A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him and said, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. — Mark 1: 40-42 (NRSV)
Medical science being what it was in Jesus’ day, we will never know for sure if all of those mentioned in the gospels as having “leprosy” actually suffered from what we know today as Hansen’s Disease. Just about any severe or chronic skin problem was probably lumped together with actual leprosy sufferers, and the individual victims shared the same fate.
Leprosy caused double suffering. First there was the physical malady itself which ate away at the victim’s body. But there was also the spiritual/emotional component. A leper could no longer live among family and friends. They were relegated to the fringes of society, untouchable, unlovable, forced to proclaim their approach to unsuspecting travelers by the use of a bell or wooden clapper while calling out, “Unclean, unclean”. Not to do so could result in the leper’s death.
Disease and shame were the leper’s constant companions, no doubt leading to a destruction of self-esteem while losing an awareness of their basic human dignity.
Enter, Jesus of Nazareth. Mark’s brief account of the encounter between Jesus and the leper is quite moving. “If you choose, you can make me clean” . The man had grown used to not expecting much from life. And perhaps he’d seen his share of “religious” types shun him, curse him, run from his presence or cast a stone or two his way. Now comes another holy man. Maybe the nameless leper wanted to make it easy on Jesus’ conscience and allowed rejection of him to be less of a burden by extending the option of a cure to the Galilean. “If you choose, you can make me clean.” If you choose not to, okay then.
But Mark states that Jesus was “moved with pity.” At the sight of this suffering brother, Jesus’ very insides were twisted with grief and empathy, so “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him and said, ‘I do choose. Be made clean.'” Jesus touched him, perhaps the only direct human contact the man had experienced in years. And that touch brought healing.
The argument can be made, quite successfully I believe, that gay and lesbian people are among the lepers of today. Many of us cannot loudly proclaim who we are, as lepers of old did with tiny bells or wooden clappers. Often, ours is a proclamation muffled by the fear and silence of “passing”. And too often, those who come out among their sisters and brothers face the same fear-bred rejection that has been the outcast’s lot through the centuries.
Enter, Jesus of Nazareth. Just as the disease of leprosy was an opportunity for the love of God to be made manifest, so the misunderstood blessing of homosexuality is also an opportunity, too often missed by the wider straight world, to see the manifestation of God’s undying love and creative power made present through the “least” of Jesus’ sisters and brothers.
Each of us, in our own way, have cried out to Jesus, “If you want to, you can make me clean.” Often this is in the form of a prayer: “Make me like everyone else,” take my lesbian or gay desires away from me. And Jesus is still “moved with pity” over the inability of his gay brothers and sisters to come to grips with their unique beauty and calling, and the giftedness of their sexual and emotional loves and desires.
He is willing to make us clean, but it does not mean he is willing to re-call his blessing from us. Why we were created lesbian or gay, bisexual or transgender, will rightfully remain secure in the mind and wisdom of Almighty God. It is not for us to know, only to embrace, to grow, to share with others what we have learned through our struggles, our painful defeats and glorious victories.
We are among the outcasts of society, left by the roadside. But it is exactly from that vantage point that we can see Jesus first as he walks along. We are among those who can first catch his eye and heart and receive healing and renewal bountifully from his outstretched hand so that we, in turn, moved with pity over the plight of others, can share with them the fruit of what we have received from him who loved us and gave himself up for us.
Tom Yeshua is the pen name of Thomas E.L. Cloutier OFS, a transitional deacon who taught theology for 30 years at Nashua (N.H.) Catholic Regional Junior High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Don Bosco College in Newton, N.J., and a master’s in divinity and theology from St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Mass.