Both the first reading of today taken from the Book of Leviticus and the Gospel, speak about leprosy. I have often wondered why this particular sickness is mentioned. I am sure that people suffered from different types of ailments, yet leprosy seems to have had such an impact in the times of the Old and the New Testament. There is a reason for this. Leprosy was considered as the ultimate sign of being unclean. It made a person an outcast both socially and religiously.
Lepers were not meant to live in the city with the people. They had to live on their own, away from where the majority lived. They were considered to be truly cursed by God. If they had a reason to go to the town they would have had to carry a bell with them. They would constantly ring this bell as they walked and cried out “Unclean, Unclean”. Keep away from me because I am struck with a very contagious disease.
We can only imagine how these people felt. It is true their bodies might have been covered with sores. It is true that they must have been horrible to look at. However, over and above all this, these people went around fully aware that they were the rejected of society. No one would get close to them. They would have had no hope to establish any personal friendships. They lived their lives alone constantly struggling to exist. Their bodies might have been hurting, but their spirits must have been crushed. Imagine trying to live with these attitudes. Nobody wants to know me. Nobody cares for me. Nobody wants to get close to me. I am definitely and totally on my own.
This is the person who came to Jesus. St Mark in today’s gospel tells us that this man approached Jesus and knelt before him. Jesus had compassion for him. How could Jesus express this compassion? He did something that other people never did. It might have been a very simple gesture yet it made that person feel, perhaps for the first time in his life, as belonging somewhere. Somebody did care. Jesus touched him. No one ever dared to touch a leper because touching a leper meant that the person doing the touching would have also been considered as unclean and rejected by society. Yet Jesus wanted to make us understand that giving hope to a person is worth every sacrifice and every effort. Once that leper was touched, he was also healed.
Where did the leprosy go? We are told in today’s gospel that ‘the leprosy left him at once’ and he was cured. So what happened to it? Where did it go? And since leprosy in the Scriptures is supposed to be an image of sin we might well ask the much more important question, ‘Where does sin go? When Jesus forgives sin what happens to it – does it just evaporate?’
Leprosy does to an individual physically what mortal sin does spiritually. It makes him unclean, it makes him ugly, it cuts him off from the community and, finally, it kills him. Likewise, mortal sin makes the sinner unclean, ugly, cut off from the community and spiritually dead. Some people today think there is only a physical side of humanity there is no spiritual side, of course physical sickness is obvious, easy to notice and some people think everything is fine with me as long as I am physically fit and healthy, but this is only one side of the truth (this is what animals need to be happy, but we are more than animals) to be humans we have to be spiritually fit and strong and healthy as well. If not, we just can’t be happy! And nothing will fulfill us! We have this deep longing for God, deep desire for spiritual relationship and spiritual fulfillment. Nothing will satisfy us, wealth, health, beauty, several wives etc. because a longing is spiritual, the fulfillment must be spiritual not physical. You may be physically fit, strong young, healthy but this is not enough to be happy, and you will not be happy without spiritual life. We have to develop this balance between physical and spiritual health, to be able to built our humanity on, like a life long commitments, family life, motherhood and fatherhood, love and respect in community. It is just impossible to be human if you are missing a significant part of humanity which is spirituality.
The Book of Leviticus has this to say: A man infected with leprosy must wear his clothing torn and his hair disordered; he must shield his upper lip and cry, “Unclean, unclean”. As long as the disease lasts he must be unclean; and therefore he must live apart: he must live outside the camp.
The only way a leper could remain alive was to beg people to throw him money or leave him food. If anyone was silly enough to touch a leper they would contaminate themselves and would themselves be excluded from the community for a certain number of days, after which the priest would examine him and, hopefully, declare him to be clean.
So the leper in the gospel was way out of line in approaching Jesus; he should not have come anywhere near him because he was, in fact, ‘excommunicated’. That he dared to come within arm’s reach was the height of impertinence.
If you want to … you can cure me.
The leper had come to Jesus and fallen to his knees. Now he was pleading for a cure. His words are subtly ambivalent, almost suggestive of a challenge to the compassion of Jesus, but confident of his power.
Neither disease nor sin is part of God’s plan and Jesus immediately felt sorry for him. He had come to restore, to heal, to make whole and without hesitation he does the unthinkable; he: stretched out his hand and touched him.
Of course I want to ! … Be cured! And the leprosy left him at once and he was cured.
Perhaps we can see in this incident a kind of reverse of the miracle of next week’s gospel about the paralytic (Mk 2) who was let down through a hole in the roof. To the paralytic Jesus said: My child, your sins are forgiven; and then, when the scribes were scandalized he said: I order you: get up, pick up your stretcher, and go off home.
And we might well ask the question Jesus asked the scribes: Which of these is easier: to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven” or to say, “Get up, pick up your stretcher and walk?
The physical points to the spiritual just as the spiritual points to the physical and we may well ask whether the leper’s sins were not forgiven, just as his body was made whole.
Jesus sternly orders the man not to speak of Jesus’ part in this healing but to go and show himself to the priests who would examine him and declare him clean. (Is this not what a priest does in the sacrament of reconciliation?)
Instead the man speaks of his healing freely and spreads the story everywhere. We might well wonder if the poor man shared Jeremiah’s (20:9) experience of: a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones. The effort to restrain it wearied me, I could not bear it. Perhaps if he had remained silent in obedience to the Lord’s words: the stones would have cried out. He was so happy, so relived, and healthy.
At any rate, the consequences for Jesus are serious; he is now known to be ritually unclean because he had touched the leper and he: could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived.
So who’s the leper now? It is Jesus who bears the punishment of this disease. He becomes a leper without leprosy – as he became a sinner without sin – so that we might live. Can you see now what happened?
Ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried.
On him lies a punishment that brings us peace, and through his wounds we are healed (Is 53:4-5).
He wants to clean us, and take our sins on Himself; he wants to cure our leprosy of sin through the sacrament of Reconciliation, sacrament of Penance where God touches us individually with His grace to bring us back to our community, to our family of clean followers of our Lord. What we need to do is come to Him with humility and sincerity and ask to heal us.