Some years ago Bishop Fulton Sheen told a story about a visit he made to a leper colony in Africa. He had brought along a supply of little silver crucifixes so that he would have something special to give each of the 500 lepers in the camp.
The first leper he met only had the stump of his left arm, while his right hand and arm were covered in ugly, open sores. Sheen took one of the little crucifixes, held it a few inches above the leper’s hand, and then let it drop into his palm.
In an instant, he was struck by what he had done. “All at once,” he later said “I realized there were 501 lepers in that camp, and the most leprous of all myself. I’d given a crucifix – the symbol of God’s absolute love for us all – but then I had pulled back and closed my eyes to what that symbol implied for me.”
“So I looked again very hard at that little crucifix, and I knew what I had to do. I pressed my hand to the leper’s hand with the symbol of love between us, and then I proceeded to do that for the remaining 499 lepers!”
The fate of lepers in biblical times, and even more recently, was a harsh one. They were treated as religious and social outcasts.
Because of the fear of the contagious nature of leprosy, they were banished from the community and so were socially isolated and marginalised.
Considered ritually unclean, they were also excluded from the religious life of the people, cut off even from God.
After all, back then illness was mistakenly seen as a consequence of sin and so lepers were seen as sinful and it was believed that God had rejected them.
So they were made to feel as if they were completely forsaken and abandoned by all, even from a loving God.
Rejection hurts beyond any other state or emotion. I am sure that in the course of our lives that each of us has felt rejected at some stage or another. Felt the hurt at being unwanted or unneeded.
Whether it be at work, or estrangement within families or with friends or the rejection of love, the pain is something not easily forgotten. The only counter to rejection is acceptance.
Now Jesus knew what society thought about lepers. How then would he deal with this man? Would he keep him at a distance? Would he even shun him altogether?
This would have been considered a “normal”, “appropriate” and “expected” response by those watching.
But Jesus never did anything that was “expected” and he had a way of turning “normal” on its head.
As the so many gospel readings reveal, Jesus continually challenged people to look at things from a new angle, whether it was about ritual washing, foods and defilement, or today in reference to cleanness, and so he didn’t do any of the things people might have been expecting.
Jesus did not regard the leper as unclean, as others clearly did.
Jesus saw him simply as a fellow human being in desperate need.
He allowed the man to come right up to him.
They spoke to each other, and then Jesus did the unthinkable.
He reached out and touched the man. And all at once the leprosy left him.
The gesture would have undoubtedly shocked onlookers.
By touching the man Jesus was breaking the law, and became ritually unclean himself. This meant that he was unable to enter the synagogue or the Temple until he was made clean again!
Why did Jesus once more do what the Law forbade?
We have heard Jesus speak of the Law before.
How he told the people that it was only because of the hardness of their hearts that Moses made provision for divorce in the Law, even though it was never what God intended.
I suspect that the same is true here.
That the Law of Moses had made provision for those afflicted because of the hardness of the people’s hearts, possibly to stop them suffering an even worse fate, and so created a situation that God never intended.
Jesus broke the “Law” to reveal something real about God.
Jesus reached out and touched the leper because that is who he was.
In this small gesture we see Jesus’ compassion for the outcast, the marginalised and the rejected.
We see God’s limitless love on display for all to witness.
Jesus didn’t cure just an illness that day; he healed a sick person.
Healing the body is good but it would not be enough if the spirit is left bruised and broken.
When Jesus looked on the leper he saw that he needed healing in body and in spirit.
His body was horribly wounded by the leprosy, and his spirit was deeply wounded by the rejection he had suffered.
By touching the leper, Jesus healed the wounded spirit of the man, and restored his lost dignity as a human being and as a child of God.
Jesus touched the leper to show us that external appearances do not defile a person’s heart.
He touched the leper to teach us to despise no one, or regard them as pitiable, because of some bodily affliction.
He touched the leper to give us an example of God’s love and compassion to follow, just like Bishop Sheen and so many others who can be looked up to for their compassionate hearts like Mother Theresa or Princess Dianna, who were willing to reach out and touch those society had shunned and abandoned.
The story of Jesus and the Leper was recorded in Mark’s gospel some 30 or 40 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus and, as with everything that the gospel writers included about the life of Christ, it was meant to convey something to the listeners, both then, and now, about the revelation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
We should be truly humbled by the generosity of Jesus, because he shows us the poverty that exists in all of our hearts.
But this is the same generosity that God extends to us and indeed to all creation, regardless of any physical characteristics of race, gender, class or sexuality.
And the cross is the length that God will go to in order to reconcile us to the divine and to restore our broken humanity.
This is the model of God that Jesus set before us, a model that we are called to try to live up to in all our dealings with the sick and the wounded, indeed with anybody we might unconsciously think doesn’t belong, or even those people we think we would much rather avoid.
In seeing Christ in all people and in reaching out in love and compassion to other, we can more fully discover Jesus within our own lives and so help others to discover him as we proclaim the gospel, not in words but in deeds of kindness, generosity and love.
So let us pray that wherever we go and whoever we meet we might be filled with the Holy Spirit to show them the love of compassion of God that they might come to know us as true disciples of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.