Being Bold in the Face of Sickness
Rev. Thomas Nairn, OFM, Ph.D.
Senior Director, Ethics
Catholic Health Association
I recently received a phone call from a friend of mine whose husband had died a few months before. Both she and her husband were teachers at the same school. She remarked to me that many of the faculty seemed to be avoiding her since her husband's death — even a dear friend whose family she and her husband had frequently invited over for holiday meals. Maybe, people just didn't know how to deal with their feelings about the dying of a colleague and how to relate to the new status of his wife — now a widow. Or maybe they thought that there were other people who could better take care of her and they just didn't want to get involved. Whatever the reason, my friend felt lost and abandoned.
There are, of course, many variations on this theme. I've often heard from someone with a terminal or a chronic illness whose once close friends would visit less and less often as time went on. Maybe the growing disability of the sick person made them feel too uncomfortable. Perhaps they wanted so much to "fix" things that they got frustrated when they realized that the illness just couldn't be fixed — and they stayed way. For whatever reason they might have pulled back, the fact remains that their sick friends — like the lady who spoke to me — nevertheless felt abandoned by those they thought cared for them.
These situations share a lot with today's Scripture readings. The Gospel presents a story about an encounter between Jesus and a person with leprosy. To help us get the full emotional flavor of this story, the church also gives us as a background the teaching of the Book of Leviticus, that book of law which governed so much of the behavior of the Hebrew community. Fully three chapters of this book are devoted to instructing the Hebrew people regarding how to deal with the issue of leprosy in the most minute detail. As we heard in today's first reading, the person with leprosy was to have nothing to do with the community. Nor was the community to have any dealings with the person who was now defined simply as "a leper."
Lepers were "unclean," and they were to live apart from the community, "making their abode outside the camp" (Lv 13:46). They were unfit to worship God and unfit to live in community with others. They were not to come near healthy people. On the contrary, they had to warn them to stay away by shouting that description of themselves, "Unclean, unclean!" Obviously, the only appropriate response of any religious Jew was to keep as far away from the leper as possible, because any contact would make them unclean as well, even if they didn't contract the disease. The story of the leper is thus a story of separation and avoidance.
Notice, however, that this is not how the story progresses in today's Gospel. Neither the leper nor Jesus do what they're supposed to do. The passage begins: "And the leper came to him." This was obviously not the proper behavior for lepers. But the leper was bold — he obviously did not define himself by his leprosy and he didn't follow the prescribed course of action. Rather, he came right up to Jesus. And being right next to him — close enough to be touched — he made a request. It is interesting to note that – unlike other miracle stories — he didn't actually ask to be cured. Rather he said: "If you will, you can make me clean." He asked for cleansing, not curing. Now I might be playing with words here, but I don't think so. Curing deals with the disease, but, as we have already seen, being clean or unclean has more to do with one's relationship with God and with the community.
Nor is the surprising behavior confined to the leper. Within the religious context of the time, Jesus' reaction was equally startling: Not only did he affirm the leper's request — "I will be clean" — but he actually touched the leper. Jesus risked becoming unclean himself so that he could make the other person clean — that is restore his relationship to God and his membership within the community. The leper's bold move prompted an equally bold response on the part of Jesus.
Jesus' action of cleansing and restoring is not yet the end of the story. In the fashion of Mark, Jesus asked that the leper tell no one but rather show himself to the priest and offer "what Moses prescribed." Instead, the person "went away and publicized the whole matter." One might say that the person who had been separated from the community because of his sickness was now an evangelizer. The one who was avoided became the preacher.
Perhaps this encounter between the leper and Jesus can serve as a model for Christian encounters between the sick and those who care for them and care about them.
At a time when we are called to pay closer attention to sickness and health, perhaps this encounter between the leper and Jesus can serve as a model for Christian encounters between the sick and those who care for them and care about them.
Maybe today's Gospel can call those of us who suffer from sickness to be as bold as the leper. Even in those communities where other members try to be supportive to those who are sick, sickness itself can keep us away from others. We may feel fatigued. Pain and discomfort may make it easier simply to stay home or even in bed. We may not be as sure on our feet as we had been, and it's embarrassing to need to be dependent on others once again. Perhaps we're angry with God because of our illness and feel we can't talk to anyone else about these feelings — they just wouldn't understand. Our illness might even be a threat to others, as we remind them of their own mortality. We have every reason to stay away. But today's Gospel calls us not to give in to these feelings. We need to be bold.
Likewise, those others of us who are not sick at the present time may find many good reasons to avoid our sick sisters and brothers. We'll just be in the way. We don't know what to say or how to act. Our discomfort will make the sick person feel worse, not better. Although we can give many excuses for our behaviors, we are called today to see in the actions of Jesus a model for our own actions. In the end, we can't "fix" people's diseases or cure their illnesses, but nevertheless we also need to be bold. Even though we cannot cure our sick friends, we can become involved in cleansing. By our presence with them, we can let our sick sisters and brothers know that they still are valued and valuable members of the community – that they are not abandoned.
This is actually a reciprocal ministry. All of us — the sick and the healthy — need to be evangelizers. Those among us who are ill are not simply objects of the ministry of others — still less are we abandoned. By witnessing to the truth of our sickness we help build up the community of Christ. We minister to the rest of the community by helping our healthy brothers and sisters confront their own limits and mortality. Those of us who are healthy must also build up the community. We can show our sick sisters and brothers that we can be depended upon by being dependable, by not avoiding our sick friends but rather by reaching out to them and touching their lives.
What at first seems like a simple story of an encounter between Jesus and a leper thus becomes the model for what it means to be the community of Jesus, a community of cleansing and restoring, of preaching and evangelizing, a community where all — sick and healthy alike — publicize the whole matter, letting all know of the saving power of God.