Leprosy in biblical times was seen as a severe punishment by God for sin that person committed. Lepers were ostracized by the community and lived a truly miserable existence. They were not allowed to speak or interact with people not having leprosy, enter the Temple, participate in the communal worship of God, or live in a walled city. They were required to cover themselves with a rent garment and notify anyone approaching that they were a leper by shouting, “unclean, unclean, unclean, …” and were chased away with rocks if they got too close. And with only three cures of leprosy recorded in the Old Testament, they were left to live out their lives without hope.
Leprosy begins with small spots forming on the eyelids and hands and slowly spreading across the body. It then begins to form scales on the skin and progresses to sores and legions. Because it attacks the nervous system, feeling and sensation diminish and then disappear as the disease spreads deeply into the skin and bones. Eventually gangrene begins to set in and rot the inflected flesh, leaving its victim disfigured. This is why it’s known as the “living death”. The person watches themselves slowly die and decay, one piece of themselves at a time.
As we look back at how these people were treated, on what a sad and horrible life these people must have lived, we can’t help but be moved with pity. We would never treat people suffering like that the way the Jews did, our Christian compassion would not allow it.
It's tough to find a better real life analogy of sin than leprosy. Like people with leprosy of the body, poeple can also have leprosy of the soul. Sin so often begins slowly, but steadily grows. It causes our soul to become numb and decay one piece at a time. If left untreated, it brings about a slow death.
But I wonder what we’d see if when we looked at a person we saw their soul instead of their body. Since we all have sinned, we would see a world full of lepers of varying degrees. How would your own soul look? Not perfect of course, maybe missing a finger or toe, with a little redness here, a little scaliness there. Maybe worse.
And what if as you looked around, you noticed a group that was in the later stages of the disease. Most of themselves rotting away, disfigured and hopeless while other healthier looking souls hurry past not interested in offering assistance of any kind. In some instances, you even see some of the souls chasing away and ostracizing the lepers.
Moved by compassion, and incensed over the terrible treatment of hopeless and sick lepers, you begin to move toward them. With your pace increasing you approach with a determination to show a Christ-like mercy on these souls.
And within steps of reaching them, your ability to see souls ends, and you once again see people’s bodies. Who would you see standing in front of you? The most wretched sinners this world has to offer.
Sinners, even grave ones, are not our enemy, Satan is. Those who have given their lives over to sin have been fooled by the enemy and their souls are slowly dying a horrible “living death”.
As hard as it is, we need to show them compassion and not contempt. This compassion will not cure leprosy, but with it we just may be able to lead the person to Someone who can help them.
Today’s Gospel (Mark 1:40-45):
A leper came to him and kneeling down begged him and said,
“If you wish, you can make me clean.”
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand,
touched the leper, and said to him,
“I do will it. Be made clean.”
The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.
Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once.
Then 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;
that will be proof for them.”
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.
He remained outside in deserted places,
and people kept coming to him from everywhere.