So I’ve got to say something that might be a bit controversial. It’s actually been on my mind for a long time. I’m not sure if I’m right or if anyone will agree with me – because I’ve not heard or read anyone else having this take before… which always causes me to pause and check myself. But it’s not the first time the thought has come to me. In fact, I think it every time I encounter this Gospel… and I can’t shake it anymore, so I’m just going to say it: What a Nasty Leper.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – February 11, 2024. I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim
What’s the expression or meme – you had one job – Nasty Leper – Jesus cures you and asks explicitly of you one thing: “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” St. Mark tells us in the very next line, “The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.” Now St. Mark, in writing the Gospel, recounts St. Peter’s teaching and preaching, so Mark captures here one of the reasons I love St. Peter. I can relate to the guy. I know he’s a Jewish man from Galilee, but he sounds like a paisan – like he could be a Jersey, Italian priest, because you can definitely hear that Peter is still frustrated. Jesus doesn’t say anything else about this episode and what happens here. But Peter makes sure we know what the directions were and how because the guy specifically did the one thing he wasn’t supposed to do, it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly after this.
Sorry, not sorry, what’s the matter with you, Nasty, Nasty Leper?
We know what was the matter. Leprosy was a huge deal. In fact, it still is. Until the 1980s, this virus could not be treated; it was incurable. Now, thanks to antibiotics, it’s not as dire, but it’s still a harrowing, debilitating disease. The first reading from the book of Leviticus recounts how deadly and dreaded this illness was. God had given Moses extensive instructions on protecting the rest of the community from this highly contagious pathogen. That reading sounded more like a CDC advisory than anything spiritual. They laid out not social distancing protocols of 6 feet away and putting a tissue over your face. If you got leprosy, it resulted in complete isolation. Those who were sick were cut off from any regular social contact, including even the closest of family members, and were forced to live with others who were experiencing the same disease, making this physical ailment for those suffering even more miserable emotionally and spiritually. Over a thousand years after Leviticus had been written, as Jesus is on the scene, not much has changed. If anything, it was worse. Now you have a millennium of horror stories and the fear that such experiences can cause (which, post-COVID, we have just a slightly better appreciation of how memories and stories can prompt all kinds of emotions and reactions).
That’s the backdrop to this whole encounter. This desperate, hopeless man comes to Jesus full of faith and confidence. Think about how he approaches Jesus. He doesn’t utter understandable cries, beg for help or ask why this has happened to him. He doesn’t question if Jesus can do something or even ask Jesus to perform a miracle. It’s more direct: “If you wish, you can make me clean.” This exchange happens still early on in Jesus’ ministry (we’re only in chapter 1 of Mark), yet those fantastic things that have already happened that he heard about or perhaps seen for himself have convinced him – and so this Nasty Leper demonstrates he has this confidence, and faith in Jesus’ power as he approaches him. But seemingly has little regard for Jesus’ authority in honoring, respecting, following what Jesus tells him to do—showing a lack of gratitude and seemingly undermining Jesus’ plans.
I can hear the excuses – he’s been through so much… he couldn’t contain his excitement and enthusiasm. That may be true. It reminds me of another Gospel incident when Jesus encounters ten lepers, and after giving them instructions to show themselves to the priest, as they walk along, they are completely cured and healed. Only one of the 10 comes back to thank Jesus. I’ve always imagined in that scene a mother speaking to their 5-year-old, explaining, “When someone cures you of leprosy, you say thank you.” It’s not just a Nasty Leper. Maybe it’s Nasty Lepers!
I’m sure some are thinking or asking themselves, Why am I beating up on the Nasty Leper? It’s often been observed that when we get angry, we hate in others what angers us, what we hate in ourselves, which is probably true. Because if I’m honest, it’s not just Nasty Leper – I know I can be a “Nasty Priest.” I can be selfish, unthoughtful, ungrateful, proud, and arrogant – even to Jesus. I know there have been too many times and ways when Jesus has given me clarity and direction, which I disregarded, explained away, re-interpreted in a way he didn’t intend, and just happened to align with my own desires, which is humiliating to admit publicly. But I know it is true.
Just like St. Peter knew all too well of himself. As he recounts this story in the opening chapters of the Gospel of St. Mark, we have to remember all of this is after Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and Ascension. So this is after Peter’s opened his mouth and needed to insert his foot too many times to count. This comes after one minute where Peter is being Jesus’ “rock” – his first Pope, his right-hand man to the next Jesus rebuking him for acting like Satan. This is after Jesus warned Peter that as strong and brave as he thinks he is, he will fail, he will fall, he will deny even knowing Jesus -which was horrifically proven true on Good Friday. So, as Peter shares, Jesus doing this absolutely astounding of miracles which would instantly, radically alter this man’s life in ways he never imagined were even possible, which is met with the guy thoughtlessly dismissing the one thing Jesus asked him to do (and not to do) – which wasn’t a necessary detail for Peter to share, it’s not like Jesus mission failed and ended at that point – I think it sticks with Peter because he has had to face that same failure within himself. He’s had to confront that weakness of who he is as a disciple of Jesus and how he failed as an apostle. The same Simon Peter who yes, beautifully heard the call to “follow me” and responded, but too often finds himself reverting to the ways of “Simon” rather than being the “Peter” Jesus has called him to be.
Maybe that isn’t true just for Nasty Peter or Nasty Leper(s) or a Nasty Priest – but can be true for all of us, which is why this is a good thing for us to be challenged with this last Sunday before we enter into the season of Lent. Where are we in our discipleship, in our relationship with Jesus? In what areas do I find division in my heart – between knowing what Jesus is asking me to do, hearing Him calling me to greater love and greater holiness, and ignoring those prompts, failing to respond? Because Lent is a privileged time of the Church Year that’s meant for us to remember who we are and who we are called to be. That we are sinners who are called to be Saints. The difference between what makes a Saint a Saint and what keeps a sinner a sinner is that: The Saint knows their weaknesses and their failures and that without God’s help, that’s all they will be. The Saint is the one who humbles themselves, admits those realities, and asks for God’s grace, for His Holy Spirit to bring His fire to remove those blinders and those obstacles and transform and recreate them. The Saint identifies all the ways that the devil has lied to them, deceived and accused them and all the ways they have fallen for those lies and deceptions, allowing those accusations to cause them to fall into despair or worse indifference AND repents of them, examines their hearts and consciences and goes and makes a good confession to be forgiven, healed and reconciled. Because the Saint doesn’t let their sinful behaviors and inclinations define, inhibit, and limit them but trusts more in God’s Mercy demonstrated perfectly in Jesus’ power and authority.
As we enter this sacred season this week, my brothers and sisters, may we take some time to prepare ourselves to have a good and meaningful Lent where we can identify the “Nasty” things we’ve said, done, and perhaps become but not to wallow or fall into desolation. Instead, look at Simon Peter, whose example is one of persevering in a life-long process of conversion that finally and gloriously transformed him from a sinner to a Saint. To hear Jesus calling us to that same destiny, to have the courage to listen to His voice, follow His commands, make those steps of pursuing Him, and trust what He wishes to accomplish in and with and through every one of us.