Sunday, February 12, 2006

Lepers, all of us

The lessons for the sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time are:

  • Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
  • Psalm 32:1-2, 5, 11
  • First Corinthians 10:31—11:1
  • Mark 1:40-45

There are Gospel stories that can seem, to some, as quaint reflections of ancient times, tales from long ago. We live in a day when Hansen's disease, better known as leprosy, is curable, so we can look at this as just one more miracle story. If we do that we will miss what God is offering us in this portion of the Good News.

Leprosy is often called the world's oldest disease, as there are records of it going back more than 3,000 years from ancient Egypt. But Israel did not make fine distictions in diagnosis, either when Leviticus was compiled, or during the time of Jesus. It appears that almost any scaly or disfiguring skin disease might be considered leprous -- in fact, Leviticus notes that even clothes and the walls of houses could be affected by leprosy. Hansen's disease, left untreated, will bring facial disfigurement and loss of extremites like fingers and feet, and finally death, all through nerve damage caused by the very slow and hard to transmit infection. Many of the other diseases referred to in Scripture as leprosy were much less serious, occasionally more contaigious, but could be recovered from. That made little difference in how people reacted.

From the beginning to the present day, leprosy inspires fear -- fear of ostracism, disfigurement and death. Most societies have felt it necessary to isolate or expel these sufferers, giving the words leper and leper colony the fearsome associations they enjoy. This lasted up until less than 50 years ago in the United States, and continued well after that in some other places. One of the most extreme cases was Japan, where Hansen's disease patients were quarantined until just ten years ago. Up until the 1950's, even while effective treatments became available, the Japanese government removed babies born to leprosy patients, and fearing contaigion where there was none, put the babies to death. Little wonder than persons fearing they might have leprosy would do anything they could to prevent others from finding out, as long as they could.

In Old Testament times, the people of Israel were afraid of more than that. Many natural events were seen to indicate either God's favor or anger, and this included illness. Bodily wholeness and integrity were associated with holiness. Some diseases seemed to specifically show spiritual imperfection as well, and therefore were considered ritually polluting. Contact with these unclean persons could result, they thought, in God's displeasure expanding to include them as well.

Understanding this helps us in properly reading the lesson from Leviticus. God worked with Israel from where they were. They already feared lepers, and like almost all other societies, drove them from normal life -- most probably, in those days, to their deaths. Our Old Testament lesson, in my opinion, is there to set a limit to the reaction of the community. You could not brand someone a leper on your own -- you had to bring them to the priest, who would make the determination using detailed rules. The person was ostracized from the community, but was not to be punished or harmed beyond that if they followed the law themselves. And if the person recovered, they could be declared clean and restored to the community. To our modern eyes, this rule sounds like punishment, while in terms of the time when it was set down, it was a law of mercy.

As always, God's mercy is good news indeed. It is good news, not only to those suffering Hansen's disease, but the rest of us as well. For we are all, in one sense, lepers. No, I am not saying we all have this particular disease, but that we all have something, some problem or secret that we are sure others will find disgusting. We are scared silly that we will be found out, be rejected by others, even be judged as undeserving of God's love. We are willing to do almost anything to prevent others from finding out. And we may despair of any help from God with our own emotional or spiritual leprosy.

What can we do? We can look to today's Gospel story for guidance. Jesus responds with compassion to a cry for help:

A leper came to him (and kneeling down) begged him and said, "If you wish,
you can make me clean."

Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, "I
do will it. Be made clean." The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once.

Then he said to him, "See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them."

What Jesus responds to here is the combination of first, an statement of need, the admission that healing is beyond our control, and the acknowlegement that He can. The first step in dealing with our own personal leprosy is to admit we have a problem, that there is a part of our lives beyond our own ability to repair. Then we have to be willing to give up our attempts to hide and control this part of our lives and submit them to God.

And the response? "Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, 'I do will it. Be made clean.' " The person who touched a leper became ritually impure or polluted as the sufferer was. Jesus shows that no ugly secret disqualifies us for God's mercy, that he is willing to share whatever dishonor we face, right beside us.

Jesus then moves beyond merely comforting us in our afflictions. He acts to make the leper clean again, to restore him to full membership in the community. This is the reconciliation forseen in Leviticus, where the sufferer is now seen as being favored by God.

Finally, the Church plays an important part in this. Jesus does not just say the leper is now clean, he sends him back to the priests for his status to be confirmed and to be restored in the sight of all Israel. Dealing with our own personal leprosy is not simply a individualistic matter of "me and God". We may need the help of the sacrament of rcconciliation and spiritual direction. Counselors or therapists may be essential for dealing with the emotional component of our problems. And our fellow Christians can be critical for our recovery, supplying acceptance, support and accountability.

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