Do you ever wonder why there is so much talk about leprosy in the Bible? Certainly, leprosy was a dreaded disease in Jesus’ time, a disease that led to profound physical suffering, social exclusion, and spiritual angst. Leprosy in the gospels, however, is more than a historical phenomenon. It serves as a key symbol of our human brokenness and need. To be leprous is to be frail and broken, excluded and ashamed, needy and repulsive. To be leprous is to have all those aspects of the human condition we would rather deny exposed. To be leprous is to have our hidden and shameful selves revealed. Leprosy, in this wider sense, is something we all experience. What Scripture teaches us, however, is how to best deal with our broken, hidden selves. This week’s readings do so in a particularly powerful way.
The man with leprosy approaches Jesus. We can learn from his approach. We know from the first reading that this was a bold, even unlawful, act. The law of Moses taught that those with a leprosy should be segregated from the community, shouting “Unclean, unclean” to warn anyone who might come near. So, for the leprous man to approach Jesus is already an act of courage. He is pushing back against the social constraints that would have him hide is disease, and rebelling against those messages that tell him he is unworthy of healing. Instead, he acknowledges his need for Jesus’ touch and comes forward in humility and trust. “If you choose,” he says, “you can make me clean.”
We have much to learn from this courageous and humble man. When it comes to our own leprous spots, we are often tempted to keep them hidden, segregated from human company, preferring to live behind a mask of superficial success rather than exposing our truer, mottled selves. But these masks keep us away from Jesus and, more importantly, from Jesus’ healing touch. The man living with leprosy teaches us the importance of openly admitting our need, of revealing our broken selves to our loving God.
What is true for us as individuals is also true for our communities and institutions. What leprous spots remain hidden within our social interactions, blemishes of injustice and abuse, misused power and oppression? This brokenness, too, needs to be revealed and brought forward to Christ’s healing touch.
This revelatory work has been the task of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, for example. Similarly, the #MeToo campaign is working to expose the ugly underbelly of sexual coercion within our institutions. This is important work, the necessary precursor to societal healing and transformation.
As we continue the gospel story, we also see how Jesus responds. Jesus, too, transcends the social boundaries. He goes beyond the taboos that would maintain a healthy distance from others’ messy brokenness. Jesus allows the man to approach, he is moved with pity, he stretches out his hand, and, get this, touches him! Jesus is willing to get his hands dirty, to touch the man’s shame and tenderly embrace his brokenness. In this “touching” moment, healing happens.
Both Jesus and the man with leprosy step outside of the norm. The man reaches out and admits his shame, while Jesus reaches back and embraces it. Therein lies the lesson. We are called to ignore all those messages, be they internal or social, that would have us keep hidden our broken selves. We are called to acknowledge our pain and seek healing, even if that means going outside of our normal and familiar patterns of existence. We can do this because we trust, we trust in a God who is willing to touch our inner “yucky-ness” and embrace it with healing love. God reaches into our hidden and shameful spaces and transforms us. We can be made clean.
“I do choose. Be made clean!” Jesus’ words respond to our deepest human desires. Jesus always chooses our liberation and seeks to make us whole again. When we are ready to reveal our leprous spots, Jesus is ready to touch our hidden selves. Then, with the psalmist and the leprous man, we can sing: “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice . . . shout for joy, all you upright in heart!”
Rompré is the director of Mission and Ministry at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon.