Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Lepers Among Us—Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Lev. 13:1–2, 44–46; 1 Cor. 10:31–11:1; Mark 1:40–45

We live in an era in which our fears are constantly pricked by the mainstream media, in which we must constantly be on guard for all those little catastrophes that were accepted as the lot of humans in history. Whether it's a measles outbreak at Disneyland or whooping cough at the whooping crane preserve, the media makes sure that we are constantly at the peak of anxiety about every potential threat to our well being, regardless of how remote. A bad case of eczema in our neighbor could send anyone of us into a paranoid paroxysm of pugilistic pugnacity.
My alliteration aside, our current tendency to anxiety mirrors with some fidelity the fears of ancient Israel. In our first reading from Leviticus, the law concerning the treatment of those with leprosy is stark and cold. Those who have any indication of uncleanliness must be set apart and must identify themselves as unclean. Now, it's important to note that leprosy was not a clearly defined condition. Bad acne, baldness, eczema, or skin cancer might all be categorized under that label in ancient times because they had no means by which to distinguish such ailments from a deadly contagion.
And it was a horrifying categorization! The people who were outcast were likely to be condemned to live with those who were seriously ill! Imagine if you had seasonal allergies or a head cold and you were forced to live as exiles among people with bubonic plague. That was the plight of anyone with a noticeable blemish under the old dispensation.
Now the intent of the Law was merciful. They wanted to contain contagion and to corral corruption. But it came at the cost of isolation. The people who most needed to be healed were made to wait until healing was no longer necessary. So the Law was merciful in theory, but in harsh practice. Instead of carefully investigating the nature of the illness these people suffered, the Jewish priests of that time simply declared such people unclean, and they were outcast until they could present themselves to be otherwise. They were separated and alone.
I don't think it takes much of a stretch for us to look at the outcast among us and see the same dilemma. We have, most notably, the homeless. But we also have the chronically ill, the disabled. As difficult as it is in our eyes to reach out to them, they are the easy cases. We know we are commanded—not requested, but commanded by Christ—to visit the sick and imprisoned. I have to admit that in my Christian life, I have not put this into practice as I should, not for any lack of opportunity but for a lack of conscious effort. And for that I had better make up for lost time, or I will have to answer why I did not visit Christ when he was sick or imprisoned.
Notice in our gospel reading that Jesus sets aside the ritual law. The ritual law was erected to put a fence around the Jews, to protect them from ritual impurity and moral error, but it did nothing to reconcile Jews with each other. In fact, the way that different sects in the 1st century interpreted the law—and there were many of them, from the Pharisees, to the Sadducees, to the Essenes and others—they separated themselves from the Gentiles and the Hebrew am haaretz or people of the land—the other Jews who were not considered righteous. They erected walls between themselves and anyone who thought or lived differently from them. The story of the good Samaritan exemplifies this separation and isolation, when the priest and Levite cross the road to avoid the man who appears to be dead in fear of becoming ritually impure. So the desire for purity overrides the recognition of a clear need for compassion.
That thought should give us all pause. Don't we often avoid the sick? Don't we also often avoid people of differing religious or political opinions as if their beliefs might somehow taint us or make us unclean? Don't some of us in the Church do the same to our separated brethren in other denominations or even to Catholics who have a different understanding of the faith?
The gospel, though, shows a very different approach by Jesus.
We might not have a Heaven on Earth, but we can choose to be heavenly on Earth. St. Paul tells us how in 1 Corinthians—by being imitators of Christ—by looking at others with a compassion that will not let us hold back from someone who is hurting.
Jesus did just that. In numerous places in the gospels, we see the clause, "And Jesus looked on him with compassion" or "looked on her" or "looked on them." The God-man who healed the blind could do so because He was not blind to their need. The God-man who cast out demons from the possessed could do so because He did not deny their possession. The God-man forgave the tax collectors and prostitutes because He could see their inner poverty and alienation. It takes nothing of us to be compassionate for the people who suffer like we do—with our smart phone bills, our expensive mortgages, and our aging parents. But it takes something more for us to look on the sufferings of another wholly different than ours, perhaps even repugnant to us—the addict, the ex-con, the former prostitute—it takes something more for us to look on their suffering with compassion...
and yet more still to do something about it.
So what do we do about the lepers in our midst? The first step is in recognizing that all of us are touched by it. All of us, spiritually, are lepers in one way or another. We might sense a very great "ick" factor in approaching the homeless, but God has all the more standing to find us "icky." Yet He touched people's tongues, put His fingers in people's ears, and smeared mud made from His spittle on people's eyes. And most of all, He died in a horrible way on that cross for us. If anyone had an excuse, it was Him, and He chose to help us nonetheless.
The second step is to slough off our complacency and look for those who need us. The homeless are easy. We all know where they stay, and we see them on the street corners. Be cognizant of them. Don't pretend that they don't exist. Once you recognize the homeless, think of the other marginalized and neglected and where they live: hospitals, retirement homes, the county jail. Recognize that they are alone and pray for them.
The third step is to respond in some fashion. It does not have to be dramatic. When you pull up to someone on a corner holding a sign, introduce yourself and ask for their name. They are then no longer just a nobody to whom you toss a couple of dollars. You will be acknowledging them as a human being. You might carry some granola bars, pairs of socks, or even small copies of the New Testament with you in your car to hand out. You might volunteer in our prison ministry, or with our Eucharistic outreach to the homebound, or in our other outreach programs. You might advocate for victims of trafficking. You might volunteer at a shelter. And you might be changed in ways you can't imagine right now.
Our faith is not bound by the foundation of this cathedral. In fact, we explicitly send you out after every Mass with a command: Go and proclaim the gospel to the world; Go and glorify the Lord with your Life.

So do it. Go and proclaim the gospel. Proclaim it with your lips, but most importantly with the way you live your life.
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