Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson visited the island of Molokai in the nineteenth century. At that time he encountered many who were suffering from leprosy. A cure had yet to be discovered. When he visited the leper colony at Molokai he was shocked and questioned God’s existence. He met people who were still able to breathe, think and remember but their bodies were badly disfigured. Robert Louis Stevenson would have probably given in to depression except for the fact that he had met Fr. Damien De Veuster and had seen him at work on the island. He was touched by his compassion and rightly predicted that one day Fr. Damien would be made a Saint in the Church. Fr Damien carried on his work regardless despite the fact that it put him at odds with the authorities.
In the Old Testament (Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46) people with leprosy were declared unclean and had to live outside the community. This remained up until and including the time of Jesus. Therefore the man with leprosy who approaches Jesus in today’s Gospel (Mark 1:39-45) violated the religious customs of his day by approaching a person who was clean. The man’s request was certainly a confident one. He believed that Jesus could heal him if he wanted to. However his words could also be interpreted as a challenge to Jesus to see how far he was willing to extend himself in order to heal someone. By using touch to heal the man Jesus also violated social norms. This is an important sign in the depth of Jesus’ compassion for the man. His actions here may also explain why Jesus subsequently found it so difficult to move around freely.
As a Church we want to care for those who are neglected by the majority. The challenge is giving into the temptation of avoiding any possible repercussions. This either results in us either failing to take any action at all or limiting our action to something that only looks good for the sake of appearances. The stance that Jesus takes tells us if we really want to heal others then we must be willing to allow ourselves to be touched by them even if it means putting ourselves at odds with others? Fr. Damien was willing to take the risk. Are we?
The people who nobody wanted were very dear to the heart of Jesus. If Jesus was here today who would he reach out to? I believe it would be prisoners and their families, the elderly who receive no visitors, prostitutes, victims of AIDS and those who are homeless, to name just a few. We are called to follow the example of Jesus and reach out to the ‘”lepers” of today’s world.