There is a story, it may be apocryphal, about an upper class lady in Oxford who attended mass soon after the new ruling about the kiss of peace was introduced after Vatican II. When someone turned to her to shake her hand she withdrew rather affronted and said ‘I do not believe we have been introduced.’
Crossing social barriers can be dangerous. We see this today in the Gospel when Jesus meets a leper. Leviticus laid down strict rules for dealing with contagious diseases like leprosy. They were harsh but necessary. The leper must be isolated from society and his loved ones until there was a cure. Jesus himself seems to have recognised that it was necessary to have official priestly procedures to monitor the state of the illness. Leprosy struck the healthy with terror just as Aids and Ebola have in recent times. Isolation wards are essential and the victim must not be touched by unprotected human contact.
The Gospel reveals the desperation of this leper and the huge risk he and Jesus were taking in crossing a profound social gulf. The reading from Mark emphasises this. Notice how the leper approaches, pleads, falls to his knees and begs to be healed. He is desperate. Jesus could have just spoken a healing word, he could have raised his hand to bless, without making any bodily human contact. But notice how Jesus’s gesture of touch is stressed: he stretched out his hand and touched the leper. And immediately he is healed.
Why does Jesus insist on touching him and what is the significance of this miracle? The reason for touch is simple. Jesus touched him ‘out of compassion’. He was able to sympathise with the suffering of the leper so that he willed to bring him out of his isolation. So many of Jesus’ miracles involve touch because it expresses powerfully the way the loneliness which comes with illness and stigma is overcome.
Jesus has announced the presence of the Kingdom of God in his ministry. When he exorcises the unclean spirits he is pushing back Satan’s kingdom in a very dramatic way. The leper symbolises the isolation and alienation which many who have been made outsiders experience in a hostile society. The healing is certainly dramatic but it dwells less on the sensational than on the leper who is healed and who can now return to the normal. He is restored to himself and given back to his loved ones. It is a sign of God’s kingdom which through Jesus defeats the forces of evil and so breaks through the rigid barriers which a society can set up to protect itself against the outsider.
St Paul speaks in the second reading of respecting both Jews and Greeks. He knew too well how they could hate and stigmatise each other. But the isolating barriers which kept them apart were finally overcome through the death of Christ. St Paul fought hard for the unity of the communities he founded because he saw in that amazing the new unity in the Church of Jew and Gentile a witness to the power of Christ’s resurrection.
Leprosy can still act as a powerful symbol for the isolation which many experience in a society which stigmatises people who suffer from frightening illnesses or who are in some way seen as marginal. Even in the church we can reflect the rigid barriers of colour, class and race which society imposes and we react with fear and prejudice.
A Jesus who makes God’ rule present when he reaches out and touches lepers and restores them to health and to family is a powerful challenge to the contemporary church. In a society which is becoming increasingly lonely and isolated, despite the claims of the social media, the Church is called to be what it should, a community where Jew and Gentile coexist and where the lonely, the isolated and today’s ‘lepers’ and untouchables can find a home and a helping hand which is stretched out to them in welcome.