“A man infected with leprosy must shield his upper lip and cry: ‘Unclean, unclean.’ As long as the disease lasts he must be unclean; and therefore he must live apart; he must live outside the camp.”
To our modern sensibilities, the ritual isolation imposed on lepers seems harsh and unfeeling. They were forced to live outside the camp, cut off from any possible solace from friends and family. Theirs was a lonely and lingering death. We can, of course, argue that in a society without the means to fight this highly infectious disease, strict quarantine was the only way of containing the disease.
Modern medicine has contained leprosy, but the crushing burden of social isolation is widespread throughout our world. Its causes are many. In some parts of the world it is poverty and a lack of education that condemn many to live apart. In our own society family breakdown and changing values leave many alone and neglected, especially the very young and the very old.
In our own lives, either as a consequence of our own sinfulness or unforeseen tragedy, we can experience a numbing loneliness. It is not good that man should be alone. Leprosy has been contained, and yet, in our society, many experience life as isolation. The ministry of Jesus called a sinful world from the isolation that poisons the soul. The leper who pleaded with Jesus was not rejected. Significantly, he reached out and touched the untouchable. This simple and unexpected gesture proclaimed a love that does not shrink from our sinfulness, that longs to embrace our unworthiness.
Only one thing was necessary – the faith that the leper placed in Jesus: “If you want to, you can cure me.”
This uncertain and hesitant faith was answered with overwhelming generosity. “Feeling sorry for him, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. ‘Of course I want to! Be cured!’ And the leprosy left him at once and he was cured.”
This miracle, coming at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, revealed the universal significance of his kingdom. It brings new hope to a sinful world that continues to struggle with division and alienation.
It speaks to the helplessness that isolates so many.
Christ heals, at its very root, the isolation of a sinful world. The leper was restored to a society that had shunned him. A sinful world is called from the alienation that leads to violence. The believer is called from the emptiness that cries out for communion.
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (13/02/14)
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