I imagine that most of us have had the experience of really looking forward to getting together with family or friends, and then not being able to join them because we got sick. Magnify this experience by an entire lifetime, and that will describe the plight of those who suffered from leprosy in Jesus’ day. Because people were so afraid of catching their illness, lepers by law had to live completely separate from the community of their family and friends. We can only imagine how painful that must have been.
The leper we encountered in today’s gospel actually had to break the law in order to approach Jesus and ask for help. Yet Jesus didn’t turn him away. Instead, he was "moved with pity," and he healed him. Jesus then sent him to see a priest, who was one person who could legally re-admit him to the fellowship of family and friends.
The experience of lepers reminds us that sickness, in addition to causing physical pain, can also lead to loneliness and alienation. Often the sick are unable to get out like they used to, because they’re confined to their home or a hospital. Perhaps they can have few or no visitors because of their condition. Sometimes people intentionally avoid the sick out of fear or ignorance, as can happen to people with AIDS. And it can happen that the sick are forgotten altogether, especially the elderly and nursing home patients.
This loneliness can be even more painful than the physical pain of sickness, because loneliness can lead to hopelessness and despair. "When we feel cut off from the human family," wrote Fr. Henri Nouwen, "we quickly lose heart." That’s why Jesus’ example should challenge us to reach out to those we know who are sick, with prayer, cards, visits, and offers of help. In this way, we express our love, lift spirits, ease burdens, generate hope, and touch people’s lives with the compassion of Jesus himself.