6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Cor 10:31-11:1
Imagine for a moment that you wake up tomorrow, lift yourself out of bed, and trudge into the bathroom to brush your teeth. You peer bleary eyed into the mirror and see something truly horrible. Overnight, in bold colors, the name of a sin you had committed the day before had appeared written on your forearm, sort of like a tattoo. No amount of soap and water or hard scrubbing would remove it. Horrified, you put on a long-sleeved shirt to cover it up.
But that’s not the worst of it. Every day afterwards, when you wake up another sin you had committed appears tattooed somewhere else on your body. The little sins are little tattoos and the big ones are big tattoos. Some are in inconspicuous places that are easy to cover up, but one morning after a particularly fun night out, a large red tattoo appears right in the middle of your forehead. And this sin is a doozy, a particularly embarrassing one. There’s no easy way to cover that one up, so you decide to stay inside until you can figure out just what’s going on.
Each day your sins are always before you. You can’t escape them and the guilt you feel. They are constant reminders of your failures. You are desperate to wash them away, to remove them from your sight. And finally, you have to leave the house. You have to go out into the world, and now everyone can see your sin. It has physically altered you and you no longer look like other people. Just like Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter, you are shunned and mocked by everyone you meet. You will do anything, anything at all, to be rid of them. You vow that if they are removed you will never sin again. Ever.
What if your sin was as visible to you as leprosy? What if your sin was always before you? How would it make you feel? To what lengths would you go to remove it?
What if your sin was as visible to the world as leprosy? What if everyone you meet knows exactly how you have sinned? How would they treat you? How would it make you feel? To what lengths would you go to remove it?
We hear today Moses’ prescription for the treatment of lepers, and it seems pretty harsh. Lepers were to be treated as outcasts from the community. Even the suspicion of leprosy meant exile. There were two reasons for this; first, it was a public health issue. Leprosy is extremely contagious, so it made sense to isolate those suffering from it. However, it was also a question of morality. The ancient Jews believed that the sick suffered because they were sinners. If you pleased the Lord He would bless you with good health, wealth, long life and children. If you were poor, sickly or barren it was because you or your parents had done something sinful, and God was punishing you for it.
Lepers had to actually take the posture of the penitent - rending their clothes and uncovering their heads – not because they were sick but because their sin had made them impure. They were unclean and to have contact with them not only exposed you to their illness but to their sin. Sin was just as contagious as leprosy, so sinners were shunned and ostracized. To touch the unclean made you unclean. To consort with sinners made you a sinner.
And people would be very cruel to the unclean. They would drive them away, throw rocks at them, and cut them off from everything they loved. They would be publicly humiliated and shunned. They would lose everything and live in desperation.
The only way the leper, the sinner, could return to the community was to prove that the ailment no longer existed. If the outward signs of the illness were gone, that indicated that the inner sinfulness was gone, too. That is why the healed had to show themselves to the priests. The priests were the representatives of the faith community. They had to verify that the person had turned from their sin and could then be reconciled to the community.
The leper didn’t come to Jesus because he believed he was the son of God. He had just heard that Jesus was a powerful healer, and believed that he could be healed himself. He would do anything, try anything, to remove the stain and the pain of his disease. He also believed, like everyone else did, that he was suffering physically because he was a sinner. He fell at Jesus’ feet and groveled in the dirt. And he said basically, “You are the only one who can make me clean. You are the only one I trust not to judge me. You are the last person I can turn to and I desperately hope you won’t turn me away. Please make me clean. Please see me as a person of value. Please don’t join in the shaming but accept me. Forgive me.”
And Jesus did. What else could he do? He didn’t see before him a sinner being punished for what he had done. He saw him as a complete human being. He returned his dignity to him. He forgave him his sins. And he made him feel that he was free from the effects of his sin. It’s as if all had been wiped clean.
We are the same. All we need to be cleansed of our sin is to turn to Jesus and believe that we can be forgiven. For some that is really hard to believe. Sin makes us feel dirty, cut off from those we love, unworthy. We have to believe that there is hope. I think that today most people do not have a sense of sin. They have moved away from God and so have lost hope in forgiveness. They feel those feelings of being unworthy but do not know the reason why. They cannot name their sin and therefore cannot hope to be cured of it. It would almost be better if we could see our sins pasted right between our eyes.
We can also turn to Jesus and be healed. It was no coincidence that Jesus tells the man to show himself to the priest. He calls us to do the same so the priest can declare us clean.
The man could not contain his joy at being healed. He went and told everyone he could about what had happened to him. Whereas before he cowered before others, now he stood tall. What if we felt that same way when our sins are forgiven? What if we left the confessional and went out and proclaimed to everyone that our sins have been forgiven and we are now clean. What if instead of a big red tattoo on our foreheads there was a shining light surrounding our faces, a glow of deep joy that everyone could see? How would that make you feel? How would that affect the people around you?
The season of Lent is upon us. What better time to be healed? Why not take a good, close look at yourself in the mirror every evening and take stock of how you had lived that day? See all the blemishes for what they are, even the ones that are hard to find? Why not sit down with those closest to you, the ones who can also see your sins as if they were tattooed on your forehead, and ask for forgiveness and reconciliation? Why not go see Jesus, throw yourself down before him in the confessional and say, “If you will to do so, you can make me clean”.
I assure you, he wills to do so. And I guarantee you, your joy will be great and your joy will be contagious.