TOUCH ME OH LORD
Do you seek the Lord Jesus with expectant faith? No one who sought Jesus out was refused his help. Even the untouchables and the outcasts of Jewish society found help in him. The scriptural readings for today show divine power confronting one of the most dreaded of human ills: leprosy.
The First Reading (Lev 13:1-2, 45-46) provides the biblical background with an extract from the lengthy prescriptions in Leviticus 13-14 concerning a variety of skin diseases. Leprosy is a dreaded disease, which, at the time of Jesus had no known cure. The leper was the most miserable outcast in Jewish society. He had to live away from the community. He had to wear a bell and cry out, “Unclean, unclean!” Worse still, he was also cut off from the worshipping community. Anyone who touched him would also be unclean. Hence, still alive, he was practically considered dead. This socio-religious custom, though, was based in Sacred Scriptures. The first reading this Sunday, from the Book of Leviticus, spelled out the prescriptions on how to deal with lepers.
The first reading also teaches the theme of freedom from bodily and ritual impurity as a sign of internal holiness. This freedom is symbolized by the precautions against contracting leprosy given in the first reading and the healing of the leper described in the Gospel. The first reading shows the ancient Jewish attitude toward leprosy and the rules for segregating lepers.
In the second reading, Paul implores us: “Take me as your model as I take Christ.” It a model of sacrifice and care for others. It is being close to people especially in their weakness, sickness, and ensuring that they do not feel rejected. It is a model that rejects the gospel of exclusion, favoritism, racial segregation, or stigma on the sick or anyone at all.
It is not a model that wishes the death of the sick for our comfort. Rather it is a model of care, tenderness and love for them. This is why Paul says: “I try to be helpful to everyone at all times, not anxious of my own advantage; but for the advantage of everybody, so that they may be saved.” This is exactly what Christ did. He offered himself in order to deliver us from all that enslaves us. Paul replicated this with his life, and encourages us to do the same.
When the leper encounters Jesus in today’s Gospel, he asks to be made clean, to be sure. But what he is really asking for is to be included in the community from which he was originally cast out. Notice the determination behind this desire. He does not wait for Jesus to ask him: “What do you want me to do for you?” Rather, he boldly approaches Jesus, daring to cross the great divide, and beginning to forge a new communion on his own.
At a spiritual level, the leper has a profound lesson to teach us. He comes to Jesus and presents to him directly the depth of his painful isolation, and the depth of his desire for return to community. That is the purest form of prayer. We often make the mistake of praying in a roundabout way that never directly names, to Jesus’ face, precisely what is in our heart. The leper makes no assumption that Jesus “probably already knows” what he is thinking, and neither should we. Wherever we are feeling isolated and nameless—in our broken relationships, in our failed commitments, in our unrealized dreams, in our moral disappointments—we need to boldly let ourselves be known by the only one whose love can break through the isolating wall around our hearts.
In the Scriptures, leprosy becomes a symbol of sin. We can even speak of the “leprosy of sin.” We can understand this also because sin is seen but why people sin is not so clear. No one would want to be a leper, cut off from one’s own family and friends and spurned by everyone because of fear of contagion. There is something broken in our human nature and, as Saint Paul says, we sin even when we try not to sin. Like leprosy, sin defiles and deforms our soul, and it separates us from God and from others. And basically, sin is rooted in selfishness. Selfishness is crossing our arms, unmindful of the needs of others, unwilling to stretch our hands – indeed, the cause of too much misery and pain in the world.
Furthermore, Jesus once again showed his compassion and power as the Divine Healer. He said to the leper, “I do will it. Be made clean.” And he was healed. But before saying those words, Jesus did something unusual and even unthinkable: “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand (and) touched him” (Mk 1:41). In the sight of the Jewish leaders, it was such a horrible thing to do. Jesus could be declared unclean, and more importantly, he could be accused of violating the Law. But he did not mind. He was more concerned with obedience to the true spirit of the law.
His action imparts several important lessons for us. This was an expression of his overwhelming desire to reach out to people, especially those who are in need, the sick, the sinners and the outcasts. “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Mk 2:17). God became man so that He can touch us and be one with us, especially in our miseries and sufferings. With this touch of Jesus, the leper was healed and can now go back to his family and community – not anymore an outcast, a living dead. The healing touch of Jesus gave him new life.
Jesus touched the leper to impart healing in a personal way. God deals with each of us on a person-to-person basis. There is nothing impersonal with God. That is why Jesus taught us to call God “Abba”, Father. By touching the leper, Jesus risked being contaminated, “to fulfill what had been said by Isaiah the prophet: “He took away our infirmities and bore our diseases.” (Mt. 8:17). Jesus did this because, behind the horrible disfigurement of leprosy, he saw the priceless value of every human person.
The action of Jesus in touching the leper is a serious challenge to all his followers. At the Last Supper, he washed the feet of his apostles and said: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:15). With his action, he is instructing us to reach out to everyone, especially the lost, the last and the least in society.
The 11th of February is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. This year, it falls on this Sunday. It is declared as World Day of the Sick. It is providential that the Sunday Gospel is about the healing of a leper. Let us continue to pray for the sick and to help them in any way we can. But let us also pray for those who are truly sick in spirit: those who, in their selfishness, are unwilling to stretch out their hands. May the Lord touch them and heal their withered hands and hardened hearts so that they may once again learn to reach out and enjoy life in all its fullness.
Prayer - Lord Jesus, inflame my heart with your love and make me clean and whole in body, mind, and spirit. May I never doubt your love nor cease to tell others of your mercy and compassion. Amen!