By Sister Jeanne Hamilton
Readings for Feb. 12
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Leviticus 13:1-2,44-46 1; Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45
The leper who came to Jesus had a lot of courage. He was not supposed to go near anyone who had healthy skin. And Jesus showed as much courage by touching him. Anyone who did that could be told he was now unfit for society. He would have become like a leper
The news about Jesus having healed Simon’s mother-in-law, and freeing a man from a demon, had probably spread even to the lepers outside town. The man begged Jesus to make him “clean” must have had faith in this preacher who had been walking through Galilee.
Jesus’ first reaction to this man, who may have had a very unattractive appearance, was compassion. And he healed him.
There was not much understanding of leprosy in the ancient world. People thought that it was extremely contagious, and lepers had to stay outside the towns, wear ripped clothes and call out “unclean,” when they came near people. That meant that they couldn’t be with their families, even their parents or wives of husbands or their own children.
Sometimes lepers were disfigured, and sometimes they lost fingers or toes. I have met a cured person, and she was still disfigured. Because of this she had been able to be a courier for the Allies during the Second World War: no soldier was willing to search her.
That is not so ancient. In the United States, not many decades ago, people who were diagnosed with leprosy were required by law to stay in a “leprosarium” in Louisiana. It was the Daughters of Charity who tended to their needs, no surprise.
It is only in the last few decades that we have come to understand that contagion is not the usual way people get Hansen’s disease, the medical name for the illness.
But the ancients tended to diagnose a variety of skin problems as leprosy. It was a hard day when a person was told he or she was now a leper. We have heard about Molokai, in Hawaii and Father Damian and the Franciscan Sisters who went there to care for them. People in Jesus’ day did not want to be even in the shadow of a leper.
Jesus told the happy cured man to show himself to the priest, so that his cure could be affirmed, and he could join society again. He also told him not to tell anyone about the cure. Jesus was, apparently, not ready to have his role, much less his divinity, known. People were not ready for this. The Hebrews were very careful to reverence God, and would have been more than suspicious of anyone who claimed to be divine.
The very happy cured man told everyone he could about the cure. Why, when the person who cured him asked him to tell no one? Not so good, but perhaps understandable when one has experienced something that was like a coming-to-life again.
It would have been wonderful to be present at that cure, especially if the man who had the disease had been one’s brother or father. We may want to ask the same Lord for compassion and cure when we, or someone we love, has a sickness that makes others mock the person, or leave him or her isolated, or assume that the cause was sin; many ancient people believed that leprosy was caused by sin.
Or we ourselves may feel more ease in asking the Lord to show compassion to us, when we feel as if we had leprosy, physical or social or psychological.
Jesus went out to the people whom others rejected. Are we called, as followers of the Lord, to touch with compassion people who are in pain or disfigured, or isolated?
Ursuline Sister Jeanne Hamilton lives in Wilmington.