The illness of leprosy, which we hear about so often in the bible, is still around today. We know it as Hansen’s disease, but it was certainly much more prevalent in the time of the scriptures. As a matter of fact, leprosy is mentioned 68 times in the bible (55 times in the Old Testament and 13 times in the New Testament.) Clearly leprosy was not a rare occurrence.
Leprosy was a plague that meant literal death for whoever had it. For while it is treatable in the modern age, in biblical times the illness would cause a tumor like growth to develop on the skin and over time the person would lose the ability to sense pain. Really the only treatment, if you can call it that, was a dog licking the sores to bring some comfort. Finally, the disease would progress to the point that you couldn’t feel. There are even accounts of people burning their hands because they have no idea, they are touching something hot. Yet, for all of the physical pains, the social pains were much greater. It was spread either through air droplets or by touch (sounds familiar in the COVID era) the idea of social distancing that we are experiencing now isn’t new. Since it spread so easily, a leper was cast out of town, as we heard in the first reading. The leper was not allowed to have contact with healthy people. They had to wear certain clothes, keep distant from people, wear a special bell so people could hear you coming from afar and if you came too close to someone who wasn’t sick you had to cry out “unclean … unclear” so people would stay away from you. Ultimately, lepers found themselves living in caves and tents left alone in their own misery and suffering.
This why today’s gospel is so shocking. It shocking on the part of the leper and on the part of Jesus. The leper just comes right up to Jesus and kneels down before Him. He ignores all of the social norms. He doesn’t cry out unclean, nor does he try to avoid Jesus. Likewise, Jesus doesn’t go out of His way to avoid the leper, rather He allows the leper to come to Him. And what happens? The leper with that basic humility falls to his knees and says “Lord if you will it you can make me clean.” Of course, Jesus wills and so He makes him clean and tells the leper to go and show himself to the priest. Why? Well we heard about it in our first reading. Thee priest was the one who was supposed to look at the sore and decide that it was leprosy. So, in going to show Himself to the priest, he was going show that he had been cured and could be welcomed back into the community.
When we hear today’s Gospel story, I think we have to ask ourselves, what is my leprosy. What is my spiritual leprosy that is keeping me from Jesus? Are there things in my life that are keeping me as an outcast and are keeping me separated either from the community or my relationship with Jesus Christ. Let’s be honest, we all have them it’s called sin. Each and every one of us have different habits of sin, but all of us have it. None of us are perfect and none of us will be until we get to heaven. But do we have the humility to be like the leper in today’s gospel to come before Jesus and say “Lord if you will you can make me clean.” To have the humility to acknowledge our faults, to acknowledge our failings and to say Jesus you are the one who can restore my life.
Friends on Wednesday we start the season of Lent. For 40 days you and I have that opportunity to come before Jesus and say “Lord make me clean. Lord bring healing and wholeness into my life.” But if we are going to do that, we first have to identify what the leprosy is in our own lives.
How then 2,000 years later and half way around the world, do we fall at the feel of Jesus and ask to be made clean? We are given a hint in today’s gospel. What does Jesus tell the leper in the gospel to do once he is healed? “Go show yourself to the priest.” That same command is given to each and every one of us in the sacrament of confession. “Go show yourself to the priest.”
Now I get it, confession isn’t that popular. I have a lot of friends who ask why they can’t just tell Jesus they are sorry. We should! The second we fall into sin we should turn to God and tell Him we are sorry. But the best reason I have for the sacrament of confession is because Jesus told us to do it and that should be enough for us. Remember back to Easter Sunday. This is Jesus first appearance to the apostles after 10 of the 11 ran to the hills and abandoned Him on the cross. He comes into the upper room and what are is the first word out of His mouth? Peace. He understood that they had failed Him, that they had fallen into sin and the first thing He does is extends His peace to them. But Jesus knows that all of us throughout human history will fall short and He wants us to have that peace. So, what does He do after He extends His peace to His apostles? He tells them “whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.” He gives them the power to forgive sins. Now we don’t give people power unless we expect them to use it. So, the fact that Jesus was willing to give this power to His apostles means that He wants us to come and to experience it.
But there is another reason. Remember the leper in today’s gospel? He is separated from the community. There is no sin that effects only us and God. Any sin we commit affects others as well and so it is not enough to tell God we are sorry. That is the first step, but we need to apologize to the community as well. Fortunately, we don’t have to get up here at the beginning of Mass and tell everyone our sins, although in the early Church confession was done publicly. No, we can show ourself to the representative of the community, the priest and ask for that healing, mercy and forgiveness.
Today’s gospel shows us how to find right relationship with Jesus Christ and the community. It is a very simple command “go show yourself to the priest.” So, as we prepare for this season of lent, I think we have to honestly acknowledge within ourselves what is that spiritual leprosy in my life. What are those things that are keeping me from relationship with God and relationship with the community? Then we have to have the humility to fall on our knees before Jesus and ask Him to make us clean trusting that He will. I can’t tell you how God will work in your life when you come to confession, but I can assure He will bring you wholeness and healing.
There is a modern saint, St. Damian of Molikai, a Catholic priest who realize there was a leper colony on an island and those poor lepers didn’t have contact with other human beings and so couldn’t go to confession. So, he sacrificed his life to live with them. He got off the boat and lived on the island knowing that he would contract leprosy so that they could have the opportunity for the sacrament of confession. Of course, he knew that he too was a sinner and so every so often he would make sure a boat would pass with a priest on it and he had the courage to shout his sins across the ocean so that even he could receive the sacrament.
My friends it is life changing. Every encounter with Jesus is life changing and so as you prepare for lent I’ll leave you with those two questions. What is that spiritual leprosy in my life and do I have the humility to be like the leper in today’s gospel and leave social norms behind to fall at the feet of Jesus asking Him to make me clean.
 John 20:23