Commentary by Fr Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
Jesus speaks and it is done. It is like the word of God at the beginning of creation: “Let there be light, and there was light.” His words are words of power, not commentaries and admonitions.
The ancient world was terrified of leprosy. By Jewish law the sufferer was isolated totally from society: “The leper…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 dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:45f). The law specified further than a leper had to keep a distance of two metres from other people, and if the other person was downwind from the leper the distance had to be fifty metres. No leper would ever have approached an orthodox rabbi, but the leper in this story approached Jesus confidently for help. This was exceptional, but even more exceptional was what followed: “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him….” That touch healed him – healed his disease, yes, but healed also his feeling that he not only had a disease but was a disease; it healed his isolation, his loneliness, his despair, his belief that he was cursed by God…. This is the God revealed by Jesus, a “Father of Mercies.”
By touching the leper, Jesus was defiled in the eyes of Levitical law. The leper broke the Law in approaching Jesus, and Jesus in turn broke through the Law to reach and touch the afflicted man. “For our sake,” wrote St Paul, “God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
In the minds of many people, somehow, the bad news has replaced the Good News. The bad news is that we would have to be good before we could approach the Lord. This is not the Gospel; it is the approximately the religion of the Pharisees. The good news is that we can approach the Lord no matter what our condition or circumstances. Our Faith is more than a system of morality or a set of admonitions on how we should be; it is Good News, for that is what the word ‘Gospel’ means. It is a revelation of God, “the Father of Mercies.” Jesus came to demonstrate what the Father is like. He could have behaved as a severe moral judge, condemning the sinful; in fact that was what was expected of a prophet. Instead he reached out in mercy to failures and outcasts. He could have invented any kind of parable to say what the Father was like; he invented the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). Jesus reaches out and welcomes sinners while they are still in their sin. He reaches out to the afflicted and heals them. Our prayer can therefore be very simple: “Lord, help me!” (Matthew 15:25).