Losing our Leprosy (In Four Easy Steps) – A Meditation on the Gospel for the Sixth Sunday of the Year
In today’s Gospel we see the healing of a leper (this means you and me). Leprosy in Scripture is more than just a physical illness, it is also a euphemism for sin. Leprosy itself is not sin, but it resembles sin and what sin does to us spiritually. For sin, like leprosy, disfigures us; it deteriorates us, it distances us (for Lepers had to live apart from the community), and it brings death if it is not checked. Yes, sin is a lot like leprosy.
Psalm 38 is a biblical example of how sin is compared to leprosy:
There is no soundness in my flesh because of thy indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me. My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning… there is no soundness in my flesh…My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my kinsmen stand afar off.
Perhaps a brief description of physical leprosy might be in order, just so we can further appreciate both the physical illness and also, by analogy, how sin devastates us in stages. I have compiled this description from several sources; among them, William Barclay’s Commentary on Mark. I reading this, you will see how Psalm 38 above quite vividly compares sin to leprosy:
Leprosy begins with an unaccountable lethargy and pains in the joints. Then there appear on the body, especially on the back, symmetrical discolored patches with pink and brown nodules and the skin becomes thickened. Gradually the symptoms move to the face and the nodules gather especially in the folds of the cheek, the nose, the lips and the forehead. The whole appearance of the face is changed till a person loses his human appearance and looks more like a lion. The nodules grow larger and larger and they begin to ulcerate, and from them comes a foul discharge of puss. The eyebrows fall out and the eyes become staring. The voice becomes hoarse and the breath wheezes because of the ulceration of the vocal cords. Eventually the whole body becomes involved. Discolored patches and blisters appear everywhere. The muscles waste away, the tendons contract until the hands look more like claws. Next comes the progressive loss of fingers and toes until a whole hand or foot may drop off. It is a kind of a terrible and slow, progressive death of the body.
The disease may last from ten to thirty years and ends in mental decay, coma, then finally death.
Yet this was not all. The lepers had not only to bear the physical torment of the disease, they also had to bear the mental anguish and heartache of being completely banished from society and totally shunned. They were forced to live outside of town in leper areas. Everyone they knew and loved was lost to them and could only be seen from a distance.
In the middle ages when a person was diagnosed with leprosy, they were brought to the Church and the priest read the burial service over them for in effect they were already dead, though still alive.
This description of leprosy shows how the illness develops, disfigures deteriorates and distances the leper, and ultimately there is death. As we shall see, not every diagnosis of Leprosy was accurate, since many skin aliments, (such as psoriasis) can resemble the early stages of leprosy. Later, if the skin cleared up or remained stable, the supposed leper could be readmitted to the community.
But what of us, spiritual lepers? How are we to lose our leprosy and find healing? The Gospel suggests four steps to find healing from our spiritual leprosy of sin.
I. Step One – Admit the Reality – The text says simply, A leper came to Jesus, and kneeling down, begged him and said, “If you wish you can make me clean. But see, he knows he is a Leper, he knows he needs healing. He humbles himself, kneeling and pleads for cleansing.
And what of us? Do we know our sin? Do we know we need healing? Are we willing to ask? We live in times where sin is often made light of and confessional lines are short. Too easily, we excuse our faults by blaming others (It’s not my fault, my mother dropped me on my head when I was two). Or perhaps we point to some other sinner, apparently worse and think, “Well at least I’m not like him.”
But the fact is we are loaded with sin. Too easily we are thinned-skinned, egotistical, unforgiving, unloving, unkind, mean-spirited, selfish, greedy, lustful, jealous, envious, bitter, ungrateful, smug, superior, vengeful, angry, aggressive, unspiritual, unprayerful, stingy, and just plain mean. And if all the things on the list don’t apply to you, many do and, frankly the list is incomplete. We are sinners with a capital “S” and we need serious help.
Like the leper in the Gospel, step one is to admit the reality of our sin and humbly ask the Lord for help.
II. Step Two – Accept the Relationship – Notice two things. First the Leper calls on the Lord Jesus. In effect he seeks a relationship with Jesus, knowing that it can heal him.
Note secondly how the Lord responds. The text says Jesus is moved with pity and touches him. The Greek word translated here as pity is σπλαγχνισθεὶς (splagchnistheis) and is from from splanxna, meaning ‘the inward parts,’ especially the nobler organs – the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. These gradually came to denote the seat of the affections.
Hence the Lord is moved with a tender love for this man. The English word “pity,” though often considered a condescending word today, is rooted in the Latin pietas, referring to family love. So Jesus sees this man as a brother and reaches out to him. The touch of Jesus was an unthinkable action at that time. No one would touch a leper, or even come close to one. Lepers were required to live out of town in the nearby caves. But Jesus is God, and loves this man. And in his humanity, Christ sees this leper as a brother. Scripture says,
For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why HE IS NOT ASHAMED TO CALL THEM BRETHREN, saying, “I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee. (Heb 2:11)
As for us, it is in our saving relationship to the Lord, a relationship established by faith, that we are justified, transformed, healed and ultimately saved. If we would be free of the leprosy of our sin we must accept the saving relationship with Jesus and let him touch us.
III. Step Three – Apply the Remedy – Having healed him, note that Jesus instructs him to follow through in this manner: Jesus said to him, See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.
Among the ancient Jews it was the priests who were trained and empowered to recognize leprosy and its healing. For, as already stated, leprosy in its early stages can resemble other skin aliments. Perhaps it is leprosy, or perhaps it is just dermatitis, or psoriasis, or eczema. Priests were trained to make observations and either banish someone, or readmit them to the community. For sometimes, out of an abundance of caution, a person was dismissed on suspicion of leprosy, but the condition cleared up or remained stable. It was the priest who made the decisions for the community.
And, of course we have here a metaphor for sacramental confession. For what does the priest do in confession? He assesses a person’s spiritual condition, and having seen God’s healing mercy at work in a person’s repentance, reconciles, or, in the case of serious sinners, readmits them into the full communion of the Church. It is God who forgives, just like the leper in this story, but the Lord ministers through the priest.
And thus for us, spiritual lepers, the Lord gives the same instruction. “Go show yourself to the priest.” That is, “Go to confession!” And the Lord adds, “Offer for your cleansing what is prescribed.” That is, say, “Offer your penance.”
But someone might say, Why should he bother? The Lord has already healed him. To which we can only answer, “Just do what Jesus says: Show yourself to the Priest, offer your penance.” It is true, God can forgive directly, but it is clear enough from a passage like this, that confession is to be a part of the believer’s life, especially in the case of serious sin. To those who balk, the simple answer must be, “Just DO what Jesus says.”
So, having admitted the reality, accepting the relationship and applying the remedy, there remains a fourth step.
IV. Step Four – Announce the Result – When God heals you, you have to tell somebody. There’s just something about joy. It can’t hid. And people know when you’ve been changed.
That said, there are perplexities about this part of the Gospel. For, as the text says, Jesus “sternly warns him” NOT to tell a soul, other than the priest. The Greek text is even stronger, for it says Jesus warned him ἐμβριμησάμενος (embrimēsamenos); which means to snort with anger, to exert someone with the notion of coercion, springing out of displeasure, anger, indignation, or antagonism. It means to express indignant displeasure with some one; and to thus charge them sternly. So we see a very strong and negative command of Jesus. There is nothing ambiguous about the fact that he angrily warns this man to remain silent.
That this, and other places where the Lord issues similar commands, is puzzling, is an understatement. And yet, the reason is supplied; namely that Jesus did not want his mission turned into a circus act where people gathered to watch miracles and merely to see “signs and wonders.” Clearly this man’s inability to remain silent means that Jesus can no longer enter a place quietly, and that many sought him for secondary reasons.
That said, commands to remain silent cannot remain true for us who are under standing order # 1: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt 28:19)
Hence it is clear we NEED to shout what the Lord has done for us and give him all the glory. And, honestly, when God acts in your life there is joy, and joy cannot be hid or suppressed. If our healing is real, we can’t stay silent. To quote Jesus at a later stage, and when the Temple leaders told him to silence his disciples, I tell you, if they keep quiet, the very rocks will cry out (Lk 19:40).
At the heart of evangelization is announcing what the Lord has done for us. An Old Gospel song says, “I thought I wasn’t gonna testify…but I couldn’t keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me!“
Yes, tell somebody what the Lord has done. If the healing is real, you can’t keep silent.
Loosing our Leprosy in Four Easy Steps.
As I wrote this homily I was so sad to hear of the Death of Whitney Houston. I know how she struggled with addiction, like others I have known. And now she is gone. May she rest in peace. I was so moved by this song of “looking to God” that she did in the aftermath of a difficult period and when she found peace after treatment. In a way this song beautifully exemplifies this homily. For a struggling soul admits her need for God and looks to him. And, having experienced his healing love she sings of it for us. May Whitney Houston rest in peace. And may the Lord wipe every tear from her eyes. Enjoy this beautiful song of witness by Whitney.