Leviticus 13:1-2,45-46; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45
Leprosy – a word that struck fear in people centuries and millennia ago. No one knew what caused it until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. People deduced it was infectious, and so the societal intervention was simply to segregate the victims of the disease from the healthy population in the hopes of slowing its impact. In its advanced stages the disease is disfiguring, and so the victims were ostracized for their appearance. Since so little was known about the causes, even skin issues that we identify today as normal might have been classified as leprous. We now know that the disease is much less infectious than was once believed, and there are treatment regimens that result in complete cures. Nonetheless, in some parts of the world victims still are treated by segregation and faced with shame.
Leviticus describes the Hebrew response to leprosy – first the diagnosis by the priest, and then the duty of the victim to self-segregate. Imagine yourself as the poor victim who has this incurable and disfiguring disease – society expected you to wander about announcing to all that you are unclean. Personal illness and self-proclaimed public shame – you are the lowest of the low.
Jesus doesn’t follow the norm of avoiding this leper; instead He cures him. Jesus felt the pain of the leper – was moved with pity – and so He responded by easing the poor man’s suffering. Jesus took the pain of the leper into His own heart, just as He took on the pain of our sins to His own heart and, as the psalmist states, took away his/our guilt.
When Paul calls us to imitate Christ, on one level we could conclude we should follow His example to do what we can to help cure lepers and our sisters and brothers who suffer from physical and emotional pain. Paul isn’t calling on us specifically to cure, though. It seems to me he is calling us to emulate Christ’s attitude – avoid offending people, acting not for self but for others, doing everything for the (greater) glory of God. When we encounter pain and suffering, disfigurement and other physical woes in the person in front of us, Paul is challenging us to be an imitator of Christ. Jesus would not walk away, but would engage. Jesus would not recoil, but embrace. Jesus would not turn away His eyes, but deeply connect. Even if Jesus did not cure the physical pain, He would share the emotional turmoil and console.
And so my prayer today is a combination of those of both Francis and Ignatius:
Lord, give me the grace to imitate Jesus, to:
- Feel the pain of the leper as if it were my own;
- Console the hurting;
- Bring joy to the saddened;
- Create hope for the disconsolate;
- Give what is needed;
- Toil without counting my personal cost; and
- Do your will.
By Tom Purcell