I once visited a leper colony in the Congo, it was about twenty years ago and the clinic was run by a Religious Sister. There weren’t too many lepers in the place at the time because advances in the medical treatment of leprosy now mean that it is no longer necessary for lepers to spend long periods in treatment.
There were however a number of people living there whose disfigurement was very great or who had lost limbs as a result of the disease. The Sister explained that the real problem was finding the lepers, because when people in the outlying villages discovered that they had leprosy they were almost always filled with shame and tended to hide themselves away.
She spent a lot of her time looking for them, but once she found them she could start them on a course of tablets lasting from between six to twelve months. After one month of treatment the disease is no longer infectious and the patient can return to their village. The medicine is provided free by the World Health Organisation.
The Sister explained that if leprosy was caught early enough the disease could be cured, but obviously not the physical effects such as lost fingers or toes and neither could damage caused to the nervous system be repaired. So as far as she was concerned it was absolutely vital to catch the patient early before too much damage had occurred.
The big problem is the social stigma caused by leprosy and it is this that causes sufferers to hide themselves away. I suppose the stigma caused by leprosy is brought about by the way that the wider community has defended itself against leprosy over many hundreds of years. Stringent rules forbidding contact between the general population and lepers extending over many centuries has caused sufferers to experience a deep sense of shame.
The victims of leprosy invariably also suffer from extreme poverty because they lose feeling in their extremities and this results in cuts which the sufferer does not feel, leading to the loss of fingers, toes or even whole hands and feet. The nervous and respiratory systems also become damaged. Weakness and lassitude are common and infection of the eyes is frequently present. All these consequences mean that lepers cannot fend for themselves in the normal way and frequently end up facing hunger and homelessness.
More than this, because lepers in the past were physically separated from their loved ones for fear of passing on the infection. So besides extreme poverty, a severe loneliness was often a feature of leprosy.
In the ancient world diseases such as leprosy were often viewed as being the result of sin. This meant that lepers were very much looked down upon by others. It also explains the fact that in Jewish society they were sent to the priest for diagnosis and if the disease improved it was only the priest who could declare them cured. This reinforced the spiritual dimension of the disease.
We heard last week in our Gospel text how Jesus cured people of all kinds of illnesses. But leprosy was considered by the population as being far more serious than any other sickness. By his curing of the leper Jesus puts himself in the category of a truly outstanding healer.
It is interesting to note that during his healing of the leper Jesus reaches out his hand and touches the man. This is a clear breach of one of the rules set down by Moses; touch was forbidden for fear of passing on the infection. But, of course, touch is often an important part of the healing process and Jesus does not hesitate to touch the man he is healing.
In hospitals the doctors carry out the physical treatment but it is often the tender loving care given by the nurses that actually brings about the real healing. This TLC, as we call it, cannot be truly given without touching. I notice, for example, in the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability where we say mass on Sunday afternoons that the visitors often touch and caress the patients because they are often not able to communicate with them in any other way. I’m sure they find it very reassuring.
When we consider the disease of leprosy we can see too that it has many similarities with that other great disease that afflicts mankind, namely sin. Leprosy separates human beings from each other, but sin separates us both from God and from each other. Sin brings division and damages the cohesion of the community.
One other aspect of leprosy and the way it was handled in the Jewish world, was that it rendered a person ritually unclean. In common with many other religions Judaism has this concept of ritual cleanness. A person can be ritually defiled by such things as menstruation, giving birth, touching a dead person, eating an unclean animal or, in this case, touching a person who has leprosy.
Once one was rendered unclean then a process of ritual washing was necessary and quite often the passing of a certain period of time. For example, a woman was ritually impure for seven days after giving birth to a child. To a Jew being ritually impure meant that the individual could not enter the Temple or have anything to with whatever is regarded as holy without going though the rites of purification. Anyone who had contact with them while in an unclean state was also regarded as unclean. Uncleanness could spread from person to person as if it was an infection.
You can see then that leprosy, being regarded as an unclean state, has a strong link to sin. The disease is associated in the minds of the people as being the very opposite of holy and therefore effectively a sinful state. All of this puts the healing of the leper into a much higher category than the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law from a fever that we read about in last Sunday’s Gospel text.
Until now there has been no mention of sin in connection with Jesus’ healings and, to be fair, it is not explicitly mentioned even in this particular text. But the idea of sin is so strongly associated with leprosy that Jesus is coming close to doing what he does further on in the Gospels which is to say to the person being healed, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’
With this account of the healing of the leper we have only just got to the end of chapter one of Mark’s Gospel, but as the Gospel unfolds we will see Jesus increasingly saying and doing things that properly belong only to God. This will win him the ire of the authorities and lead to his execution at their hands.
The leper was told by Jesus to go to the priests and to make the offering for his recovery. But so great is his joy that he first goes around proclaiming to everyone the story of his remarkable healing. This makes things a bit difficult for Jesus, making it hard for him to go around freely.
We need to take a lesson from that leper and like him we should go around telling people about our story and about all that Jesus has done for us. Maybe we haven’t been cured of leprosy, but without a doubt our lives have been transformed by our encounter with Jesus. Perhaps this is something we definitely ought to be shouting about!
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket