Before us in today’s Gospel is a man afflicted with the disease of leprosy. Lepers were outcasts from Jewish society – for many reasons. The skin of lepers becomes marred with lesions. The tribes of Israel put a great emphasis on purity; the lesion made one “unclean”, who must “dwell apart, outside the camp.” Leviticus 13, source of the first reading, has fifty-nine verses that detail how to deal with leprosy and other skin lesions.
Beyond the surface ugliness, there was much to fear from leprosy. Victims went on to suffer nerve damage, loss of body parts, infection, and eventual death. Leprosy is contagious; we know now via aerosol droplets. It could take years for symptoms to appear (“asymptomatic transmission”; sound familiar?). At that time, there was no treatment; being too near a leper was a potential sentence to a slow and hideous death. Isolation was part of the Law of the Prophets, for the common good.
Fast-forward to Galilee, circa 30 A.D: a leper comes to Jesus, kneels before him and makes a bold and direct appeal: “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Under the law and good hygiene, any man should move away and rebuke him. But Jesus does the opposite. And what a beautiful and audacious thing he does: “moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean.’”
We immediately rejoice that Jesus has physically cured the leper. But what follows perhaps takes a bit of the edge off that joy. The leper pleads, “make me clean.” And Jesus responds, “Be made clean”. Being clean allows this man to return to the Jewish faithful. Jesus instructs him to “go, show yourself to the priest.” And the priest would refer back to Leviticus 13. Jesus here illustrates that cryptic but key passage from the Sermon on the Mount: “I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.”
Jesus also sternly warns this man: “See that you tell no one anything.” But Mark tells us that the man “went away and began to publicize the whole matter”. That wasn’t what Jesus was looking for. For this moment, it appears that the human Jesus found it a burden that people could not leave him alone for prayer. The easy thing would have been for him to stay away from the leper in the first place. But, as Fred excellently pointed out last week, Jesus knew it was his calling to preach, and to let people reach out to him. And Jesus kept touching them and giving them new life as he moved toward his ultimate calling to give us all new life through his Passion and Resurrection – as we’ll all start to live again next week.
Finally, I want to return to how relevant this Gospel is to us today. Both leprosy and COVID are contagious diseases that are transmitted silently, and can cause death – death in isolation, with much physical suffering. After a year of living with the specter of COVID, having to stay away from people, the image of Jesus reaching out and touching the leper is really poignant. We are all looking forward to “reach out and touch” each other again as we can gather freely. We all have our wish lists.
But we need to think again about that leper – and ask, who are the de facto lepers in today’s world. They are the many who are isolated, marginalized, viewed as “unclean”. If we think a bit about it, we can all identify people whose lives have really suffered in the COVID age. I took a quick look at some data and it jumped out that places like Brockton, Chelsea, Lynn, and Lawrence, plus parts of Boston and Worcester, have suffered several times the rate of death and illness, not to mention hunger and unemployment in this crisis – as they have borne the brunt of discrimination, pollution, lack of health support for so many years. In our joy at returning to normal, may we also be willing to make sacrifices needed to stand with those on the margins – so that they finally gain a full place at the table of plenty. There is a lot of work to do. I’m preaching to the choir here because I know many of you do great, selfless work even now. I’m preaching to myself to try to keep service to the marginalized top of mind. It’s not easy.
On this weekend in 2015, Pope Francis ordained new Cardinals. He gave an impassioned homily [see here] on this gospel. His theme was how Jesus, in his compassion, reinstates the marginalized. And that was his charge to the Cardinals – to welcome all who come to the door, to seek out those who are neglected, to serve them, and to bring them in. He ended with these words to the new Cardinals: “May we always have before us the image of St. Francis, who was unafraid to embrace the leper and to accept every kind of outcast. Truly, dear brothers, the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is at stake, is discovered, and is revealed!”
I want to end with some music I hope you’ll find appropriate. It’s from a jazz singer named Gregory Porter. This is the first verse of a song he wrote during Pops Francis’ visit to New York. It is dedicated to his mother, who was a storefront preacher who often drove around nights donating food to those in need in their hometown of Bakersfield, California.