“I do will it. Be made clean,” Jesus says to the leper who approached him looking for a cure. The cure recounted in the Gospel passage in Sunday’s liturgy reminds us of the power of Christ Jesus to heal. The leper comes to Jesus and kneels before him saying: “If you wish, you can make me clean.” The faith of the leper is seen in both his actions and his words.
The action that reflects faith is his kneeling before Jesus. He comes to Jesus believing that he, Jesus, is the one who can deliver him from this disease. The words that the man speaks give articulation to the faith he believes. He believes in Jesus. He knows that Jesus has the power to heal.
The disease that afflicts the man is a serious one. We sense the gravity of this illness from the passage from Leviticus that serves as the first reading for today’s liturgy. Leprosy is a disease that affects the nerve endings. It causes loss of sensation and feeling in the extremities of the body. This makes the person easily susceptible to injury. The disease also deforms the skin and limbs. Lepers were (and still are in some areas of the world) often isolated for fear of spreading the disease. This fear is reflected in the Mosaic Law which we read in the passage from Leviticus.
In this reading we learn how the community dealt with the threat of this disease. Once a person noticed a “scab or pustule or blotch” on the skin that looks like leprosy he or she must show themselves to the priest. The priest will determine whether he is “clean” or “unclean.” Being declared “unclean” will mean the person will “keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard.” Furthermore he will cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He will isolate himself from the community “making his abode outside the camp.”
The regulations might seem harsh to us today but we should try to understand this passage in its cultural context. The law goes back several thousands of years. Medical treatment back then was nothing as compared with today. Understanding of disease, the spread of disease and treatment of diseases were extremely limited. The person with the disease was required to make it known to the community so they will not come in contact with other people. This was done so as to limit the spread of disease. Hence the person has to rend his garments, keep his head uncovered and muffle his beard.
The same is true in cases where he comes near to other people. He must call out “unclean” so that they will not come close. Living in isolation from the community likewise was done for health reasons, so as not to affect the rest of the community. All these restrictions serve as preventative measures to help preserve the wider community from the ravages of the disease.
We see similar restrictions today when we hear about the Ebola disease and the quarantines that have to be put in place in Africa, with air travel and in hospitals and health clinics around the world.
We can understand the need of the community to protect itself from disease and hence the regulations that go into place to hinder its spread. However, we cannot forget the suffering of the individual with the disease. The disease itself, all the subsequent damages to the person’s body and the shunning from the community isolate the person. The persons afflicted are separated from their family, their friends and their community. They are alone and must care for themselves even though they are less and less able to do so as the disease progresses.
This background on the disease and how the community dealt with persons with the disease is helpful in understanding Jesus’ response to this man who comes to him for healing. The passage from Sunday’s Gospel gives us insight into the person and mission of Jesus.
The first thing we learn is that Jesus is “moved with pity” for the man with leprosy. Jesus is compassionate. The normal reaction to a person with leprosy would be to move away. It might be helpful to think about the way we might react if someone approached us who had a contagious disease; most people would move away. Or we might ask ourselves, “How do we react when we see a person whose body is severely disfigured or has open wounds on their skin?” Many people will instinctively “look away” from the person.
Both these reactions isolate the person in need. Jesus’ first reaction is the opposite. He is moved with compassion. Compassion does not distance the person from the other but brings them together. It is like a bridge that connects the two in an act of love. In compassion and pity Jesus recognizes the suffering of the man with leprosy and demonstrates a willingness “to suffer with” him. Jesus’ action of the heart sends a message at the very first instant of this encounter. The message of compassion is “you are not alone.”
Jesus “action of the heart” is something that underlies what he does. His actions give witness to this compassion. Before saying a word, Jesus stretches out his hand and touches the man. He is not thinking of the leprosy and a danger to himself, rather he is thinking of the man with leprosy and his need for healing.
Second, we learn that Jesus has the power to heal. Immediately upon saying “I do will it. Be made clean,” the man is healed. Jesus cures the man by his word. The role of the priests of Israel regarding leprosy was to make a determination if the person suspected of having leprosy was a threat to the community. Jesus’ role is to heal. He sends the cured man to the priests in fulfillment of the law so that they can verify the healing. At the same time the person cured can give thanks to God by the offering prescribed by Moses.
Jesus is compassionate and has the power to heal. The man with leprosy has faith and believes Jesus can heal. What about us? We are all in need of healing of some sort. For most people that healing is not of a physical nature. What are the things we need to be healed of? Is it a suffering cause by a lack of trust? Is it caused by a ruptured relationship? Is it caused by abuse? Is it poverty? Is it sin? It it an emotional pain? Is it anxiety? Is it an addiction? Is it fear? Is it a grudge? Whatever the cause of the suffering, the first step in healing is seeking the help of Christ Jesus.
One obstacle we might face is the thought that either our troubles are “too big” or “too small” for Jesus. For example, we might think that this problem or that problem is beyond healing or resolve. In this case, perhaps we should consider the magnitude of Jesus’ healing leprosy and reconsider our own difficulties.
On the other end of the spectrum we might think, “Oh, I don’t want to bother him with this, it is insignificant, I can handle it on my own.” In this case we might let Jesus decide. Why would we try to handle it alone? Do we have the power to heal as he did? Jesus can heal us in ways we could never imagine, so why shouldn’t we seek his help?
Encountering Jesus in prayer, we approach him with faith. Looking for words for this prayer we might use those of the response for Sunday’s liturgy: “I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble and you will fill me with the joy of salvation.” Jesus’ healing is a witness to salvation. He saves us from all that would or is doing us harm. He delivers us from that which causes death and he offers eternal life. He hears our prayer when we open our hearts to him in an earnest and sincere desire for help. He encounters us with compassion and love. He heals us and delivers us.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.