Respond with compassion

  • February 6, 2009
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Feb. 15 (Leviticus 13:1-2, 45-46; Psalm 32; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45)

Ignorance and fear are close and frequent companions. Together they often produce the tragic attitude we find in the reading from Leviticus. A leper is to be shunned and excluded from society. Lurking below the surface of the words is the assumption that their predicament must somehow be a punishment from God. And to “treat someone like a leper” has entered our own language to describe shunning another with repugnance and exclusion.

The fear is understandable, for leprosy is a fearsome disease and its effects on the bodies of victims are appalling. But the exclusion of sufferers from human community and support is probably more harmful than the disease itself. The irony is that leprosy is not directly contagious. To add to that irony, attitudes of social ostracism and shame still follow leprosy sufferers in areas where it is an active disease despite the fact the cure is both available and relatively inexpensive.

But far more important than a potential cure for any disease is our attitude towards those who suffer from them. Encouragement and acceptance can give hope and make all things bearable. Ignorance and fear also worked overtime in recent years, assigning pariah status to those suffering from HIV/AIDS. Sadly, in the case of AIDS a cure is still on the distant horizon, but many myths and moral judgments make life more difficult for both sufferers and those who might be in danger of contracting the disease. Regardless of the disease or how it was contracted, people should not and must not lose their status and dignity as human beings. The only legitimate Christian — and humane — response to those who suffer is compassion. And compassion is not just a vague feeling of sympathy or pity but a willingness to reach out and show compassion and respect in concrete ways. This rules out moralizing and assigning blame. Our degree of spiritual maturity (or lack of it) is laid bare to all by the manner in which we treat those who are different or who suffer from debilitating physical conditions, addictions or other misfortunes. They are there for us to love and encourage — no portion of humanity can be separated and written off. 

Paul concludes a lengthy discussion on whether it is right to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. His answer is surprising: there is nothing wrong in itself with eating the meat, but the concern should be with what will contribute to the common good and the well-being of souls. Rather than rigid adherence to rules it is the attitude and purpose with which we do things that is crucial. He thinks of our daily activity as a form of worship in which mundane tasks and seemingly insignificant encounters with others can give glory to God and do immeasurable good for others. But to have a positive influence on our world and on the lives of others in this manner it is important that our actions be done with focus and purpose.

The leper who came before Jesus is almost afraid to ask Jesus directly for healing. Lepers are not supposed to approach or mix with others and the man probably expected that Jesus would either turn him away or keep His distance. In a roundabout way he suggests that Jesus can heal him if He wants to. But Jesus is moved with compassion (a far better translation that the rather limp “pity”) and His response is immediate: “Of course I want to heal you — do it!” He asks no questions and sets no conditions. But He does far more. He is not repulsed by the man nor is He afraid of contamination — He reaches out and touches him. That simple touch is an eloquent symbol of unconditional acceptance and compassion and often is far more effective than words.

It should be our symbol of choice in our encounters with sufferers of any sort. But beyond that it is how we should encounter the “other” — those whom we may fear or about whom we may harbour prejudices and negative opinions. Being a true instrument of healing and reconciliation requires moving beyond fear, moralizing and stereotypes and reverencing the humanity of others.