Fr. Paul's Homily
When I was a young boy in grade school, I read a book called, “Damien the Leper”. I enjoyed reading as a kid and read many adventure novels and biographies. But this book made a deep impression upon me. Perhaps it was because Damien was a Catholic priest who emigrated from Belgium to work in the missions in Hawaii. But I suspect my attention to this book was because of the great sacrifice that Father Damien made when he volunteered to move to the island of Molokai where a Leper colony existed. Many of you know the story of how Damien spent his remaining life, serving that colony, even after he contracted the disease himself. As Damien said near the end of his life, “I have truly become one with my people.”
Today we have the powerful story of the healing of a man with leprosy. Let’s explore this reading together. As Jesus moves from village to village, preaching and healing, a man with leprosy approaches him and says, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” In this simple action, the man with leprosy has broken the law. Anyone with this disease was required to keep a distance from others and to cry out, “Unclean, Unclean” if anyone approached. By coming up to Jesus, he has broken the law.
It is striking how he makes his request, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” “If you wish;” why would he say this? It appears that this man has called upon God, time and time again, without a response. From this constant asking, he has become beaten down and he feels more and more marginalized and an outcast. Perhaps this man felt that, “All of society has rejected me, forcing me to be cut off from family and friends, even my community. Even God has rejected me, but I’ll make one more request to this man, Jesus.” The man’s request to Jesus, while filled with hope and faith, also carries a doubt and skepticism.
Have you been there? Maybe leprosy has not been your illness, but maybe another illness has confronted you that lasted a long, long time. Maybe it has been the illness of a loved one, or some other struggle that has continued well beyond our prayers. Sometimes, we too can feel beaten down; depressed from trying. We run the risk of becoming bitter, but we continue to cry out. If you understand this experience, then you can understand this man with leprosy as he approaches Jesus.
Scripture then says that Jesus, moved with pity, stretches out his hand, touches the man and says, “I do will it. Be made clean.” Other translations say that Jesus was moved with anger or indignation. Why? Perhaps, Jesus was angry at how totally ostracized and abandoned this man was. Maybe he saw how the rules of society had killed his spirit and he needed much more than physical healing?
When Jesus touched the man, he broke the law also, for touching someone with leprosy was strictly forbidden. Yet, what did this man need the most? Perhaps no one had touched him in years and the lack of touch cut deep into his emotional stability. Maybe the healing in this man began with the touch of Jesus, and not with the words, “Be made clean?”
Touch can bring spiritual and emotional healing. I love the Sacrament of the Sick. When someone is having surgery, in the hospital, struggling with an illness or just getting old, we will anoint them with the blessed oil. Touch is so much a part of this experience. I always greet the person by placing my hand upon their shoulder, or their arm or shaking hands with them. In the sacrament, we lay hands upon their hand, asking quietly for God’s healing. I touch them when I anoint their forehead and their hands. Frequently, we might hold hands as we pray the Lord’s Prayer. So, as we invoke God’s healing power on the person, we touch them often. And when we are hurting, how deeply we need that touch.
The Gospel concludes with Jesus telling the now-healed man, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” Mosiac Law required that the priest had to be visited and the person had to be declared “Clean” before he returned to his home and his family. Jesus is telling the person to do what was prescribed, but tell no one else. Jesus may have made this request because he was already having trouble moving about because of the crowds and he didn’t want to make it worse. Or, maybe he didn’t want his healings to overpower his message of the Good News and the Kingdom of God. Whatever the reason, the man did not do what Jesus asked! The man publicized it everywhere so that Jesus was unable to move around publically and stayed in deserted places.
Jesus has given this person the greatest gift he could ever receive, and yet the man proceeds to disobey Jesus and do what he wanted. We certainly can understand the man telling lots of folks (how do you keep such news quiet!) Yet, he still disobeyed Jesus.
Jesus did not heal perfect people. These were not saints running up and asking for help. They were just plain people who needed his help…and he helped them! This is one of the great signs of Jesus love and mercy: He healed the sinner and the disobedient!
Doesn’t this challenge us when we are asked to help someone who is not perfect? A person comes to the parish office door, seeking help with a rent bill. They have probably not made good decisions about their money, leading up to their request. It is so frustrating, but what do you do? Someone comes to us, seeking help to find a job, but we know that they have not been a very good father or mother to their children. We could tell story after story of the call to help people who are far from perfect. Jesus helped such people.
And, thank God Jesus did help such people!! Because we are far from perfect!! Who among us has not made bad decisions? Who among us have not been mean or vengeful at some point of our lives? Who among us have not told lies to hide something about ourselves? We are the sinner who wishes we were a little closer to being the saint.
Most of us do not have a horrendous disease like Hensen’s disease, the modern name for leprosy. But we are more similar to this man of the gospel then we might realize. We break the rules; we come to God with a little bit of a bitter edge in our prayer; we ask but don’t trust. And if our prayer is answer, we too often do not allow the grace of that moment to touch the other areas of our life that need conversion and change. We choose to stay sinners.
Friends, we are humbled by this story, but we should also be inspired by it. Because, while we might identify with the man with leprosy, we are called to become the man, Jesus. WE are called to look at those in need with love and mercy; we are called to reach out and give the healing gift of touch to those who are starved for this gift; we are called to help and heal those who are far from perfect. Amen. Amen.