If we were to take a time machine and travel to any part of the world, at any time in history, we will see that for that particular period, that particular culture, there is always a minority group that is seen as the “cursed ones”, the “condemned ones”, the ones bringing perdition into the society. Certainly, we can think of a few examples of different minority groups that have experienced that treatment in our country. Unfortunately, this mentality is, again not something that developed recently. Rather, it has been part of our human history. Today’s readings paint a picture of this.
In Jesus’ times, those suffering from leprosy were a group who experienced great rejection. Nevertheless, if we analyze deeply today’s first reading and Gospel, we will see that the message for us today is to keep the humanity of the person in mind above all. To do so, the readings show us two points:
The first one has to do with the healing miracle. If we take a look at the first reading from the Book of Leviticus, we will see that it gives us a legalistic map of what to do with those who suffer from leprosy. If we briefly analyze the text, we can see that up to a certain point its message has a good intention. True, it takes harsh action, but with a good intention. It asks for the ill person to be separated from the community. This act helps the healthy ones of the community to not get infected. The reading tells us: “The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’”
The problem is that with this instruction, the person suffering from leprosy is segregated from a life in community: he can’t socialize, he can’t attend parties, he can’t walk normally around town, he can’t even participate in his religious ceremonies. Yet, the Gospel gives us a deeper side of the story. We see precisely a leper who approaches Jesus. The leper has faith in Christ. Jesus, “moved with pity”, heals him. If we read this text superficially , we all will be amazed at the miracle. Jesus healed a person. However, a more careful analysis of the text will show us that Jesus did something even more profound: he restored the leper back to his normal life in society.
It is true that we don’t have the power to heal miraculously others as Jesus did in today’s Gospel. But we do have the power to restore people back to society. In a time and a place where we like to exclude people, to exclude minorities for a number of reasons (skin color, place of birth, religion, sexual orientation, economic status, a disease that a person might be suffering), we do have the power, like Christ, to bring them back to society. We have the power to treat them like human beings, to give them a job, to help them with social programs, to include them in our church activities, and so on.
The second point in today’s readings that helps us put the humanity of the person above all is how the readings enforce the laws and commandments. The laws and commandments are not bad. On the contrary, they are necessary to bring some sort of order in diversity. However, they can also hurt our relationships greatly. For example, the law given in today’s first reading, as we mentioned before, has good intentions. It requires harsh actions, but with good intentions. The problem is that the approach of the Book of Leviticus doesn’t consider the humanity of the person. The leper is suffering physically from the disease, and the instructions from Leviticus add emotional pain to that. The instructions of Leviticus don’t help the person overcome his challenges or even guide him in any particular path toward healing. The book gives a rule to follow, but where is the person? Where are his feelings, his family, his story, the love that God has for him? Because of his condition, the rule is simply leaving the leper without hope for a better future.
But what is Christ’s reaction? He doesn’t dismiss laws and commandments, but at the same time he places the humanity of the person above all. On one hand, Christ breaks the rule of “not touching” the leper. On the other hand, he instructs the leper to follow what is prescribed and present himself to the priest. Christ sees the humanity of the leper and places it above all.
Today, we don’t see leprosy as they saw it in Jesus’ times. Nevertheless, we do encounter groups of people that are treated the same way: condemned, punished, segregated, seen as disobedient, and so on. Who are those being treated as lepers in our society? Our call today is to place their humanity above everything by helping them find their place in our society, to not kill their hopes for a better future because of a particular rule.
Image: “Jesus Heals the Sick” by Pedro Subercaseaux. From Wikimedia Commons.
Father Bernardo Lara is a priest of the Diocese of San Diego and pastor of three Southern California parishes: Sacred Heart and St. Margaret Mary in Brawley and St. Joseph in Westmorland.