lepers & life

Feb 12, 2012

I often think that we try to be Catholics today in an “Old Testament” kind of way. 

Let me clarify what I mean.

The people of the Old Testament did believe in one God (the opening of our Catholic Christian creed), but they did not consider God to be personal, present and tangible. 

These people of God knew that if they pleased and appeased God then they could expect to do well: their families would flourish and their harvests would be abundant. Their worship was real, but did not need expect to sense the reality and immanence of God. They did not expect to converse intimately with their God. (This was the domain of the ‘elect’: the priests and prophets.)  

Tragically much of this is the mind-set and experience of twenty-first century Christians.

So what is different about Christianity?

Let’s use today’s readings to help us reflect on this.

The Old Testament reading for this Sixth Sunday of the Year is taken from the book of Leviticus.  While this book might seem to the modern reader to contain strange and dated rules, it in fact provides a practical human-behaviour guide  (worship and daily life) for both priests and people.  

Some of today’s 13th chapter verses might seem a bit out-of date or unnecessary. But it is necessary in every age for the Church to communicate all that God has revealed as guidelines and boundaries for healthy happy human behaviour. This is what parents do for the children they love.

We now know that 95% of people were then (and are now) naturally immune to leprosy. Two thousand years ago little was known about the disease and people did keep their distance from lepers. Lepers were required (as we hear in the reading) to stay away from uninfected people, to dress in a distinctively dishevelled manner, and to move about calling out “unclean”.

Let’s jump ahead today’s Gospel reading.We know that the people kept their distance from lepers. But Jesus moves beyond the prescriptions and fears of the ‘old law’ and, “moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, and touched him.”  Jesus looks to the heart and knows that a physical disease (or a psychological or intellectual disability) is in fact not a real disease or deformity. 

Instead we are deformed and disabled and diseased when we fail to see the reality of the heart of a person. It is a deformed or disabled heart that should cause us to truly fear. Jesus would of course have noticed the physical state of those who were disfigured by disease. But he knew that this was nothing to fear. This was simply a skin for the deeper divine reality. 

Jesus looked to the heart.

When he did this he could see that there was no disability in the hearts of many of those feared by society. And in many who were considered ideal specimens of humanity, there was much to fear. Their hearts were astray and not at ease. They were truly diseased.

I saw real dis-ease and deformity in the supermarket in Hanmer Springs yesterday. Every cover on the magazine rack featured faces caked in cosmetics and bodies distorted by ‘beautification,’ extreme dieting and surgery. 

Surely the greatest distortion of the human person comes when we call such ‘artificial’ men and women “models”? 

It is a serious symptom of our societal disease when we encourage our young people to strive for such pretense. 

The most deadly symptom of our confusion occurs when we consider physical deformity (revealed in in-utero scans), to be grounds for termination of an infant human life.

Today’s readings challenges us to recognise what is superficial and artificial in human appearance and behaviour. Following the practice of Jesus we need to follow our deeper attraction to the heart of every human person.


Readings for Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time


  1. By chance John, I just read a sad blog post today where the sister of the writer has just found out at 20 weeks that she is carrying a baby that has severe deformity. http://friedchickenonsundays.blogspot.co.nz/2012/02/please-pray-for-baby-dominic.html
    The mother of the baby wrote: “I am so grateful for the time that I get to be your mother here on earth. I am grateful for the chance to be able to nourish you inside of me. Yesterday was such an active day for you inside my womb that it was a constant reminder of my being able to give you all the love that I can while you are with us. Yesterday the doctor had to ask if we would be continuing with the pregnancy and my first thought was “of course!” This is the only way I can love you right now is to give you a safe place to be nourished and cared for and I cannot imagine cutting the time I have with you off short.”

  2. Thanks for this – I cannot begin to imagine how difficult this would be – but it is significant that any loving human person would at least admire this mother’s love, and admire her commitment.


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