The disease most dreaded by the Jews of old was leprosy. It was an infectious plague which struck fear and horror into its victims because there was no hope of a cure. The fate of the leper was truly pathetic. As soon as the first signs of the disease appeared, the afflicted person was debarred from all social life and forced to withdraw from society. This meant bidding farewell to his family, leaving behind his way of life, his trade, everything and everybody he had ever known and loved.
It was a farewell as final as death. In theory anyone could live alone by hunting or cultivating some small patch of ground away from everyone else. That’s the theory, but the loneliness must have been crushing. Not only that but the effects of leprosy meant that they could not manage to use even simple farm implements or weapons for hunting. It meant that they often died from starvation besides the dreadful effects of depression.
The mental anguish and heartbreak of being completely banished from the local community, was utterly devastating. In every sense the leper was an outcast, with no hope of enjoying human companionship or receiving love. The victim was reduced to the status of a non-person, scavenging for food on the town dump, with a warning bell slung around his neck.
Leprosy is a good analogy for sin because it is a dreadful disease that causes separation from the community. However, sin is even more dreadful because it not just causes separation from the community but, even worse, it causes separation from God. However, it is not God or the community that pushes the sinner away; it is the sinner who does this to himself by his sin.
There was a flurry in the newspapers some years ago when Pope John Paul gave a series of sermons on hell. The newspapers sensationalised the fact that the Pope didn’t speak about the fires of hell and asked if he had abolished them. But what the Pope strongly underlined in these sermons was that hell was quite simply nothing other than a state of separation from God; exactly what today’s readings tell us.
Through sin we voluntarily withdraw ourselves from God. Through sin we do violence to the bonds of community. Through sin we destroy our own integrity as human beings. Hell is definitely still there; but I’m not sure that thinking of it as a burning fire is very helpful; it is a state of being but without God. It is the opposite of heaven, which is the state of blessed union with God for all eternity.
However, there is sin and sin. Not all sin is at the same level. Although all sin causes hurt not all sin has the same degree of seriousness. That sounds like good news and so it is up to a point; but it isn’t real Good News with a capital G and a capital N. Just because there are big sins and small sins it doesn’t mean that we can do whatever we like as long as the sins we indulge in don’t fall into the major category.
Sin is a slippery slope, and it is easy to get drawn in. It is easy to enjoy its transitory pleasures and then wake up to find that you have become habituated to a sinful way of life. The real good news is that there is always a way back. Just as the leper was cured of his sickness through his encounter with Jesus, we too can become cured from our sinfulness through turning back to him.
Like the leper on his knees pleading with Jesus to heal him we too from time to time need to get down on our knees before the living God and ask for forgiveness of our sins. We then will experience the healing touch of our Saviour and be lifted up whole again. Through the Sacrament of Reconciliation we can experience this powerful action of God; we can receive forgiveness and be restored to a state of union with him and our brothers and sisters in the Christian community.
To go back to the Gospel, it is worth looking at this leper. He says to Jesus, ‘You can cure me if you want to.’ That’s an odd thing to say. Not, ‘You can cure me,’ but, ‘You can cure me if you want to.’ The inference is that Jesus might not want to cure him. He sounds like one of those nasty, rather persistent kind of beggars that you occasionally come across who are ungrateful no matter how much you do for them.
Jesus says, ‘Of course, I want to’ and reaches out to heal him. But then he sternly tells the leper not to tell anyone about it. One can only suppose that Jesus told him not to tell anyone because he knew that he would be swamped with others wanting healing and indeed as you will see in next Sunday’s Gospel that’s exactly what happened. But we can hardly ascribe such a base motive to Jesus. We do know that these healings weren’t the most important part of his ministry; he also came to teach and he surely knew that the most important thing of all would be his death and resurrection.
But I wonder if here we can uncover a case of Jesus’ sense of humour which is so often hidden under the dusty layers of history. Here is this loquacious and awkward leper who asks for healing in a rather barbed sort of way. Jesus goes ahead and heals him but then very deliberately tells him to keep quiet about it knowing full well that this was something quite impossible for him to do. Then this awkward character, who had probably been sour enough before he became a leper, runs around waving his hands proclaiming his healing. Jesus must surely have had a broad smile across his face.
I’m also pretty certain that those who heard him complaining bitterly over the years were laughing behind their hands at this change of tune. But they would also have stopped to think about this Jesus, this extraordinary man who had reached out to heal this leper who so little deserved it.
Of course, everything I am saying is pure conjecture and I haven’t a shred of evidence for any of it. Only to say, that I think that when we read the Gospels we often fail to take into account Jesus’ sense of humour. But more importantly, I think that we need to look below the surface more frequently and use our intuition to work out what it is that Jesus would actually do in any given set of circumstances. Most importantly of all, of course, we have to work out what he is saying to us in our particular circumstances right this minute.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket