“Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him” (Mark 1:40).
The story of St. Damien of Molokai is awe-inspiring because not only did he serve the leper colony in Hawaii, because of this presence among them, he became one of them.
He announced his condition by beginning a homily with the words “We lepers.”
There is something of this same theme in the Gospel story of Jesus and the leper. Because of his willingness to touch the leper, who was cast out of the community for fear of contamination, Jesus becomes an outcast. Mark tells us that Jesus must avoid the villages and stay in deserted areas because of his growing reputation as a healer. The sick are pursuing him to touch him, impeding his purpose to preach the kingdom.
Even during this initial period of popularity, Mark signals that a reversal is taking place. Jesus is opposed by the religious authorities for healing on the Sabbath. He is rejected by his own neighbors and relatives when he announces his messianic call in Nazareth. He is asked to leave the region on the far side of the lake for expelling the demons from a man into a herd of pigs. Now, his encounter with a leper adds to his reputation as someone challenging community and religious taboos.
Like Damien, Jesus deepens his ministry to the poor, the sick, sinners and the outcast by becoming one of them. By the time he arrives in Jerusalem to challenge the temple establishment and the high priests, Jesus is marked as a dangerous subversive, a heretic and a sinner. He completes his mission to proclaim God’s unconditional love for the world by being rejected and crucified among criminals.
It is an astonishing paradox, yet revealed as the heart of the Gospel. Jesus is the Messiah, but not the powerful liberator everyone expected. He is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah who lays down his life for the community and takes upon himself their sins.
To be a follower of Jesus is to accept this same paradox. Religion is not an escape from the world and its troubles, but a plunge into solidarity with the troubles and sufferings of others, especially those marked as untouchable and unclean. Perfection is not a kind of purity that avoids ambiguity or contamination, but the willingness to risk our own reputations and safety to be identified with the most vulnerable and outcast of people.
Mark tells us that Jesus “stretched out his hand” to touch the leper. Discipleship is a continuous invitation to stretch our lives to engage those in need, to step beyond our own convenience and security to serve others. In doing so we come to know Jesus, who told us he would be waiting for us among the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, the stranger and the persecuted, the least of our brothers and sisters (Matt 25).
If these seem a daunting journey and reversal in our own lives, we begin by trusting that God will give us the grace to take even small steps in the direction of finding ourselves with Jesus. He welcomes us and will show us the path to life.