Loving Christ the Leper and Imitating Him, Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B), February 12, 2006

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Parish, New Bedford, MA
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
February 12, 2006
Lev 13:1-2,44-46; 1Cor10:31-11:1; Mk 1:40-45

1) In one short sentence at the end of today’s second reading, St. Paul gives us a summary of the Christian life: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Each of us is called to imitate to Christ and to set the example, like St. Paul, so that others may emulate us. St. Paul is one in a line of saints whose actions were a living commentary on the modern expression, “What would Jesus do?”

2) In today’s Gospel, we see what Jesus did and what we’re called, with St. Paul, to imitate. The most physically disgusting and repulsive human being imaginable came up to Jesus, knelt down and begged Jesus to cure him. Lepers have a bacterial infection that eats away at their flesh and gives them a sickening odor. At the time of Jesus, leprosy was considered so contagious that those with it were quarantined for life apart from the rest of the community. They had no one with whom to associate or to care for them — except other lepers. They were cut off from their family, from their jobs, from the synagogue and the templ, from love and mercy. They were outcasts, ostracized from all things human. They had to wear ripped clothes and keep their hair messy so that others would be able to spot them more easily. Whenever they needed to travel to obtain something, they were mandated by Mosaic law, as we see in the first reading, to shout out “Unclean!” “Unclean!” They were forbidden to come within a certain distance of others. Anyone who touched a leper became, in Jewish mentality, unclean. That the man in today’s Gospel broke all convention to come close to Jesus was already a sign of his desperation.

3) What was Jesus’ reaction to this miserable, nauseating creature on his knees before him? Most of those around Jesus likely ran away from him lest they catch the contagion. Jesus moved in the opposite direction. He stretched out his hand and TOUCHED the leper. I can almost hear the shrieks of onlookers two thousand years later. It was probably the first time a non-leper had touched him in years. Then Jesus said the words that were the answer to the man’s prolonged prayers: “Be made clean!” After the leprosy miraculously left him, Jesus gave him instructions to go see the priest and go through the rites of the Mosaic law for testimony of a cure of leprosy so that he, so long an outcast, could return to the human community.

4) This is the Jesus we’re called to imitate. The Lord turns to each of us today and says, “Come, follow me!” We’re not called, necessarily, to imitate Jesus in caring for those with Hansen’s disease, because, thanks be to God and to the gift of modern medicine, leprosy has been eradicated in our country and in most of the world. Most of us — as far as I know — are not gifted with the Lord’s divine power to work stupendous miracles of healing, so we’re not called to imitate Christ the thaumaturgos. But what Christ is calling us to do is to love the outcasts with the same love that he does, the love which would make him go to the Cross again for them if he needed to.

5) Christ wants us to love with a special predilection the many other types of lepers today, all those who are modern outcasts:

a. The bodily lepers — Those with AIDS, those whom the world considers ugly or unattractive, or those whose illnesses are too long-lasting that few want to care for them
b. The psychological lepers — Those with mental illness or mental disabilities, about whom others make jokes but for whom they make no time.
c. The spiritual or moral lepers — Pedophiles, or drug addicts, prostitutes, transvestites, death-row inmates, those who have committed very public and embarrassing sins, and those who think that their sins cannot be forgiven.
d. The economic lepers — The homeless or the very poor, who are shut off from society and the things most of the rest of society take for granted.
e. The racial Lepers — The gypsies or, depending upon where one lives, those of a particular skin color, be it black, or brown, or yellow.
f. The emotional lepers — Those who, because of their own psyche or others’ actions, feel complete alone and abandoned.

These are among the ones Jesus wants us to reach out and heal through our very human touch, to bring back from the margins into communion.

6) We see in the lives of the saints that very often their path to deep sanctity occurred when they cared for an outcast. St. Francis of Assisi was a carefree young man riding around on his horse preparing to seek glory as a soldier in battle. He was leaving his hometown and going to the plain of Assisi. He saw a leper on the path near the outskirts. Francis’ horse jerked out of repugnance. Francis looked at the leper for what seemed like an eternity, but he dismounted, went to the man and took his emaciated, cold and inert hand and placed within it a coin. Then he lifted that hand up to his lips and kissed the lacerated flesh of the abject man. A wave of emotion rushed over Francis, as he was filed with the exhilaration that comes when we abandon all fears and conventions and really love others as Christ loves us. As the leper withdrew his hand, Francis raised his head to look at him in the eyes, but the man was no longer there. Neither was the old Francis. Everything had changed.

7) In the life of St. Martin of Tours, a similar thing occurred. He was a Roman soldier who was approaching the gate of Amiens, France, on a frigid day. It was there that he met a homeless man, practically naked, shivering in the cold. Martin had no money to give him and so was just going to move on. But, moved by conscience, he got off his horse, took out his sword and then cut his Roman cape in half, giving half of it to the poor man. When Martin went to sleep later that evening, Christ appeared to him in a dream wearing the other half of his cape and saying, “Martin has clothed me in his garment.” It was what led to his become SAINT Martin of Tours.

8 ) Likewise for us, the path to our sanctity begins with our loving those whom the world finds unlovable. As we learn from the examples of Saints Martin and Francis, every time we care for an outcast, we are caring for Christ. The Lord himself told us that everything we do or fail to do to “one of the least of [his] brothers and sisters” we do, or fail to do, to him (cf. Mt 25:31-46). Christ takes on the disguise of the pariah and the amount of love we show the castaway is the amount of love we have for him. It’s easy to love those who are lovable, Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount. “Even pagans do as much” (Mt 5:46). But it’s hard to love those who are unlovable, and that’s the standard Jesus gives us. Like a leper, he himself became full of disgusting, open bodily wounds, was cast out of the city and left abandoned with other outcasts on crosses. As Isaiah wrote about him 700 years earlier, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. … The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is 53:2-6).” If we would draw near to Christ, he waits for us on a modern Calvary in the disguise of modern outcasts.

9) Pope Benedict XVI, in his beautiful new encyclical “God is love”, has summoned us and everyone in the Church to be distinguished by our love for God shown in our love for the least of our neighbors. If we are truly disciples of Jesus, the Good Samaritan, then we must care for all those left on the side of the road, on the outskirts of civilization. He said that the exercise of Christian charity is “one of the Church’s essential activities, along with the proclamation of the word of God and the administration of the sacraments” and that “the Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word.” What is true of the Church must be true, “first and foremost … for each individual member of the faithful.” None of us who wishes to be faithful, therefore, can ignore Christ speaking to us live in the proclamation of the word; none of us who wishes to be faithful can ignore Him present in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist; and none of us who wishes to be faithful can ignore Him present in our neighbor left by the side of the road on the path to modern Jerichos.

10) Like St. Paul before him, Benedict calls us to be imitators of Christ, the Good Samaritan. “Following the example given in the parable of the Good Samaritan,” he says, “Christian charity is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison, etc. … [Christians] need a ‘formation of the heart,’ [which occurs through an] encounter with God in Christ that awakens their love and opens their spirits to others. As a result, love of neighbor will no longer be for them a commandment imposed, so to speak, from without, but a consequence deriving from their faith, a faith which becomes active through love. … Consequently, more than anything, they must be persons moved by Christ’s love, persons whose hearts Christ has conquered with his love, awakening within them a love of neighbor. … The consciousness that, in Christ, God has given himself for us, even unto death, must inspire us to live no longer for ourselves but for him, and, with him, for others.”There’s so much to do, individually and as a parish, to imitate Christ’s love for others. Here in the inner city, there’s even more to do, because so many around us fit into the categories of modern outcasts. Today Christ is calling all of us to get to work with hearts formed in Christ-like love.

11) The path of great saints began with their caring for the outcasts. The Lord, who calls us to be saints, will help us to become saints if we imitate them as they imitated Christ.