Jesus heals the leper, unknown mosaic

Fr Neil’s homily at Mass on Quinquagesima Sunday (14 February)

“If you will, you can make me clean.”

These are the words of the leper who sought out the Lord and knelt before him and begged him to heal him.

Leprosy was a very serious matter for the Jewish community. The biblical term leprosy seems to refer to various skin diseases and not only to Hansen’s disease. If you want to know how seriously they took leprosy then read Leviticus 14 which goes into lumps bumps, hairs and pus that the priest had to identify to either announce someone healed or to be a leper.

If the priest announced you a leper then you lost everything. You couldn’t join in the temple worship and you were excluded from the community as a whole. You lived alone, isolated and having to call out, “Unclean” if anyone came near.

The most serious form of leprosy was a slow death sentence, as your flesh slowly died as you lived. We have deep within our cultural psychology the image of the ragged person with a bell, crying out “Unclean”. It has almost certainly fuelled our culture obsession with stories, films and tv series about zombies — the “walking dead”.

Today we see a twisted version of cultural exclusion being applied to any one group of people that society deems unacceptable. In our present time we see this in the socially-acceptable attitude that despises, confronts and attacks those who cannot wear masks and a growing acceptable attack on those of a Christian faith, especially Catholics.

Biblically the leper was a outward visible symbol of an inward spiritual reality which marked the difference between that which was clean and unclean, sacred and profane, the blessed and the cursed. The people of God were called to be holy, meaning set apart. Their relationship with God was to reveal the nature of God’s holiness and the corruption that the Fall had had upon the created world. Nothing that was corrupt, tainted by sin and death could enter into the presence of God without being destroyed. They were to be a light and revelation to the nations.

Therefore, written through their rituals about food and washing, their moral code and cultic practices around ritual worship emphasised the difference between the sacred and the profane, the clean and the unclean.

Anything that was unclean had to be ritually cleansed or expelled so that the people of God could not be contaminated — they were to keep themselves “holy unto the Lord”. This is why the Lord God was so strong in demanding that they do not associate or take on the practices of the nations around about them.

Those healed of leprosy would not automatically be allowed back; their healing had to be authenticated by the priest and only then were they restored to the community. This is the reason for Christ’s direction to the man he healed to go and show himself to the priest and make the offerings prescribed.

Those witnessing these events would have automatically called to mind the healing of Naaman by Elisha. When Naaman is sent by the king of Syria to the king of Israel to heal him, the king of Israel tears his clothes and cries, “Am I God, to kill and make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?” The prophet of God, Elisha saves the day, revealing the power of God that heals and converts Naaman.

It would undoubtedly have been the reason why so many sought out Christ: because these action were like to prophets of old; God is once again revealing himself to his people.

This healing of the leper reveals Christ as Messiah but also continues to hint at his divinity — only God could heal the deadliest form of leprosy and restore the individual.

The reality behind these outwards signs is real and powerful, and yet so often missed. The great danger of focussing upon the external signs alone is that they become corrupted and a means to denigrate, belittle and abuse groups of people we dislike for one reason or another. Abortion, euthanasia and policies which place those who are disabled or with learning difficulties under ‘Do not resuscitate’ orders without consent are a symptom of this.

The Church is not immune to this, and it can run the real danger of a Catholicism that is tribal and cultural alone. We can participate in the external practices that are viewed as “belonging” (such as baptism, first holy communion, confirmation, weddings and funerals) without any practice of the faith revealed in attendance at mass. It’s the assumption of forgiveness without the need for true confession, living morally corrupt lives without any fear of judgement.

Christ understood this danger, and although he was a good Jew, he spoke clearly about the inner reality when, later in the Gospel, he states: “there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.”

We have to take seriously the true distinctions between that which is holy and unholy, the sacred and the profane, the clean and the unclean, otherwise we will never perceive the majestic holiness of God our maker and creator — and the devastating nature of the Fall with its consequences of sin, death and alienation from God.

The leper was clear about where he stood and knew that there was only one who could save him. His actions are informative. He knows his need of God, seeks out Christ and comes falling on his knees begging for mercy and healing. He has abandoned himself to God’s will. By so doing he has revealed to him the will of God, ‘whose property is always to have mercy’. Christ touches him and he is once again restored as a child of God.

Without acceptance of the nature of sin and the devastating effects it can have on our lives and relationship with God, why would we look for the Lord?

The sacraments are the place where we can seek out Christ, beg his mercy and receive his touch of healing and restoration in the body of Christ. It is in the cry of our heart to the Lord, “If you will, you can make me clean,” that we are enabled to hear the wonderful word of Christ; “I will, be clean.”