Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
February 14 2021 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Leviticus 13:1-2;44-46 | Psalm 32:1-2,5,11
I Corinthians 10:31-11:1 | Mark 1:40-45
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
When we hear the word, “Leper”, we immediately think of a person cast out from others with a contagious disease. When contemporary healthcare providers think about leprosy, they are most likely referring to Hansen’s Disease, which today is early curable with inexpensive, common antibiotics if caught early.
Today’s First Reading is from the Book of Leviticus, the third of the book of the Torah is full of detailed prescriptions for religious rituals and everyday community life. It is a Priestly-Source document, likely compiled from oral tradition sometime after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon over a period of about two to three hundred years.
Two of the main themes of Leviticus are purity and holiness. That is the context of what it has to say about leprosy. It provides detailed information about the rituals related to what was called leprosy in the ancient world. Note that whether one was “clean” or unclean was entrusted to Temple priests, not to physicians and that there is no mention of medical treatment.
What was called “leprosy” in biblical times was, more likely than not, one of several skin diseases that our ancestors thought arose from one’s state of sin or sinful behavior. In other words, if you were a bad person, God made you get sick, while good persons, and those who did good works, remained healthy. Indeed, in several places in the Old Testament, God inflicts leprosy on sinners as punishment.
Because the surrounding culture thought that people got sick because they did bad things, Jesus was thus, more likely than not, dealing more with a spiritual issue rather than public health. Lepers were considered sinners, and the community excluded them from its worship. In a theocracy such as Israel, exclusion from the temple was a fate worse than death. So it was no wonder that Jesus, moved by pity, stretched out his hand to that of the leper who pleaded for Jesus to make him clean. Jesus was that kind of guy. He reached out to someone the community had segregated from itself to make possible his integration into fellowship with his community. Shouldn’t we be doing this as well? Some people have tried and lost their lives doing so.
When I was a child, my favorite program was the nightly newscast with either Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley. The kid’s shows and cartoons my contemporaries liked were boring to me because they lacked intellectual substance and did not deal with important things. In the nineteen-sixties, one of the biggest ongoing stories was the Civil Rights Movement. In those days, in certain parts of the United States, the law provided for racial segregation of public facilities and businesses open to the public. There, it was also legally OK to refuse to rent an apartment to someone whose race or hire for a job based on race.
My reaction as a nine-year-old boy to segregation was, “That’s a really stupid idea.” After hearing Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, he became one of my boyhood heroes. I can recall crying buckets of tears when he was assassinated. Dr. King stood for a value that I have held near and dear throughout my life: that there should be no outcasts, that no one should be disfavored because of how God made them. What matters is the content of your character and abilities, not your race, not your national origin, not your gender, and not your sexual orientation.
Unfortunately, much of American society does not share my views. Despite strong laws and aggressive enforcement of civil rights laws, people still segregate themselves from others. Mixed race neighborhoods are rare. Watts is Watts. East Los Angeles is East Los Angeles. And Brentwood is Brentwood. Very men teach elementary school. Few women pave streets. That all can, and must, change. There is a long way road ahead of us to make what Jesus taught and did a reality by eliminating segregation in all its forms. Segregation is fundamentally evil. It is what lawyers call malum in se, a Latin expression meaning “bad in and of itself.”
Why is it so hard to eliminate segregation? Those who defy social expectations to avoid outcast groups become outcasts themselves. In biblical times, not only were lepers considered “unclean”, but those who touched them were considered unclean as well. In today’s Gospel, not only did the leper violate local customs in reaching out to Jesus, but Jesus did as well. He was expected to shun the leper and have nothing to do with him, yet did what was needed to be done rather than rely on the approval of others to have a successful life.
This story in today’s Gospel should cause us to consider whether the judgments other people make about with whom we associate are something to be resisted rather than followed. Should person A avoid person B so that person A can remain friends with person C? Or even worse, should person A choose not to associate with person B because person A might become unpopular with many other persons in addition to person C?
Should you really let other people determine with whom you choose to associate? For Christians, the answer is no, you should not because the second of the two greatest commandments tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves.
You don’t ever let a bully make you reject another person. On the contrary, our Second Reading today commands us to be imitators of Jesus, who did not reject anyone. When we reach out to those rejected by others, we are imitating Jesus. Let me be very clear about that. Jesus calls us to accept those whom others reject. That concept is at the heart of the independent Catholic movement of which we are part.
Many churches preach “acceptance of everyone” but their reality is different. For example, consider the attitude some churches display towards gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. Those churches brand their lives as sinful and demand that they change to fully become part of the Christian community.
We here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community do no such thing. No matter what your orientation, you were made in God’s image. We love you the way God made you and accept you as you are. We are here to accept those whom other churches reject for whatever reason. That means if you are a same-sex couple wanting to be married, we are here for you. That means if you are a woman called to ordained ministry, we are here for you.
Human societies have featured segregation of one kind or another from day one. It existed in the most ancient cultures and continues to exist in the most modern ones today, although the reasons for this segregation may vary: race, nationality, social origin, religion, education, or sickness.
Do you recall the AIDS crisis about twenty-five to thirty years ago? People with AIDS were treated in many ways like the ancients treated lepers. There was no evidence that AIDS was transmitted in the air or on touch surfaces, yet people refused to shake hands with AIDS patients and even refused them jobs and housing.
The measures described in the book of Leviticus in today’s First Reading were that lepers were forbidden access to towns, were required to dress in a particular way and to cover their mouths, and to cry “Unclean, unclean!” when another person approached. These were also considered signs of mourning. Lepers were considered virtually dead, like walking corpses. The tradition went as far as to compare them to still-born children, and their cure was equivalent to a resurrection.
If we add to the social isolation of lepers the connection which existed in the ancient world between sin and sickness, the leper was burdened with the charge of a grave offense for which God punished him. Thus, lepers were not only forbidden access to Jerusalem but were not even allowed to approach the walls of the holy city. The social and religious nightmare of leprosy is decisive in understanding the human and spiritual tragedy of the leper in today’s Gospel.
Segregation against lepers in biblical times exists for the same reason that segregation does today. That reason is an irrational fear, devoid of facts. That attitude demonstrates that God never intended emotions as tools of cognition. When it comes to the rights and dignity of human persons, facts matter.
Nowhere can this be more seen than in the attitude of some so-called Christians towards undocumented immigrants. They consider undocumented persons dirty, evil, and otherwise undesirable. Undocumented immigrants are falsely accused of taking jobs away from citizens and documented immigrants, even when the true facts are undocumented immigrants are employed in jobs that so-called “legal” individuals will not take. Just as the real reason ancient societies falsely connected leprosy with sin, the real reason some so-called Christians reject undocumented immigrants is cultural. That is shorthand for saying people who came from outside the United States have values, languages, and customs outside the mainstream.
The idea that mainstream culture is automatically good because it’s mainstream is narrow-minded, and quite frankly, silly. Here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, our music reflects multiple cultural traditions to demonstrate that cultures other than our own have something of value worth honoring.
Today’s Gospel illustrated one of the things that I most admire about Jesus. He reached out to people that the society surrounding him marginalized. Scripture tells us that Jesus consorted and shared meals with sex workers and tax collectors despite strong social opprobrium against doing so. Today’s Gospel illustrates that Jesus ignored the custom to follow his heart and mind. Jesus did not view leprosy abstractly in terms of laws or social taboos. For Jesus, the humanity of the man in front of him is what mattered. Too often, both churches and political systems focus on vindicating a philosophical mantra rather than relieving human suffering.
But Jesus saw the leper’s humanity in the flesh. Jesus felt the anxiety within the human person before him. Jesus did not theorize about leprosy from a distance. No, Jesus had an actual leper before him, at his feet. It was up to Jesus whether to restore him to social life or to let him die in his solitude and anxiety. Jesus chose wisely. Jesus made the same choice we should make when confronted with a suffering person victimized by laws and social customs when we have the power to make a difference,
The way Jesus related to this leper stresses that the supreme law for Christians is love and charity to those in need. All other laws are secondary, particularly human laws that keep hierarchies in power, where the interests of persons in the top tiers matter more than those beneath them. Jesus initiated a new attitude and behavior by ignoring the legal and social segregation of lepers. Jesus led lepers to reclaim their civil rights, and thus their social and religious integration with their fellow humans.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus stretched out his hand, like Yahweh did when he stretched out his hand to part the Red Sear waters to free his people from slavery in Egypt as described in the Book of Exodus. A very human Jesus stretched out his hand with mother-like compassion to a suffering person, and in so doing, showed his divine power. Even in the Greek world, a deity was defined as “he whose hand soothes pain.” Jesus stretched out his hand over this leper to free him from the shackles of solitude, anxiety, misery, and segregation, and to show God’s goodness and mercy acting powerfully through him.
The love Jesus exudes flows from both his human and divine natures. His human nature empathizes with the adversities we feel, while his divine nature remedies those adversities. The humanity of Jesus was the conduit for his divine power.
Many diseases have severe adverse effects if left untreated. So does sin. The touch of Jesus that heals leprosy heals sin as well. Jesus touches us with his words, in scripture, at Mass, and in our private prayer life, and in our relations with other people. Our mistake is that we don’t reach out to Jesus to touch us and heal us and instead seek personal affirmation from those around us. However, a problem arises when the attitudes and behaviors of those around us do not match those of Jesus.
Jesus gives us the freedom to touch those who call to us for healing. That’s because what Jesus does is based on love, something that comes from the heart rather than from law books. Jesus shows us that God the Father is not the angry old man many religious traditions make him out to do. God sent his Son Jesus to show us how to love one another, to show us that love is the only true answer to adversity. Reaching out our hand to those whom others reject is yet one more example of that.
Today’s Gospel illustrates that Jesus invites us to think and act counterintuitively to our basic instincts. Simply put, Jesus wants us to use our brains in making decisions about how we respond to situations, not just follow our gut. Our uniformed, crude instinct in meeting a person others shun is to shun that person ourselves lest that person harms us and/or that we suffer the disapproval of people around us. But Jesus tells us to do otherwise.
Imitating Jesus is particularly hard when doing so goes against how we feel and how those around us feel, particularly people around us who are close to us, such as a spouse or parent. Yet repeatedly, Jesus tells us to follow what he taught, even if it means being unpopular. For example, when someone wrongs us, our gut-level self, uninformed by Jesus insists on the punishment of the alleged wrongdoer. Prevailing secular law and popular opinion go along with that idea. But again, counterintuitively, Jesus wants us to love to our enemies and bless those who curse us instead of following our instincts. Jesus tells us that our duty to our conscience supersedes human laws, particularly laws designed to maintain human power structures.
Throughout the gospel stories we hear time and again how Jesus blesses the outcast and expendable, the down-trodden, those in the pits of life– the unclean, the trapped, by pulling them up to an equal level with and everyone in his community. Jesus blessing the unclean was just one more day at the office for Jesus, so to speak. It was what Jesus did. It was Jesus being Jesus. And that is the Jesus we are called to imitate, even if it means the Cross.
Jesus will reach out and touch you today when you receive communion today. As you feel the touch of Jesus, let Him heal the chip on your shoulder and everything else that hinders you in imitating who Jesus is. When Jesus dwells in you and you in him, you will be alive as the Body of Christ, enabling you to receive the grace of God to cleanse your hearts. AMEN.