Image: Ice block Inukshuk, Inuvik
Our gospel today brings us to the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount. Filling three chapters of Matthew’s gospel, it is the longest of the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, and includes the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, and central tenets of Christian discipleship. Despite its length, we are told that the crowds were still hanging on every word that Jesus has to say and, as he descends from the mountain, they follow him and are eager to hear more. It is clear that the moral code which Jesus advocates is something new and something needed.
However, the teaching is not over. As Jesus comes back to earth, so to speak, he immediately comes upon a man suffering from leprosy. All the words that Jesus had just spoken were now going to face the first test in front of all of the people who had been listening. They were going to see if all the lessons that Jesus taught were just nice platitudes to think about or whether he truly intended that his teachings be put into practice.
Leprosy was a dreaded illness in the time of Jesus, it was not just one defined illness but rather a host of different ailments which shared the common symptoms of infection of the skin, disfigurement of features, and loss of sensation in hands and feet leading to serious injuries. It was not an immediately fatal condition but had the serious debilitating effect of isolating the infected person from family and friends because of its contagious nature. The disease had the reputation as a punishment for sin committed by the person or perhaps one of their ancestors and this moral judgement only added to the misery. A person with leprosy was considered to be unclean and no one could touch them.
Leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease as it is known today, still exists, but it is not something that we have much concern for in our lives. But that does not mean that we do not have similar ailments that touch people’s lives with the same kinds of devastation. When the disease, AIDS, was first discovered it had the same effect of social isolation and moral judgement. Perhaps we could even see alcoholism or drug addiction in a similar light as it distances those who suffer from their community of support and is often seen to be the result of a character weakness which isolates the person even further.
Jesus breaks the taboo of leprosy by reaching out to the man not just with words but by physically touching him. In response to the man’s plea Jesus affirms his humanity and tells him that he chooses to make him well and the disease leaves the man immediately. By telling the man to show himself to the priests he is re-establishing his connection with the community and making the healing complete.
Jesus demonstrates that he not only has the words that we need to hear but that he is willing to practice what he preaches. He offers us a way to new life and is ready to show us the way. It is up to us to decide if we are ready to follow and imitate him.
At the end of this encounter we are left with a minor puzzle. Though this healing has taken place in front of large crowd of people, Jesus asks the man not to tell anyone. Did the onlookers see what was happening, did they understand what had just taken place? Perhaps Jesus is showing us that whatever works we do in his name should remain quiet. To proclaim a miracle in front of an audience would have been the crown on his sermon. Instead, Jesus sees this healing not as something to exploit but simply as something to be expected, an ordinary encounter with a person in need as he puts the words of his sermon into action.