Crossing social barriers can be dangerous. We see this today in the Gospel when Jesus meets a leper. Leviticus laid down strict rules for dealing with contagious diseases like leprosy. The leper must be isolated from society and his loved ones until there was a cure. Jesus acknowledged that it was necessary to have official priestly procedures to monitor the state of the illness. Leprosy struck all types of persons with fear just as the recent pandemic has. Isolation is being required and the victim must not be touched by unprotected human contact.
The Gospel reveals the desperation of this leper and the huge risk he and Jesus were taking in crossing a profound social barrier. Notice how the leper approaches, pleads, falls to his knees and begs to be healed. He is desperate. Jesus could have just spoken a healing word; He could have raised His hand to bless, without making any bodily human contact. But notice how the gesture of touch by Jesus is stressed: He stretched out His hand and touched the leper. And immediately the leper is healed.
Why does Jesus insist on touching him and what is the significance of this miracle? The reason for touch is simple. Jesus touched him ‘out of compassion’. He was able to sympathize with the suffering of the leper so that He willed to bring the leper out of his isolation. So many of the miracles of Jesus involve touch because it expresses powerfully the way the loneliness which comes with illness and the isolation it often brings is overcome.
Jesus has announced the presence of the Kingdom of God in His ministry. When He exorcises the unclean spirits and curing physical illnesses He is pushing back Satan’s kingdom in a very dramatic way. The leper symbolizes the isolation and alienation which many afflicted persons experience in society. The healing is certainly dramatic but what is important id that the leper who is now healed can now return to the normal. He is restored to himself and given back to his loved ones. It is a sign of God’s kingdom which through Jesus defeats the forces of evil and so breaks through the rigid barriers which a society can set up to protect itself.
Saint Paul speaks in the second reading of respecting all peoples. He knew too well how often people could hate and stigmatize each other. Saint Paul fought hard for the unity of the communities he founded because he saw in them that amazing new unity in the Church of both Jews and Gentiles a witness to the power of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Leprosy and now Covid-19 can still act as a powerful symbol for the isolation which many experience in a society which stigmatizes people who suffer from any frightening physical or spiritual illness, who are in some way marginalized and isolated. Even in the church we can reflect on the isolation and separation society imposes when faced with such infirmities.
When Jesus reaches out and touches lepers and restores them to health and to family, it is a powerful challenge to those of us living today. In a society which is becoming increasingly lonely and isolated, the Church is called to be what it should, a community where all persons coexist and where the lonely, the isolated and today’s ‘lepers’ and untouchables can find a home and a helping hand which is stretched out to them in compassion and welcome.