Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

12 February 2012


Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 12, 2012

     Gospel stories like today’s can be so familiar that we’re apt to tune them out – not purposely, of course, but almost automatically.  If we do, we lose out on a lot because there’s almost always something new, even surprising, in the gospels if we but take a closer look. 

     Take today’s story of the healing of the leper. One interesting and, I think, surprising aspect of that story is the rather blatant breaking of the Law that was involved. The leper clearly broke the Law, but so did Jesus.

     The Law, when it came to lepers, was clearly set forth in the Book of Leviticus (today’s first reading). Because leprosy was regarded as being highly contagious – not to mention a punishment for sin -- the Law said that lepers were supposed to dwell apart, to stay far away from wherever there were people and, if people happened to come near, lepers were to make their whereabouts known by shouting “unclean!”  The leper in today’s gospel story boldly broke that law.  He came out of the shadows, walked right up to Jesus, knelt down before him, and even dared to engage him in conversation. It’s not hard to imagine the people’s reaction to this, is it?  It must have ranged anywhere from horror to indignation to fear that they might now catch the dread disease.

     But the leper was not the only one to break the law.  Jesus -- who allowed the leper to come right up to him and who went further by reaching out and touching him -- Jesus also broke the law.  He did.

     As so often in the gospels, Jesus, who revered the Law, refused to be bound or straight-jacketed by it. Everything he did in this encounter made it clear that the person before him, this poor outcast of a leper, was more important to him than any law.  That’s why he allowed the leper approach him.  That’s why he engaged in conversation with him.  That’s why he did the unthinkable by reaching out to touch him.  Jesus knew that this outcast who suffered from a dread disease needed more than words, more even than just physical healing. He knew that he also needed the warmth of a human encounter.  That’s why he reached out and touched him. In doing so, he not only gave him healing, he gave him love and acceptance.  He welcome back into the community this man who had long been living on the fringes.

     But while Jesus broke the law, he didn’t completely ignore it: he actually honored the Law when he told the fellow to go and show himself to the priest and to make the customary offering called for in the Law of Moses.  And then, he imposed on him a little ‘law’ of his own when he told him to keep quiet about the healing.  Why?  We can’t be sure. Perhaps Jesus didn’t want people coming to him for the wrong reasons -- just because of his miraculous healing powers.  He wanted people to come to him to hear his gospel, his good news, his liberating word.

     Well, the man didn’t observe that ‘law,’ either. Once he was healed, he couldn’t contain himself. He started spreading the story wherever he went.  And that brings us to a fascinating little twist in story. The more the news about Jesus’ healing of the leper got around, the more he was swarmed wherever he went. Everyone wanted a piece of him.  Everyone wanted his healing touch -- so much so that, as Mark puts it, it became “impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly” and he had to remain outside the towns in deserted places in order to find any peace.  I hope you see the twist. Effectively, Jesus is now the one who has to dwell apart.  Effectively, Jesus has become the leper!

     My friends, this familiar gospel story, like all the gospel stories, lives in the present not just the past. Lepers are still coming to Jesus.  They are.  And I’m not speaking here of the physical disease of leprosy. No, in a sense, we are all lepers and we call out to Jesus from whatever it is that holds us in its grip -- fear, sin, alienation, self-doubt, self-hatred – it matters not.  I’m thinking, too, of those whom society or even the Church have treated like lepers by marginalizing them, or stigmatizing them, misunderstanding them, or even treating them as outcasts.  Think, for instance, of gay and lesbian people who struggle so hard for acceptance and understanding, struggle to be respected and loved for who they are. Or think of people who are in marriages that the Church does not recognize and that cannot, for a variety of reasons, be regularized by the Church, yet who hunger to be welcomed and to be given a place at the Table.

     In responding to them, the Church can do no better than to look to the Jesus of the gospels, the Jesus of today’s gospel, and to find there the one for whom there are no outcasts whatever: only fellow humans in need of love, human warmth, healing, acceptance.

     It is this Jesus whom we now approach in the Eucharist. As with the leper, so with us: Jesus allows us to come close to him, and he lovingly stretches out his hand to touch us, to welcome us, to reassure us, to heal us.

     Father Michael G. Ryan


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