we always for give others, with no exception.
    Never is it an island of Mercy and Salvation in this world to Ourselves, but that we bring Mercy and Salvation to Others, that we might attain it for ourselves.
    Western Civilization has denied and forsaken the poor, downtrodden, homeless, hungry and orphan as no time in World History, the facts are growing every day, a direct denial of God.
    The denial of Unbridled Capitalism and Unjust wars has brought grave consequences, all defiant to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

    • There is no such thing as unbridled capitalism. The computer and internet you are using to create your posts are products of capitalism, so your criticism of that system is hypocritical as well as false.

  2. Thank you esp. for the clarifying words about the reason for The Lord telling the healed leper not to go around talking about same . Interesting how the mention of leprosy in the O.T . is related to the instance of pride and envy mingled with
    ? racial undertones , in the rebellion against the God given role of Moses – Miriam resenting the ‘Cushite Woman ‘ that Moses had married !

    ‘It is by His stripes that we have been healed ‘ – every healing miracle as the fruit of The Lord’s Passion , to undo the effects of our rebellious self will …

    The healings of Miriam as well as of the leper in the above instance – what price would have been paid for same – ? the crowing with the thorn , for the prideful thoughts , the sweating of Blood for the ingratitude in many a heart manifesting in excess focus on areas that need not lead to bitterness about appearances and
    such , instead the grace to offer The Lord an act of gratitude for what He suffers from the wicked thoughts , to bring its healing all around .

    The Church calling us , into grateful meditation of The Passion , to do His Will as our food , for its abundant healings in what alienates us from Him and each other

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