Lev 13:1-2, 44-46; 1Cor 10:3-11:1; Mk 1:40-45
Martin was a young soldier in the Roman army. Elegantly dressed, he mounted on his horse one day when a leper begging for alms accosted him. The sight and the stench of rotting flesh were so repulsive to the sensitivities of young Martin that his first instincts where to ride off on his horse. But something inside him made his walk up to the beggar. Since all he had was his military coat, he cut in two and gave half to the leper while he wrapped himself with the other half. It was a very cold winter day. That night in his dream he saw Christ clothed in a half coat saying to the angels around his throne, “Martin has clothed me with his garment.” This event was the turning point in the life of him who was to become St. Martin of Tours.
There are still millions of lepers in the world whose bodies have been disfigured by the sickness. There are many people though whose minds the disease has damaged for it has destroyed their Christian attitude towards patients.
Nowadays, we call leprosy as Hansen’s disease and thank God it has become a curable disease because there are medicines already. But the situation and the ancient Hebrew attitude to leprosy in Jesus’ time and as stated in the Book of Leviticus were still worse. Many other skin diseases like pimples, acne, eczema, leprosy, psoriasis, an-an or buni and anything that is a blush on the skin were considered leprosy and turned people infected by these into social outcasts. They became even outcasts in their religion for they were not allowed o enter the temple or synagogue. Their condition was also interpreted as a punishment from God for an evil life. And so probably no other disease is regarded with more terror and pity than leprosy because it reduces a person for years to a wretched situation. Actually the leper in today’s gospel experience three kinds of separations.
First is separation from himself. The leper feels that he is a burden to himself. Slowly but steadily he becomes disabled, the unbearable itching sets in, the disease becomes incurable and the extremities of the bodies fall off: his fingers, toes and finally the hands and the feet. The leper can only hardly help himself and needs help so much from others.
Second is separation from others. The leper needs help from others and yet nobody helps him since he is cast out from society. He is separated from others. He is alone. Where he would need consolation, there is nobody to turn to. Where he would enjoy a consoling word, a helping hand, all shun him and he himself has to avoid houses of healthy people. When the people came close to him, the leper would have to harm them shouting: “Unclean! Unclean!” We are social beings by nature but the leper is all alone.
Third is separation from God. If the leper is alone and a burden to himself, there is still somebody left to turn to and that is the Lord Himself. But the leper was even separated from the Lord because he was not allowed to attend the religious service in the synagogue since he was levitically unclean by his leprosy. We all have experienced how common prayer songs help us to see our suffering in the right proportion and how they give us courage to carry it in case we cannot be healed.
But the gospel paints a different picture. Was leprosy indeed a punishment from God for an evil life? Was the dehumanizing treatment meted out to lepers as described in today’s first reading from the Book of Leviticus God’s will? If indeed these things were God’s will, then there is no way Jesus, God’s Anointed, would want to heal a leper. If, on the other hand, leprosy is an unfortunate disease like any other, then there is a possibility that Jesus who had earlier healed many sick people would also heal a leper. The leper in the gospel decides to find out the truth once and for all. Ignoring the law that requires him to keep away from people, he gets closed to Jesus and kneels before Him. Instead of shouting: “Unclean! Unclean!” he says to Him, “If it is your will you can make me clean,” (v. 40). Jesus’ reply, “It is my will. Be made clean!” (v. 41) did two things. First, it restored the leprosy patient to health. Secondly it proved to him and to all that leprosy was not a divine chastisement after all but a disease like any other disease that prevents people from being fully alive as God wants all people to be.
Yet the tendency to see some diseases as divine punishment and to ostracize those who suffer from them is still with us. Is this not how many of us still see people with HIV/AIDS? Have you not heard tele-evangelists who teach that AIDS is divine punishment for sin? There are even other people, even if we don’t have diseases of such kind and yet they treat us as if we have one. Just like this media mogul in America, Ted Turner who publicly ridiculed the Ten Commandments and the Holy Father. Regarding the Ten Commandments, he said, “If you’re only going to have ten rules, I don’t know if prohibiting adultery should be one of them.” In referring to the Pope, he said: “Ever seen a Polish mine detector?” Then he said the Holy Father should “get with it,” and sarcastically added, “Welcome to the 20th century.”
In November of 1999, Jesse Ventura, the ex-wrestler and present governor of Minnesota, said this in an interview: “Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers. It tells people to go out and stick their noses in other people’s business.”
After the Philippine Catholic bishops issued a pastoral statement on mining and other current issues last February 29, 2006, some newspaper editors, reporters, columnists and the former President Fidel V Ramos had made some negative comments that the bishops are meddling again in the politics.
Now by showing you these three examples that I gave you, it seems we can say that the religious people, religious leaders and those belong to a particular religion like you and me are treated like lepers: our opinions are not welcome in public discourse, our influence is excluded, as much as possible, from public life.
Not only that some people are affected by leprosy physically, but also affected by the leprosy of materialism, the leprosy of sexual impurity, the leprosy of anger and hatred. But only Jesus Christ and His truth can cure all of these illnesses. But, like the leper in today’s gospel, we must want Jesus to cure our culture and society and we must give him permission to do so.
Jesus challenges us today to abandon such dehumanizing beliefs and reach out in solidarity with these modern-day lepers among us, just as he Himself did in his own days. If in fact Christian religion is the “horrible leprosy” of this world, then my sincere prayer for all of us is that we will come down with a really bad case of it and then spread it to as many others as possible, so that everyone in the world will eventually become infected including Jesse Ventura, these newspaper editors, reporters, columnists, commentators and former President Fidel Ramos.
See Today’s Readings: Cycle B