These days, our attention is more likely to be focused on the flu than on leprosy or, more properly, Hansen’s Disease. Although yesterday I did ask a friend who was heading to Hawai’i for a short vacation whether he intended to visit Molokai Island. You’ll recall it as the site of the once-infamous leper colony and now also a shrine to the memory of St. Damien de Vreuster, who devoted his life to caring for the inmates there. (My friend said “no,’ by the way. Not many people select Molokai for a holiday visit.)
Many years ago, when strolling through Leuven on my own, I happened upon the church where the tomb of Fr. Damien is now enshrined in the crypt. It was one of the most inspiring moments of my life. His canonization in 2009 was a truly memorable occasion for a number of reasons.
It seemed appropriate to mention all that because two of today’s three readings focus on leprosy, which may
seem odd. But in fact, it is not the disease that the readings call our attention to, but those who suffer from it and especially our attitude toward them, which especially calls to mind the witness of Fr. Damien.
Many skin conditions called leprosy in the ancient world were not Hansen’s disease. They were known to be very contagious and lacked many of its symptoms, such as disfigurement, blindness, and loss of pain sensation. “The term could also be used for mildew on a person’s clothes, possessions or living quarters.” https://www.cdc.gov/features/world-leprosy-day/index.html
Today, Hansen’s Disease is relatively rare, although it still occurs with alarming frequency in hotter, wetter parts of the world. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “an estimated 2 to 3 million people are living with Hansen’s disease-related disabilities globally. The number of new cases reported to the World Health Organization in 2016 was more than 200,000. Close to 19,000 children were diagnosed that year, more than 50 a day. Two-thirds of all new cases are diagnosed in India, which remains home to a third of the world’s poor, a group disproportionately affected by the disease.
The disease is caused by a bacterial infection. It is only mildly contagious and rarely fatal. It can be controlled with antibiotics and other treatments. But in the ancient world, leprosy was a terrifying disease, one which was believed to result because of some spiritual failing. There was no cure short of a miracle.
Lepers were expected to keep away from people so as not to cause offense or problems regarding ritual purity. If they failed to do this, they could be driven away with rocks and sticks — and you can imagine how frequently this was done, especially when lepers came into the city to beg. That’s what it means to be an outcast.
The treatment of lepers in the ancient world may seem cruel in the extreme. But in many respects, the treatment of those suffering from this dread condition was surprisingly humane. They were in some respects sacred persons, protected by divine law from being killed on sight. Areas were set aside for them to live. Actually, we do worse with regard to people in our own times who have disfiguring diseases. Not just AIDS, but any disease that is regarded as personally threatening, such as cancer. We prefer to hide away people with mental diseases or other conditions that render them difficult to care for or merely unpleasant to look at. Achieving a truly just and humane civilization still has a ways to go.
We don’t call people who suffer from Hansen’s Disease “lepers” anymore because of the disgrace that made the term a catch-all phrase for anyone who is socially repugnant. But there are still “lepers” among us today, and they occupy the real focus of the readings today. We are presented with a serious conflict: as those who profess to follow Jesus, how are we to treat people who frighten us or seem to threaten us?
In it here that the second reading is important. St. Paul tells us “do not give anyone offense, whether Jew, pagan, or Christian” — something in itself we could think long and hard about, as anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination increase here and abroad. The word Paul uses here is stronger, actually, than what we mean by “offense” — it means “to chop at someone, to cut them down, to attack them.”
Paul has been explaining to the Christians at Corinth that although they are free to eat the food that was sacrificed in the pagan temples and later sold in the market, if doing that would scandalize Jews or Christians who were sensitive to the possibility of idolatry, they were not to do it. They were not to hurt someone’s conscience.
Significantly, Paul’s warning concerns worship, much as the treatment of lepers in ancient Israel concerned worship. Lepers were specifically banned from the Temple. Even to touch a leper’s clothes made a Jew ritually unclean, unable even to enter the Temple or perform religious duties. And this brings us to Mark’s account of the Jesus and the leper, which follows directly after the story of his curing the man afflicted by an evil spirit which we heard last week.
Jesus not only allows the man to approach him, he actually touches him — which immediately made Jesus unclean in the eyes of the Law. But like the woman with the hemorrhage in Luke’s gospel, his desperate attempt to reach Jesus results in his being healed. Their faith opened the way for the grace of God to heal them. But here, they seem to violate the norm that St. Paul endorses — not to give offense to anyone. Both the leper and the unfortunate woman gave plenty of offense.
What must have amazed Jesus’ disciples and outraged his enemies, is that he took no notice. He saw only their need, and recognized only their faith. Not to be offended is at least as important as not giving offense. Not when we are dealing with those desperate in their need for help and assistance.
True healing comes from faith and grace — the graciousness of God who is the creator of all, the savior of all, the healer of all. And we would do well to remember that God is particularly attentive to those who suffer oppression, discouragement, and outright persecution — the poor, the neglected, the forsaken. It is not those who profess to be well who need a doctor, Jesus said, but those who know they are ill. It is our need and hope that give us title to the mercy and grace of God.
When we are able to welcome and assist those the world despises, to recognize in them our sisters and brothers, then we will have seen the kingdom of God. Then we will experience our own healing, and the healing of our nation and the world.