When I visited India in the mid-1980s, I visited a leper colony run by the Missionaries of Charity. It was a good chance to learn about leprosy and understand the meaning of this horrible disease and why it features so significantly in the Scriptures.
The gospel stories always carry several levels of meaning, and this weekend’s stories of lepers being healed are no exception. Leprosy — or Hansen’s Disease — is in infection that damages the nerve endings in the extremities. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t cause fingers and toes to fall off.
Instead, the nerve endings are damaged and the extremities become numb. They are therefore likely to be damaged and wounded without pain. A leper can’t feel his fingers, feet and toes so when he stubs his toe, bashes his foot or hurts his hand, it can lead to amputation.
The social effects of leprosy have been terrible. Because the skin sores cause deformity and the damaged extremities are infectious, and because it was thought to be highly contagious, the leper was isolated from society—cut off from human contact, love and acceptance.
As such, leprosy is a perfect metaphor for sin. It starts as an invisible infection and then slowly dominates one’s life. It is invisible to start with, but eventually the person becomes deformed and ugly. Furthermore, the body becomes numb. Sin makes us numb to the abundance of life and we become dull and unfeeling. Sin also isolates us from others. Selfishness cuts us off from others and we end up alone with our addiction, alone with our sin, alone with our poor selves.
The healing that comes through forgiveness is not simply being let off for the bad things we’ve done, but forgiveness is always associated with healing because it is a dynamic force for restoration and reconciliation in our lives.
As the leper in the gospel is healed, the details are important. The leper is to report and show himself to the priest. This is a picture of the necessity of going to the priest for confession to receive the objective fact of absolution, forgiveness and healing. Furthermore, going to the priest is a picture of reconciliation with God but also reconciliation with the community of faith, the Church. The leper is no longer cast out and isolated, but restored to human society and to the Body of Christ.
Finally notice the responses to healing. Naaman in the Old Testament reading wants to give the prophet money. The rich man thinks the right response is to make a gift. Nine of the lepers healed by Jesus run off delighted with their healing, but forget the source of the healing.
Only one “gets it.” He stops and offers gratitude and thanks. He establishes a relationship with Christ the healer and so enters into the deepest level of reconciliation, renewal and relationship—the encounter with Christ the Healer.