The Jews of Jesus’ day were mindful of the divine command to “be holy as the Lord your God is holy.” (Lev 19:2)
Holiness encompassed many qualities, including bodily wholeness and integrity.
Anyone with physical imperfections was clearly not holy as the Lord is holy.
For them, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” was a lot more than a catchy slogan.
This was an issue for the poor leper: whatever the skin disease, he was “dirty,” “impure,” not whole, and could not approach God – and worse yet, anyone else who touched him would also be “impure.”
His leprosy wasn’t “catchy,” medically, and people knew it – but in their mind, it was “dirty,” and that was contagious.
Many, many things could cause ritual impurity, which meant that you could not participate in the communal worship, or the communal life of your people.
You would become impure by touching a corpse, a leper, a woman during her period – or even touching something the above named people touched.
Pigs and certain other animals and fish were also out of bounds; Dogs were off limits, too, I believe.
Jesus’ culture was incredibly communally focused; people were very gregarious and social, and everyone knew everyone else’s business.
To be ordered to live outside the camp was a serious situation for any member; so even lepers would congregate together – like the ten who petition Jesus for healing in the Gospel of Luke.
Any company was better than no company at all.
Fortunately, we Christians have moved beyond such concern about ritual impurity.
So if you have psoriasis, or excema; if you went to a party at your unchurched Greek neighbor’s house, if a plump juicy pork chop touched your lips – you don’t have to show yourself to me or any other priest to be declared “clean.”
However, just this week during daily Mass we heard Jesus say to his disciples, ‘it’s not what goes inside you that makes you impure, it’s what comes from inside that makes you impure.’
Uh oh. It seems we may not get worked up about things that make you unclean, but we are still concerned with purity.
Jesus is not concerned about outer cleanliness / impurity; he’s more interested in our inner cleanliness / impurity, and this is what his preaching addresses.
So if Jesus is still concerned with purity – even if it’s an inner purity – is there a Christian equivalent to the ritual described in the first reading from Leviticus for us?
Is there some ritual for removing the spiritual equivalent of leprosy that requires you to show yourself to a priest?
There’s a hint in today’s responsorial psalm:
I acknowledged my sin to you,?my guilt I covered not.?I said, "I confess my faults to the LORD,"?and you took away the guilt of my sin.?
Yup, confession is the equivalent of a leper showing him or herself to a priest.
And just as Jesus looked with pity on the poor leper, and said, “I do will it, be made clean,” the priest today says to the sinner who asks for forgiveness, “be absolved.”
And two interesting parallels exist between what Jesus said and did, and what the priest says and does.
Jesus said, “Be made clean.” That’s an indirect way of speaking called the “divine passive.”
God’s name was considered so holy, so powerful, that the pious Jew didn’t even say it.
So Jesus doesn’t say, “I make you clean,” or even “God makes you clean.”
He acknowledges God as the one who makes clean without having to use God’s name.
Jesus willed it, but His Father cleanses the leper.
In the same way, in confession, the priest uses the formula for absolution, “I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
The priest wills your forgiveness, but the Blessed Trinity is the one that forgives.
The other parallel between Jesus’ healing of the leper and confession is significant, too.
Jesus touches the leper – something he was forbidden to do – and ritually brings the now-cleansed leper back into the embrace of the community.
Sin, especially serious sin, breaks our relationship with God and with his people.
Some sins literally ex-communicate us.
Jesus touches the sinner today, offering reconciliation and re-instatement into his fold through the ministry of the priest.
In Jesus’ day, you couldn’t deny you were a leper.
The condition of your skin gave you away, and your torn clothing, bared head and shouts of “unclean, unclean,” were meant to tell people, “stay away, lest you be made impure, too.”
Imagine if our interior impurity were as easily identified, say, by shaved heads and odd clothing.
Imagine if people could tell just by looking at us what our unforgiven sins were.
Imagine if our friends shied away from us because we might be a bad influence on them.
We’d be filling the confessionals every day of the week.
Instead, we’re into denial.
We’re like former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich; thinking that if we brazenly act as if we’ve done nothing wrong, maybe at least some people will believe us.
Or we’re like the fellow who came to me in confession, gave me a list of sins, then declared, “you know, Father, I’m really not that bad a fellow. I mean, I’m no Adolf Hitler.”
That’s called, “setting the bar low.” Unfortunately, Hitler’s not the one Jesus will be comparing us to at our judgment.
He says, “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus knew that real leprosy isn’t all that contagious, but spiritual leprosy – our sin, and the selfishness and lack of trust of God from which it springs - is contagious.
Those Wall Street Bankers who took fat million dollar bonuses on top of their six-figure incomes justified it because that’s what Wall St. bankers have done in the past. Greed is contagious.
You overhear your cute-as-a-bug five-year old spout a few choice lines from “Sex in the City,” and you discover vulgarity is contagious.
“What happens in Vegas” doesn’t stay in Vegas – it clings to us; and I’ll bet you $5 at 2-to-1 odds that it changes the way you look at life.
Jesus did not come just to shift the search for purity from outer purity to inner purity.
He didn’t come to make us scrupulous about sin.
Rather, he came to do what we, the children of Adam, cannot do. He came to be obedient to the Father.
Jesus, the new sinless Adam, became sin for us, St. Paul says – meaning Jesus took on our sins and nailed them to the cross.
My sin, your sin, pierced his hands, feet, side, and head, and tore the flesh from his back.
He took the weight of the world’s sin on his shoulders, and swallowed up sin and its consequence, death, in his own death.
And the new life that the Father gave Jesus in return is ours, if we place our trust in him.
That new life of trust and gratitude for forgiveness is what Jesus, St. Paul, and the Church to this day preaches.
It’s a new life that springs from conversion, from the encounter with the risen Jesus like the one St. Paul had on the road to Damascus.
Faith is first and foremost a relationship with Jesus; a relationship in which I don’t want to sin because I don’t want to turn my back on the one who loves me enough to die for me.
This kind of joyful faith leads me to desire to give glory to God in everything I do – even while eating and drinking!
And when I encounter the risen Lord, and honestly acknowledge my many sins which his death has erased, I will become a former leper who can’t keep his mouth shut.