"If you wish, you can make me clean" (Mark 1:40).
After the exorcism performed in the synagogue in Capernaum, followed by a great number of healings in the town, Jesus continues to expand his ministry of preaching and liberation in a dramatic encounter with a leper. God's grace goes freely from synagogue to neighborhood to the outer fringes of society to an untouchable.
It is as though the leper, having heard of the mass cures in Capernaum, seeks out Jesus to ask, "Will you heal me as well?" A leper was thought to be under punishment from God, and we sense the hesitation in the man's request. Perhaps he is not worthy.
Jesus not only reassures the man, but he reaches out and touches him. If his disciples were with him, we might imagine them pulling back to avoid contamination from the approaching leper. It is a moment of pastoral formation for them. If they are to do the work of Jesus, they must be ready to enter the lives of the outcasts, the contaminated and the sinful.
Jesus shocks everyone, especially those religious leaders who uphold the elaborate codes of moral purity and personal cleanliness with endless ritual washings to avoid the "unclean." He will seek out and eat with tax collectors and prostitutes to demonstrate that God's mercy is for them as well. His disciples are to do the same.
A child who was once told by his parents not to associate with "bad" children because it would make him bad, asked them if it was possible for a good child to make bad children good.
Our fear of "contamination" can keep us from extending God's mission of mercy and grace to those who need our love and compassion the most. We fear the risks, but should also remember that a disciple is never alone. Jesus is always there. We are with him, and he is the source of goodness for us first, and then, through us, everyone we encounter. This is the joy and the freedom of the Gospel.