February 15, 2009


He remained outside in deserted places. – Mk 1: 45

Leprosy was uniquely despised in the ancient world because it was so ugly & lepers were repulsive, unlovable, even perceived as evil. The disease had come to be seen as divine punishment & so was a matter for the priest rather than the physician. Lepers had no hope of receiving love, no hope of being accepted as persons, no hope of enjoying ordinary human companionship.

The Book of Leviticus expressly states that lepers are to wear torn clothes, keep the hair disheveled, & they must cover their upper lip & cry out, ‘unclean, unclean’ & finally, live apart from other humans. In short, they were the ultimate outsiders. Why did this leper so rashly approach Jesus? No doubt he had heard of His healing powers, but more importantly, that Jesus cared about those no one else cared about.

He was not disappointed. Jesus reached out & touched him. With that single gesture, Jesus gave him companionship in place of isolation, acceptance in place of rejection & compassion in place of disgust. That must have been far better than any physical cure. In so doing, our Lord says to us that the repulsive, unlovable & even evil person is indeed an object of God’s love, mercy & compassion.

Medical science has gone a long way toward bringing relief to victims of leprosy, but it has done little for soul leprosy, the leprosy of rejection & exclusion. I suspect most of us have experienced the castaway sensation at one time or another: being second banana to a preferred sibling; being passed over for promotion after 20 loyal years while some young hotshot gets the preferred position; being downsized after 30 grinding years when you’re too old to find another job; betrayal by a spouse or friend, or even the disappointing sin you thought you’d never commit. Feelings of guilt, unworthiness, isolation, shame & disgust can lie just beneath our bright exterior.

In prayer, in quiet, & in the confessional, we can bring the dark & frightening side of ourselves & present it to Jesus, who embraces what others reject & touches what others shun, who ignores the labels, slurs, & categories others construct.

There is a supreme irony in this story. The leper goes off to rejoin society, while Jesus retreats to an isolated place. Simply to escape the crowds? Maybe, but there is another possibility: to touch a leper is to become unclean yourself. Is HE now under the sentence of exclusion? If so, then He has truly taken upon Himself our infirmities. He feels what we feel.

There is a true story of a man who was accompanying an infant Vietnamese orphan to the U.S. for adoption. During the flight the baby’s eyes overflowed with tears, but she made absolutely no sound. The man asked the stewardess what the problem was. She had seen war orphans before & was quick to tell him that this was normal. She said, “The reason they don’t make a noise when they cry is because they learned long ago that nobody will come.”

My friends & fellow lepers, we need to cry our tears. If no one else, Jesus will come. He will come! AMEN!