We all need to connect with others, to be in communion with them. We don’t like to feel isolated or cut off from family, friends, or the wider community. One of the most challenging aspects of sickness or disability can be the isolation that it brings. When we are ill or our body grows weak we cannot take the same initiative we used to take to connect with others. People can become housebound because of their physical condition; the things they used to do to meet up with others are no longer possible. Certain forms of illness can be more isolating than others. The most isolating form of illness in the time of Jesus was leprosy. For hygienic reasons, lepers had to live apart, ‘outside the camp’, in the words of today’s first reading. Lepers were only allowed to have each other for company. They lived apart from their family, their friends and the community to which they belonged.
The cure of this leper features in three Gospels. In Mark’s Gospel it features in the first chapter. Mark is using this miracle to quickly establish the essential and unique nature of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus wants to restore the leper into human contact by healing him, and then into the religious community by referring him, as the law requires, to the priest. It is about restoring, reuniting and reconciling people. Jesus will come to the aid of the outcast, not just for the sake of marginalised, but for the building up of the entire community. In this way Jesus will restore one to the other and both will be healed.
There is a cost though. In two of the accounts of this incident. Jesus forgoes his own freedom. The cured man’s enthusiasm makes Jesus suffer like a celebrity and the crowds prevent him from moving about freely. In a sense Jesus becomes the outcast, preferring the lonely places to the attention he attracts in the towns.
The leper in today’s gospel seemed determined to break out of his isolation. He did something that was unconventional and daring in approaching Jesus and pleading on with him, ‘If you want to, you can cure me.’ His desperation to be healed of an illness that kept him totally isolated drove him to do something that was against the Jewish Law at the time. In response to the leper’s daring approach, Jesus did something just as unconventional. He reached out his hand and touched the leper. If it was forbidden for a leper to approach the healthy, it was certainly forbidden for a healthy person to touch a leper. It seems that the leper’s desire to be freed from his isolation was met by an equally strong desire on the part of Jesus to deliver the leper from his isolation. The gospels portray Jesus as someone who worked to deliver people from their isolation, whether it is an isolation imposed by illness, as in the case of the leper, or by their lifestyle, as in the case of someone like Zacchaeus.
Occasionally you will see something similar in our efforts to love each other. Sometimes we recognize the isolation of others, seek to restore them and pay a price in doing so. Sometimes the price is great, sometimes it is less so. This imitation of Christ strikes at the heart of discipleship. In identifying with Matthew’s predicament, his classmates did something remarkable. They made his broken arm something which united them. They healed a division.
Sometime we don’t have to look to the mountains to see the hallmark of the Almighty. Sometimes we will see it in the playground, among a handful of children doing their best to look after each other.
Both Jesus and of the leper have something to say to us about steps we can take to connect with people, to break out of our isolation, even when the odds seem to be stacked against us. We can all be tempted from time to time to retreat into our shell, whether it is because of our health or some disability or some past experience that has drained us of life. It is at such times that we need something of the initiative and daring energy of the leper. There can come a time when, like the leper, we need to take our courage in our own hands and, against the conventional expectation, to head out in some bold direction. It was desperation that drove the leper to seek out Jesus. Sometimes for us too, it can be our desperation that finally gets us going, gets us to connect with that person who matters to us and to whom we matter more than we realize or gets us to link up with some gathering or some group that has the potential to do us good or maybe even to transform our lives. Sometimes I can be amazed at the initiatives that some people take to connect with others, people who are much less healthier than I am and are much less physically able. I come across it all the time in the parish — older people who have mastered the internet and have come completely at home with Skype; younger people who in spite of some serious disability have found the means to live a very full life that is marked by the service of others. The man in today’s gospel who approaches Jesus could well be the patron saint of all those who strive to connect with others against all the odds.
Jesus crosses social and religious boundaries in order to cure the leper. But before this could happen, the leper had the courage to break the Law of the Old Testament and approach Jesus. The outcast had such a high opinion of this holy man that he risked a rebuke from him for ignoring the normal prohibitions. At the heart of the encounter, compassion moves Jesus not only to respond with a word of encouragement, but also to reach out and touch him. Here Jesus shows us God’s attitude to human disability. He wishes to reach us in our weakness and restore us to fullness of life.
Unlike the leper, Jesus was perfectly healthy, but he had something of the same desire and energy to connect with others. When approached by the leper, he could have turned away, as most people would have done. Instead, Jesus stood his ground and engaged with the leper, reached out to him not only by word but by action. He not only spoke to him, but he touched him. Jesus often healed people by means of his word alone; but this man who had suffered from extreme isolation really needed to be touched. Jesus did more than was asked of him; he took an initiative as daring as the leper’s move towards him. He went as far as any human being could go to deliver this man from his isolation. What the Lord did for the leper he wishes to continue doing through each one of us in our own day. There are many isolated and lonely people among us. The scope is there for all of us to take the kind of step that Jesus took towards the leper. Again, I can see examples of that in the parish all the time people who look in on neighbours and make sure that they are all right and have what they need. There are always people among us waiting to be touched by our compassionate presence. When they are, they can experience the same kind of transformation as the leper did in today’s gospel.
God Bless. Have a wonderful Sunday.