Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
Psalm 32:1-2, 5, 11
1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1
This, surely, was not the first day that the leper in today’s gospel wished to be made clean. We are not told how long he was sick with what is described as leprosy, but he must have been so gravely ill for such a long period of time that he knew well the loneliness of his disease. As the first reading for Sunday tells us, lepers were to “dwell apart,” outside of the “camp” or village. They were to distinguish themselves by rending their garments, and they were to warn others of their presence, lest others be made “unclean,” by crying out, “Unclean, unclean!” [Leviticus 13:44-46].
From my childhood I remember well the scene from the great movie Ben Hur (1959), when Charlton Heston’s mother and sister, Miriam and Tirzah, are struck down with leprosy and take to living in a cave outside of the city. They have no contact with anyone except those who are suffering from the same disease. When Heston learn’s of their condition and their whereabouts, he sets out to find them, and finding them carries them into the town where the shadow of that preacher from Nazareth, Jesus, might fall on them and make them well. The frightened townspeople throw rocks at them, screaming “Lepers! Unclean!” Jesus has already begun his journey to Calvary, and Hur and his mother and sister are huddled together at a distance, watching the spectacle of a man being nailed to a cross. As Jesus surrenders his last breath, Miriam and Tirzah are made clean. The faith of Ben Hur was strong enough to procure the healing of his mother and sister.
The leper from Mark’s gospel surely knew what it was like to feel ostracized; people had no doubt avoided him for years. Perhaps it was his isolation which deepened his faith in the possibility that Jesus would be capable of making him well. Perhaps one of the “many who were sick” that were cured from earlier in Mark’s gospel, spoke to someone who spoke to someone who spoke to the leper and filled him with a hope which would disregard societal demands and cause him to approach Jesus and speak to him. By the time the leper comes to Jesus in today’s gospel there is no question about his faith in Jesus’ ability to cure him. It was more a matter of whether Jesus would want to cure him: “If you wish, you can make me clean.” The leper kneels before Jesus and audaciously and boldly shares his thoughts with the Lord: “I know you can, but are you willing to take the time, make the effort, to heal me of this horrible disease?” Clearly the man’s faith stirred Jesus to his depths, and he does something no good Jew would do. Jesus “stretched out his hand” and “touched him,” risking the wrath of the Law. He touched the leper!
I learned the power of a simple touch a few years after my ordination to the priesthood. The brother of dear friends had contracted AIDS, and I had come to know him through family celebrations and get togethers during the Christmas holidays. He had been significantly absent at family affairs, and I worked up the courage to inquire about his health and the cause of his missing family gatherings. My inquiries were kindly ignored until I persisted that there was nothing that they could not share with me. It was then that they acknowledged that their son, their brother, had AIDS. The disease in the early 1980s was not unlike the leprosy described in Mark’s gospel. People were uncomfortable speaking about it, ashamed of being connected to it in any way, and it tended to ostracize people, pushing them to the fringe of society where they could be out of sight. My request to see my friend with AIDS would be considered, but was not easily granted since my friend and his family bore so much crippling shame. When I was told that a visit could happen, I labored over what I would do and what I would say when I was brought to his bedside. It was the prompting of the Spirit which would cause me to do what I had always done when I saw him at family gatherings. I warmly embraced him, I touched him. Regardless of what I said that day, I would learn from his mother that it was that embrace which was the most powerful sign of God’s love. A simple touch brought a certain kind of healing, even though the disease would take his life just a short time later.
Notice how Jesus behaves in today’s gospel. In spite of the leper’s rudeness in approaching him, in spite of the clear prohibition of even speaking to someone so unclean, Jesus deals sensitively and kindly with the leper. There is no demand by Jesus of conditions, there are no agreements signed which would demand that the leper would follow/support Jesus. The leper sensed what Jesus already knew: that He came into this world to make what was wrong right, to heal the sick, to free those imprisoned, to cast out the evil spirits which weigh us down. Our nameless leper should remind all of us that Jesus can only touch and heal what we bring before Him. The naked honesty of the leper who was not afraid to come before Jesus even though he was afflicted with the worst of diseases should be for us a life-affirming model.
We need to come before God with a willingness to be nothing other than ourselves, exposing our need for God’s healing. Although most of us will never be ostracized, too often we can be quite adept at hiding our weakness and the unsightly, sinful aspects of our life. As one commentator has stated, “Perhaps the worst of it is that we can hide them from ourselves, believing in the image we project rather than the truth of who we are” [Mary McGlone]. Humility is the ability to see ourselves as God sees us. “We never hear of Jesus reaching out and touching someone who was self-sufficient, but only those who knew they needed him…. What is vital is the courage to place our truest self before God as well as the vulnerability to allow God to touch and transform us.”
May all of our prayers for healing, for justice, for peace, for forgiveness, for love and compassion, be uttered with the spirit of the gospel’s leper, that we, like him, might hear Jesus say to us: “I do will it!”