The hesitancy in the leper’s plea to Jesus is understandable. He knows Jesus has the power to heal him, but ever since the moment he was declared ‘unclean’ he has been treated as a non-person: banished from the community, ignored by his family and friends, avoided by everyone. So he is afraid that Jesus might be the same as everyone else: repulsed by his appearance, frightened of catching the terrible disease, wary of becoming ‘unclean’ just by coming into contact with him.
But Jesus is different. Instead of seeing the leper as someone different and alien, as a threat to his own health and social status, Jesus sees a person like himself who is suffering. The version we hear in church says Jesus felt sorry for him; other versions say Jesus had compassion for him; but the Greek word used in the Gospel is much stronger than that: it means that Jesus felt the man’s pain deep inside him, in his guts. It’s even passed into our slang: when we are really upset about something we might say we’re ‘gutted’. To have compassion for someone means that we suffer with the other person, that we feel what they are feeling. So instead of recoiling from someone, reacting to how different and scary they are, we see past the illness or the problem, we see a person like ourselves, and we reach out to them, as Jesus reached out to the leper.
Turning our compassion into action can be costly: this act of kindness to an outcast meant that Jesus suffered the same exclusion that the leper had experienced, though for different reasons. He became the one who could not go openly into the towns but had to stay outside, in places where nobody lived.
Thanks to medical progress, there is now a cure for leprosy, but there is still no cure for the exclusion, isolation and loneliness that so many people suffer today. Let’s think today about the people we recoil from, the people we avoid because they seem different or threatening, and let’s ask God to enlighten the eyes of our mind so that we see them as people like ourselves, have compassion for them and reach out to them.