Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time (link to the Bible readings)
The Law of Moses stipulated that certain kinds of skin conditions were to be considered leprous. Those who suffered from these conditions were ritually unclean. Furthermore, they had to separate themselves from the general community. Probably not all of these had the illness now known as Hansen’s disease, but there was sufficient fear in the community that separation seemed right. We may look at such behavior as barbarous but we really have to understand that anti-biotics and other such treatments are relatively recent in the history of the world, in fact less than 100 years ago. Even in our own country there were leper colonies. There was one in Louisiana and the most famous one was on the island of Molokai in Hawaii. From the point of view of the community, separation of the lepers was a means to protect the community from the spread of the disease. The advanced forms were terrible to behold.
Although the treatments available for Hansen’s disease has made leper colonies a thing of the past, there may be other diseases or problems which are met with the same fear. When I was about to begin training in a hospital chaplaincy program, I had the Tuberculosis test as part of the general course. My skin test came back positive and immediately the manner in which I was treated by the hospital staff changed. They were terrified of me and in fact treated me rudely. (A chest x-ray revealed that I did not have the disease).
In the ancient world, leprosy was the kind of disease which people knew that only God could cure. If someone did in fact become well, they were instructed to present themselves to the priests who would declare them clean. Then they were to offer a special sacrifice to God in thanksgiving.
The general attitude of the People of God was that all diseases or illnesses or physical malfunctions or even problems were the result of sin. Indeed this belief is not foreign to us as Christians. The Original Sin of Adam and Eve brought corruption to the whole universe. Yet we know that not every problem is the result of a particular sin. Because leprosy was visibly corrupting the skin, and because of fear of contagion, leprosy was a sign of sin. The separation of the lepers from the community and the requirement that they shout Unclean, unclean and go about in torn clothes further added to sorrow. Only God could heal it, only God could really integrate someone back into the community.
The leper approached Jesus to ask for healing (Mark 1:40) because he believed that Jesus had the power to heal this dread disease. All that was lacking was the will of Jesus to accomplish it. And Jesus responded I do will it, be made clean (Mark 1:41). It is a sign of Jesus’ divine nature. He not only heals the man of a terrible ailment, but He provides for his reintegration into the community.
Note that Jesus does not simply accept the leper as a leper. I mean, Jesus did accept him and did not reject his entreaties. Jesus loved him. But in His love, Jesus did not leave him a leper. Nor did Jesus force the priests of the temple to accept the leper as clean when he was in fact, unclean. Rather, Jesus healed the man. Jesus made him clean. Such is the power of God.
Leprosy is a pretty good sign for sin (Although to suffer from leprosy itself is not sinful). When a person disobeys God, it just does not affect them alone, it affects the whole community. Lies and theft destroy trust. Murder destroys not only human lives, but often evokes the desire for revenge. Adultery and other sins of the flesh turns others into objects and is a sin against the family. Of course the worship of false gods puts a person’s whole life in disorder. There are sins which are so grave that they prevent a Christian from receiving Holy Communion. We do not require them to shout Unclean, but certainly that is how many people feel.
Although some sins make it inadvisable to receive communion, there is no sin for which we cannot receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. All we have to do is repent and ask God’s help. As well they should. We ought to return to him for the forgiveness of sins and the healing of our souls. Jesus indeed has the power to heal us. And just like He said to the leper I do will it, be made clean, Jesus has a healing will for our sins.
And the forgiveness we receive can be a great sign for others. When the leper told everyone what Jesus did for him, many others were convinced to come to Jesus to experience His mercy. So too, when others see and hear what Jesus has done for us, they will want to experience the healing of their souls too.
*A great book to read is the biography of Saint Damien, called "Damien the Leper" by John Farrow.