When I was a seminarian we used to go on an exposure to a particular marginalized sector every weekend. One weekend we went to Tala leprosarium in Caloocan. It was my first time to meet lepers in my entire life and I heard so much about leprosy, how it was a highly contagious disease. Thus, when we arrived at the leprosarium, I was so afraid to go near them. But the lepers were very hospitable and happy to see us. They showed us their homes, touched us, gave us food and shared their lives with us. Throughout the exposure, I was the one isolating myself because of my fear. At the end of the day, I realized that I was the one acting as a leper.
Lepers are among the most wretched and ostracised people in ancient times. In the first reading today from Leviticus 13, leprosy in biblical times covered a wider range of skin diseases, unlike present-day leprosy. It was the ultimate impurity because it cuts off the patients from the community and turned the patients into sources of contamination to others. Thus, whenever they go out, they have to shout “Unclean, unclean!” so that people can stay away from them.
The Law cannot clean leprosy. It can only stipulate measures about protecting people by segregating lepers. Only the priest can certify that the patient is free of the disease and allow him/her back into the community after a ritual cleansing process.
The gospel today shows Jesus’ completely different, even revolutionary attitude to lepers. In the gospel, Jesus was filled with deep compassion for a leper. Jesus then did the most unconventional thing—he physically touched the leper. In doing so he rendered himself ritually unclean and opened himself to the risk of contagion. On the other hand, Jesus’ touch healed the leper, rendered him no longer untouchable and restored him to his proper place in the community. In a way, Jesus gave up his cleanliness and purity according to the law in exchange for the well-being and restoration of a marginalized unclean leper. This more than showed that Jesus was higher than the Law although He did not contradict the Law. He ordered the healed man to comply with the law.
Jesus’ miraculous act was consistent with his whole ministry of including everyone especially the most abandoned and rejected in society into God’s kingdom. In God’s kingdom, nobody is untouchable from God’s magnanimous compassion and life-changing transformation.
There may still be lepers today. But leprosy is virtually gone, thanks to advanced medicinal science. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that leprosy can be permanently cured. It is not hereditary and highly contagious as we have been led to believe.
Today’s Gospel, however, calls our attention to those who are still isolated or ostracised despite our highly advanced contemporary society. An example are those who have contracted HIV/AIDS. Even though HIV is not easily transmitted, persons with AIDS are often rejected in fear by family members, friends, employers, and colleagues. Other marginal groups include drug addicts, the homeless, unemployed single mothers, alcoholics, migrant workers, disabled, mentally ill, asylum seekers, slum dwellers, poor farmers and workers, and even indigenous people. They are the modern day lepers in our society. It is we who made them lepers, and we use all kinds of rationalisation to isolate and reject them.
But there is also a leprosy of a different kind where people becomes untouchable of their own choice and making. There are people, for example, who exert much power and dominance that nobody dares to touch them. Because of their enormous power and dominance they are beyond the reach of the benevolence of anybody even God. There are also those who make themselves untouchable because of their uncleanness and corruption. And because they have been used to their own wickedness, it has given them false security and power.
But Jesus showed us in the gospel that nobody will be untouchable from the transforming power of his touch. Jesus compassionate touch is far greater than our isolating fear, immoralities and hunger for power. Jesus, however, will not force himself to touch us. Come to think of it, oftentimes it is we ourselves who do not want Jesus to touch us. Jesus needs to hear directly from us the words spoken by the leper in the gospel today: “If you wish, you can make me clean.”
Let us invite Jesus today to touch and cleanse us of any hindrance that keep us from the love and compassion of God and each other. May our acceptance and awareness of how we have isolated ourselves from God and others lead us to experiencing Jesus’ transforming touch. By experiencing Jesus’ transforming touch may we also actively work for the eradication of all structures and forces of exclusion and rejection especially of the most vulnerable, poor, deprived and oppressed in our society today.
I am passionate about the intersection between new media and technology. I continue to research and apply new media in theology and vice-versa. I am also a fan of Our Mother of Perpetual Help and her continuing relevance in today’s digital world.
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From Joseph Echano at https://joeyechano.wordpress.com/.