In this beautiful homily for 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Father Hanly looks at Jesus’ healing of the Leper.
First Reading: Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 32:1-2, 5, 11
Second Reading: First Corinthians 10:31–11:1
Gospel: Mark 1:40-45
I thought that I might begin today’s little homily with a word from a book that I have. It’s a small medical book and it’s very helpful at these times, because when we talk about leprosy these days it’s good from the very beginning to let you know how it’s looked upon by the medical profession and things like that.
Anyhow, “Leprosy” is the title of this, beginning: “An infectious disease of the skin, nervous system and mucous membranes caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae. It is transmitted via person to person contact.”
And for thousands of years leprosy was one of the world’s most feared communicable diseases, because the nerve and skin damage often led to terrible disfigurement, disability and death.
Today, leprosy can be cured, particularly if treatment is begun early. And the treatment of choice is many, but the main one is the MDT, a multi-drug therapy.
Also leprosy these days is known as Hansen’s disease, which seems a little bit more easy to swallow when you’re talking publicly and when you’re addressing people who are lepers, because even to this day the word leper has many levels of meaning.
I remember when I was a kid in Brooklyn, it was very common to say things like, “Why don’t you talk to me? I’m not a leper.” It was a kind of expression of something just a little bit more than an illness, but someone separated, an outcast, someone that was a piece of garbage, really.
In the old, old, old days, they were as kind as they could be. The lepers would gather together in one place and they would never be allowed to touch anyone who was without leprosy.
It must have been a terrible, terrible thing to wake up one day and find that you had leprosy, because in those days they had no cure. There was no hope. You were going to slowly rot away, with a bell around your neck to make sure that everybody heard you walking so they could run away when they heard the bell ringing. Or they had to shout before themselves, “Leper! A leper, I’m a leper,” at the top of their voices wherever they got close to a village or a town.
There was no hope in this. Other diseases, there was always a little hope, because the doctors knew a little more about them. But leprosy went on for centuries and it was just the rotting of a human being, day by day, sometimes, terrible to look at.
This might sound a little bit amusing, but Maryknoll Fathers were running a leper asylum in China, and this was the time the Communists won and they were sending all the missionaries away.
And there was one place in China that held on for a long time, because, whenever the authorities came to the Maryknoll mission, the Maryknoll Fathers put all the lepers out front by the gates as the welcoming committee to the poor soldiers that are supposed to get rid of the missionaries.
And they lasted for about another six months to a year, because everybody was frightened to death even to come near that mission.
And yet the missionaries were there all their lives and did a lot of good work. So part of the idea of leprosy was false: it was contagious, but not that contagious. If you caught it and you didn’t take care of it quickly, there was no hope for you.
I say all this because it’s very necessary to the parable.
Mark is a man of few words and he usually chooses them carefully and the incidents carefully. He’s not interested in the disease of leprosy, because that’s not why he’s writing this book. He’s writing this book to show you that Jesus is the hope of the new world that has come down and beginning slowly to take hold and someday would be throughout the whole world, and it was Jesus as the healer.
So we begin today’s Gospel with
A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said,
“If you wish, you can make me clean.”
This is very interesting. Number one is beggars were not allowed to come close to those who did not have this disease. And here this beggar, this leper, comes right up to Jesus and kneels down in front of him and begs him.
Jesus allows this. He allows him to come.
And what does he do?
Well, the poor man is kneeling down.
It’s not a sign as we do today — we kneel down in reverence.
Because, the Jews, only cowards knelt down and demanded things for mercy. You lived on your feet and you died on your feet.
I remember there was a Hemingway novel about the Spanish uprising, and the young boy is trying to be very brave at the mountain top and he’s surrounded by the enemy, a little Spanish boy, and he cries out, scared to death, he says, “Better to die on your feet than serve on your knees!”
And that is the way they looked upon people who kind of begged kneeling down.
And then you can feel the anger in the leper in the next line, for the leper says,
“If you wish, you can make me clean.”
He doesn’t say, “Please help me.” He said, “The only reason I’m this way is because you’re going to refuse to heal me, and I need to be healed, and you’re the only one that’s left and, if you wish, you can make me clean.”
Moved with pity…
Now that’s what Mark wants you to remember, Jesus was not moved to show off his powers – moved by pity and compassion and love. And he says right away, without any pause,
…. he stretched out his hand,
He touches him! To catch leprosy was a terrible thing, because you couldn’t be cured of it, and he actually embraces him and he
touched him, and said to him,
“I do will it.”
Not that I wish it, I will it.
And the man is made clean, and that’s the end of it.
It’s amazing. Here, in the middle of nowhere, with no reporters around, no large crowds, Jesus does something that even to this day we wonder where his power comes from.
He doesn’t say, “My Father, please bless me and help me to make a miracle.”
The man says to him, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”
And he says, “I wish? I don’t just wish, I will it.” And the man is clean.
And now Mark will step back and say, “It’s up to you to figure out who this man is.”
Is he just a prophet? Is he just a good preacher? Is he somebody who hangs around and has people writing articles about him to tell you what a wonderful person he is?
Nothing like that. Just the simple words, “I do will it. Be made clean,” and it happens.
The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.
Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once.
He said to him, “See that you tell no one anything,
but go, show yourself to the priest
and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed;
which is probably being a poor man, a poor leper, was two turtle doves or something, just an expression of thanksgiving, not to Jesus, but a thanksgiving to God Himself for being cured.
that will be proof for them.”
It will prove what?
It will prove another theme of Mark. It will prove that the presence of God is with them. That’s what they get out of this.
And Jesus says to him, “You have been made whole again.” That’s the reason for this. There’s no show or display. but
The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.
He spread the report abroad
so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.
Because everybody, now, they want to see the miracle, the wonder man, the sideshow. Everybody runs and wants to see, wow, this is really terrific.
And what has been buried under all of this is what Jesus said, “They will never understand until something else happens. I do not heal to show I am the Son of God. I heal because this poor man has no hope.”
And that’s why he tells the leper, he says, “Don’t tell anyone. Go to church and thank God and it’s over.”
Otherwise what happens, Jesus can no longer go free. He’s trapped by people who think it’s wonderful they have a new Messiah, and he’s here, and he’s going to save everything, and he’s going to take care of everything and everything’s going to be fine.
And Jesus knows what’s going to happen. They’re going to nail him to the cross, nail him to a cross and, in Mark, he’ll die screaming, “Why have you forsaken me?”
Think of that, think of that. We are not a group of people that are trying to get more and more and people to show that we’re better than everybody else. We’re not putting on sideshows.
We’re not trying to do anything except what?
The meaning that Mark tells us again and again is: “You are to be like him. You must go out and heal.”
The world needs healing. You are sent to heal. And forget the sideshows and who has more and who has less, and who is true and who is false. You just go out there and someone comes that needs help and you help them.
That’s the kingdom of God: if someone needs help, you help them. Nothing else, nothing great, nothing less.
Have your miracles any way you want them. If you need a miracle, you get a miracle.
Because the person needs help, and the only way to help them as Jesus did was he said, in one voice, “I will it,” and it happens.
What happens to Jesus is that the people are now disappointed.
He is not going to organise them and build a fighting force to drive these Romans out of their country. He is not going to bring back the hope of King David, who brought a whole new country singlehanded through violence and power.
He is going to be always on the edges of other people’s lives. He is not going to invade them. He is just going to reach out and touch them.
Touching is very important. When Pope John Paul went to the United States and he was in, I think, Los Angeles, and the first place he asked to go to was an AIDS clinic.
Now I was fortunate, or unfortunate, to have an experience that I should share it with you and it’s this very briefly.
AIDS, as you know, was considered just like the disease of lepers and largely because nobody knew anything about it and nobody knew how to cure it.
What they did when it came into Hong Kong, there was the first non-Chinese to die of AIDS was a Catholic and I was called by his wife during the last three months. And he was okay for a while, but then he was brought into the hospital.
But when he was brought into the hospital everybody on that ward was wearing armour almost. It seemed like a place where this man was invading this place and he was going to destroy all these nice nurses and doctors and everybody in there. So they set them out and put them in kind of suits that you see on television more than anyplace else.
And I was there with his son. And his son was just torn to bits, not only because his father was dying of AIDS, but because it was of AIDS and that, you remember, many people would say, “They deserve it!” And it was very common: “They deserve it. They deserve to die. What are you doing spending all this time and money and everything?”
And we’re sitting there and then we go in and I anoint him and say prayers over him.
And nobody was allowed in the room except me and him and these four big fellows, big guys with the suits on of armour or whatever.
And as soon as I had finished, I said to him, “Say goodbye to your father.” And he walked over and kissed him and he walked away.
And then these four men just took him in like a piece of garbage. They just wrapped him up in this rubber stuff and just wrapped him up and threw it down the chute and out, out into the car and down to…
The family was not allowed to go. The family was not allowed to do anything. Everybody was so frightened of what it was. Then later, of course, we all felt terrible.
And I would say this about the hospital: within six weeks or less, it was the best place in the hospital for sick people. The nurses did not wear nurse’s costumes, but they wore ordinary clothing. The families who came and were kept outside, were allowed in. And the nurses dealt with their loss and they knew how to reach out to them and take care of them, and feed them little sandwiches and make them feel that their sons, who were dying of this terrible thing were worthwhile.
And it became the best floor in the hospital for care, for concern, for reaching out, not only to the men who were dying, but also reaching out to their families, who were stunned and couldn’t understand this strange new disease.
Jesus had to say and be angry with the man that was cured, he had to say it.
If he didn’t say it, he would be giving the impression that to become a Christian is to avoid and ignore all pain, run away from life, because life can hurt you.
And he had to do that in the only way that they could understand – they arrested him for the mock trial, condemned him, nailed him to a cross.
And only then did people understand that the way to Salvation is through pain that does not give up but reaches out in kindness and in need to other people.
And it was this that made Jesus the Saviour of the world, hanging on a cross and saying at the moment of dying, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”
And today, if you go into a situation where you see helplessness and hopelessness and all of that, it is still the message of Jesus. But it is Jesus who knows what it is to die on a cross and to give his life out of love.
Because the whole meaning of this story, which is so wonderful and so small and yet, when you go back and read it again, you will know the only hope is self-sacrificing love, and that is what changes the world.
It changes the world, why?
Because out of pain, God brings redemption. And this is the way it once was and this is the way it will always be.
And so today, when we think of all the things and people who need our help in small and very big ways, we think of them, we are all one.
And, in the end, it was Jesus of this story — which is very funny — Jesus is the outcast and it is the man who is cured who is probably having a nice supper at home with his friends.
Think about these things, because these stories will creep up on you and you will begin to realise that the world is full of wonder.
But the greatest wonder that the world is full of, is the presence of a compassionate loving Jesus, who is the representative of the Father Himself.
And as long as we walk in that path, there will be nothing to fear, and only praise, glory and everlasting life at the end of this journey.