For the past Sundays, we have seen Jesus healing all kinds of diseases. Today a leper approaches him and asks to be cured. Leprosy is considered among the most serious and dreaded illnesses then. It disfigures the body and causes it to disintegrate, reducing the victim into a veritable “walking dead.” More than the physical suffering, it is the psychological pain that devastates the leper as he grapples with feelings of shame, bitterness, anger and loss of self-worth. Because the disease is highly contagious, he is banned from the community and is forced to live in isolation as a social outcast. Worse still, he is barred from participating in religious worship since he is considered ritually impure. Finally, there is a common belief is that leprosy is a punishment and curse from God.
It is in this context that we can understand the defiance of the leper as he breaks through the social barrier and throws himself at the feet of Jesus begging, “If you wish, you can cure me.” More than desperation it is faith that drives him to come to Jesus. “You can cure me.” He is that sure and certain of the power of Jesus – of his divinity. His prayer is an extraordinary combination of faith and humility which does not impose but submissively waits, “If you wish…”
The response of Jesus is an astounding, “I do will it. Be made clean.” I love the more dynamic translation that goes, “Of course, I will it. Be clean.” As Jesus accedes to the leper’s plea, he too breaks the social barrier by extending his hand and touching the untouchable. Instantly, the leper is made clean.
The touch of Jesus. This reminds me of the touch of God that vivifies the limp and lifeless body of Adam, as immortalized by Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine chapel. The touch of Jesus gives back life to the leper whom society has taken for a dead man walking. The touch of Jesus restores wholeness to his body and spirit and returns him to his place in the community and in the church. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “Christ is ‘the hand’ of God stretched out to humanity, to rescue it from the quicksand of illness and death so that it can stand on the firm rock of divine love (cf. Ps 39:2-3).”
While the first reading and the gospel specifically speak of leprosy, all the readings actually point to a far deadlier disease – sin, of which leprosy is but an image. Sin is the ultimate disease that destroys life and alienates man from himself, society and God. Thus, in the responsorial psalm, the psalmist exhorts us to turn to God and acknowledge our sins so that he will take away our guilt and fill us with the joy of his salvation. In the second reading, St. Paul urges us to proclaim our deliverance from the leprosy of sin by our new life, lived out in “doing everything for the glory of God” and the salvation of others.
Today, leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease) may no longer be common, but it is still present in many forms. There are many who suffer from isolation and social rejection because of appearance, disability, belief, religion, culture, sexual orientation, or simply because they are different. Today’s gospel invites us to be, like Jesus, an extension of the hand of God and bring his healing touch to those who are rejected or “left behind”. Simple acts of kindness, like an affirming word, a welcoming smile, an encouraging nod, or a mere pat on the back, can go a long way to restore confidence, revive hope and inject new life to a “modern day leper.”
Today, 11 February, is also the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and World Day of the Sick. What a happy concurrence that our Sunday readings speak precisely about the healing compassion of God. Let us remember all our sick and infirm and commend them to God’s healing love. Let us also pray for those who care for them in the hospitals and their homes that they may never tire of being bearers of God’s care and consolation. Maria, Salus Infirmorum, ora pro nobis. Mary, Health of the Sick, pray for us.