Leprosy is without doubt a terrible disease to have, but not as terrible as feeling unloved, unwanted, or abandoned. One of the worst things that can happen to a human being is to be rejected. Rejection hurts beyond any other state or emotion. It damages one’s self-worth. It makes a person feel worthless. It makes one want to shrivel up or openly rebel. There’s an African tribe in which capital punishment consists in being ostracized.
Rejection is devastating for children, the elderly, the handicapped … To a child, abandonment by its parents is equivalent to death. The elderly fear rejection more than all their infirmities together. The deepest wounds of the handicapped are caused, not by their physical or mental limitations, but by the rejection they have known. Those who create (writers, artists, and so on) are painfully vulnerable, no matter what success they’ve had. Each of us to some extent has felt the pain of rejection.
There are ways of insulating oneself from rejection – risking little, wanting (needing) nothing, avoiding relationships. It seems better to build walls and avoid relationships than to risk suffering rejection. But this is like cutting off our feet so as not to need shoes.
The man who approached Jesus was a reject. As a leper he was forced to live outside the community. People wouldn’t even touch him. At that time illness was seen as a punishment for sin. Hence, the leper was considered to have been rejected by God too. The leper’s worst suffering was not the leprosy itself, but the pain of being rejected by everyone.
When we reject people we are in effect treating them as ‘lepers’, even though we may not be conscious of this. We can reject a person in small but subtle ways – by the tone of our voice or even by a look. But pinpricks of rejection can accumulate with serious long-term effects.
The interesting thing is not that Christ cured the leper, but the manner in which he cured him. Excluded and rejected by everybody, lepers were forced to ring a bell to warn people of their approach; nobody would come near them for fear of contamination and of being branded unclean.
But Jesus cut through all of this. He was moved with compassion on seeing the plight of the leper. He allowed the leper to approach him. Then he did the unthinkable. He reached out and touched him. In this way he gave him a sign of welcome, and repaired his sense of being dirty and unworthy, of being nothing but human scrap. Before healing his broken body, he healed his broken self-image.
Jesus accepted the leper just as he was. Acceptance is the answer to rejection. It is one of the loveliest things that can happen to us. When people accept us they give us a feeling that we are worthwhile.
Each of us longs to be accepted for what we are. It is the love and acceptance of others that makes us the unique persons that we are. When we are accepted only for work we do, then we are not unique, for others can do the same work perhaps even better than we can. But when we are accepted for who we are, then we become unique and irreplaceable, and are able to realize our full potential.
This is how Christ accepted the leper, and how he accepts us. And how in our turn we may learn to accept others, and to reach out to those who are suffering the pain of rejection. In our turn we could rekindle hope, bring back the zest for living, in someone else, and thus mirror dimly the infinite compassion of God.