When I was a kid I thought Jesus healed leopards. They called them leopards because their skin was covered in spots. Obviously. And a leopard can’t change his spots (that saying actually comes from Jeremiah 13:23) so Jesus preformed the miracle of changing their spots for them. I really did believe this until I learned what leprosy really was (and still is). It’s generally accepted that the ancient disease was caused by the same bacteria as the modern one, mycobacterium leprae. It is still around in many parts of the world but unlike in Jesus time, it is extremely treatable. Leprosy was so feared that people suffering from it were exiled from their community and forced to warn others when they approached. Many other skin conditions were lumped in with leprosy too. It makes me think twice before I complain about my psoriasis. After all, I don’t have to live in a leper colony (although living in a leopard colony would be kinda cool).
There is a biblical connection between leprosy and sin. In the Old Testament leprosy is seen as a punishment for sin. The gospels point to leprosy not as an effect of sin, but as an analogy for it. Like sin it is ugly, it disfigures, it can spread and it separates us—separates us from each other and from God. And just as Jesus, in his mercy, desired to free the ten lepers of their physical disease, he also desires to free us from our spiritual disease. If only we have the courage to echo the words of the lepers, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” Christ wants to set us free, wants to heal us. But he waits for our permission to act.
Saint Francis of Assisi, whose memorial we observed this week, was absolutely repulsed by leprosy and sufferers of leprosy. Early in his radical conversion he met a leper on the road and knew what he had to do. He gave the man money, embraced him and kissed his sores. In that moment he realized that he was embracing and kissing Jesus. In an instant Saint Francis’ sin of indifference and aversion to suffering was healed. We have access to the same sanctifying grace and healing in the sacraments. We only need to ask.