From our own experience and that of others, we continue to wonder at the amount of human suffering that man can endure. We read in the Old Testament with awe, how those who suffered from leprosy were condemned to a kind of hell-on-earth.
Such people were isolated ostracised and alienated by all including their own family members. Although the people knew that the disease spread by physical contact, they lacked the knowledge of germs and viruses. That is why their fears were exaggerated.
The rabbinic rules which associated leprosy with severe transgression of the law forbade any contact with someone who suffered from the illness. A leper had to suffer all alone and if he or she approached others, he or she had to be stoned to death. Theirs was a total and painful human isolation.
Today, the experience of human suffering is not strange to our modern time. We experience it through many evils such as abject poverty, diseases, wars, and different sorts of slavery, discrimination and injustice.
In some places people are still treated on subhuman standards as ‘untouchables’. In such sufferings, one needs a friend to lean on, the touch of professional healers or the embrace of a reliable friend.
There is a gospel episode told by Mark, where a leper, tired of his situation, approached Jesus and begged him to be healed.(Mk 1:40-45) “If you want, you can make me clean” he said to Jesus.
Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him: “I do will it. Be made clean.’ This simple action by Jesus had enormous implications for everyone involved: Jesus who touched the leper, the leper who had taken so long without being touched by anybody, the crowd who saw Jesus breaking the barrier of their customs and for us when we read this emotional story.
If we begin by the leper, he knew the risk he was taking. According to the law, if he approached other people, he deserved to be stoned. But he was so desperate and deep down he felt that Jesus was different. And so he took the risk.
Jesus had mercy on the leper and immediately stretched his hand out for him. But Jesus didn’t have to touch the man at all in order to heal him.
He would heal him simply by ordering it as he did when he drove the demon out of the man in the synagogue in Capernaum simply by saying, “Come out of him!” Recall how Jesus cured the centurion’s servant, without being anywhere near him, and how he called forth Lazarus from the tomb.
But Jesus felt that the leper had spent a lot of time without experiencing someone’s touch. He needed to be touched on, and so he did.
The people who watched Jesus touching the leper did not think that he was immune to leprosy. Neither do we have any evidence from the scriptures, because it tells us that he was like us in all things but sin, not sickness.
That is why this action of Jesus had enormous impact on those who were watching him. For them, Jesus became the New Man in whom the power and merciful compassion of God abide. Here lies a great lesson for us who read about this miracle.
In the first instance, it could happen to anybody of us to experience ‘hell-on-earth’ as it happened to the above leper. In such a case, we need a friend with whom to share our experience and our fears. Some friends may fear to approach us because of the situation we may be in.
Jesus is the exception. At the same time, he calls us to imitate him and be compassionate toward the suffering. We too should be sensitive to those who are suffering, who feel isolated and be ready to extend our hand to them or to smile to them with all sincerity.