Leprosy, in Jesus’ time, was what we could call today “a living hell.”
The phrase “dead man walking” aptly sums up the plight of one afflicted with the scourge of leprosy. They were excluded from the community, no longer considered worthy to be part of the worshipping people of Israel, and so unable to enter into the synagogue or Temple to plead for God’s mercy. In the mind and heart of their family and friends and ordinary devout Jews, they were already dead. As our first reading makes clear, they had to live outside the “camp” of Israel, in the wilderness, dependent on their family or other generous souls coming to bring them food. If anyone else came close to them unawares, they had to ring a bell and shout “Unclean, unclean”, so that the other person would not come into contact with them unwittingly, and so incur the curse of ritual uncleanness. To make things even worse, their leprosy was considered by their fellow Jews to be a clear sign that they were sinners, and therefore their affliction was a just punishment for their sins.
So they were told that not even God wanted anything to do with them.
We who have been living through a year of social isolation and quarantine because of the Covid crisis can only begin to imagine what the sufferer from leprosy must have gone through. Don’t forget, also, there was no promise of a vaccine to save them, no hope of any cure. Only God could help them, and God, they were told, had abandoned them, because they were sinners. A hideous semi-existence indeed. Those who were alive when HIV and AIDS broke out, 30-40 years ago, will remember the paranoia of that time, the fear of contagion, the barrier nursing, and the false belief, held by many, that this plague was God’s punishment on homosexuals for their life-style. It gives us an inkling of what leprosy meant for the sufferer at the time of Jesus.
So this gospel passage today, telling of the healing by Jesus of a leper, is a true resurrection story, on so many levels. Let us try to enter into that scene and take hold of what is happening. On this Valentine’s Day, it expresses what true love, unconditional love is all about. To begin with, there is no way that the leper and Jesus could have met, with Jesus living and ministering in the towns and villages, and the leper condemned to live in the wilderness outside, unless Jesus had chosen to leave the safety and comfort of the town and go and meet him out there, out into the wilderness, out into that nightmare, that living hell.
Think of that: Jesus, God’s own Son, deliberately chose to put himself in danger of contagion, in danger of becoming an outcast himself, in order to find and heal and bring back that poor lost soul. It is not the first or last time Jesus will do this, by the way, the gospels are full of stories like this If ever anyone has doubted God’s love for the lost soul, for the sinner, for the marginalized, for those who are living their own version of a “living soul”, let them stop before this scene in our gospel and think again.
Jesus goes out to the wilderness, because the leper is there. He either knows supernaturally, or has been told about him, and he ignores all of those in the town, including probably his own disciples (none of whom seem to have accompanied him on this trip, you notice) who warn him not to do this. He goes there, precisely because there is a person in torment out there, and he wants to show, by words and example, that God does indeed care for each one of us, and especially in our times of deepest anguish, when we feel abandoned by everyone, including God.
Why do you think the leper says to Jesus, when he meets him and falls at his feet “If you choose, you can make me clean”? Anyone who claimed to be the Messiah, the longed-for Savior of the people (and there were many such pseudo-Messiahs at the time) had to pass through several tests to prove their credentials. One of those was that the Messiah had to heal a leper. What this leper in the story is saying to Jesus is, “I already believe you are the Messiah, from all I have heard of you. So I know you can heal me. What I don’t know is if you really want to.” This poor man has heard the lies that God had abandoned him, so perhaps Jesus is only here to preach to him, tell him to repent of his sins, before going back to the safety of the town.
We are told that, in response to the leper’s anguished plea, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him “I do choose. Be made clean”. Saint Mark, in his typical way of writing, says so much here with a minimum of words. To begin with, this phrase, “moved with pity” is a totally inadequate translation of the original word in Greek (embrimesamenos). Pity is exhibited by someone seeing a beggar on the street with an empty cup asking for change, and reaching into their purse or wallet to drop a few coins in, before moving away quickly. Jesus here, doesn’t just show pity – his very guts are churned up, he is almost besides himself with incredibly strong emotion, which is a mixture of anger and grief and compassion – anger that the devil has bound this poor man in a living hell, anger at those pious Jews who blame the leper for being a leper, grief that this child of God believes that his God wants nothing to do with him, and compassion at the terrible suffering he is going through. Stirred to his very depths with indignation and sorrow might be a better depiction of Jesus’ emotions at this point.
He stretched out his hand and touched him.
Can you imagine how long it had been since that leper had anyone touch him, especially because touching him would have meant that anyone doing such a thing would immediately themselves be considered to have become also unclean and not able to go back into society? And this “touching” of Jesus was not done with his fingers on his nose and brushing the leper with his little pinky, no it would have been a full-on embrace, accompanied with those powerful words, “Of course I want to” followed by the words, “Be made clean!”, which was a command, with all the authority of the Son of God behind it, to whatever unclean spirit had been tormenting the man , that he cease and desist and leave the man at once. The demon has to obey and does, and the man is healed of his leprosy and can go back to society, to his community, to his family and friends. He has gone from death and hell to resurrection and restoration. Such is the power of healing, such is the power of salvation, such is the power of God.
But now comes the dilemma. What happens to Jesus, now that he is deemed to be unclean , for having touched a leper? And here comes the marvelous irony of it all. The leper now made clean, can go back into the town, while Jesus has now to stay outside the town in the wilderness with the curse of “uncleanness” on him, so to speak. In other words, he and the leper have changed places. And in a flash, Mark gives us a prefiguring, a pre-announcement, of what Jesus will do for each one of us at the cross. There, on the cross, he takes all our sin and its curse upon himself, and dies with it, so that we can be freed from the curse of sin, which is hell, and be restored to eternal life, and to heaven. It is what the Exultet at the Easter Vigil calls the “divine exchange” – to ransom a slave, which is you and I, slaves to sin, God freely chose to give away a Son, his only Son, Jesus. St Paul puts this marvellous exchange in his own words:
“For our sake, God made Jesus to become sin, he who was sinless, so that, through him, we might receive the righteousness of God.”2 Corinthians 5:21
Jesus took our unrighteousness, our “uncleanness”, our sin, with all its shame and guilt, to the cross, and gave us in exchange his righteousness, his holiness, his “cleanness.”. It is resurrection, it is salvation, it is healing, and forgiveness and deliverance from evil. And it is ours, our Valentine gift from God the Father, through his Son, Jesus, our Bridegroom, to us, his Bride.
In the Apostle’s Creed, we declare, as you remember, that after his death, Jesus descended into hell. Hell is a description of the fate of all those figures from the Old Testament, including Adam and Eve, our first parents, who started the whole mess. They were all kept in the bondage of Satan, unable to enter heaven, because of the original sin of our first parents, until the moment Jesus died on the cross as atonement for their sins and then descended down to them, entered their living hell, and delivered them from the grip of Satan, and led them in triumph up out of hell and through the gates of heaven, He leaves behind him Satan defeated and helpless, and determined to get his revenge on all those human beings who would be born after Jesus had returned to heaven. And so the devil, Satan, continues to roar and rampage through generations of the human race, like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:7). He wants to, and continues to, throw us into living hells- whether that is the living hell of depravity and shame because of sin, or the living hell of a deadly sickness or disease which make our lives endless misery, or the living hell of depression or anxiety.
Whatever it is, we now have a remedy, the Lord Jesus, who, if we will ask him, will descend into our hell to deliver us. I say “if we will ask him”, because there are still those who blame themselves for their situations, who believe God is punishing them for their sins, and they can only endure it and not expect God to lift a finger to help them. I hope I have shown that this is a lie from the pit of hell, and our gospel story today must ring in our ears and our minds and hearts to tell us that God loves us, no matter what we have done, and is moved with the strongest emotions love can stir up to see us in our anguish.
To our cry: “Lord, I know you can help me, but I don’t know if you really want to,” he shouts out, as he embraces us: “Of course I want to! Look at my wounds, don’t you know the words of the Scriptures: ‘By his wounds are you healed’ (1 Peter 2:24). So be healed, be made clean!”