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 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 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 isolated from all societal interaction.
When Jesus comes near to the leper, both were well aware of the cultural and societal requirements dictating that each one was to keep their distance. The leper does not follow the societal norms. Instead of warding off Jesus and urging him to stay away, he approaches Jesus and kneels before him. Jesus does not reprimand him, and he, like the leper, 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 in today’s Gospel is, in fact, a microcosm of Jesus’ ministry and mission. The Son of God, in embracing our human condition, provides the opportunity for restoring us also from our exile, our separation, from God and one another.
Jesus the carpenter in the humanity he assumed, became a bridge, a stairway to heaven, that provides us a way to cross the wide chasm separating us from his Father. In his willingness to touch the leper, Jesus became a living icon showing how he as the Son of God was willing to draw close to us as well. He was willing to walk among us, accompany us, experience our pain, suffering, and separation, becoming one with us in our humanity so that he could offer us forgiveness, reconciliation, and communion so we can become one with him in his divinity and 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 aware of the ones that are socially kept at arm’s length, those we force into positions of shouting, “Unclean!” when we come near. What bridges can we build in our families, schools, work, and communities? Jesus is inviting us to risk, to go out to the margins and in the words of Pope Francis to go with “a spirit of profound solidarity and compassion.”