‘WHERE ARE THE LEPERS AMONG US?’ (Mk 1:40-45): 17 January 2008 (Thursday)
There is something about the behavior of our Lord in the gospel story that has always bewildered me: He tells the leper not to tell anyone that he has healed him, and yet almost in the same breath, he asks the leper to show himself to the priest.
This sounds like false modesty, but it’s not. Our Lord really does not want people to know of his healing powers, and the reason for this, biblical scholars tell us, is that he doesn’t want people to overreact and misunderstand his mission, and make him a political messiah.
But why ask the leper to show himself to the priest? In order to be declared clean, in order to be restored back to society. In Jewish society, a leper was considered an outcast. In fact, a leper was required to announce his arrival by ringing a little bell or calling out, “Leper! Leper!” to warn others of his arrival.
There are two reasons for this: The first obviously concerns the physical. Those who were healthy did not want to be infected by leprosy. There was still no cure for leprosy in those days.
The second reason, however, is religious: The Jews, especially the Pharisees, believed that people suffering from an illness were cursed by God. They believed—as we today sometimes do—that bad things happen only to bad people. Hence, sickness, especially a terrible sickness like leprosy, would have to be nothing less than a punishment from God.
We can imagine what a miserable existence it must be for the leper. It’s bad enough to be suffering from the pain of the sickness, but to also suffer the pain of rejection! Whenever a leper walks down the streets, people turn away, even run away, but not before their lips curling in disgust at the sight of him. To feel that others have given up on you and abandoned you!
But our Lord is different. In the reading, when the man full of leprosy begs him: “Lord, if you will to do so, you can cure me,” what did our Lord do? He does not turn away; his lips do not curl in disgust at the sight of this terribly stricken man. He does not give up on this sick man. More than anything else, he does not condemn this man as a hopeless sinner. Rather, full of compassion, he responds in the gentlest of voice: “I do will it. Be cured.” And, we are told, the leper is indeed cured.
Today we have lepers in our midst. And some, like the man in the story, are truly physically sick. But there are worse types of lepers–people who are not physically sick, but who, for one reason or another, are rejected by society. Where are the lepers among us today? They may be closer to us than we think.
Perhaps some of us have experienced being treated like lepers. But maybe we’ve also been one of those who reject others, isolate them, and treat them as lepers. Today’s gospel is a call to question ourselves whether we’re going to act like a Pharisee, or whether we’re going to be Jesus to them.