6th Sunday O T Year – B – 15
Lev.13:1-2, 44-46; 1 Cor.10:31-11:1; Mk.1:40-45
St. Francis of Assisi, at one time in his life, he had a terrible fear of lepers. Then one day when he was out for a walk, he heard the warning bell that lepers were required to ring in the Middle Ages. When a leper emerged from a clump of trees, St. Francis saw that he was horribly disfigured. Half of his nose had been eaten away; his hands were stubs without fingers and his lips were oozing white pus.
Instead of giving in to his fears, Francis ran forward, embraced the leper and kissed him. Francis’ life was never the same after that episode. He had found a new relationship with God, a new sensitivity to others and a new energy for his ministry. Today’s Scripture lessons teach us that the sick and the maimed are, for us, not to be objects of scorn, but potential reservoirs of God’s mercy.
I am sure that there are people all over the world right now who are hearing a homily that suggests that Jesus was kind while the law was cruel. The Jews cast the lepers outside the community, while Jesus was willing to touch the leper. We may say what nonsense all that is! Who made the law that said that lepers had to stay away from other people?
The Lord did, the God of Israel, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a good law. It does not say that the people should kill the lepers on first sight, but it also tries to prevent the spread of disease. Jesus does not touch the leper because the law was wrong. He touches the leper because Jesus is more powerful than leprosy.
In our readings today, we clearly see the difference between the law and grace. Our first reading is from the Old Testament, the covenant of the law; and the Gospel is from the New Testament, the covenant of grace. The readings deal with the same problem: leprosy, but in different ways. The law deals with it as the law deals with all things: by separating, cutting off, and preventing the illness from spreading. There is no cure, only clarification.
Jesus, who came to give us grace upon grace, does something else. He takes away the leprosy of the man. He rebukes it, and immediately it is cast out. He proves that he is more powerful than the law. The law is like a castle with outer and inner walls, trying to prevent the hordes from rushing in. Jesus is like a knight who rides out to defeat the spreading evil.
In a community without antibiotics, when someone catches leprosy, the best anyone can do is to prevent the leprosy from spreading to another person. St. Damian went to live with the lepers and cared for them. After 12 years, he caught leprosy himself and died 4 years later. St. Damian is an inspiration and a martyr, showing us God’s love.
That an individual could go and give up their life serving the very sick is a vocation and a sacrifice, but not everyone should go and become sick. Some people should stay back and do research into a cure, as we have today. There is nothing wrong with this law. It is wise and prudent, but grace is stronger. Until Jesus came, people were only able to stop the spread of disease, but he was able to cast out the disease itself.
What does leprosy have to do with Church? First disease is a human concern, and all that concerns humans concerns God. He loves us. Second, leprosy is a symbol of sin. Sin is like a disease. Sin is like leprosy. What leprosy does to the body, eating away at it, destroying it piece by piece, is what sin does to the soul. We can easily see leprosy working on the body, but it is more difficult to see how sin works on the soul.
And sin is contagious like a disease. If I am mean to you, you will be mean to someone else, and they will be mean to another person. If I steal from you, you will steal from someone else, and then they will steal from another person. Our entertainments are infected with sin. How can someone watch television anymore and hope to remain clean of lust and sarcasm and disrespect?
People act as if the moral law is unnecessary and oppressive and then wonder why the world is filled with selfishness and unhappiness. Sure, it would be wonderful if men could look at women dressed in any fashion whatsoever and see them as a whole person, but most men cannot.
It would be wonderful if people would care for the poor freely and generously, if every poor person were surrounded by people trying to assist them, but they do not, so we should pay taxes that go toward food and shelter for the poor. The world is not perfect. And not only the world, but we ourselves are filled with contradictory desires. Not everything we want to do is good.
We need some laws that tell us not to do some things, even if we want to do them really badly. These laws serve to quarantine the evil that is within us. So long as we need this defense, we should not complain of being restrained. But grace is greater than the law.
It is encouraging that desire within us to do right than putting down the parts of our soul inclined to do wrong. God gives us the grace to do right, if we will choose that. As St. Paul says, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” If we do what is right, we can stop not doing what is wrong.
And when what is good has begun to spread in our soul, we can be contagious too. St. Paul imitates Jesus Christ, and tells us that we should imitate him. So the good spreads from Jesus to Paul and from Paul to us. And not only Paul, but all the saints in the whole world. What if goodness started spreading like an epidemic?
This would not be possible without grace, but with God all things are possible. Being kind to people even when they are cruel to us would be impossible if it were not for grace. We could keep it up for a little while, but we would fail, but grace gives us unlimited energy. We will always have enough energy to do good, so long as we stay connected to God in prayer.
If life is without purpose, as most people imagine, just filled with whatever meaning we can invent, then the best we can do is have a law that prevents people from hurting each other. But life does have a meaning, life does have a purpose, every morning when we wake up, there is something that we should accomplish that day. If we do that with all our hearts, we do not have to worry about what we should not be doing.
We need to trust in the mercy of a forgiving God who assures us that our sins are forgiven and that we are clean. We are forgiven and made spiritually clean from the spiritual leprosy of sins when we repent of our sins. This is because God is a God of love who waits patiently for us. No matter how many sins we have committed or how badly we have behaved, we know God forgives us.
The only condition required of us is that we ask for forgiveness with a repentant heart. We need only kneel before him and ask him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean” We are sure to hear his words of absolution, “Very well– your sins are forgiven and you are clean” echoed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Amen.