There is a story that I recently read in a Catholic periodical about a man named George. George, 26, is from a village in central Congo. Last year he fell in love with a local girl, but she didn’t want to marry him and moved away to a nearby town. When he followed her there the townspeople taunted him, shouted abuse and threw stones at him. The local government radio station broadcast warnings that he was a danger to the population and was not to be approached. Eventually a gang of townsmen threw him on the back of a truck, drove him several miles from the town and dumped him at the side of the road. He was crushed, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Because he used to be a leper.
George had contracted the disease at the age of 10 and was immediately spurned by his family and cast out. He lost all of his fingers and toes to the disease before he found his way to the village of Tshimwanza, where a Catholic mission run by five Sisters of Charity specialized in leprosy treatment. He was soon cured (treatment these days with Multi-Drug Therapy (MDT) has made that easy), but nothing can cure him of the stigma attached to the disease. To all intents and purposes George is unemployable, ineligible and untouchable.
In our western society, leprosy is completely unknown to us. It has been virtually eradicated from the “1st world”. If you don’t know what it is, leprosy is a disease of the flesh caused by a bacterium. It attacks nerves and causes the flesh to literally fall. It is not a pleasant disease to see let alone to have. I shared the story about George from Africa in order to give us some sense of how lepers were viewed and treated in Jesus’ time.
In the first reading we see that lepers were considered “unclean” by the Israelites. Of course, this is legitimate in some sense because the community had to protect itself against contagion. But in practice, how lepers were treated was based on a couple of false assumptions. First, it was falsely believe that the disease was so contagious that anyone who came in contact with the diseased person would become infected. The second, equally groundless assumption, was that leprosy was a punishment for sin. The result of all this was the horrible sentence, not only of having to deal with this disease, but of being completely isolated from the community, from family, friends, and countrymen. To be a leper was to be thrust into isolation.
And so, a leper comes to Jesus and asks to be made clean, to be healed of the leprosy. Jesus wills it, but notice the wording of the Gospel – powerful words chosen purposely. It says that Jesus, “moved with pity, stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘be made clean.’” You see, not only does Jesus heal him physically, He touches him, a touch that frees him from his isolation – he no longer is to be alone, but restored to the human community.
This tremendously powerful story bids us all to examine our lives and to ask the question: who do I treat as the leper? Who do I tend to isolate out of the human community, even if it’s just in my own heart that I do this? The criminal? Those on death row? The one with HIV? The drug or alcohol addicted? The one who struggles with homosexual tendencies? The poor person who is continually asking for a hand-out?
This doesn’t mean that we don’t call sin, sin and evil, evil – it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t call people away from destructive behaviors. But the question is: are we intent and content with isolating people as types of lepers or do we allow Christ to stretch out His healing hand in order to restore, even just in some small way, a person to greater connection to the human family, indeed, to greater connection to God through our love?
This can be a very difficult thing for us as humans because we can be judgmental and opinionated and fearful, especially fearful, about reaching out to those whom society and we ourselves sometimes wish to isolate. But Jesus wants to change that in us. He wants to make us open to the outcast. He wants to love the outcast through us. All He asks of us is that we allow ourselves to be willing to be changed by Him. This Eucharist we receive today can change us if we are only open to be changed.
St. Francis of Assisi battled this too. In the early stages of his conversion he had an encounter with a leper. I’ve adapted this part of his story from a life of St. Francis by a woman named Valerie Martin:
The leper stands in the middle of the road, perfectly still. He is dressed in a filthy garment, patched together from bits of sacking and undyed wool, which hangs loosely upon his emaciated body. He regards Francis and his horse steadily, his head slightly turned and his chin lifted, the better to see them, for his disease has eaten away half his of face and he has only one eye.
Francis does not speak, he cannot move. The leper’s eye drills into Francis; he can feel it penetrating into his head. From childhood he has had a horror of lepers.
He could ride on. There is no reason to stop. As he passes, he can throw down his last coin to the leper. As Francis drops his hand to the reins, his eyes fall upon his own expensive, well-fitting glove, and it dawns on him that this leper is not wearing gloves, which is odd; he and his kind are required to wear them when they leave their hospitals, just as they are required to wear and ring their bells to warn the unwary traveler of their approach. Again Francis looks down upon the solitary figure of the leper, who has not moved a muscle. He swings one leg over the saddle and drops to the ground beside his horse. Francis runs his hands through his hair, bats the dust from the front of his coat, and turns to face the man, who is there, waiting for him.
The leper watches him with interest. Without hesitation, Francis strides across the distance separating him from his obligation, smiling all the while as if stepping out to greet an old and dear friend. He opens his purse, takes out the thin piece of silver inside it, and closes it up again. He is closer now than he has ever been to one of those unfortunate beings, and the old familiar reaction of disgust and nausea rises up, nearly choking him, but he battles it down. The war between Francis’s will and his reluctance overmasters him; he misses a step, recovers, then drops to one knee before the outstretched hand, which is hardly recognizable as a hand but is rather a lumpish, misshapen thing, the fingers so swollen and calloused that they are hardly differentiated, the flesh as hard as an animal’s rough paw. Carefully, Francis places his coin in the open palm, where it glitters, hot and white.
Tenderly he takes the leper’s hand and tenderly he brings it to his lips. He rises and then the two men clutch each other, their faces pressed close together, their arms entwined. As Francis rode off, he turned around for a last wave, and saw that the leper had disappeared.
The question for us is: When we encounter the “lepers” in our lives, will we climb down from our horse to embrace them with the love of Christ, or will we just keep riding on?
Editor’s Note: During the month of November, as we celebrate the final days of the Year of Faith, we’d like to feature stories from YOU about the blessings and fruits you’ve experienced during this year. How did you celebrate? What did you do to grow in faith How did your relationship with Christ and His Church deepen?
Send us your stories and reflections to firstname.lastname@example.org along with your contact information, and your reflection could be featured here on the blog in November!
Submissions should be under 500 words; deadline for submissions is October 31st.