Lepers are mentioned often in the Bible. However, in the twenty-first century, it is difficult for us to understand what life was like for them in Jesus’ day. Like tax collectors and Pharisees, we do not run into lepers in our daily lives. Thankfully, advances in medicine have made this horrible disease less frequent and more manageable.
What is leprosy? It is a horrible disease which attacks the whole body leaving ugly open sores on the skin which ooze pus and give off an awful stench. We know today that the disease is not as highly contagious as people in Jesus' day thought. But imagine their reaction seeing a leper. Not only would they have been revolted by the sores and the stench, they would also have been gripped by the fear that they too might catch the disease and spend the rest of their lives as outcasts.
Because of the fear and disgust that lepers inspired, people in the ancient world went to great lengths to keep them as far away as possible. They were not allowed in the villages or to enter public places. Wherever they went they had to shout, "Unclean! Unclean!", to warn people that they were passing by. Add to that the fact that people generally considered leprosy a punishment for sin. And to be afflicted with so horrible a disease, the sin they committed must have been great! So they were looked upon not only with disgust, but with contempt. Even their families would not acknowledge them. Because they were unable to enter the temple to make sin offerings for themselves, they must have felt rejected by God as well.
For lepers there was no hope of ever living any kind of a normal life, of having a family or of worshiping God with the rest of the community.
Then Jesus appears on the scene. It is for this reason that he came - to be hope for the hopeless. The leper in today's gospel would have already heard the stories of Jesus' power to heal and the wonders he was working throughout the town of Capernaum. It was a light of hope in the midst of an otherwise dark existence. Before approaching Jesus, he would have shouted out, "Unclean! Unclean!", as required by the law. Those around Jesus would have quickly run away holding their noses and probably putting their hands over their children's eyes so that they would not be disgusted by the sight. But Jesus is not revolted by the poor man. Rather, he welcomes him. The leper drops to his knees begging Jesus for the gift that will change his life forever, the gift of healing. Because of his faith, Jesus grants his request and sends him on his way to fulfill all the hopes and dreams that such a horrible disease had stolen from him.
We in the twenty-first century would like to think that we are more sophisticated than the people in Jesus' day who treated lepers with such superstition and contempt. But a good, hard look at our society tells us something different. It has become common nowadays to abort a baby that is diagnosed with Downs syndrome or any other birth defect in the womb. We are told that such children are "burdens". Add to that the growing opinion that the elderly, the handicapped, those in comas and the terminally ill should be given a "right to die". We are told that they too are a "burden" and that there is no quality to their lives. What we are really saying is that we do not want to be bothered with having to pay for them or having even to see them. We do not want to be reminded that we too will someday be old and infirm. For all our technical advances, we have not made much progress in valuing the lives of every human being. In fact, the people of Jesus' day would be shocked and horrified by the way we treat the unborn and the elderly.
How different the gospel message of Jesus is! He came to bring hope for everyone. In Jesus' eyes there is no one so disgusting that he or she is beyond being loved. There is no one so sinful that he or she cannot be forgiven. The healing that Jesus most wants to perform in our midst here today is not so much to take away our suffering and illnesses, but to transform our hearts so that we look at that pain in a new way. God has the power to transform suffering. When we offer any kind of hardship or pain to him, we become like Jesus who offered his suffering on the cross for the salvation of the world. Instead of causing despair, suffering can actually bring us peace and even joy when we realize that God can use it to bring forgiveness and reconciliation to us and to others. If we are caring for someone who is suffering or if we are suffering ourselves, we need not feel like outcasts or burdens. On the contrary, those who offer their sufferings to God in faith provide more blessings for the world than we can ever know.
Again, it is important to remember that suffering is not good. We should try to ease it whenever possible. But when pain is unavoidable, we can offer it up to Jesus and watch him use it in powerful ways.
We are here today, each of us, like the lepers in Jesus' day. As beggars and outcasts, we come to him because he is our only hope. Jesus is offering us words that can transform us through the gospel, his body which is broken to heal us, and his blood which is spilled to save us. At this Eucharist, let us offer our suffering, hardships and difficulties along with the bread and wine on the altar. If we approach Jesus with lively faith, he will work a wonder in our life, and we will leave this place rejoicing and telling of his mighty deeds to everyone we meet.