A leper came to him and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean” (Mk 1:40).
The term of leprosy, used during the time of Jesus, was a more general way to describe various issues pertaining to the skin such as, open wounds, sores, skin flaking, as well as much more severe and chronic conditions. Today we use it more specifically to refer to Hansen’s disease, a chronic infectious disease caused by a rod-like bacterium named Mycobacterium leprae (PubMed Health).
Those dealing with such skin conditions were deemed as unclean. They were to live outside of their village, town, or city; wear ragged clothes, their hair needed to be unkempt. If anyone came close to them, they were to yell out that they were unclean, so there would be no chance of human contact. Lepers were exempt from any communal religious practice and the common opinion held was that those in this situation deserved it because of some sin that they committed. Those with chronic or recurring conditions could be in a state of exile for the entirety of their life. The experience was like a living death because they were being isolated from all societal interaction.
When Jesus comes within distance of the leper he is quite aware of the cultural and societal context. This leper does not keep his place, he does not follow the societal norms. Instead of warding off Jesus and urging him to keep his distance, he approaches Jesus and kneels before him. Jesus does not reprimand him, and he, like the leper, also does not follow social protocol: “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched the leper, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean'” (Mk 1:41).
The leper is healed at the moment of contact, his death sentence is commuted, his opportunity for worship and communal life is restored. This simple act of healing the leper is in fact a microcosm of the Jesus’ ministry. The Son of God, entered the human condition, became one of us and so experienced compassion time and again. He healed with his touch. In embracing our human condition, he provides the opportunity for restoring us from our exile, our separation, from God and one another.
Jesus the carpenter built and continues to build a bridge, a stairway to heaven. He invited and still invites us today to cross the wide chasm of our sin that separates us from his Father. In his willingness to touch the leper, Jesus was a living icon of how he, as the Son of God was willing to walk among us, accompany us, experience our pain, suffering, and separation, while offering us healing, so we in turn could become instruments of healing for one another.
We are to not shun those on the peripheries, nor, God forbid, are we to support social prejudices, injustices, and structures that isolate and exile others. We are called by Jesus to be open to walking in solidarity with our brothers and sisters. We need to be asking ourselves, who are the ones that are living on the peripheries among us today, those we push into positions of shouting unclean when we come near. What bridges can we build in our families, schools, work, and communities? May we be open to ways in which Jesus is inviting us to leave our protective shells, to risk going out to the margins with “a spirit of profound solidarity and compassion” (Pope Francis).