The first reading from Leviticus 13:1-2; 44-46 for the sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B) outlines the harsh laws for people with skin diseases usually labeled correctly or incorrectly as a form of leprosy. Throughout history, few diseases have been as dreaded as the horrible affliction known as leprosy. It was so common and severe among ancient peoples that God gave Moses extensive instructions to deal with it as evidenced in chapters 13 and 14 from Leviticus. The belief that only God could heal leprosy is key to understanding today’s miracle that proves Jesus’ identity.
Leprosy in the Bible appears in two principle forms. Both start with discoloration of a patch of skin. The disease becomes systemic and involves the internal organs as well as the skin. Marked deformity of the hands and feet occur when the tissues between the bones deteriorate and disappear.
In Jesus’ time, lepers were forced to exist outside the community, separated from family and friends and thus deprived of the experience of any form of human interaction. We read in Leviticus 13:45-46 that lepers were to wear torn clothes, let their hair be disheveled, and live outside the camp. These homeless individuals were to cry "Unclean, unclean!" when a person without leprosy approached them. Lepers suffered both the disease and ostracism from society. In the end, both realities destroy their victims' lives. One may indeed wonder which was worse: the social ostracism experienced or the devastating skin lesions.
Mark 1:40 tells us that the leper appears abruptly in front of Jesus: “begging him and kneeling before him." The news about Jesus' miraculous powers has gotten around, even to the reviled and outcast leper. "If you choose, you can make me clean," the leper tells Jesus. In even approaching Jesus, the leper has violated the Levitical code. By saying, "If you choose, you can make me clean," the leper not only indicates his absolute faith in Jesus' ability to cleanse him of his disease, but also actually challenges Jesus to act. In the ancient Mediterranean world, touching a leper was a radical act. By touching the reviled outcast, Jesus openly defied Levitical law. Only a priest could declare that someone was cured of the skin disease. As required by ancient law, Jesus sent the man to a priest for verification. Even though Jesus asked him not to, the man went about telling everyone of this great miracle.
My encounter with lepers
I had never encountered leprosy until I was pursuing my graduate studies in Scripture in the Holy Land. In 1992, I was invited by the Religious Sisters of the Sacred Heart to come down to Egypt from Jerusalem and spend several weeks teaching and preaching Scripture – first in Cairo, then down (or up!) the Nile River into Upper Egypt. We visited many of the very poor Christian villages where the Sisters and other religious worked among the poorest of the poor. That journey remains engraved in my memory, for the remarkable women religious encountered along the way, and for the horrible human situations of suffering that we witnessed.
When we arrived in one of the Egyptian villages along the Nile, one of the Sisters took me outside the central part of town, to an area where lepers and severely handicapped people were kept, in chains, in underground areas hidden away from civilization. It was like entering tombs of the living dead. Their lot was worse than animals. The stench was overpowering, the misery shocking, the suffering incredible.
I descended into several hovels, blessed the people with my best Arabic and said some prayers with each person. The Sister accompanying me said: “Simply touch them. You have no idea what the touch means, when they are kept as animals and monsters.”
I laid hands on many of these women and men and touched their disfigured faces and bodies. Tears streamed down my face as the women and men and several children shrieked at first then wept openly. They reached out to hug and embrace me. Then we all shared bottles of Coca Cola! Those unforgettable days, deep in the heart of Egypt, taught me what the social and physical condition of lepers must have been at the time of Jesus. There was not much difference between then and now.
As we read the story of Jesus among the outcasts, let us recall with gratitude the lives of three remarkable people in our Catholic tradition who worked with lepers and dared to touch and embrace those who were afflicted with that debilitating disease.
First, Blessed Joseph DeVeuster, (known as Fr. Damian of Molokai) who was born in Belgium in 1840, entered the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts at the age of 20 and was sent as a missionary to the Hawaiian Islands. After nine years of priestly work, he obtained permission in 1873 to labor among the abandoned lepers on Molokai. With Blessed Fr. Damien, let us pray that we not fear the sepulchers of this earth. He descended into the lepers’ colony of Molokai – then considered "the cemetery and hell of the living" – and from the first sermon embraced all those unfortunate people saying simply: "We lepers". And to the first sick person who said, "Be careful, Father, you might get my disease" he replied: I am my own, if the sickness takes my body away God will give me another one".
Becoming a leper himself in 1885, he died in April, 1889, a victim of his charity for others. In 1994, Fr. Damien was beatified by Pope John Paul II.
Second, Blessed Sister Marianne Cope (1838–1918), mother to Molokai Lepers. In the 1880s, Sr. Marianne, as superior of her congregation of the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse, responded to a call to assist with the care of lepers on the island of Molokai, Hawaii. She worked with Father Damien and with the outcasts of society as they were abandoned on the shores of the island, never to return to their families.
In the late 19th – early 20th century, about 10 % of the Hansenites (people with leprosy) on Molokai and the Peninsula of Kalaupapa were Buddhists. Many practiced the native, indigenous religions of the Polynesian Islands. Some were Protestant and some were Catholic. Sr. Marianne loved them all and showed her selfless compassion to those suffering from Hansen’s disease. People of all religions of the islands still honor and revere Fr. Damien and Mother Marianne who brought healing to body and soul.
Finally, let us recall with gratitude Blessed Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997), who was never afraid to see and touch the face of Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor. Mother Teresa wrote:
The fullness of our heart becomes visible in our actions: how I behave with this leper, how I behave with this dying person, how I behave with this homeless person. Sometimes, it is more difficult to work with down-and-outs than with the people who are dying in our hospices, for the latter are at peace, waiting to go to God soon. You can draw near to the sick person, to the leper, and be convinced that you are touching the body of Christ. But when it is a drunk person yelling, it is more difficult to think that you are face to face with Jesus hidden in him. How pure and loving must our hands be in order to show compassion for those beings!
To see Jesus in the spiritually most deprived person requires a pure heart. The more disfigured the image of God is in a person, the greater must our faith and our veneration be in our search for the face of Jesus and in our ministry of love for him…
Most people will never encounter lepers. Nor will we know what it means to be completely ostracized by society. But there are other forms of leprosy today, which destroy human beings, kill their hope and spirit, and isolate them from society. Who are the modern lepers in our lives, suffering with physical diseases that stigmatize, isolate and shun, and cut others off from the land of the living? What are the social conditions today that force people to become the living dead, relegating them to cemeteries and dungeons of profound indignity, poverty, despair, isolation, violence, sadness, depression, homelessness, addiction and mental illness?
Let us not fear the sepulchers of this earth. Let us enter those hovels and bring a word of consolation and a gesture of healing to others. In the words of Teresa of Calcutta: “Let us do so with a sense of profound gratitude and with piety. Our love and our joy in serving must be in proportion to the degree to which our task is repugnant.”
[The readings for this Sunday are Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46; I Corinthians 10:31-11:1 and Mark 1:40-45]
Father Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO Salt + Light Catholic Television Network