It is clear that the Scriptures for this Sunday are once again asking us to contemplate the issue of human suffering. While our responsorial psalm today seems to be about being forgiven while the reading from Leviticus and the Gospel speak of the issue of leprosy, it reminds us that in the Hebrew Scriptures, human suffering is inextricably linked to sin. Psalm 32 is clearly about sin and the sickness that results from concealing it. Last week we heard from Job who protested that his illness was not a punishment for sin even though his wife and his friends kept urging him to admit his guilt.
Although we no longer accuse those who are ill of being sinners, there is a connection between sin and illness and suffering. Our sins can sometimes make us sick. More to the point, our sins as a society can make others suffer. Pollution, waste, greed, and war mean starvation, sickness, and death for thousands, perhaps millions of people.
The Book of Leviticus is a Book about the Law. The 613 commandments that govern the life of the children of Israel are contained in this book. Chapters eleven through sixteen concern themselves with the laws of ritual purity. A full two chapters are devoted to the issue of what they called leprosy. While it may seem that the real concern was a matter of avoiding contagious disease, the sacred writer consistently reminds the Israelites that they are to be “holy as your God is holy.” The real issue behind the laws of ritual purity was a matter of holiness, not contagion, for the children of Israel.
When Jesus meets a leper, the leper kneels before Jesus and makes his request. "If you wish, you can make me clean." Jesus touches the leper. This little detail is important. By touching the leper, Jesus incurs the ritual uncleanness of the leper. Knowing what would happen if others knew this, Jesus asks the leper not to tell anyone about their encounter and the healing. Because he spreads the news abroad, Jesus is forced to remain “outside in deserted places” until seven days have passed and he is once again considered ritually clean.
The severe isolation that is imposed on the leper and the sick might not seem all that terrible for us. If we were in that situation, we would simply take our I-Pads, our Kindles, and our MP3 players and enjoy our time alone. However, for people who find their meaning in the group, isolation is unbearable. They could not live with their family, they could not worship with the community, and they could not engage in any commercial activity. So when Jesus heals the leper, is it any wonder that he cannot keep the story to himself? For him, this healing is very much like being restored to life.
Sometime in life everyone will have to endure physical, mental, emotional or spiritual suffering. We know this is the case, so we try to prepare ourselves for the inevitable. Yet when it comes, as prepared as we try to be, it can overtake us with such fury that we fall back defenseless. We look to others for support and assistance. If we are fortunate, we find it.
Too often we merely endure suffering and miss the opportunity to reap the benefits it can yield. In suffering we witness to human vulnerability and our desperate need of each other and of God. St. Paul actually speaks of “rejoicing” in his sufferings. For those who live in constant pain and frustration, this may seem ludicrous. However, suffering can awaken us to the reality of how much we need God and others. It can become a means to experience the tenderness and compassion of God, the loving touch of Christ that can heal our souls if not our bodies. It is there that we may most authentically participate in the cross of Jesus. Joined to him we are anything but unproductive or worthless even when we are so ill that we are confined to a bed. If we turn to the Lord in time of need, like the leper in today’s Gospel, we will begin to experience the joy of salvation, and may even find the wherewithal to proclaim it to others.
I am sure you are all aware that Lent begins this week, that special time of year when we spend time considering our relationship to God and the reality of sin in our lives. The cross, a powerful reminder of the suffering of Jesus for our sakes, figures prominently in this season of repentance. One of the most familiar representations of St. Francis finds him kneeling at the foot of the cross as he embraces the feet of Jesus. He bade his followers to consider the charity of Jesus’ passion, to realize how much the cross is an expression of God’s love for us. May our Lenten observance bring us closer to the tenderness and love of God and lead us to do what we can to alleviate the suffering of others.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator