Read the gospel again. Can you imagine what it would be like to be a leper in the time of Jesus? Lepers were forbidden from entering towns and from interacting with other people. They had to identify themselves as lepers in the way they dressed, even ringing bells so people would know a leper was coming their way. Lepers were to abandon family and livelihood and live with other lepers in separated colonies. In a society in which the civil and religious spheres were intertwined, and as the text repeats several times today, a leper was declared “unclean.” There was the social understanding that such a cruel illness had to necessarily be God’s punishment for something the leper had done (very convenient!). The leper is an example not only of societal discrimination, but also of marginalization sanctioned by Law. Wasn’t it difficult to add “The Word of the Lord” after the first reading today?
It took courage for the leper to approach Jesus. He had to be apprehensive not only about what would be Jesus’ response, but also about the fact that approaching him was forbidden by law. For the healing to take place, Jesus had to break the law as well. What is interesting in this gospel is that the leper is the one who cannot enter the town at the beginning of the gospel. He is restored to society—as it happens in many of Jesus’ healing miracles, but it is Jesus who can’t openly enter the towns after the healing. Jesus has traded places with the leper—he is now the marginalized one, he has become the outcast. Jesus takes upon himself the leper’s marginalization. This is why Jesus asks the leper not to publicize the event: Jesus knows perfectly what will happen to him if the leper explains how he was healed.
The second reading today concludes with a call to be “imitators of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1.) For us to be imitators of Christ we need first to be able to be “moved by pity” like he was in seeing the dire situation of the leper. And “moved by pity” is a very soft translation. The verb used in the original Greek conveys the idea of compassion, being filled with tenderness, and a total internal discomfort in your gut.
For us to be imitators of Christ we have to be willing to establish the human connection. Did you notice that Jesus touches the leper? He is the Son of God. He could have snapped his fingers and said to the leper, “Be clean.” But he touches him, a gesture that symbolizes that we can’t really help someone unless there is some human connection. Jesus did not act from a safe distance, as the Holy Father has preached today, adding that “contact is the true language of communication.”
Allow me to give an example: In my faith community, the Advent Giving Tree is tremendously successful, and I am very proud of it. During Advent we hang cards on the tree asking for specific gifts for families and children in need. Parishioners can take one card and come back with their gift, which is stored in the church and shipped to those we help. I was very proud to see that we had to replenish the tree on the second weekend! But there was no real contact between the helper and the helped. The same happens when we help charities financially—which is very necessary and very good. But again, there is no contact between the donor and the individual or the group the charity serves.
Finally, in order to be imitators of Christ, we have to be open to “mess” our lives in helping others. Jesus risked his reputation, his own position in society to help someone. He did not have three strategic planning meetings with his disciples before he decided to help the leper. Helping people does not respond to an organized schedule. People are in need beyond Christmas, for instance, when we all feel strongly the need to help. The lives of those in need are often messy, and we have to have the courage to mess our own lives the way Jesus did in today’s gospel.
We cannot be afraid of helping others. We cannot hide ourselves behind laws and social conventions—for instance, think about those who dismiss the immigration issue by just saying that illegal immigrants “broke the law” and ignore the human tragedy. That is not enough, at least not enough for a disciple of Jesus.
This Sunday, the Holy Father has preached that ours is the “Gospel of the Marginalized” before the College of Cardinals. He urged them “to serve the Church in such a way that Christians – edified by our witness – will not be tempted to turn to Jesus without turning to the outcast … I urge you to serve Jesus crucified in every person who is marginalized, for whatever reason; to see the Lord in every excluded person who is hungry, thirsty, naked; to see the Lord present even in those who have lost their faith, or turned away from the practice of their faith; to see the Lord who is imprisoned, sick, unemployed, persecuted; to see the Lord in the leper – whether in body or soul – who encounters discrimination! We will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized! … Truly the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is found and revealed!” (To get to Holy Father’s whole homily, click here.)