Leviticus clearly states the fate of the leper. The Law insists that lepers make themselves the ultimate outsiders. In the Gospels they become symbols of those whom no one can help, of those without hope. A leper who was left alone to face his deteriorating future must have experienced excruciating isolation. The deep pain of leprosy was the realization that no one cared about them.
The inner world of the leper is revealed in his request. He has heard of Jesus’ power to heal. More importantly, he has heard that Jesus cares about those whom no one else cares about. Jesus includes the excluded. This reputation of Jesus emboldens the leper to come forward. He does not keep his distance. His faith is that Jesus has the power to make him clean. His hesitancy is that Jesus might not be disposed to do it. The leper’s self-image is that he is beyond human and divine concern. After all, the very Word of God contains instructions that God and people are to remove themselves from lepers. However, Jesus’ inner compassion for this isolated human being moves him to reach out and touch him, symbolically welcoming him back into the circle of the human and the divine. The cleansing of this leper reveals God’s outreach to the outcasts more than it celebrates divine power to cure a physical malady.
Jesus gave the leper what he requested. The leper does not return the favor. Jesus’ compassionate outreach was intended to restore the leper to community. So Jesus commands him to show himself to the priests and make ritual offerings, the way back into community. However, the leper disobeys the command to say nothing to anyone.
He tells everyone everything. The ironic result is that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly. Having touched the leper Jesus falls under the Leviticus sentence of exclusion. The cleansed leper can now enter the town, but the one who cleansed him must keep his distance. This is the social consequence of the cleansed leper’s “freely proclaiming it.”
The holy one has become unholy. He is now unclean because he touched the leper. John Shea’s poem “A Prayer to the Pain of Jesus” offers us a meditation on the compassion of Jesus:
When crutches were thrown away
did Jesus limp
after the running cripples?
Did his eyes dim
when Bartimaeus saw?
Did life ebb in him
when it flowed in Lazarus?
When lepers leapt in new flesh,
did scales appear
on the back of his hand?
The gospels say
Jesus felt power go out from him
but neglect to say
whether at that moment
pain came in.
Did the Son of God
take on ungrown legs and dead eyes
in the terrifying knowledge
that pain does not go away
only moves on.
Jesus’ compassion may have included experiencing within himself the total situation of the leper. The touching constitutes an intimate sharing. God’s love in Jesus does not heal by exterior contact but by a mutual indwelling whereby two lives become one.
We all have bodies, yet at any given moment some bodies are healthy and some are ill. We all have minds, yet some minds are first in the class, and some minds are forever catching up or are permanently left behind. We all have relationships and social position, yet some relationships are loving, and some are indifferent, and some social positions are important, and some are menial. We are all souls, yet some souls are conscious of their communion with the Divine Source and live in peaceful action while other souls are unconscious of their connection to the Divine Source and struggle painfully with life. We are both separate and the same, isolated and connected to one another.
This realization of sameness and connection is the first step to cultivating compassion. When the consciousness of sameness and connection replaces the consciousness of separation, compassion arises. Compassion is a felt perception of sharing a common world that drives us toward action. We do not recoil from the leper; we reach out. Jesus’ compassion is the engine of his touching and making clean the leper. To cultivate this kind of compassion takes a life time of breaking down walls that separate and sharing the common food that God offers us in the Eucharist.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator