To begin my thoughts on this Sunday’s readings I would like to pull from the reflections of two men much more astute in Scripture and theology than I am.
The first is Fr. Robert Barron. In the first episode of his Catholicism series, Fr. Barron focuses on who Christ is. The heart of the Christian faith revolves around this central compelling figure. Fr. Barron points out that in the time of Jesus the people of Israel were yearning for the Messiah and that the true Messiah would be known by some very distinctive qualities; one of which was that the Messiah would gather the scattered tribes of Israel. Jesus fulfills this quality but in his own unique way and not in the commonly expected way. Jesus gathers not by political or military might but by his power to heal.
As we see in today’s first reading (Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46) illness, most especially leprosy, in Jesus’ day carried with it the thought of God’s condemnation. The leper was cut off from the community of faith. The leper must “dwell apart, making his abode outside of the camp.” Due to this exclusion the leper and all the ill were considered unclean and therefore unable to participate in the worship and ritual life of Israel. On a whole host of levels these poor people were removed and scattered from Israel even as they actually lived within the geographic and community boundaries of the people. Within the very midst of society they were isolated and cut off.
The healing act of Jesus meant not just restored health for the individual but also restored relationship with the community! This is why Jesus in today’s gospel (Mk. 1:40-45) instructs the leper once he is cleansed, “…go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” The healed man is now restored in his relationship with the people of Israel.
Jesus, as Messiah, is gathering the tribes of Israel; not through political or military might but through healing.
The second insight comes from Bishop Vincenzo Paglia of the Community of Sant’Egidio and his reflections on today’s readings. Bishop Paglia focuses on the singularly striking fact of the leper approaching Jesus. What enabled the man to do this when the overwhelming cultural force of the time was total exclusion of the leper? The leper must keep far away even under pain of death yet this man had the confidence to approach Jesus. Why? The answer: where everyone else kept at a distance out of fear Jesus did not. Bishop Paglia notes, “Contrary to custom, when lepers heard that Jesus was coming, they would overcome all barriers of fear and mistrust and run to him. The young prophet from Nazareth created around himself a new environment filled with compassion and mercy that attracted the sick, sinners and the poor.”
Jesus, as Messiah, gathers in to full relationship the ones who are isolated and cut off and he does so by subverting the dominate force of fear through a movement filled with compassion and mercy.
There are many lepers in our world today. There are many persons isolated, cut off and imprisoned in our very midst! They are isolated both by an imposed cultural fear from without and by their own fears and hurts within – the poor, the immigrant, the mentally handicapped, the elderly, the one who seems “different”. What are we to do?
Paul’s advice to the Christian community in Corinth is worthy of note:
“Brothers and sisters, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks or the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Cor. 10:31-11:1)
Be imitators of Christ! Not seeking our own benefit but that of the many! One of the benefits that we are all very good at holding very close to our chests and continually nurturing is the benefit of our own fears, our own prejudices and our own hurts. In the light of the gospel these must be exorcised. They must be let go of and released! We must be imitators of Christ in the truest sense – subverting the dominate forces of fear in our lives and our world through movements of compassion and mercy!
This is what it means to be an imitator of Christ and what it means to be the Church; the Body of Christ in our world. This is the amazing movement of God’s grace – as we welcome the outcast in compassion and mercy; we ourselves are healed of the weight of our own fears!
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)
God does not expect us to be perfect; God just asks us to be open to being perfected. How are we perfected? Through the movements of compassion and mercy.
Christ the Messiah and Gentle Shepherd continues to gather the isolated and the outcast through healing and through mercy. The “outcasts” here being both others and our very selves.