Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, was a dreaded disease in the ancient world just as it is still dreaded today. Leprosy being a contagious and dehumanising disease and with poor knowledge on how it was transmitted from one patient to another, the people of Israel took a precautionary measure to isolate all those infected by the disease in a deserted place, outside of their towns and villages.
The person suffering from leprosy was considered unclean; that is, defiled, and hence debarred from participating in any family or community activities like family meals and community worship. A leprous person must always look haggard by wearing torn clothes and have unkept hair, (first Reading). If a leper happens to wander into a town or village, he must continuously ring a bell and cover his upper lips and shout ‘unclean’. The bell and the shout were to alert passers-by, so that they may avoid the leper. Hence, to suffer from leprosy was like being sent to hell while still on earth.
Leprosy was also loathed because it was considered as a divine punishment for sins. In 2Kings 5:25-27, Gehazi, Prophet Elisha’s servant was infected with leprosy because he went behind Elisha to collect some gifts from Naaman, (the Syrian General), who had been cured of leprosy through the mediation of Elisha. When Elisha confronted him about what he did, he lied about it.
The second Reading, (1Cor 10:31 – 11:1), reminds us of the motive that should pervade whatever we do or say. It stated that, “Whatever you eat, whatever you drink, whatever you do at all, do it for the glory of God.” The glory of God must be the fulcrum around which our actions revolve. It invited us not to do anything that was offensive to anyone. Thus, we must extend a caring and loving hand to our sisters and brothers in need.
In the Gospel, (Mk 1:40-45), a leper came up to Jesus and pleaded with him to cure him. His plea, “’If you want to’” was an act of faith and a cry from the heart; a recognition that it was the Lord that would restore him to wholeness. In search of this wholeness, the leper broke the taboo that was imposed on him not to communicate with the members of the community until he has been declared cured by a priest.
The Gospel narrated that Jesus felt compassion for him and stretched his hand and touched him. In touching him, Jesus also broke the barrier that alienated the leper from the community. In touching the leper, Jesus is teaching the people that it was not a physical contact with a leprous person that would defile them. Defilement is caused by sin, that is, a rejection of God or the breaking of God’s commandments. “Indeed, it is from the heart that evil desires come – murder, adultery, immorality, theft, lies, slander. These are the things that make a person unclean,” (Mt 15:19-20). Jesus in touching the leprous man, imparted wholeness on him – physical, spiritual, and emotional. He then instructed him to go and show himself to the priest so that he may be rehabilitated into the wider community.
After the cure of the leprous person, Jesus ordered him not to broadcast the cure, because he did not want people to have an unrealistic expectation about his messiahship. Jesus was not merely a wonder worker or a revolutionary who had come to overthrow the reign of the Romans. His messiahship is only fully understood in the context of the cross. Any confession about Jesus that does not take account of his death on the cross is grossly inadequate. It was at his death on the cross that a soldier confessed that, “truly, this was the Son of God”, (Mk 15:39).
Before I conclude this Homily, I would like to invite you to reflect on the lives of people who work with those who have been infected with infectious diseases and who at times are infected by the disease. In this time of Covid 19, I wish to acknowledge the hard work of medical personnel who have been in the forefront of combating this disease – paramedics, doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians and social workers. Some of them have contracted Covid 19 and even died from it.
The Gospel narrated that after Jesus had healed the leper, the healed person went around talking about it freely so that Jesus could no longer go openly into any town or village but had to stay outside the camp. However, people thronged to see him there. From this we learn that doing good may take a toll on us, but we must not give up because it is the right thing to do.
Fr Chinua Okeke CSSp