Leprosy. In the ancient world it was a horrifying disease. People who contracted leprosy faced the slow disfigurement and putrefying decay of their living bodies. Agonizingly slow, it always resulted in eventual death. And people who contracted leprosy were often made to live away from their families and communities.
In the Old Testament leprosy was described as punishment for sin. In ancient Hebrew society lepers were called “unclean.” The impurity of the disease meant that they were unable to worship at the temple or live with their family and community. They had to live outside, in deserted places. The reading from Leviticus instructs people with leprosy to tear their clothing, shave their heads, and the men had to cover their beards. They had to cry out a warning to others – “unclean, unclean!” These ritual actions were signs of death, penance, and mourning. What a terrible thing it was to contract Leprosy in ancient society.
With this as a background – we can understand the leper’s encounter with Jesus all the more. It is a scene that really touches the heart. The leper came to Jesus and knelt down before him. He came as a penitent. He came with nothing whatsoever to offer. He came as a beggar. Full of faith, the leper said this to Jesus. “If you wish, you can make me clean.”
Leprosy. Today we call it Hansen’s disease, and it doesn’t have the same stigma that it once had. It cannot, because God has revealed to us a much deeper understanding of our sinful human nature and our universal need for salvation. Our souls, which were once pure and spotless at the moment of baptism, become disfigured when we sin. And when we commit those sins that are deadly, it is a slow but sure disfigurement and putrefying decay of our souls. It is a living death, a kind of spiritual leprosy.
Who among us can say that we have not sinned? Who among us cannot say that at one time or another we have found ourselves in the midst of serious sin? And when we persist in sin, then we follow a course that leads not to eternal life, but to eternal death. We follow a course that leads us, not toward the light but toward the darkness. The kingdom of hell is eternal death, eternal darkness, everything that is the opposite of life, love, and hope that come from God. It is a true horror and tragedy, something which we must be aware of. Hell exists. The possibility of eternal death exists for us when we choose the death of sin.
At one time or another each and every single one of us are given the opportunity to come before Jesus just like the leper in the gospel, kneeling before him and begging because of our sin. And like the leper in the gospel, we have the opportunity to place our trust in Jesus and ask Jesus to make us clean once again.
This scene from the gospel has a mystical and powerful quality to it. It says that, “Jesus stretched out his hand.” Remember back in the book of Exodus when it described God, with arm outstretched, performing mighty deeds to save the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Remember the iconic masterpiece by Michaelangelo in the Sistine Chapel with God’s arm outstretched, calling Adam into life? Here is Jesus, God visiting his people, with arm outstretched, and moved with pity.
And then the words – “I do will it, be made clean.” This is the divine command that cleansed the leper. Remember Genesis when God spoke and all of the cosmos came into being? God’s word does what it commands. Every time that Jesus spoke, His word accomplished what he said. “Be quiet, be still” and the wind and waves obeyed him. “Little girl, arise” and the dead girl came to life again. “Be quiet. Come out of him” and the demon departed. “My son, your sins are forgiven,” and the paralytic was cleansed and then “rise, take up your mat, and walk” and the paralytic’s broken body was healed. When Jesus speaks, his word accomplishes what he says.
Let us therefore have faith that Jesus’ word does what he commands! When we gather at this Mass and the words of Jesus are spoken, “this is my body, this is my blood,” over bread and wine, the power of his Holy Spirit works the Eucharistic miracle and we are fed by the living God. If the world truly believed Jesus, they would be lining up out the door to be in the presence of the living God. When we come to confession and the words are pronounced, “I absolve you of your sin” it is Jesus himself who cleanses us through his priest. Oh that the world would believe and come to Jesus to be healed and forgiven. Oh that the world would believe and come to Jesus to be fed by his divine presence.
How will they ever know if we, the church don’t tell them? Each and every single one of us are invited to a life-changing encounter with Jesus. Jesus looks at us with compassion. Jesus stretches out his hand to us to heal us, forgive us, and feed us.
And when we meet Jesus that way, then like the leper may we go forth with the joy of Jesus in our hearts. Like the leper, may we tell others our story of the love and mercy of Jesus. After we encounter Jesus, whatever it is that we do, may we do everything for the glory of God. Because when the church believes this way, and lives this way, being imitators of Christ, then we have power to bring others into the presence of Jesus. And they too may be healed, forgiven, and saved for eternal life.