Mike walked into a post office just before Valentine’s day, he couldn’t help noticing a middle-aged, balding man standing in a corner sticking “Love” stamps on bright pink envelopes with hearts all over them. Then the man got out a bottle of Channel perfume from his pocket and started spraying scent over the envelopes. By now Mike’s curiosity had got the better of him, and so I asked the man why he was sending all those cards. The man replied, “I’m sending out 500 Valentine cards signed, ‘Guess who?'” “But why?” asked Mike. “I’m a divorce lawyer,” the man replied. What did the stamp say to the envelope? I’m stuck on you. I wish you all a Happy Valentine’s day. Jesus wants us all on this day to be compassionate towards every human being.
Martin was a young soldier in the Roman army. Elegantly dressed, he was mounted on his horse one day when he was approached by a leper begging for alms. The sight and the stench of rotting flesh, was so repulsive to the sensitivities of young Martin that his first instincts were to ride off on his horse. But something inside him made his walk up to the beggar. Since all he had was his military coat, he cut it in two and gave half to the leper while he wrapped himself with the other half. It was a very cold winter day. That night in his dream he saw Christ clothed in a half coat saying to the angels around his throne, “Martin has clothed me with his garment.” This event was the turning point in the life of him who was to become St Martin of Tours.
The natural revolt of Martin before leprosy is nothing compared with the ancient Hebrew attitude to leprosy. To the Hebrews leprosy was not only a most dreaded natural disease; it was also popularly seen as divine chastisement. In Jesus’ day, a leper had no right either to medical care or to other kinds of help from the community. In addition, the Book of Leviticus 13.1-2, 44-46 demanded that lepers wear the tattered clothes and uncombed, uncut hair of mourners. When meeting any “sound” person a leper had to cover his mouth with one hand and shout out a warning of his/her own “unclean” condition. Lepers were taken away from their families and forced to live in leper colonies or in caves outside the city to live like an animal, without rights or privileges.
Jesus could have been angered by the blasphemous religious explanation of the day that all leprosy was God’s punishment for grave sins. He might well have been revolted by the whole notion that lepers were sinners beyond God’s embrace. That might be precisely why He healed the leper by “stretching out his hands, touching” the legally untouchable.
According to some Fathers of the Church, one reason Jesus promptly responded to the leper’s cry in today’s Gospel story, ignoring the Mosaic Law prohibiting touching a leper and thus becoming ritually unclean, is that he identified himself with the man’s condition. Jesus dramatically identified himself with the sufferer in the total rejection and isolation waiting for him. The irony here is that Jesus risked becoming “unclean” Himself in order to make the leper clean.
Just as he stretched out his hand to the leper and touched him and made him whole, Jesus stretched out his hands on the cross to make us whole. He touched the leper, thus bridging the gap between what is clean and what is unclean, identifying himself with all lepers, with all who are ritually or socially unclean and isolated and with all of us sinners who are spiritually unclean and have no way to change our condition except through His sacrifice and mercy. Thus, He became “unclean” in the eyes of the law that we might be made clean. He allowed himself to be rejected by his family and people so that those who are separated from God might return to him and be healed.
By reaching out and touching the leper and thereby making him pure again, Jesus is teaching us, his followers, to reach out and embrace the dehumanized and the outcasts among us. A deed of solidarity with the dehumanized does not dehumanize the doer, rather it restores full humanity to the dehumanized.
Pope John Paul II has declared February 11, feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, as the World Day of the Sick. Leprosy, thank God, has become a curable disease. Yet the tendency to see some diseases as divine punishment and to banish those who suffer from them is still with us. Is this not how many of us still see people with HIV-AIDS? Have you not heard tele-evangelists who teach that AIDS is divine punishment for sin? Jesus challenges us today to abandon such dehumanizing beliefs and reach out in solidarity with these modern-day lepers among us, just as he himself did in his own days.