Leprosy? Didn’t We Solve That Problem?

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) – February 14, 2021

St. Mary – Derby, KS

Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46; Psalm 32:1-2, 5, 11; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45

The Issue of Leprosy: The Power of Sin

I think we have all heard of leprosy once or twice. I remember growing up, as a kid, that whenever I’d hear these stories about Jesus and lepers and such, and then I’d have someone explain to me what leprosy is, it would terrify me. Because, they would tell me all about leprosy—fingers and toes and limbs falling off—they’d tell me that, but they would never tell me that we’ve figured out how to treat it. I was always just terrified that I was going to get leprosy or something.

But, I think until COVID, until the Coronavirus, none of us really appreciated or had a full grasp of what this whole “leprosy” business was all about. Because the two are incredibly similar, COVID and leprosy; it’s actually kind of scary how similar the two are. Especially before this whole vaccine business, our situation with COVID and the situation of leprosy—super similar.

For example: (1) COVID damages your taste and smell, vital organs and such; leprosy damages your central nervous system and the largest organ of your body, your skin. (2) COVID demands social isolation; you have to quarantine yourself. Leprosy too; you’re forced out of the community, away from everyone else. (3) COVID, you gotta cover up, wear a mask (two masks now, I guess the CDC says). Leprosy, you had to cover yourself up, too. (4) If you get COVID, you have to tell all these people that you have it. Leprosy, we heard in our first reading, you have to go around shouting, “Unclean! Unclean!” (5) With COVID, when you finally get over it that’s great, but then you have to prove that you’re over it, go symptomless for so long. And with leprosy, if you’re cured, the priests have to verify it—that’s why Jesus tells this guy to go show himself to the priest. (6) And my favorite: both COVID and leprosy are spread how? Through airborne water droplets. Creepy.

So why is leprosy such a big deal in scripture? Leprosy, and most sicknesses in scripture, are symbols of Sin, the corrosive and diseased nature of Sin. It shows that Sin is a contagion throughout the world. I talked about that a few weeks ago: Sin is this contagion, Sin spreads like a disease. Sins are bad things we do, yeah. But Sin is a disease. Think of the Coronavirus map: clean, clean, nothing, BAM! Just got covered in red and disease and death! Exact same thing with Sin.

Overcoming Sin: Levitical Purity vs. Ezekiel’s Vision

And I’ve heard the objections: “Yeah Father, I’m not perfect. But I’m a good person.” I’m a good person. This is what we try to tell ourselves to convince ourselves that we’re the exception, that we’re not affected by the disease of Sin, that we’re not like a “leper.”

And I understand what most people mean. I mean, most of us here are probably not murdering people, we’re not philandering about, we’re not stealing money and property, or disrespecting our parents. We’re here trying to love God, keeping the Lord’s Day holy. And that’s good. Yeah, you’re “good people.”

But what I’m talking about is the disease, the “leprosy.” (1) I’m talking about the things we do that damage us, that we use to numb ourselves out from reality: porn, sex, our smartphones and tablets, the barrage of media and sports, the ideology we consume through any talking head on a podcast or cable news. (2) I’m talking about the isolation we put ourselves in by our own self-absorption, where “me, myself and I” are the most important things in my life; that nagging inability to be happy with ourselves, and so this self-hatred becomes an obsession with “self-improvement” or “loving myself.” (3) I’m talking about how we cover ourselves up from others, how we build walls around ourselves and don’t let people see the real us, and we don’t let even the Lord see us; how we’re so unhappy with our lives that we can only focus on how we wish our life was different. This is the disease of Sin, the “leprosy” we have.

The people of Israel, our ancestors in the faith—they knew this. And they tried to fix the problem, they tried to overcome Sin on their own. There were all of those famous—or should I say infamous—laws and rules about holiness and purity, like we find throughout the book of Leviticus (that’s what our first reading is talking about today). And these laws about purity were not simply about matters of chastity. They were all about the ways to keep oneself ritually pure so that you could approach God. Leviticus is full of laws and rules about washings, and not touching dead animals, and bodily fluids, skin diseases, and so on and so forth. And those sound so strange and cultic and rigid to us! But why did they exist? Because the people felt this condition of Sin that tainted them, and these laws were so that people could be sure they were ritually pure and clean and disease free and “holy,” so that they could approach God in the Temple, in worship. Leviticus is full of all of these ways you can make yourself pure, so that you can go to the holy place, approach God’s presence.

But that didn’t work. It didn’t. No matter how many rules and guidelines and advice the people had, it didn’t fix the problem. The disease of Sin was still around.

About this time, the prophets show up. And the prophets were these people that were anointed by God’s Spirit, they were empowered by this Spirit to see things as God saw them. And they saw this problem of Sin, but they also envisioned what was going to happen. For example, the prophet Ezekiel had this crazy vision where he sees water trickling out of the Temple. And then this water becomes a stream. And then it becomes a deep river flowing throughout the desert, until it reaches the Dead Sea and even makes the salty water of the Dead Sea fresh enough for it to be full of fish and life. This water flows out of the Temple and heals the earth and all of creation, makes everything come to life.

In other words, Ezekiel’s vision is that instead of us trying to become pure and perfect, and then we can go to God’s presence in the Temple, then we can be renewed and strengthened—instead, Ezekiel has this vision where God’s presence comes out of the Temple and makes us pure and holy, it comes to heal and build us up.

Jesus: Empowered by the Spirit, “Works of Power” & Water Streaming Out

And no one had any clue what this meant or what this would look like until this random Jesus guy shows up from Nazareth. This Jesus, we’re told, when he enters into the river of the Jordan to be baptized, this same Spirit comes down upon him, empowering him, anointing him. Jesus tells people that he is the fulfillment of all of these prophecies: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…he has anointed me to preach good news…to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (c.f., Luke 4:18-19).

And then he goes around healing people. Why? Why does Jesus heal people? Why does Jesus feel this need to go around and heal people? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not to go around saying, “Ta-da! I’m God!” No, that’s not it. In the Gospel of Mark, the word we translate as “miracle” or “signs and wonders”—the word Mark uses to describe these actions literally means, “works of power” (δυνάμεις c.f., Mark 6:2). In other words, these healings and such aren’t to prove that Jesus is God, or to attract people’s attention, no. They are “works of power,” they are proof of the power at work in and through Jesus. They are works that show the presence and power of the Spirit, of God’s own presence.

Jesus is this new Temple, and out of him flows this stream of living water, water that heals and purifies and renews everything it touches.

Again, how does Jesus heal people? He does it by touching them. Jesus doesn’t need to touch people to heal them. Jesus should probably just cut the theatrics. But why does he touch them? It’s to show that while Jesus should become impure by touching them, while Jesus should contract this disease by getting in close contact with them, what happens instead is the exact opposite: these people are made whole, they’re clean, they’re cleansed, they’re healed of this disease.

Baptism & Confirmation: We Become God’s Temple, Empowered, Streams

And so Jesus describes himself and his followers as God’s new Temple, so that though them God’s holy presence would go out into the world and bring life and healing and hope. And that’s why Jesus describes his followers as having streams of living water flowing out of them.

In Baptism and Confirmation, we enter into this dynamic. The waters of Baptism put our old self to death, they cleanse and heal and purify us. In Confirmation we are strengthened and empowered, anointed with the exact same Spirit that empowered Jesus. And we becomes these Temples of God’s presence throughout the world, with streams of living water flowing out from us to renew the world.

In other words, our life becomes mission. Our “job” as Christians, the “work” we do, the “mission” we have isn’t to avoid certain sins, or to ascribe to a certain political agenda or set of values. Those have their place, yeah. But our “job,” our mission in life, first and foremost, before all else, is to be the living embodiment of the Temple of God, the living embodiment of Jesus Christ—we house the holy presence of God himself, and carry that out into the world, wherever we go.

Whenever we hear all this talk about evangelization, and our need to evangelize and spread the good news, this is what it means. It doesn’t mean getting on Facebook and trolling other people’s political opinions with “Catholic” ones. It doesn’t mean teaching people what’s right and wrong—that’s teaching. It means embodying the holy presence of God wherever you are, by living life differently because of who you are as someone who is baptized and confirmed; allowing streams of living water to flow out from you into your home, and your family, into the place you work and wherever you find yourself.

This can seem scary, but again, I’m not telling you to go out and stop everyone you see at Dillons, or to get on your soap box on Facebook, no. This can be done very quietly and meekly. It can be done by reaching out to someone in forgiveness, healing a relationship. St. Paul says that when the Spirit of God comes upon us, anoints us, we are empowered not simply to be “good people” or to “not sin,” no. When we are anointed, the fruits of the Spirit start to grow in us: joy and peace, goodness and kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). People like that? People like that are a sight to behold, they renew the earth, they bring healing and hope.

As we celebrate this Eucharist, this sacrament of Jesus’ passion, death, resurrection and ascension—recall how when he died, and the soldier pierced his side, it wasn’t just blood that flowed from his side, but a stream of water as well. Jesus’ death is also a fountain of life. And here in this sacrament, just as we are allowed to share in offering our life to the Father, we are also given a share in the new life, the restored life that comes from it.

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