Images of Leprosy and Worse

[Homily for Sunday, February 12, 2012.]

At the risk of dating myself, may I know how many here remember the movie, “Ben Hur”?

I am glad that some of you do! “Ben Hur” is a movie that I saw when I was a kid. It was about a wealthy Jew in Palestine in the time of our Lord, Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) and his friend Messalah (Stephen Boyd), who eventually became local head of the occupying Roman forces. It is a story of friendship, friendship betrayed, and revenge. I remember: one dominant image of this movie is that of the great chariot race. The other prominent image is that of leprosy. Ben Hur’s mother, Miram, and his sister, Ester, contract leprosy. Among the most poignant of the scenes in the movie is that of the caves of disease, despair and death to which they as lepers are relegated. Cast out of regular society, they must live among the other lepers with all the horrors of swelling, blisters, boils, flesh decaying, and bodily extremities rotting away. How Ben Hur defies convention to communicate love and affection for his loved ones is among the more powerful scenes in the movie.

Only a Hollywood movie, of course! But for me, those scenes provided me my operative images of the horror of leprosy since my childhood. Leprosy of course was not only material for the big screen. Here in the Philippines, lepers were shunned, feared and cast away from society. For over a hundred years the Jesuits served the leper community of Culion among the Calamianes Islands of Palawan with the St. Paul sisters. Guest of our community now is Fr. Rudy Fernandez; he served the lepers of Tala Leprosarium in Novaliches for over twelve years. The lepers were ministered to. But because theirs was a dreaded disease, they were feared. And outcaste.

Our first reading from Leviticus is addressed to lepers. It was presumably Jewish society’s way of managing lepers. Lepers were to go to the priest. They were to be declared “unclean.” They were to tear their garments, and keep their heads uncovered; that is, they were to draw attention to their being different, their being sick.. They were themselves to warn people about themselves by calling out, “Unclean, unclean!” They were to be shunned in their sickness, considered incurable and contagious. They lived in self-loathing and despair.

This Sunday, our responsorial psalm (Ps. 32) provides the framework of our readings and announces the Good News. The response declares, “I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.”

“I turn to you in trouble, Lord, and you fill me with joy…” This is illustrated in our Gospel reading (Mk 1:40-45). The leper, suffering, turns to the Lord and says: “If you wish, you can make me clean.” The Lord responds with compassion. He stretches out his hand; he touches the untouchable. “Be made clean!” he commands. Immediately, the leper is made clean. He is cured. His joy cannot be contained. Despite Jesus’ appeal that he should not tell others, he spreads the news of the Lord’s goodness.

But our responsorial psalm, and for that matter the whole of Jesus’ preaching, insists that his curing is not just of physical ailments. Remember, when they let down the paralytic through the roof? Jesus first intervention was to forgive his sin. For us, there meanwhile may be a medical cure for leprosy. But no medical treatment can cure the malady of sin, which is objectively worse than leprosy. “Blessed is he whose fault is taken away, whose sin is covered” (Ps 32.1). The Lord’s cure is here however hinged on an admission of guilt. “When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer…” The admission is explicit and deliberate, hoping in the willingness of the Lord to forgive: “I acknowledge my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’; then you take away my guilt” (Ps. 32.3).

I confessed… It is like the leper, who in recognizing his illness, cries out, “Unclean! Unclean! I am unclean!” Only here, “confessed” means: I have stopped the rationalization, stopped the self-deceit, stopped the denial, and looked at my moral illness in the face. It is moral illness evidenced not in swelling and boils and decaying flesh, but in the persons I have wronged through my hard decisions, the persons I have cast out; evidenced in the characters I have assassinated in my chatter, the reputations I have ruined; evidenced in the wealth I have gathered and guarded, not necessarily in huge bank accounts whether peso or dollar, but possibly in my disordered relationship to my car, which for me had become more important than my personal relationships; or in my disordered relationship to my celfon, which for me had become more important than truth; or for me my disordered relationship to my secret credit card, which for me had become more important than my integrity. I was trapped in a rut. I could not help myself. So: “I turned to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you filled me with the joy of salvation.”

In the movie, Ben Hur, the lepers, Miriam and Ester, are cured. Today we can appreciate: that is not only Hollywood. That is our Gospel message: God responds to those who turn to him in distress. God cures. Not only the physically sick, but also the morally depraved. Nothing is impossible to God. “I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy. You fill me with the joy of salvation.”

Turned to the Lord, we have hope. In the Lord turned to us, we are grateful.

About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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