Reflection on The Word for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)
Leprosy is a frightening disease, even today. The term “Hansen’s Disease” is now used to refer to this bacterial infection. However, scholars believe that the leprosy of biblical times was different, and included many other skin afflictions that were temporary in character, such as psoriasis. When referred to in the Bible, leprosy was a condition of visible defect, and not only on the skin, but on the walls of houses and clothing. Such diseases were taken seriously because they were considered contagious, and also because they were thought to make the afflicted person spiritually unclean and therefore unfit to participate in the community’s worship. It was believed that if you touched a leper, you would also become both physically contaminated and spiritually unclean. For these reasons, the Mosaic laws at the time prohibited anyone from approaching, talking to, or touching someone who suffered from leprosy. However, as was his custom, a merciful Jesus extended his hand and touched a man no one else wanted to even look at. I can imagine the shock and dismay those present must have experienced as they witnessed this powerful expression of love and compassion.
Jump ahead about a thousand years to 12th Century Assisi, Italy. Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone (nicknamed Francis) was the handsome, charming and educated son of a wealthy merchant, born in 1182. Through a series of life events, he was called to live out the gospel message more fully, and according to legend, he once embraced a leper. This must have been a move that shocked and moved those who were witness to it. On his death bed, St. Francis of Assisi recalled his encounter with the leper as the crowning moment of his conversion: “What seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body.”
Jump ahead another thousand years or so to November 2013. The first pope to assume Francis as his papal name, after St. Francis of Assisi, made global headlines when he interrupted his weekly audience to embrace and kiss 53 year-old Vinicio Riva, who suffered from an illness that left him completely covered from head to toe with growths, swellings and itchy sores. One could not help but be fazed by the sight of Mr. Riva, but Pope Francis extended this same compassion to a man who may not have had leprosy, but who understood well the physical pain and emotional suffering that accompany the affliction. Mr. Riva was a leper.
It may seem unusual to us that people once believed a superficial skin condition somehow made that person spiritually unclean. What were they thinking? They must have been barking mad to exclude folks from a sacred space of worship because of a superficial disfigurement. Today, we may no longer believe in excluding people from worship based on a physical disease, but if you ponder it, you can probably come up with more than a few examples of others that we choose to exclude for superficial reasons…and here is what I bet will happen: 500 years from now, humans are going to look back on us living in 2015, and say “What were they thinking? They must have been barking mad.”
Who are the lepers of today? Who do we exclude? Judge? Persecute? Condescend? Feel morally superior to? Behave inhospitably towards?
The good news here is that Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi, and Pope Francis have all shown us that beneath the skin is where every single one of us reside as beloved creations of an ever-loving God. How will we respond?