6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lv 13:1-2, 44-46; 1Cor 10:31-11:1; Mk 1:40-45
The plight of lepers in the ancient world was very sad indeed. We get a glimpse of it in our Old Testament reading this morning: “The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ . . . He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.”
In the movie “Ben Hur” with Charleston Heston, his beloved mother and sister become lepers during the time he is a slave on a galley ship. When he returns he finds them in the stinky caves where the lepers live. It is such a sad scene. They were ostracized from society and felt so ashamed that they kept their faces covered.
Fairly recently we read a book in our refectory about St. Marianne Cope and her work with the lepers on the island of Molocai in Hawaii. It was a very inspirational book. And it made your heart sick to hear how the persons with leprosy were torn away from their loved ones and quarantined. Before Fr. Damian and Sr. Marianne, there wasn’t much law and order in those places. The weaker ones became the prey of the stronger ones. And all of them were faced with the grim fate of having their flesh rot away and becoming more and more helpless.
Thankfully, we live in an era when leprosy is not as much of a threat. In fact, I wonder if anyone in this church has ever seen a leper before. So, on the surface, it may seem like our readings this morning don’t really apply to us. But our Responsorial Psalm might give us a clue: “Blessed is he whose fault is taken away, whose sin is covered. Blessed the man to whom the Lord imputes not guilt, in whose spirit there is no guile. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, my guilt I covered not. I said, ‘I confess my faults to the Lord,’ and you took away the guilt of my sin.”
We live in a day and age when people are very concerned about their physical appearance and their bodily health. They are willing to spend a lot of money on supplements and plastic surgery and the latest fashions, but how much is dropped in the collection basket or donated to the poor? They are willing to fast from certain foods for reasons of health or to keep their figure looking good, but how many are willing to fast for spiritual reasons? Being good stewards of our body is commendable for sure, but we mustn’t lose sight of being good stewards of souls as well. After all, the one will rot in the grave in a comparatively short time, but the other will live on forever. Don’t be deceived by the fact that the one can be seen but the other not. Many things can’t be seen, like electricity, radio waves, and stars at the other end of the galaxy. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, though. Some people are eager to learn more about how to preserve their health and live longer. They research the latest findings on natural remedies and try to avoid pharmaceutical drugs with side effects. I think to myself, “If only they would spend half that much time and effort on learning more about their beautiful Catholic faith.” Their spiritual health is so much more important than their physical health.
Our gospel reading this morning is one of my favorites. It shows Jesus in such a merciful, loving light. This leper approaches him. He is a man shunned by society. He has to cry out the warning, “Unclean, unclean!” No one gets anywhere near him for fear of contagion. His appearance is probably gruesome and his odor foul. And yet, his faith is a burning lamp within him which cannot be squelched by this dirty garbage bucket that has been put over it. That strong faith propels him to search Jesus out and throw himself on his knees at his feet and beg, “If you wish you can make me clean.” Such tender words, coming from a heart that has learned humility and the true value of things through the school of hard knocks and much suffering. And Jesus, with such a sensitive heart, is moved with pity. He stretches out his hand and touches him! Wonder of wonders! This man had probably been craving human touch for years. Just this small gesture gave him back some of his dignity. And Jesus went on to say, “I do will it. Be made clean.” And the leprosy left him immediately.
We can imagine the euphoria of the man upon seeing his body restored to its original state. And yet, the same thing happens to us when we make a good confession and receive absolution. Just because we cannot see our soul looking shiny and new again doesn’t mean it’s make-believe and imaginary. And the attitude of Jesus toward the leper is still the same to us. He will not humiliate us; he will not shame us. He did not say to the leper, “Get out of my sight you filthy piece of trash!” He says to us, “Please, come here and let me embrace you. Do not stay away any longer. I want to make you clean again. You have suffered with this long enough. Come, let us make a fresh start.”
We are all called to evangelize in one way or another. Despite being instructed to the contrary, the ex-leper “went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.” Oh, would that we had words to move people so that they would swamp Jesus as in days of old. Would that we could change hearts so that Jesus would have to remain outside in deserted places and people would keep coming to him from everywhere. As St. Francis said with tears in his eyes, “Love is not loved!” Instead, people are pursuing things that will never be able to satisfy.
So let us strive to be just as much and even more concerned about our spiritual well-being as our physical well-being. And if we feel like our souls have become leprous and rotten with sin and we are ashamed to come before Jesus in this state, let us call to mind today’s encounter with the leper and Jesus’ most tender and loving response.