And when he had come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him: 2 And behold a leper came and adored him, saying: Lord, if you will, you can make me clean. 3 And Jesus stretching forth his hand, touched him, saying: I will, be made clean. And forthwith his leprosy was cleansed. 4 And Jesus said to him: See that you tell no man: but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift which Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.Thus according to the Gospel of Matthew. Every time this reading comes up at Mass, almost every priest I've ever heard gives the same homily: lepers were the social outcasts of Jesus's time; they were segregated from the community and forced to shout "Unclean! Unclean!" if someone approached them; this made them feel bad; Jesus loves everyone, even the lepers; we should ask ourselves who the lepers of the 21st century are and love them and hug them and pet them and call them George.
This is bad theology and bad history.
Leprosy is not socially constructed. It's a disease caused by bacteria. Lepers were segregated from mainstream society not because they were the victims of prejudice but because leprosy is contagious. St. Damian of Molokai who spent his priestly life minstering to a leper colony on Hawaii himself died of leprosy. Note that even after he cured the leper, Jesus commanded him to follow the laws required to reintegrate into society. Leprosy ravages the body leaving open sores and causing great nerve damage. So, how many of us loving, tolerant, welcoming moderns are prepared to go kiss some lepers now?
What leprosy does to the body, sin does to the soul. The man immersed in sin has a soul as ugly and deformed as the body of a leper. The point of the story is that Jesus is the only one who can heal the soul eaten by sin in the same way he cured the body eaten by leprosy. The point is that I am a leper. All of us are lepers. And we need Jesus Christ, the only one who can make us clean.
If the point of the story is that we're all narrow minded Pharisees who exclude others out out of bigotry, then what do we really need Jesus for? Doesn't he become just another liberal busybody chiding us for being mean and hurtful and prejudiced and all the other modern litany of unforgiveable sins?
If the problem is prejudice, then it's just a matter of attending more seminars and lectures on multiculturalism. It can be fixed through education. If the problem is sin, in contrast, then we can't pull ourselves up by our own efforts. We need supernatural help. Why do so many priests shy from speaking this? Why do they settle for the safe, nonoffensive message of inclusion and tolerance? Is it because they're afraid they'll make us mad? Is it because they don't believe anything is really wrong with us? If any priests read this, I give you permission to offend me or make me uncomfortable.