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This Sunday (the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C) is not officially “Leper Sunday” in the Church but it might as well be.
In the first reading, we hear about King Naaman, the leper who was cleansed by Elisha after the prophet directed him to jump in the Jordan River. In the second reading, we hear the story of Jesus curing 10 lepers — and only one coming back to thank him.
The reason it isn’t Leper Sunday is that the stories are not really about leprosy at all. They are about baptism, and what it does for us — though here we see only a prefigurement of the sacrament. Let’s look at the lessons these stories teach.
Baptism restores your youth and innocence.
We know what leprosy means in the Biblical world. Leprosy — or “Tzaraath,” a name covering a number of degenerative skin diseases — had moral implications. Lepers were unclean. Since Jews, like Christians, believed that the soul and body were one, this disfiguring condition was a literal representation of sin.
Sin corrupts all it touches. The real you is Saint You, but sin turns you into a monster. The real you is pure, but sexual sin makes you creepily lecherous; the real you is generous, but sin makes you selfish and petty.
When Naaman dips in the Jordan River, the water restores him to youth and innocence. Says the reading, “His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child.”
Baptism restores the real you again in exactly the same way. But what if you sin after Baptism? You need to approach Jesus, and his instruction is the same: “Show yourself to the priest.” Meet Jesus in the confessional to restore the baptismal you — the real you.
Baptism ultimately depends on your follow-up.
But just as youth is not an end but a beginning, so it is with baptism or confession.
Naaman’s cleansing is not just the end of his disease, it is the beginning of his relationship with God. It is what he does with his new life that matters — when he pledges to honor the God of Israel.
In the same way, in the Gospel, the curing of 10 lepers is not the end but the beginning of the story.
When only one of them returns, he says: “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”
Jesus gives this one former leper the greatest gift of all. He is not just cured of an earthly disease, but receives eternal salvation: “Your faith has saved you,” says Jesus.
It is the same with each of our sacramental encounters with God: God’s free gift of absolution is the beginning of the story of our relationship. What we do with it is crucially important. Whether or not we receive the gift with gratitude and return to Jesus determines whether it is a fleeting moment of grace or a new way of life.
“If we deny him,” says St. Paul in the second reading, “he will deny us.”
Baptism brings us foreigners into God’s family.
Last, an important thread in both of these stories is that the recipient of God’s gifts were foreigners. They were not just healed of leprosy, they were brought to faith in the one true God.
We often think of ourselves as God’s natural-born family. We feel like natives in God’s country. But we are not.
We belong to a land that is owned and operated by enemies of God. The world, the flesh and the devil rule our lives. We are foreigners who God needs to reach out to. And he does.
Just ask him.