Why do we care about this nameless leper? After all, the gospels tell us that Jesus cured many people — perhaps hundreds — over the years of his ministry. Of these, there are twenty-six individuals mentions. There are eighteen people cured (fourteen in the Synoptics — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — and four in John). In addition, there are five cures of demoniacs (all in the Synoptics), and three times, Jesus raised people from the dead (two in the Synoptics and one in John). Of these people Jesus cured, all but two are nameless. The exceptions are Bartimeus, cured of blindness, and Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. Obviously, the identities of all the others were not considered to be important to the gospel message.
As I said in last week’s homily, although Jesus’s healings were gestures of compassion toward the sick and suffering as well as those who cared for them, his healing was not solely for their sake. Jesus’s healing was a proclamation of the coming of the Reign of God.
The prophet Isaiah foretold the signs of the coming of God’s kingdom. He wrote:
Say to the fearful of heart:
Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
With divine recompense
he comes to save you.
Then the eyes of the blind shall see,
and the ears of the deaf be opened;
Then the lame shall leap like a stag,
and the mute tongue sing for joy.
So, Jesus’s miracles of healing were done for the sake of his witnesses. This morning, we have been invited to join this company of witnesses.
The man seeking out Jesus in the gospel had leprosy. Leprosy (also known as Hansen’s Disease) is a contagious, degenerative, bacterial infection. The cure was only discovered in the 1940s, but before then, cures were rare. Even now, the disease is hard to cure. It requires six to twelve months of multi-antibiotic treatment. Although it’s contagious, it’s relatively hard to catch, requiring extensive person-to-person contact. The stipulations from the Law of Moses we heard in the first reading today ensured the isolation of the sick person and proved to be quite effective in preventing a pandemic.
In Saint Mark’s gospel, the leper comes to Jesus seeking a cure. He stands back, dressed in the torn garments that Moses prescribed. We can imagine the crowd around Jesus parting as he comes forward. Everyone backs away from him. He he stands there isolated and alone. He doesn’t presume even to touch the hem of Jesus’s garments. In fact, he doubts that he’s worthy of a cure at all. So, he says, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” His plea is the prayer of every believer: “Grant my prayer, O Lord, if it be your will.”
Jesus’s response channels the Spirit of his Father: “I do will it.” In fact, God’s healing power is always present, always available. God’s love never fails. When we are disappointed in prayer, it’s often because of our narrow expectations of what God’s answer will look like. These expectations blind us so that we don’t recognize that our prayers have been answered.
What I find most significant in this story is how Jesus heals this man. The leper is an outcast. His appearance and cries of, “Unclean! Unclean!” have built walls of fear and mistrust, even anger and hatred, around him. Yet, Jesus stretches out his hand, reaches across the seemingly impenetrable border that separates him from the man, and he touches him. Jesus breaks through his isolation and connects with him. It’s that human touch that bridges the gap between them and allows God’s healing power to flow. Was the greater miracle the healing from leprosy, or the healing from isolation?
We can use the leprosy as a symbol of the soul-sickness that afflicts our world. The troubles we face in our human condition can well be described as “dis-ease.” Like leprosy, this spiritual disease is degenerative. Left untreated, it eats away at relationships and empties us of hope. As our relationships fall away, we may find ourselves isolated — or just feel that way. We don’t even have to wear torn garments and call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” People instinctively sense our suffering and back away. They know that misery is contagious.
But we are the Body of Christ, brought to life by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Saint Teresa of Avila wrote:
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
If we have not the courage to reach across the abyss that divides us from one another and bestow the healing gift of human touch to those who suffer, who will there be to say, “I do will it. Be healed”? Who will answer their prayer?