Would you consider yourself a leper? We use that term to mean several things. It could mean a person with Hansen’s disease, the brutal ailment that attacks nerves and limbs and causes deformity. It can also be a term for social marginalization, as in, “I’m a leper around here.”
The Scriptures today are all about leprosy and being healed from it. The first reading from Leviticus is part of the law that addresses tzaraath, which could be anything from bona fide leprosy to one of a variety of skin afflictions that were especially feared because they were thought to be contagious.
We learn in the first reading that if a priest deemed you afflicted, then you would tear your clothes, muss your hair and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” Our reading ends with the words, “He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” Having any kind of skin disease would have put a person in horrible circumstances. Adding insult to injury, skin diseases were also often regarded as a punishment for sin and elicited scorn more often than compassion.
The Gospel tells of a leper who approaches Jesus, kneels before him and begs to be healed. The leper violates the rules. Instead of warning all and staying away, he does the opposite. And Jesus, rather than showing disdain, is moved by great compassion. Then Jesus touches and thereby heals him. In this encounter Jesus makes himself “unclean” in order to heal the leper.
To us it is obvious that skin disease has nothing to do with sin and that, further, the alienation of those afflicted was both unnecessary and unwittingly cruel. But we may do well here to enter fully into the religious imagination of the text. So, even though I hope no one now associates skin disease with moral guilt, leprosy remains a good metaphor for the condition of sin. Sin renders the human condition ugly; it deforms us. A penetrating expression of the ugliness of sin in literature is Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Gray, in a kind of deal with the devil, maintains a healthy, fresh, un-aging profile, living a decadent life without showing the effects on his body. But Gray’s portrait magically changes to progressively reveal the state of Gray’s deteriorating soul. By the end of the story it shows a hideous monster.
Consider also Isaiah’s suffering servant, who becomes brutalized in taking on the sins of Israel: “So marred were his features…beyond that of human beings…. Yet it was our pain that he bore…crushed for our iniquity” (Is 52:14; 53:4-5). Our tradition sees Jesus’ passion as the complete fulfillment of this text. When we look at the cross, we see an icon of how sin brutalizes us. In the reading today, Jesus prefigures this dynamic by touching the leper and becoming “unclean” in order to cleanse him.
Sin also distances us from others and even from our own truest self. People recovering from addiction regularly reflect on how addictive behavior isolates the addict, who becomes increasingly imprisoned in empty gratifications and filled with shame. As the addictive behavior worsens, the addict grows more and more distant from family and friends, becoming a leper “outside the camp.” This is not simply a 12-step insight. Sin in general does this. It takes us from authentic communion with others to a deepening narcissism, while it numbs our moral horizons as surely as Hansen’s disease numbs nerves.
In one sense, all of us are suffering from the leprosy of sin. But that disease is not our truest self, our deepest nature. Our true nature is inherently beautiful, made in the divine image and likeness. This is what Jesus would restore. It will not do to stay outside the camp, enduring the silent scream of our inner shame: “Unclean, unclean.” We need the courage of the leper in the Gospel, unwilling to distance himself from the Lord and others. We would do well to come to Jesus, to seek his healing touch and hear his healing words: “I do will it. Be made clean.”
This is what confession is for.