Recorded in history, there are 2 great period of the bubonic plague in 6th century and in 14th century. It is estimated that the first of these plagues carried off between 25-50 million people. In the second of these it is estimated that 1/3 of the world’s population perished. It was untreatable, death occurred between 7-10 days. The symptoms were terrifying and the history books tell us that populations were decimated, there were barely enough people left to bury the dead.
In an age and time that is protected by the advances in illness it is difficult to imagine the terror of a plague. yet in living memory there were illnesses that swept through communities like this bringing death to many – TB, scarlet fever and the like.
More recently illness like Aids & Ebola were modern plagues, which decimated whole populations of people.
The Gospel of today’s Mass mentions an illness that still exists today – leprosy. Even today to see someone who suffers from this illness is distressing. There is scarring, disfigurement and loss of limbs.
In the reading from Leviticus, we see how the people cope with this. If there is a scar that appears, then you have to go to the priests to have it diagnosed. If it is diagnosed then you are to be excluded lest he or she contaminate anyone else. They are to cover their mouth with their hand and warn others by crying out that thy are unclean. Their garments are to be torn to indicate their impoverished state. They are to live outside the camp, outside the village, outside the family, outside the company of others who are well.
It is interesting that Jesus is pictured as a rule breaker. Instead of distancing himself from lepers. He approaches the leper in the Gospel, speaks to him, touches him and in an age in which no one can help him he makes him clean and heals him. Ordinarily there would be fear: fear of the sight of the leper, fear of contamination, fear of breaking the strict rules the guarded against the contagion spreading. None of this is here: here there is compassion for the man, here there is a desire for the man to be healed, here there is courage and love.
To be a leper has entered into our language as someone cut off, isolated, alone, on the margins, friendless. Sometimes its just because the person is different, sometimes it is because in the eyes if people they have done something unforgiveable, sometimes it is just because they don’t fit in.
They are driven out to the margins and wilderness, they are excluded, they become the untouchables, they are outside the camp.
Sadly religion can play a part in that in driving people out, isolating them, casting them out to the edge.
Jesus seems to be opposed to that. People eat with some and not others – he eats with everyone. People refuse to mix with foreigners – he makes foreigners the heroes of his stories. People won’t speak to people who are public sinners – he strikes up a conversation with them. The sick are regarded to be impure – he touches them. People are divided into good and bad – he treats all the same as needing God’s mercy.
He is quick to detect self righteous in people. They divide people into two camps. Good and the bad, the right and the wrong, those they will talk to/mix with and those who they will not talk to/mix with. To Jesus all are the same.
Self righteous drives people from the camp. The relative that we have never spoken to for years, the friend that we fell out with 2 decades ago over something trivial, the son or daughter that we don’t talk to, the drug addict or alcoholic in our family we have nothing to do, the person in prison for their crimes, the person who has done us a bad turn. Self righteousness drives people from the camp, we move them to the edges of our life, they are unclean in our eyes.
God seems to be repelled by self righteousness.
His attitude is different. He draws people to him, to him all are his children all are in need of his love and mercy. To him all are in the camp rather than outside. To him there are many rooms in his house. To him there is always forgiveness and mercy. To him the door is always open.