Exclusion is a terrible thing. To be excluded affects the person excluded and can harden the hearts of those doing the exclusion. People can be excluded for all kinds of reasons. Today, the first reading and the Gospel give us the situation of the leper. As a consequence of this disease the sufferer was excluded from society as it was feared he/she would infect others. The leper was excluded from worship, from family and village, from employment, and had to keep a set distance from the healthy. Though the disease may vary in severity, it was usually seen as a death sentence, a lingering, dreadful end. It is impossible for us to get inside the leper’s shoes (if he/she still had his/her feet) and begin to understand the plight that leprosy imposed upon the sufferer.
The first reading gives the diagnosis and restrictions imposed on lepers who are officially regarded as unclean. The Gospel of Mark has Jesus being approached by a leper and is consequently healed by the Lord. As disciples of the Lord ministering in His Name, what lessons can we draw from this? Here are a few.
I’ve mentioned before my friend Michael who lives rough and calls on me from time to time. He has mental health issues and loves someone to talk to him. I remember when I asked him what his faith meant to him, he told me He felt so loved by Jesus he never felt defined by his condition and his circumstances. I learned a lesson from my first conversation with Michael. When people looked at a leper they only saw the disease not the person. The person was no longer a human being but a problem to be contained, an issue to be kept far apart from society, out of sight and out of mind. Jesus by caring for the leper is teaching His disciples a vital lesson in ministry. If the Lord’s followers are to live their call to be ‘fishers of men’; then they must first let the people they approach feel that they are loved. The leper only approached Jesus because he felt in his heart that here was one who saw him as a person, He detected love in Jesus that was absent in others. The leper had, in fact, a dual need: to be healed of the disease and also its social consequences of rejection and being shunned. The lesson: When we reach out to people in witness, we will only succeed it we love them into our community.
In healing the leper, Jesus shows the outreach of divine love. Jesus could have healed the leper over a distance, He didn’t need to touch him to rid the man of his disease. Jesus doesn’t just touch the leper, the Greek word used can mean He embraced, even hugged him. Those watching Jesus would be challenged by this action. You never, under any circumstances, touch a leper. Jesus shows His disciples He has come to reach out to all who feel alienated, excluded or feel unwelcome. The leper symbolises sections of society whose faces do not fit. Samaritans who are despised, sinners, all who have fallen foul of the religious laws, foreigners and outsiders. By healing and touching the leper, Jesus displays the indiscriminate embrace of God’s love and mercy. The leper qualifies for God’s attention because he humbly asks for it. He falls on his knees and makes his prayer of petition: “If you want to, you can cure me”. I marvel at the faith and hope of the leper. He knew how definitive his disease was but he believed things could change though the power of Jesus. We all have our seemingly insoluble issues. Maybe we feel things will never change for us or for those we try to help. We use the phrase ‘hopeless cases’. We may give up and resign ourselves to the situation. Yet, we may have closed ourselves to the miraculous intervention of God. As Christians we should be made of better stuff. Faith should assure us to keep our hopes high, to trust God, to keep praying. We must have the confidence of the leper who believed it was within the power of Jesus to rid him of the definitive hopeless situation in which life had placed him.
Luke’s Prodigal Son is a wonderful example of what we learn today. What is the Prodigal Son’s leprosy? First, leprosy desensitizes the flesh. It numbs before it destroys. The leper loses the sense of feeling. The Prodigal Son has lost his love and feeling for his family, name, land and religion. Second: Leprosy isolates the sufferer; the Prodigal Son leaves home and ultimately finds himself abandoned and alone. The son’s alienation seems insoluble. He is now willing to eat with the forbidden animal, the pig. He is ‘unclean’ by definition just like the leper. Thankfully the wayward son shares the leper’s disposition that no matter how definitive things are, bridges all burned and doors closed, there can be a way forward if you are loved. The father welcomes his son back with a wordless embrace, he has touched the untouchable and all is well.
The devil would like to alienate us from God and each other. He would love for us to live apart from the love and mercy of the One Who loves us and the support we give to each other. He doesn’t want us in the Lord’s embrace of reconciliation and inclusion. He doesn’t want us to be the unified Body of Christ the Church. The devil is pleased with those who have become estranged from God or have walked away from His family. How despondent the evil one must feel when we turn and tell our story to the Lord. When we bring our issues and life challenges with hope, trust and optimism believing that God cares, we matter to Him, He will help us.
As we enter Lent we ask God to help us identify attitudes and frailties of the spirit that we carry within us and inhibit holiness of life and effective witness to others. We need, like the leper, to believe real life enhancing change is possible when we seek the healing touch of the Lord. Everyone is as close to God as he/she wants to be. The leper broke all the rules of exclusion and the barriers imposed by society to approach Jesus. He showed great courage. We should overcome our inhibitions and tell God how it is for us. When the leper was healed he just couldn’t keep the good news to himself. We have something wonderful worth sharing with others. We say at Holy Communion: “only say the word and my soul shall be healed”. We receive the gift of God’s healing power in the Sacred Host. We must cooperate with the grace given and allow our wounds, minds, souls, stories, unresolved issues, bereavements, regrets and sins to be resolved by the therapeutic Presence of the Lord. Others may seek the healing they see in us.
Fr. Henri Nouwen was a holy, caring and wonderful priest. He wrote of his life experiences and ministry and his books enlighten us as to the love and compassion of God. He ministered in the first clinic for AIDS patients in New York. He also founded orphanages in Latin America. He saw and was deeply moved by the needs of AIDS patients and unwanted children as their wounded lives were attended to. He wrote this:
How little we really know of the power of physical touch. The lives cared for in the clinic and the homeless children only wanted one thing: to be touched, hugged, stroked and caressed. Probably most adults have the same needs but no longer have the innocence and unselfish consciousness to express them. Jesus asked that we become like little children. Sometimes I see humanity as a sea of people starving for affection, tenderness, care, love acceptance, forgiveness and gentleness. Everyone, even in the silence of their hearts seems to cry “Please love me”.
For Fr. Henri, the cry of the leper to Jesus is all around us just waiting for God’s love to reach out and touch them. St Teresa said God has no hands but ours through which to care. Contact depends on us. Have a happy, holy and life improving Lent.
Fr. Gerard X