And a leper came to him beseeching him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. And he sternly charged him, and sent him away at once,and said to him, “See that you say nothing to any one; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to the people.” But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
My favorite abbey homilist, Fr. James Flint, O.S.B. made an interesting point about this passage that’s had me chewing on it for the last 24 hours. Among other things, he suggested that Jesus did a bit of a role reversal with the leper. At first, I was confused by this, but now I think I get it. Let me see if I can explain.
When taken together with the first reading from Leviticus chapter 13, we see a spiritual allusion to man’s sinful condition. Here are the key verses (Lev. 13:44-46 RSV):
…he is a leprous man, he is unclean; the priest must pronounce him unclean; his disease is on his head. “The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp.
Sin is spiritual leprosy. It leaves an ugly, debilitating mark on us that we are powerless to erase. Sin leaves us cut off from the “camp of God” forcing us to go about in mourning, beating our breasts and calling, “Unclean! Unclean!”
The man in the gospel shows great faith and even greater boldness in approaching Jesus to ask for healing. No leper would dare approach a town for fear of being stoned or driven away. Nevertheless, this man, upon seeing Jesus, also saw his salvation. All fear was banished and his need was met.
So overjoyed was he at being healed that he—against Jesus’ explicit instructions to the contrary—told everyone round about. Now, this is where the role reversal comes in to play. So great was the outcry, that Jesus was obliged to stay outside in deserted places because he could no longer freely enter the towns for all the crowds.
Earlier in this same gospel chapter, Jesus had just finished telling his disciples that he must go and preach in all the towns, but because of this healing, the people had to seek him out instead.
The outcast, the leper, is restored to the community, while his healer is forced to stay without. This is where the penny dropped for me: Jesus was willing to trade places with the leper that he might be restored.
Jesus willingly shares our exile too so that we may be restored.
The effacing mark of sin is erased from our soul by the very same Jesus. A Savior who doesn’t recoil in horror at the sight of us, who doesn’t turn away to shun us, who doesn’t cast stones. In fact, he calls us to the deserted places to find him in prayer, to approach boldly, and ask for our healing.
“If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I will; be clean.”
This Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent in the west. For those who receive the mark of ashes, let it remind us of the stain that only God can remove and that it is His everlasting will to do so!