Thank God I wasn’t a priest during the time of the Leviticus when priests, more or less, served as dermatologists who diagnosed skin diseases and decided who was to be banished to the leper colony or reinstated to the clean yard. Or maybe, I am—in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Sin is leprosy and incurs banishment from the divine territory. It strips us of sanctifying grace—like a burning candle blown out. A life of sin repels, but the grace of God restores. I know it’s only coincidental that “leper” when spelt backward is “repel;” yet, we can’t shirk the idea that sin and leprosy do exactly the same thing: they repel—the leper, from the community; the sinner, from union with God. I’m thankful, too, that most of my priesthood has been spent restoring people to divine friendship rather than repelling them from God. Yet, I possess only a minuscule fragment of the extraordinary attractiveness in Jesus who welcomed and related with the blind, the lame, the crippled, demoniacs, prostitutes, tax collectors, but also holy people like the Blessed Mother, Simeon and Anna, John the Baptist, etc. He crossed every line and related with all—good, bad, very bad and outcasts.
I can imagine that the streets of Galilee were empty at the time the leper of today’s Gospel made his way to Jesus, in violation of societal laws and norms, that lepers be quarantined. It wasn’t just for religious reasons, but also hygienic factors that lepers were discriminated against. In fact, in ancient times (or like current Coronavirus situation), leprosy was considered one of the most dreaded contagious diseases that could endanger entire communities. Therefore, in theocratic settings, religious edicts were promulgated to combat its spread. By a harsh religious edict signed by the high priest, a leper was declared unclean—in both body and soul—and necessarily banished. Should he by chance come around people, he’ll announce his presence by shouting “unclean, unclean” to give people enough time to take cover. Even when the leprosy is cured—and nobody cared how—the former leper would have to be signed off the leper colony, again, by a priest, after he shall have made an expensive ritual offering as evidence. Honestly, I’m baffled that Jesus would remind this leper—his patient—about that, and even require him to do it.
But the thrust of the story is that both Jesus and the leper crossed a line. The leper, weary of the segregation he and his fellows suffered, and in a move somewhat like that of the pioneers of the civil rights movement who broke unjust laws and sat on the reserved seats of the privileged [and colorless], went against the taboos, breaking the chains that held him in bondage. And he met his match in Jesus who came to do just that. With faith, courage, confidence, and trust, he makes his request: “If you will, you can make me clean.” Every quality of a good, powerful and sincere prayer is contained in the leper’s eight words. We find: faith, humility, submission to God’s will, hope and resignation. By requiring the leper (sinner) to meet the priest, Jesus establishes, in the new dispensation, the necessity to directly confess one’s sins to God through the intervention of the priest, in order to receive an assurance of God’s mercy.
This story isn’t just about one leper cured 2000 years ago. It’s my story and yours—if we’ll admit our frailty. Whenever we let sin pile up inside us, we become less attentive and begin to care less. Our sin turns into “who we are.” It shocks that, today, in place of seeking healing, cleansing and forgiveness, society institutes a “Pride-Parade” of sin and an alliance of “sin-mates” bound together in identity fascism. Hence, the sinner thinks that forming pressure groups would do for him what divine restoration promises in Jesus. Contrary to leaving the sin/leprous colony to encounter the merciful Jesus, today’s identity ideologues seek recluse in political shelters, from where they unleash a barrage of vile and hedonistic infamy against God. In a sense, today’s leper rather than seek Jesus for healing hugs sin and invites the enemy for a deluded conviviality that celebrates rather than cures leprosy (sin). But the consolation of our faith is that Jesus constantly seeks the encounter that would restore and make us whole.
Fr. Chukwudi Jo Okonkwo