The readings yesterday describe an aspect of life in Bible times that’s tough, really tough. Leprosy was a lonely, humiliating existence and a painful death sentence on top of that. In the readings, Jesus deals with a leper in a very direct way when he heals him and he makes an obvious lesson for us all, yet it is a lesson that’s oddly easy to miss in life.
Here’s what happened with the leper
The first reading yesterday from Leviticus 13 instructs a person with leprosy to live outside town away from the other people, and if other people are around him, the leper must cry out “unclean, unclean” so they will stay away from him. Human contact is forbidden. Leprosy is an awful, painful, physically ugly disease. It even smells bad. Making a leper stay away from everybody keeps the disease from spreading. But what a dreadful way the lepers had to live, alone and suffering!
Then the Gospel yesterday describes Jesus healing a leper “up close and personal”. He expresses compassion for the man, touches him as part of the healing. In his homily on Sunday, Father made a point you hear quite a bit about this encounter – Jesus did not keep this man at a distance. He did not treat the leper as a horror to avoid, but instead as a human being for whom Jesus felt compassion. Jesus saw the man, not the disease.
The way Jesus acted is contrary to what usually happened back then. When you get right down to it, I guess he could have reprimanded the leper for not acting the way Leviticus says he should (keeping his distance and calling out “unclean” and all that). But we are not surprised at what Jesus does. He has been healing people all over the place, so he will heal this leper, too. And Mark says that Jesus was “moved with compassion”. And the leper was healed.
I don’t know why Jesus didn’t heal every person in the whole world. For that matter, I don’t know why I can’t just pray what the leper did (“Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean”) and then get healed of whatever my problem is. I don’t know either of these things. But here is what I do know and it moves me – Jesus encountered a leper. And he looked past the leprosy and saw the man.
Here’s the part that’s easy for us to miss
Let’s say I know someone who spends his time and effort finding ways to cheat people out of money, trying to deceive them into doing him favors and giving him a “pass” when he doesn’t deserve it. It would be easy when I encounter this person to fail to see the human being, instead seeing only a miserable mooch who wants to take my money. All I see is the sin. I label him a cheat and a scoundrel and dismiss the situation by staying away from him.
Or what if I’m on a downtown sidewalk with a poor person, really poor, some guy with no home to go to and smelling bad. It’s easy to walk by such a person, purposely not looking at him and just praying he doesn’t ask me for anything. Instead of seeing a human being, I see a “situation” that scares me or makes me uncomfortable. At that moment, it doesn’t matter that Jesus in Matthew 25:35-40 says that when I come across these people and do something for them, I am doing it for Jesus. No matter. I don’t even see a human, much less the Lord of the universe. I just want to get past him on the sidewalk.
It can go further and even be the way I treat myself.
Let’s say there is a sin in me that I just don’t seem to be able to beat. Maybe it’s violence of some kind, or maybe I tell one lie after another, maybe it’s sex – but whatever it is, I’m hooked and can’t seem to find the way out. And this sin just takes all the hope, all the life out of me. It might be easy for me to begin to think of myself only in terms of that sin, wouldn’t it? It might be easy to conclude I am a failure, someone who is beyond love, a person whose entire existence is wrapped up in whatever sin I have. I eventually think of me as my sin and I give up. Even if I know about church or maybe some secular program that could help me recover, I believe I do not deserve such a thing and even if I tried, it wouldn’t work. I have been pretty close to that situation myself a few years ago and it’s scary.
It’s easy to believe that we are no more than our sin. It’s easy to believe we are beyond grace.
But that sure isn’t how Jesus treated the leper
Jesus saw a human being, not merely a leper. And Jesus sees you and me the same way. He loves enough, and he knows well enough what we are worth, that he can see past sin. Jesus says the same thing to me that he said to the leper.
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. Mark 1:40,41
Jesus sees my humanity and my worth as clearly today as he saw that leper 2,000 years ago. And he has not changed. He wills to make me clean.
This doesn’t mean Jesus is a pushover. He isn’t. We have to imitate the leper who asked Jesus to heal him. The way we imitate the leper when he came to Jesus is that we resolve to end our sin with Jesus’ help and the help of the church. We ask for the help and we resolve to put ourselves in a position (namely repentance) to be able to receive the help we ask for. If I repent of whatever it is that makes me not even see myself as human – if I bare my soul’s need to Jesus, then he will make me whole.
Then we imitate Jesus when we meet the same kind of people
Remember that poor guy on the street that I just want to walk past? And the dirty, rotten scoundrel who cheated me? I must exercise myself to begin to see their humanity. Then I must learn to act and react in ways that acknowledges their humanity. As a practical matter, I can’t engage every beggar on the street (or every scoundrel, for that matter). But I must base my actions toward such people on the humanity I share with them, and that means I will definitely be involved with some of the poor people and some of the scoundrels.
If I am unwilling to be involved on a personal level with desperately poor or sinful people, if I am unwilling to see their humanity because it is inconvenient to me, then I have not learned the lesson Jesus wants to teach me.
Jesus saw the man, not just the leprosy.
Jesus became involved with the leper.
I ought to be more like Jesus.