Tuesday, June 2, 2009

10-14-2007: 28th Ordinary Time (C)

2 Kings 5:14-17/Psalm 98/2 Timothy 2:8-13/Luke 17:11-19
Jesus seems a bit miffed in today’s gospel when nine of the ten miraculously-cured lepers never turn up to say thanks. After all, you’d expect a semblance of gratitude from someone cured of an incurable disease. When I had an attack of kidney stones a few years back, I couldn’t stop thanking the nurse who was injecting me with morphine. In fact, after the morphine took effect, I wanted to thank everybody, including the guy who discovered morphine in the first place – he really should be canonized. As for those nine ungrateful lepers: What’s their problem?

Leprosy (as I understand it) is bad, not because it causes pain, but because it takes it away. As leprosy causes the body’s extremities to numb, the infected person ceases to feel all sensation, including pain, making him unaware of wounds received and the subsequent infections from those very wounds, often resulting in the loss of limbs and worse. The absence of pain for the victim of leprosy is the symptom of his disease -- a precursor to decay and death.

Maybe those ungrateful lepers knew that once they were cured and their numbness worn off, they would begin to feel again -- a scary prospect indeed. Or maybe they were just so used to being numb, they couldn’t remember how to be grateful.

Sorokdo is a small island off Korea’s southwest coast. It was founded as a leper colony in 1916 by the then-occupying Japanese military government. Its establishment was meant to isolate victims of leprosy (Hansen’s disease) from the general population, causing a stigma which may have been as debilitating as the disease itself. In 1984 I was invited to Sorokdo by a young man who, as a peace corps volunteer and nurse (he would later become a Maryknoll priest), had been living on the island for several years helping to care for its two thousand inhabitants. Most of the lepers lived in one room shacks. They were never permitted to leave the island. And if they had children, their children were taken from them and placed in an orphanage on the mainland. Those children, however, were permitted to visit their parents for short intervals throughout the year. The summer I was on Sorokdo, ten-year-old Johann was there too, visiting his parents.

Johann would serve daily Mass in the village chapel before going off to spend the day with his parents. Johann’s parents were in their early thirties, though they seemed much older. The disease had taken its toll: Johann’s father was blind; his mother had already lost both her legs.

One might argue that the numbing effect of the leprosy had alleviated their pain. But I don’t think even a steady dose of morphine could numb the heartbreak of seeing their only child leave them once again for the orphanage. In Confucian culture family connections determine everything. Johann’s parents would have known that even as an adult their son would not be able to hide the fact that his parents were lepers, seriously jeopardizing his chances for gainful employment and his prospects for marriage.

Last month the Korean government completed the building of the bridge which will connect Sorokdo to the mainland, indicating perhaps that the stigma of leprosy is at long last lifting from the popular imagination. For it was the stigma – and not the disease – which forced Johann and his parents to be separated (leprosy can be controlled with antibiotics). Their endurance of that hardship proves that though they may have been robbed of physical sensation, their hearts could still break with a cruel ferocity.
Leprosy, thankfully, may soon become a conquered disease. But as a metaphor it remains pandemic for so many of us who feel alienated, alone, abandoned and downright numb. When Jesus cures the ten from leprosy he doesn’t guarantee them freedom from pain – that, leprosy has already guaranteed -- but rather he makes them vulnerable once again to life’s pain and its pleasure, to all the joys and the sorrows which define us as human beings, imprinting upon us such a noble dignity that not even the ravages of leprosy can disfigure.

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