I always found the biblical stories about the lepers amazing because of two things. According to the Jewish law, lepers were required to live in isolation. Once isolated, they could not go near the community; they could not touch or be near anyone in the community. So it is amazing that the lepers sought out Jesus and came within an unlawful distance from him. A distance so close they could speak to him without shouting. The second amazing thing is that Jesus not only allowed them to be that close to him and his disciples but he touched them.
Either of those two things would have caused an outcry from onlookers. These were laws that the people did not take casually. A leper was an outcast and no one would go near them until their condition was resolved. Yet we know lepers sought to be touched by Jesus more than once in the scriptures. I believe as we approach Lent there is a larger message for us in these stories and it is not about the law. It is message about those we have judged to be unworthy to be in our presence. Those intentional willful actions we take to isolate others from our lives. The denial to others the one thing they need most in their lives – to be included. But exclusion of others is a common occurrence within families, with once close friends, with co-workers and even within our community of faith.
You know as well as I do that either by design or inadvertently we do hurt one another. You know as well as I do, that often that hurt causes deep and significant divisions between individuals who were once very close. So we will shun them, or them us. Weeks, months and yes years go by without ever attempting to heal the hurt that separated us initially. Yet we continue to come to church each week and ask for God’s mercy for our own failings. Don’t we ever hear ourselves when we ask God to forgive us for what we have done or failed to do? Does it not register when we pray “forgive us our trespasses as we have forgiven those who trespass against us?” Don’t we ever consider the pain of isolation caused by not forgiving those who have hurt us or for the times we hurt them?
I do know somethings are hard to forgive. Unfaithfulness, abuse, abandonment are just a few. We may have tried and finally just quit trying to be reconciled and write the other person out of our life. We need to understand forgiveness has more to do with our relationship with God than the other person. We must forgive first and have our own hearts healed because God requires it of us – forgive as I have forgiven you. This topic of forgiveness is way too complex to cover in a homily or in one presentation; I have actually developed an entire retreat on this topic, so if you are ever want to hear the full version go to a forgiveness retreat when it is offered. But let me just tie forgiveness in with the gospel and with Lent as it approaches.
In the scriptures God has told us more than once, that it is “not sacrifice” he wants but it is our hearts. So instead of doing some ministry, some spiritual exercise or denying ourselves something this lent; make it a point to reach out to that individual that is the leper in your relationships. This lent let us do something that heals the wound. Instead of waiting for some miracle to change them, let us become the one who opens the door for the miracle.
Earlier I mentioned separation from the community of faith. One mark of being a disciple of Christ is that we do as he did. We give drink to the thirsty; feed the hungry; clothe the naked; visit the lonely and imprisoned; and welcome the stranger (Mt. 25:37-39). As a community, we often do a great job feeding the hungry and visiting those who are homebound and in hospitals. But we fail to understand the importance of welcoming the stranger. We start our liturgical celebration by announcing how glad we are to have visitors. Then we ignore new parishioners when they join our community. We are just so comfortable with the friendships we have formed; with the routine of who we talk with, who we join after mass or while attending church events. While we are engrossed in our own little circles, we ignore the stranger in our midst.
We fail to make room for those who are new to join us. We fail to invite them to sit with us even if it means we abandon our friends at that moment. We fail to find out what their interests are so we can help them find a place to serve. I wonder what would happen if at every activity in the parish we would make an attempt to invite the newest parishioner(s) to join us. Let our usual group know it is more important to reach out to those who are new in our community than it is to be with them. Each time we fail to help those new among us we have made a decision to isolate them. This isolation is painful to the one outside looking to belong to our community. Our ignoring them is an act that declares them “unworthy” of being in our presence.
The story of the lepers is a lesson about how we treat others. Let us examine our relationships and see who it is that we treat as lepers. Then hear the words of this gospel – “If you wish you can make me (part of your community) – our response is to be that of Jesus) of course I will it… and reach out to them.