“It happened that there was a man full of leprosy in one of the towns where Jesus was;
and when he saw Jesus, he fell prostrate, pleaded with him, and said, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.”
When I read this passage from Luke, I had a flashback to a girl from childhood named Billie. Billie stuttered and dressed oddly. She lived with her single mother on the wrong side of the tracks. As a class, we were cruel to her. She was our leper.
I think of Billie in terms of today’s Gospel because just as the physical lepers of biblical days were cast out of their communities, our social lepers are isolated from the supportive communities that help most of us survive. When Jesus cured lepers, he also cured their social leprosy. They could return to their communities.
I think this passage challenges us to think about the disease of social leprosy and what we can do about it. We all know a “Billie.” They are the sad souls from whom we instinctively flee. Maybe they are mentally ill or autistic or just different than most of us. They can be hard to be around. But Jesus calls us to include such people in our communities just as the old extended families made a place for all relatives including those who smelled, told the same stories over and over again or had nowhere else to turn.
A confession: I’m as guilty of avoiding such folks as most people even though I have seen the magic that happens when students find acceptance from a community for the first time. The former misfits come alive. It is beautiful to see.
So what can we do? Based on my experience with students, pretending to accept or value someone doesn’t work. Social lepers can spot phonies a mile away. No one, however troubled, likes being patronized. The trick is to find something real that others value so the person begins to value him or herself. That’s what often turns the light on with students and keeps it glowing.
Sometimes it just takes one sensitive person who tries to find an individual’s special gift or talent to make a huge difference. So if you know a Billie, smile, take a minute to start to get to know her. If you are real about it, you just might find yourself changing a life and imitating Jesus.