Our first scripture for today is unusual- an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Leviticus. The Book of Leviticus is a distillation of an ancient Law Code, attributed to the prophet Moses, and it describes those behaviors and practices that which were either acceptable or unacceptable for an Israelite.
The Law Code of the Israelites is not just a matter of civics, but of a relationship with God. The originator of the Law Code is not merely custom or the will of the people, but God and therefore to keep the law makes one righteous in the sight of God and to defy the law code severs one’s relationship with God. This is why the Law Code is more properly called a “Holiness Code”, because it’s principle concern in its presentation is what God wants, not what an individual might expect because of rights of citizenship. The Law of Israel invokes as its authority, not the power of the state or the people, but the power of God.
The Law Code of the Israelites is an artifact of the ancient world, and its understanding of what God wants is influenced by a culture that is foreign to us and far from our experience.
The section of the Israelite Law Code that we heard from today concerns leprosy, which the ancient Israelites came to believe was not only very contagious, but also a spiritual affliction. Leprosy rendered a person “unclean”, and by this is meant not just unhygienic or dirty, but profane, cursed by God. The Law Code is evidently concerned about the possibility of contagion, which in pre-modern cultures, without access to modern medical technology, was absolutely devastating.
The leprous were treated as outsiders to the Israelites, forced to the margins of society and considered to be not only the walking dead, but also the walking damned. Not only to be a leper was a terrifying possibility, but merely to touch a leper had the power to render you as unclean and accursed as they were. It is just terrible to think that somehow treating people so afflicted with a disease in the manner that the Law Code of the Israelites was believed to be what God demanded. But it is the manner in which leprosy was understood, as not only a physical disease, but also a spiritual condition, that provides us with the means to understand today’s Gospel.
The leper was a physical representation of everything that had gone wrong with God’s creation, everything that the powers of sin and death and the devil had done to humanity. The Israelite looked at the leper and shuddered, not just because of the terrifying nature of the disease, but because leprosy represented to them the spiritual condition of living in alienation from God. The Israelite looked at the leper and saw everything that had gone with the world.
Christ’s encounter with lepers in the Gospel is always meant to be understood in this context, what he is effecting in his healing is not just deliverance from disease, but deliverance from the power of sin, death and the devil. Christ is not just restoring health or a person who had been ostracized to the community- he is doing all that- but most significantly he is rescuing a person from alienation from God.
In the restoration of the leper Christ is indicating, not only that he has divine power, but also what his mission is, what he has come into this world to do with his divine power- he has come to restore into communion with God all that is languishing in alienation from God.
That it is a leper that Christ restores indicates just how far into the depths of alienation he is willing to go (the only reality farther from alienation from God that the Israelites could conceive other than a leper was a corpse!).
Christ intends to extend his divine power as far as possible to restore those who are under the power of sin, death and the devil.
What does any of this have to do with us?
Aside from the fact that all of us are in some way lepers, and by that I mean we are all compromised by sin, death and the devil, and cannot heal ourselves or deliver ourselves from our afflictions, the answer to what this all has to do with us can be discerned in our second reading for today, an excerpt from the First Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians.
In that brief excerpt, St. Paul introduces us to an idea that is absolutely crucial to what being a Christian is all about- that idea is expressed in his invitation “be imitators of me as I am of Christ”.
St. Paul is signaling to us that being a Christian, (which is what he is and what we are supposed to be), being a Christian means you become for others an imitation of Christ.
That’s the heart of the matter for being a Christian- being yourself an imitator of Christ.
If you were baptized into the faith of the Church, it was declared to you and all those gathered to witness your Baptism that you had become something extraordinary- an alter-Christus (which means another Christ). “Another Christ”- that’s who you are supposed to be, becoming for others “another Christ” is what your mission, the purpose of your life is all about.
Now connect the reality that being a Christian is to be an imitator of Christ with the presentation of the mission of Christ in the today’s Gospel- you are called by God, a call confirmed by your Baptism, to imitate what Christ is doing in today’s Gospel. What does it mean to become for others “another Christ”?
Christ’s mission was go to the farthest reaches of forsakenness and once there draw back into communion all who languished in alienation from God.
That’s your mission. That’s what it means to be an imitator of Christ- to be for others an alter-Christus.
Practically speaking, this means that the energies and powers of your life should be about the fulfillment of what the Church calls the corporal and spiritual works of mercy:
Feed the Hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, bury the dead.
Teach the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish sinners, bear wrongs patiently, forgive offences, comfort the afflicted, pray for the living and the dead.
For the Christian, mercy is not a feeling or an idea. Mercy is a work, it is a practical action that is to be accomplished so that we can become like the Lord whose name we bear and whom we are supposed to imitate.
It’s through these works that Christians concentrate our energies and powers to restore all those who languish in alienation from God.
It is a radical engagement with these works that your transformation into an imitator of Christ happens. Being a Christian isn’t just about being nice and polite, or paying your dues for access to the faith-based clubhouse- being a Christian is about works of mercy, and it is through these works that you become for others what Christ is to all of us lepers: the means of restoration for all of who languish in alienation from God.