Sunday, February 12, 2012

Jesus touches the leper


Today’s Gospel (Mark 1:40-45) is about Jesus reaching out his hand and touching a leper. In spite of the fact that we know of leper colonies in recent history, we often gloss over passages like this without really being impacted as we should.

We know that the leprosy spoken of was much wider than present-day leprosy. The term covered a range of contagious skin diseases, and it was regarded as the ultimate impurity. St Gregory of Nazianzus (329-374) tells us how things were. He says that leprosy ate away the flesh and bones to the extent that eventually the sufferers were unrecognizable. To identify themselves, they would say, “I am the child of that man; that woman there is my mother; my name is so and so; you were once my close friend.”

Gregory goes on to say: “They can no longer make themselves recognizable by their features, by what was formerly characteristic of their face. Gnawed by the disease, they have lost their fortune, their parents, even their bodies . . . A mother would like to embrace her child, but she dreads the flesh of that child as she dreads an enemy.”

It was against the law for lepers to go into the cities, to use ordinary roads or to touch creeks, lakes and wells that others were likely to use. Leviticus 13:45-46 was still taken seriously by everyone!

Gregory reminds us that what Jesus did for the leper in today’s Gospel would have caused a chill to run down the spines of his congregation. Deeply moved with love and compassion, he stretched out his hand, touched the leper, and healed him. (Touching the man with leprosy was completely unacceptable within that culture. Not only did Jesus risk contamination, he also "broke the law" by ignoring the boundary between the "mainstream" and those who no longer belonged.)

The loveliest thing is that Jesus didn’t see a leper at all; he saw one of God’s dear children in desperate need, and he released a torrent of healing love into his life.

In today’s second reading (1 Corinthians 10:31 - 11:1) the apostle Paul urges us to imitate Christ. That must include touching those whose lives are hurting and need healing.

So, throughout its history, the Church, for all of its faults (which admittedly are many!), has cared for the sick and dying in a way that has helped them know dignity and love. And not just in the sacramental and spiritual aspects of the healing ministry: it was the Church that first established hospitals and hospices!

But, in spite of what we read in the Gospels, it is sadly not unusual to hear of church people (and other people, too) punishing their children for not being "up to scratch" by pushing them away, out of their lives.

Practising Christian parents must get across to their children that however wayward they might be, and whatever mistakes they might have made, and wherever they are on their faith journey, they are deeply loved with an everlasting love, and that no situation exists where healing cannot happen. The hand of Jesus is never out of reach. Church leaders also need to take this on board, especially those who, like some of the religious leaders in the time of Jesus, tend to be highly judgmental of others who have messed up their lives (i.e. as if we haven't ALL done that in one way or another!).

Whenever Jesus came across the troubled, the abandoned, the sick, and those whose lives had been ruined even by their own sinfulness and bad decisions, he was moved, not by disgust, not by a compulsion to restore “order” for its own sake, but by compassion; and he reached out and touched them with his healing love. All who allowed him to touch their lives received a new beginning.

What a wonderful message of hope and redemption. Jesus is the same, yesterday, today and forever!


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