ADDRESSING THE REAL LEPROSY AND THE REAL ISOLATION HOMILY FOR THE SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (YEAR B) Rev. Fr. Boniface Nkem Anusiem PhD

Pope's touch

The scourge of the Ebola virus was one of the greatest health hazards along the West African coast. The virus is highly infectious and could kill within a very short interval. To curb the rapid spread of the virus, governments of affected countries were strongly advised to isolate those that were infected. This directly called for the erection of ISOLATION WARDS OR UNITS at designated places. This actually means that those who were confirmed as being infected by the virus had to stay together in one place outside those who are healthy.

Isolation can be a very harrowing and disgusting experience; in fact it could be devastating and dangerous. It involves one being separated from others on account of an identified challenge or lack. Another name for this is quarantine. Back to the issue of the Ebola attack. At the height of its scourge in Liberia for instance something medically horrifying happened. Some youths attacked one of the major isolation units and freed about 29 confirmed Ebola patients. They also took away some items like mattresses and other things used by the patients. This act that compromised medical ethics escalated the spread of the virus because those who were affected and isolated got mixed up with the healthy people.

Today in the First Reading (Lev.13:1-2.44-46) and in the Gospel Reading (Mark 1:40-45) we are presented with an illness similar to Ebola, namely Leprosy. The difference is that while Ebola is caused by one of the five strain of virus belonging to thne family of filoviridae that affects the organs causing internal and external bleeding; Leprosy on the other hand is caused by a bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae that affects the skin, nerves, limbs and eye.

Beginning with the Frist Reading we can see what can be described as a divine statement on leprosy. According to the recommendation given by God to Moses Aaron and his children (the priests) have the prerogative of declaring someone a leper after a close examination of the skin whereby the individual is also isolated from the community. The individual remains outside the camp until he or she receives healing which a priest also has to confirm.

The picture we have of the leper in the First Reading is not a good one at all. There we discover that the leper was meant to go through a very excruciating experience. Apart from the physical pain that could come from the illness, the individual also faces the psychological pain of isolation while outwardly bearing all the dehumanising stamps of one who is unfit to dwell with others who are free from the illness. The situation is also spiritually chastising as the leper has to go about crying: Unclean! Unclean!! A situation that is equal to one saying: “I am a sinner, I am a sinner!”

From what we have said above, it is easy to identify the connection between leprosy and sin. In fact during the time of Moses it was believed that whoever was infected by leprosy sinned in the first place. So sin could be said to be a precondition for leprosy which in turn necessitates isolation from the rest of the people.

Attentive to the foregoing, it comes out clearer that the real leprosy is sin, not just the spot on the skin. This thus becomes the tenable ground that brings about our isolation. Leprosy brings about spots on the skin causing discoloration and damages. In another but similar way, sin affects the soul causing spiritual discoloration and damage.

Added to these distortions, sin creates a barrier between us and God (Isaiah 59:2). This is where the isolation comes in. Sin has a way of taking us outside God’s camp as the lepers had to stay outside the camp of the Israelites. We become isolated when we are much concerned about our personal gains and satisfaction than doing the will of God. According to the Book of Proverbs (18:1) the man who isolates himself (from God) seeks his selfish desire and despises wise judgement.

Isolation from God is highly destructive and dangerous for a good number of reasons. When we are isolated from God we become vulnerable. When we are isolated from God we lose His graces and blessings. When we are isolated from God our lives become empty. Our Lord Jesus Christ made this clearer when in the Gospel of St. John (15:5) he said: “cut off from me you can do nothing”.

In the Gospel Reading today we are presented with a spectacular reversal of leprosy and isolation done by our Lord Jesus Christ. In the narrative we are told that a leper came to Jesus begging and kneeling said: “If you will, you can make me clean”. From this first scene we see the leper breaking the social norm or protocol which prevented lepers from having access to those who are not lepers. Oftentimes, some social norms and protocols stand between us and our goal or the point of our victory and we need to get above them.

Next, the man submitted his condition to our Lord Jesus Christ while believing in his ability when he said: “If you will, you can make me clean”. He was like saying if it pleases you make me clean because I know you can do so. The point here is the man’s steadfast trust in the power of our Lord Jesus Christ to change his situation. We can also observe that the man did not ask for healing but cleansing in the manner of David after his sin (Psalm 51:2). He was much concerned about his uncleanliness more than his illness. Here he went beyond his physical illness and asked for spiritual rebirth and by that he got everything, both healing and cleansing.

Now let us now look at the reaction of our Lord Jesus Christ to the request of the leper. We are told that he was first moved with pity. God is compassionate about our situan tions. God is not jubilant over our miseries and failures like some of us could be over the situations of others. God is rather compassionate and loving. David calls him God of mercy and compassion (Psalm 51:1). From this compassionate backdrop, our Lord Jesus Christ declared his readiness to assist the man and touching him he was cured and made clean.

Here we also see our Lord Jesus breaking the social norms and protocols in order to effect healing and cleansing. This is not the only place our Jesus Christ will break protocols in order to give a helping hand, we could recall the healing on the Sabbath day (Mark 3:1-6).

Finally, our Lord Jesus Christ asked the man to tell no one about what happened but to go and show himself to the priest. The man we are told went about announcing what happened to everyone. The leper made whole suddenly became a carrier of the good news without official commissioning. But those of us who are baptised and commissioned to spread the word prefer to stay silent.

Going back to our point of departure, the real leprosy is sin and the real isolation is being cut away from God. In our limitedness we often fall into sin and also get disconnected or isolated from God. The episode in the Gospel Reading is a pertinent assurance to us that there is a remedy of this situation and this can be found in Jesus Christ.

For the above to happen the person involved need to go come to Jesus Christ like in the case of the leper. Going to Jesus Christ will offer the individual the opportunity of being touched by the Lord and being reintegrated. If we remain unmoved our situation will not be moved. There were surely many lepers in their  settlement but one person decided to come to our Lord.

We also notice with interest the place of the priest in the entire drama. From the First Reading, the priest is the functionary that confirms one a leper, he also confirms one cleansed just as our Lord mentioned in the Gospel Reading today. This actually points to the sanctifying office of the priest. The priest stands between God and the people; appropriately called Alter Christus (another Christ).

By asking the leper to go to the priest our Lord Jesus Christ evidently confirms the work of the priest as the eye and mouthpiece of God. It is from this episode that we can gain a deeper understanding of the work of the priest in the sacrament of penance where individuals receive forgiveness for their sins and are reconciled with God after a period of sinfulness and isolation.

It is commonly said that prevention is better than cure. Hence for us to safeguard ourselves from the leprosy of sin and the isolation from God St. Paul in the Second Reading (1 Cor.10:31-11:1) advised us to do whatever we have to do to the glory of God. This is a very simple and productive formular. It involves constantly asking ourselves if what we are about to do will be to the glory of God or not.

As we launch into a brand new week let us be conscious of the leprosy of sin which has the capacity of bringing about our isolation from God. May God’s word be forever active in our souls. Happy Sunday.

Fr. Bonnie

(fatherbonny@hotmail.com)

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