28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
When I was studying nursing, we learnt two kinds of isolation for patients. The first kind of isolation is when a patient is set apart because they are so vulnerable to getting bugs from other people that they might get a lot sicker. We can see this most of the time for cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy. Their immune system is so depressed that even catching a common cold could be fatal. The other kind of isolation is what we call “reverse isolation”. These people are being isolated not because of the fear that they may get infected by people who are visiting them but because they may infect other people. This is usually the case for patients who are suffering from contagious diseases like chicken pox, flu and other easily communicable diseases.
In biblical times, leprosy was almost a death sentence to anybody who was afflicted with it. Leprosy is a gruesome disease because it literally eats your flesh and victims can lose their nose, their ears and other body parts. However, what really makes this disease deadly is not its physical capability to make one ill but its social capability to isolate everyone who has leprosy to the community. In biblical times, one who had leprosy had to be isolated and so they were placed in communities that were far from everybody else. Nobody could visit them, not even their relatives and friends and much worse, they had to shout “unclean, unclean” to people who were coming near to them to make sure that they would keep their distance from those who have no leprosy. So we can see that the ravage of leprosy is not only physical but also social.
In the first reading, Naaman a Syrian, a Gentile went to the prophet Elisha and asked for a cure. Obviously, a person of stature like him could not afford to get leprosy because of the social stigma that is attached to it. Most probably, he would have sought out all possible treatments available in his day. And in desperation, he went to Elisha and once he got treated he gave the most grateful gesture from a Gentile; first he offered gifts but Elisha refused, second he considers himself as a servant, far from being the lord that he was in his community, and most important of all he gave up two mule-loads of earth meaning he had destroyed his personal temple used to worship his gods and told Elisha that he would no longer offer sacrifices and holocausts to any other god except to the Lord.
The gospel story is even more profound as Jesus encountered10 lepers. As he was travelling the boundary between Samaria and Galilee, he saw these 10 lepers, because the community marginalised lepers so they could only settle at the fringes. And as these lepers knew that it was Jesus, instead of shouting “unclean…unclean”, they shouted, “Jesus Master, have pity on us.” Then Jesus upon hearing them, went the way of protocol and kept his distance from the lepers. And yet Jesus didn’t let distance be a barrier for his healing power to touch these lepers. So Jesus simply let the lepers do a leap of faith and told t hem to do what the Law commands and that as soon as they get cured they should show themselves to the priest. So the challenge was to trust Jesus and go on their way to the priest and true enough as they were walking towards the town they realised that they were cured. For lepers to be told to go to a priest would be almost impossible. Not only can they not be close to people but even tougher is that it’s unthinkable for them as lepers to show themselves to the priest who would most probably shout at them and keep their distance. However, because they were healed, so the Law required that the priest should confirm their healing before they could officially re-join the mainstream of society.
And then the Samaritan who realised that he’d been healed went back and left the other nine and showed himself to Jesus and praised God for the healing that he received. And with that he received the ultimate healing. He got healed not only of his physical disease but also received spiritual salvation which sadly the other nine left out. For Jesus, complete healing occurs not only physically but also spiritually.
We can derive two questions that we should be asking ourselves. Even if leprosy is now rare and is easily curable, there are still people that are being put to the margins by society like victims of substance abuse, sex workers, etc. How is our attitude to these people? Are we also responsible for these? Are we willing to reach out to them like Jesus did? Secondly, are we also grateful like the Naaman in the first reading and the Samaritan in the gospel? Or are we also self-centred like the other nine lepers who after realising their healing didn’t even bother to thank God who made this healing possible? I hope we live our lives as a life of thanksgiving for all that God has given us.