Embracing the Unclean: St. Francis and the Healing Power of Love

Homily for the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time | Year B | February 11, 2024

Most of us are familiar with St. Francis of Assisi, the Italian 12th century poor Friar best known for his love of nature and animals.   However, the turning point in the life of the real St. Francis’s came when he saw a leper and was moved to embrace and kiss him in imitation of the love of Christ.  He refers to the leper in his writings as “Christ in distressing disguise.”  It was kissing a leper that set St. Francis free to love everyone and do anything for Christ after that.

In the Gospel story today, Jesus heals a leper.  But to understand how really dramatic and powerful this healing was, you need to go back and look at the Old Testament reading which is from the book of Leviticus.  Leviticus is everyone’s favorite OT book, right?  It contains all the rules and regulations for the Levite priests.  It gives the rules for leprosy.  Anyone having blotches or sores on their skin, they had to show themselves to the priest and if it was leprosy they were declared “unclean.”  If you were unclean you had to move outside the camp and isolate yourself from the community, this was the ultimate quarantine.  You could not go to church or synagogue.  The leper had to shout out “unclean, unclean” if anyone approached him or her so that others would know to keep their distance.  Anything a leper touched or used…like if they sat on a chair or drank from a cup…was also considered unclean.

So when the leper approaches Jesus in the Gospel story, that in itself was an audacious, unexpected move.  If a leper approached someone back then, the normal response would be to run away…literally, to high tail it out of there.  But this leper recognized Jesus had the power to heal him.  He was willing to take the risk of revealing his sickness to Jesus.  He knelt down, humbly, and begged him, saying: “If you wish, you can make me clean.”  He recognizes in Jesus the power of the priesthood, the authority of God, only God could heal leprosy in the Bible, think of the story of Naaman, the Syrian commander who came to Israel to be healed by the God and Eisha told him to bathe seven times in the Jordan River.  There was no natural cure for leprosy.

Jesus said: “I am willing.”  Then Jesus does something outrageous and stupefying really, for a first century Jew.  Moved with pity, he stretches out his hand and touches the leper.  This is a big no-no.  Ordinarily, that would be like suicide for a Jew.  There were four things that could make a Jew unclean…eating the wrong food, touching a dead body, sexual impurity or leprosy.  For any normal person, touching the leper would make them unclean.  But in the case of Jesus touch, the flow is reversedInstead of Jesus becoming unclean, the leper became clean.  John Chrysostom comments on this from an ancient writing: “He touched the leper to signify that he heals not as servant but as Lord. For the leprosy did not defile his hand, but his holy hand cleansed the leprous body.” (John Chrysostom, The Gospel of St. Matthew, 25.2)

What does this mean for us?  The grace that flows from Jesus is more powerful than our sin.  Whatever our sin is, whatever it is that makes us ugly, spiritually speaking…the sin that you are most ashamed of, that you really want to keep hidden, that you don’t anyone to see or know about because it makes you feel “dirty” or unclean…Jesus touch is more powerful than that sin.  Jesus was moved with pity, Jesus was willing.  Don’t be afraid to reveal your sin to Jesus.  He wants to make us clean.  He shed his blood to free us from sin.  Be audacious, be confident in his love, like the bold leper.  You can’t make Jesus unclean.  But Jesus can make us clean.

Origin, another ancient father of the Church, comments: “Let us consider here, beloved, if there be anyone here that has the taint of leprosy in his soul, or the contamination of guilt in his heart? If he has, instantly adoring God, let him say: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”” (Origen, The Healing of the Leper, Mark)

Notice that Jesus told him to show himself to the priest.  The priests in the Old Testament had the authority to declare someone clean or unclean, and thus re-enter the temple and synagogue.  Many have pointed to this as an example of need to go to a priest today for mortal sins, to have the priest declare that your sins are forgiven.

Sin is like leprosy–of the soul.  Doctors say leprosy begins with unaccountable pains and lethargy in the joints.  Then discolored patches appear on the skin.  Leprosy causes loss of feeling—no sensation any more in the affected areas.  I will spare you all the gory details, but in advanced stages the person begins to fall apart—literally.  (Fingers, toes can fall off).   Sin does the same thing, only to the soul.  At first we feel pains, but we don’t quite know what’s wrong.  Our spirits become bitter and our words become ugly.  Our hearts can become hard und unfeeling.  Eventually our lives…our families and relationships…begin to fall apart.

Jesus talked about what makes people unclean (in Mark 7:21): “From within the man, from his heart, come evil thoughts, unchastity (sexual immorality), theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.  All these evils come from within, and they defile.”

Fortunately, there is a cure for sin.  1 John 1:7-9 says “…if we walk in the light…the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.  If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

The cure for sin is the blood of Jesus which we celebrate in the Eucharist. The leper knelt down, and said “if you are willing you can make me clean.” As we kneel today in the presence of our Lord, may our hearts be open to the healing power of Christ.  May we have the courage to lay all that makes us unclean before him, trusting that just as the leper was healed, that we too may be made clean by the touch of Christ.

—Fr. James M. Glass