6th Sunday of year B

The healing of the leper

Leprosy is an obviously noxious contagious disease, with a characteristic rotting smell. Lepers in Jesus' time -as prescribed by the Law of Moses in the First Reading - had to shout out 'unclean, unclean', and did any of their begging at the outskirts of a town or village. It may be of interest to know that the Dublin suburb of Leopardstown got its name from ‘leperstown’ or Baile na Lobhar, meaning "Town of the Lepers").

We consider leprosy an ancient disease now, but forget how terrifying it was – for the healthy who might get it, and for the sufferers, and the life they were condemned to – a terminal illness that could get progressively worse over 9 years.

The healing of the leper in the Gospel has many implications for us in our own day.

(1) Can we identify with certain aspects for a leper’s lifestyle –condemned to a life of permanent exclusion from what is considered ‘normal’ life, isolation, loneliness, mockery, made feel that no-one cares anymore, made to feel unimportant. No-one leads a life fully free from pain. We may be able to identify with the secondary effect of the life experience of someone condemned to a leper’s fate.

Even at school, boys and girls can be very cruel to each other from a young age, with hurtful words, intimidation, and periods of subjecting others to bullying. Sensitive children can be easily picked on, and their weaknesses the target of taunting. Some people, indeed, exploit the weakness of others at a young age. Sensitive people have a heightened sense of grievance also to criticism of any kind form teachers, parents or older brothers and sisters.

Who among us has not at one time or other suffered at the hands or words of others? We may have had our hopes shattered, our dignity violated, our confidence suffered, and those we wanted to impress could never be satisfied. We were caught in a cycle of negativity.

I suspect that the frequency of depression in our day can be traced to anger and loss in childhood, and an attempt to come to terms with life’s losses and a hankering after ‘what might have been’.

On the other hand, despite criticism and negativity we may also have been fortunate to experience care and respect from unusual places, that have boosted our image of ourselves, be it praise from a teacher, or a significant adult who saw our potential, someone who was a shining light amidst all the ‘put-downs’ from others, someone who ‘had time for us’, who instilled confidence, encouraged us amid failure, wanted us to reach out to be our best. Is there a relative or teacher you are eternally grateful for who treated you as an equal?

This is an inkling of what Jesus meant to the leper.

It may have been a simple word or turn of phrase, a gesture, a smile, that made all the difference. That person may not to this day even be aware of their impact on your life to help you turn around and keep going.

These people mirror Jesus’ attitude of mercy and compassion. They picked us up off the ground, held out their hand and gave us the inspiration and strength to carry on.

(2) The leprosy points to sin and its effects, exclusion from God’s grace, the sacraments of the church, especially confession, and the negative effects of sin on one’s own personality and our hurt to the dignity by our demeaning remarks and actions on those we are tempted to look down on. We must realise that Christ wants to intervene in our lives too; He sees in us something far worse than leprosy -Jesus wants us, despite our misery and shame, to approach Him for healing, especially in confession. We must have the honesty to recognise our un-cleanness, and beg for Jesus’ mercy: The leper said: "If you will, you can make me clean." Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I will; be clean." Can we recognise the need in us for God's mercy?

(3) There is another angle - to be at the giving end. It is easy for us to knock, to criticise, to tear down someone’s confidence, to point to others’ glaring failures. The world will never be short of ‘knockers’.

But we likewise like Jesus, and like Paul after Him in today’s epistle, are called to give, and to pass on that ‘self-belief’ to others, to restore to others their sense of dignity and self-respect.

And finally, at a practical level, all of us have need to practise in our lives the avoidance of negativity, to keep our mouths shut more often, to say nothing when it is so tempting to ‘put down someone' with a clever withering remark. We are called to be Christ-like in attitude and see Christ in others.

If we can lead that can of life, reaching out to others, there is indeed hope for us all.

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