When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram again, and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless." God said to Abraam, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.
God said to Abraham, "As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her." Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, "Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?" And Abraham said to God, "O that Ishmael might live in your sight!" God said, "No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year." And when he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.
When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean." He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them."
Some laws are to be kept and other laws are to be disregarded--in certain circumstance. When Jesus cured the man of some type of contagious skin disease , he reminded him, "See to it that you tell no one. Go and show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses preScribed. That should be the proof they need." We can't help wondering, couldn't the priests get along without the gift from a poor man who because of his leprosy had been long out of work? The gift was very small, but served to show that the former outcast was taken back into the full community of Israel. The leper would also be allowed come into the temple again, after years of enforced absence. He would sense a return of self-respect and dignity, and there would be great rejoicing in the offering of his gift.
Laws, as we shall see, are sometimes also disregarded, for good reason. Tradition prohibited a devout Jew from touching anyone legally unclean; lepers were among the most unclean, and were the untouchables. On hearing the leper's passionate plea, "Sir, if you want to, you can cure me!" Jesus chose to set aside tradition and the law, and in a movement of compassion, stretched out and touched him--and cured him. In that miraculous moment, Jesus became ceremonially unclean and therefore was barred from entering the house of God along with the former leper. But was not a disdainful breaking of the law; Jesus went around or above it, swept by the supreme law of compassion. One must keep laws in the spirit of their origin, which is the merciful goodness of God.
This same compassionate God allowed Jerusalem, the holy capital city of his covenanted people, to be destroyed, its temple burnt to the ground, the survivors of the long siege to be deported, with only a remnant left behind. There is a deep mystery here. Jesus, too, who healed the leper, would weep over Jerusalem as he announced its second destruction, this time by the Romans (Luke 19:41). And yet hope continues to spring up, for "Those that sow in tears shall reap rejoicing" (Ps 126:5). The elderly couple--the ancient Jerusalem--will give birth to new life. Such is the covenant law of a compassionate God.
Lepers in the time of Jesus were the untouchables. They could not be touched for fear of contagion; through a mere touch, their disease could pass to other members of the community. The community protected itself by ensuring that lepers lives apart, with only other lepers for company. In today's gospel, however, Jesus did not hesitate to touch the leper. He would not be contaminated by the leper's touch, rather, his touch would heal the leper. The leper had approached Jesus with the, understandably, very tentative request, "If you want to, you can cure me." But there was nothing tentative about Jesus' response, "Of course I want to." The gospels reveal a Jesus who does not hesitate to touch our lives, even the most unattractive parts of our lives. The risen Lord has no fear of being contaminated by us; he does not avoid the murkiness of our lives. He enters fully into the dark and forbidding places of our personal and communal lives, with his healing and life-giving presence. His passionate concern for our well-being knows no barriers. The Lord wants to touch our lives as they are, not as they should be or could be. All that is required for him to do that is for us to approach him, as the leper did, although we can be afford to be more confident in our approach than he was.
It is said of the austere pope, St Pius V, that he washed the feet of the poor and even embraced the lepers. An English nobleman declared himself converted on seeing that sainly pope kiss the feet of a beggar covered with ulcers. Such an example was surely as valuable an exercise of papal pastoral ministry as any of the structural reforms of the church achieved by St Pius V.