Pentecost - Thirteenth Sunday After (21st Sunday in Ordinary Time)
"Leprosy, Sin and Death"
By Rev. J. J. Hurst
Leprosy was a disease prevalent in Palestine at the time of Christ. Biblical leprosy, the type which afflicted the Jews, was virulent and progressive and baffled all medical skill to cure or arrest, so that it usually terminated in the death of its victim. It was generally believed to be hereditary and contagious and, in some instances, to be a signal proof of Divine punishment for sin. Hence it was regarded with the greatest horror and loathing and considered to be the cause of legal and religious defilement. The utmost precautions were taken to prevent the spread of the disease by segregating the infected and by subjecting those suspected of the contamination to a quarantine, till the priests who were the properly constituted judges in the matter could pronounce the latter clean or unclean, according to prescribed rules.
For a picture of human misery intensified by evils calculated to increase and embitter the burden of life and rob it of every support and solace, we have only to contemplate the fate of the leper; condemned to dwell in seclusion, away from the habitations of the healthy, his clothes hanging loose, his head bared, his mouth covered, he was obliged to add to his own self-abasement by crying out to passers-by the fateful words: "Unclean, unclean." Neither position nor age nor sex served to defer or mitigate this harsh sentence. Some of the most pathetic scenes ever witnessed or pictured by mortals took place in the home of the leper. The father might sigh and groan for his misfortune, but the leprous father had to abandon his family, and as their head they knew him no more. The mother might melt into tears at a parting so cruel, but her place in the home had to be vacated, and the leprous mother went forth without a farewell embrace from the dear ones she loved. The child might plead for pity and cling to its mother for protection, but the unclean child and the distracted mother parted forever. The maiden in the pride of her beauty, or radiant with dreams of domestic bliss, showing the slightest but certain marks of the contagion, was compelled to fly the paternal roof and to wander forth, with her disfigurement her only shield. The young man had to forego his prospects and ambitions, and ere yet the disease had sapped his strength or impaired his vitality he became the associate of helpless outcasts. Oh, the bitter and sad fate of the leper!
But who can describe the mental anguish of the sufferer as the disease by slow degrees consumed his members and ate its way into his very vitals? For it is a strange fact that in the case of leprosy the mind retains its wonted vigor, while the body becomes a victim to its full ravages. Who can tell of the dreary days and cheerless nights passed by the pool whither he had crawled to slake his burning thirst, or of the hours spent wistfully gazing in the direction of the home he was destined never again to enter? And who can depict the isolation of the death scene away from home and friends? Shunned from the day of his parting, he was left to pay nature's last debt without a kindly word, a pitying tear, or a friendly hand of those he cherished to sooth the agony of his dying moments. Truly may leprosy be spoken of as the first born of death, the name by which it is referred to in the Book of Job.
Leprosy is a figure of sin. As leprosy defiles the body and makes it an object of fear and loathing in the eyes of men, so sin defiles the soul and makes it hideous and hateful in the sight of God. There is nothing outside the court of heaven with which to compare a soul regenerated in the saving waters of baptism. It is pleasing to God the Father as His adopted child and heir to His eternal Kingdom; it is pleasing to God the Son as His brother and co-heir; it is pleasing to God the Holy Ghost as His living temple and the object of His gifts and graces. Infused with the virtues of faith, hope and charity, it approximates the picture of blissful innocence and supernatural perfection in which the Creator had made man unto His own image and likeness. The adornments of the soul remain as long as it is untouched by the foul breath of leprosy. Let it receive but the slightest taint and its beauty is tarnished, its innocence and its sanctity lessened.
In the case of the leper, it was the first symptom that aroused suspicion, spread alarm and ultimately lead to his condemnation. It did not forthwith make him an outcast, but it presaged his fate. In the case of the sinner the stain that at first only dimmed the luster of the soul did not deprive him of sanctifying grace, but it robbed him of many degrees of merit, weakened his powers of resistance and disposed him to mortal sin. Sin, like leprosy, is corrosive. "He who contemneth small things shall fall little by little." Every sin, however venial, darkens the understanding, impairs the will and sears the conscience, so that the multiplication of venial sins indicates the proximity of mortal sin; for once the habit of venial sin is formed the descent to mortal sin is sudden. When one has the misfortune to incur its guilt, he has reached the fatal stage of leprosy from which only the intervention of Providence can rescue him. Leprosy affected only the body; sin imparts death to the soul. The former causes only a temporary affliction, the latter exposes to eternal torments. In the transition from innocence to guilt, what a mantle of misery falls on the soul of the sinner! Fallen from his high estate, his dignity forfeited, his innocence, beauty and sanctity lost, he who was privileged to banquet on the Bread of angels feeds on the husks of swine. The child of God, the brother of Jesus Christ, the temple of the Holy Ghost is a slave to his passions, a pervert to Satan and the habitation of uncleanliness. And should he depart life in his forlorn condition, no words that a mortal every spoke or penned can depict the dreadfulness of the scene that shall take place after the angel has summoned mankind to judgment. He may be the father of a family. Pathetic, indeed, was the parting of the leprous father from his family, but there remained a hope of being reunited with them hereafter. Hope for the leper is turned into despair for the sinner, and at the command of the angry Judge he is forever separated from those he loved. It seemed cruel to banish a mother from her children while on earth, but unutterable woe if a mother has to be banished from her children for eternity! It was heartrending to see the maiden go forth from home, alone and unprotected. The taint of leprosy disfigured her beauty and the law was inexorable. The young woman that dies tainted with mortal sin shall never reach her destined home. She forfeited her right to heaven, the home of the pure and the angels, and she is condemned forever to hell, the home of the wicked and demons. It was hard for the young man to have his ambitions thwarted, his hopes extinguished and his prospects ruined, and to be obliged to associate with outcasts. What an awful prospect for the young man who must herd with howling mobs where ambition is vain and hope abandoned forever!
Terrible, indeed, is the condition of the sinner and fearful the consequence of his sins. But amid the darkness that encircles him, there is a path by which he can retrace his steps. The poor leper looked for no solace but the grave. What a revelation and what a manifestation of supernatural power it was to him to be healed of so foul and fatal a disease by a word only! How joyfully he heard he monition: "Go, show yourself to the Priest." Yet He who by a word restored to health and happiness, the victim of a disease beyond all human power to remedy has instituted a means whereby the diseases and disorders that defile and disfigure the soul of men can be treated and cured.
imposed on the lepers of showing themselves to the priests did not imply that
the priests of the Old Law had power over diseases. It was merely a
ceremonial in accordance with the Mosaic Law, and in the case of leprosy
consisted in their pronouncing on the validity of a cure that had already been
effected. How different with the priests of the New Law who are not only
constituted judges but also physicians! What tremendous power
they wield, power that transcends that of the angels, aye, even that of the Mother of God herself! The sinner, touched by grace, awakes to his condition. The words of Christ ring in his ears: "Go, show yourself to the priest." He harkens to their appeal. He approaches the tribunal, carrying a corpse - his own dead soul. He makes an humble confession of his sins. The priest listens, raises his hand in absolution, and then occurs what St. Augustine calls a miracle greater than the creation of another world - the soul that was dead is raised to life and becomes once more the child of God, the brother of Jesus Christ, and the dwelling place of the Holy Ghost.
Leprosy was common in Palestine in the time of Christ. Sin, the disease of which it is a figure, is common throughout the world at all times. It affects every state and condition and extends its dominion over every period, from childhood to old age. Leprosy excites the contempt and horror of men; sin, the greatest misfortune that can befall them, does not evoke surprise, sometimes does not awaken remorse. Nay, men make an open confession of their conquests in evil and there are many to condone them. Last year there was a case of leprosy, or rather what appeared to be leprosy, in a city in the United States. It is a city comprising upwards of two millions of souls. The presence of a leper in the vast community was made a subject of the most sensational interest. How many moral lepers there were in that same city whose disease was not made a matter of comment, and how many were thrown into consternation by the report of leprosy who felt no alarm for their own diseased and repulsive state!
We live in an age when the nations are forgetting God, and faith is decaying among the children of men, when time-honored principles are becoming as shifty as the ripples on the surface of the deep, and the Ten Commandments themselves are looked upon as so much spectacular rhetoric, when the old pagan traffic in the lusts of the flesh is being revived and the silver-tongued prophets of pleasure preach from the house-tops their sensuous philosophy: "Eat, drink, and be merry, for to-morrow you may die." This lamentable condition is due mainly to the internal dissolution of Protestantism, but in this country it is accentuated by the well-meant but fatal remedy of banishing religion from the public schools. Describing the utter loneliness he felt at the loss of God thus banished from the minds of young Americans, a distinguished professor, now dead, said: "We have seen the Spring sun shine out of an empty heaven upon a soulless earth." Religious indifference and skepticism and the consequent increase of crime and immorality which are seen to flow from a system of Godless education are sufficient evidence that the new order is the fruitful source of vice and sin, destructive alike of religion and of the best interests of government. The only salvation for society, amid present-day disruptions, chaos and infidelity is to allow itself to be schooled in the Church of Christ which alone is sufficient to teach that morality does not consist in outward conformity to law or custom, but in the inner rectitude of the will; that aesthetic culture is of less consequence than purity of heart, and that charity and not expediency is the only true form of relationship, human and Divine.
One would think that a being healed of so vile and virulent a disease as leprosy, rescued from horrible death, and restored to the society of the healthy, to friends, family and home, would never cease to thank the author of the cure, especially since it could not be effected by any other agency, yet we learn from the Gospel that of the ten lepers whom Christ made whole, only one returned to thank Him, and he was a stranger - a Samaritan; the Jews looked upon the Samaritans not only as aliens, but also as enemies. There was a racial and religious antagonism between them The hatred of the Jew for the Samaritan was proverbial. When the Pharisees wished to malign Christ, they spoke of Him as a Samaritan: "Thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil." The contrast between the conduct of the stranger and the nine Jews is therefore all the more striking and illustrates what frequently happens, viz., that the slave of error condemns by his conduct the disciple of truth.
Ingratitude is the trait of character that deserves the censure of all right-minded men. It is a relic of barbarism and an unerring mark of a selfish, and ungenerous nature. It is an insult to one's benefactor in as much as it discloses a lack of appreciation for favors conferred. To avoid this suspicion of being considered ingrates, people generally are at pains to express thanks for favors and courtesies, however trifling. To do so is expedient and proper, but the mere expression of thanks without a corresponding sense of gratitude is only a disguised effort to avoid a term of reproach from which men instinctively shrink. It is a misnomer to call that gratitude which lives to find expression in words only. Gratitude has its roots deep in the heart and its seat in the memory, and outlives the desire or expediency to translate it to words. Such was the gratitude of the Samaritan who returned to give glory to God for his cure and who as a reward was cleansed of the disease of his soul.
Though men affect to regard ingratitude with greater abhorrence than "any taint of vice whose strong corruption inhabits our frail blood," it is an offence of the commonest occurrence. To be conscious of this, one has but to examine the lives and actions of men in their dealings and intercourse. He will find in every circle of society, in every phase of commerce, and in almost every department of life gratitude outraged o an extent saddening to contemplate, and what is still more lamentable, he will find few on whose hearts the stain of ingratitude is not more or less deeply impressed. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the percentage of thankless lepers is not greater than the percentage of ungrateful members of the race.
We emerge from childhood with sacred and solemn obligations of the natural and supernatural order upon us, but few endeavor to discharge them, while many fail to appreciate them, or completely ignore them. Of all God's creatures there are none born in such a helpless state of dependency as man, and there is no other that needs so many external aids to support life and so much constant vigilance and sympathetic care to ward off illness and to keep the body in a healthful condition. Indifferent treatment of the infantile body will engender diseases which may be the forerunner of a life of suffering or premature death. The same is true of the mind. It awakes to conscious hungering for food and dependence on others for the serving. Parents are the instruments in God's hands for the sustenance, conservation and training of their children. The father provides the means and the mother supplements her duties with lavish affection and solicitude. There is nothing in nature so close, so sacred, and so abiding s the love of a mother for her child. It follows and clings to the child through every vicissitude of life, in good fortune and evil, in honor and dishonor, in joy and sorrow, and it survives every incentive to destroy it. But is the mother's love always repaid? Alas, no. The world teems with ungrateful children. Many a broken-hearted mother who sacrificed herself for her children and looked forward hopefully and joyfully to the time when they would gratefully acknowledge and repay her services and sacrifices, has lived to witness their undutiful and unnatural conduct and to die of a broken heart. Ingratitude causes man to ignore the sacred times and claims of humanity, and also the more serious, solemn obligations to God.
The contemplation of God in His works of creation, philosophers tell us, constitutes the highest satisfaction of which the human mind is capable; and truly, man in contemplating the perfections of God and the grandeur and majesty of His work is impressed with a true sense of his own imperfections and utter dependence. When Descartes reached what he conceived the sublime heights of philosophy, he says he thought it proper to remain there for some time in the contemplation of God himself, in order to ponder at leisure the sublime grandeur of His attributes and to admire and adore the beauty of the light so unspeakably great. When one reflects that he owes his existence to this Supreme Being, like unto His image, little less than the angels, and destined for an eternity of bliss, boundless gratitude ought to fill his heart and evoke his praises: "Be ye filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual canticles, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things" (St. Paul, Ep. v, 18). But how do men respond to this solemn obligation of serving, honoring and thanking God? Some deny Him, others disregard Him, and many mention His name only to profane it. Men of the world are too busy with temporal affairs or so steeped in sensuality as to have little time and less inclination to glorify God for the grandeur and majesty of His creations and to thank Him for His goodness and mercy.
The Savior had occasion to complain of the nine lepers of Israel, but ingratitude to Him did not perish with the synagogue. It has lived through every age of Christianity and it manifests itself in every form of injury and insult. When we consider His claims to our love and gratitude, His mission on earth, His love of poverty and humiliation, His sufferings and death, the institution of the Sacraments, the power He has given the priests of His Church to remit sin, and the undying pledge of His love He has left us in His own Sacramental presence, we are not at a loss to say whether the thankless lepers or offending Christians are the more deserving of condemnation.