a snow-covered statue of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis found himself recoiling in revulsion at the sight of a leper. Realizing that fear had taken control of him, he rushed forward to embrace and kiss the man. He found that he was never afraid again. CNS photo/Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier

Jesus reaches out with compassion

  • January 31, 2012

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Feb. 12 (Leviticus 13:1-2, 45-46; Psalm 32; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45)

Fear is a constant human companion. People fear many things — irrationally for the most part — but especially those things that are different in ways that are deemed to be threatening.

Leprosy was a scourge of the ancient world and the fact that it was not understood only heightened the dread and horror that people felt. Ironically, leprosy is not directly contagious, but that discovery lay a long time in the future — in fact, it came in the last century.

One of the most devastating consequences of the disease was the social ostracism and loss of communal support. Because of the frightening physical manifestations of the disease, sufferers were unwelcome outcasts. Even the command to wear torn clothes and dishevelled hair detracted further from the individual’s dignity and humanity.

Many thought the sufferer to be cursed by God, but as the psalm states, God became their only refuge. Although leprosy is now curable, it is still active in some parts of the world. But poverty, fear and shame prevent many from seeking help.

St. Francis found himself recoiling in revulsion at the sight of a leper. Realizing that fear had taken control of him, he rushed forward to embrace and kiss the man. He found that he was never afraid again.

There are many other forms of “leprosy” represented by the ways we marginalize those who are different. The attitudes and reactions towards those suffering from AIDS are in many ways similar and the same sort of fear is at the root. We also distance ourselves from those who think or worship differently or whose lifestyles and choices we find abhorrent. Perhaps our biggest problem is the distance that we keep — maybe we need to actually know those whom we fear in more than a superficial or stereotypical fashion.

We don’t realize what eloquent testimonies we can give to God by the way in which we live in the body. For Paul, life in the body was a form of worship. Every human act, even the mundane activities of eating and drinking, could become a way of glorifying God. Seen in that light, Paul did not need a rule book in front of him. Asking oneself a couple of very simple questions can provide the illumination we need for day-to-day living: does this thought, word or action glorify God or self? Does it serve the needs of others or the desires of self?

In the story of Jesus and the leper, the Gospel story picks up on that theme of fear and revulsion. As the leper approached Jesus it was obvious he brought a painful history of humiliation and rejection. He couldn’t even bring himself to ask directly for healing, but phrased his request in a sort of noncommittal statement: If you choose, you can make me clean.

The word “want” or “desire” is closer to the original language than “choose.” As for “pity” — this word is a very distant cousin to compassion, which is more appropriate and a better translation. Compassion enables Jesus to reach across the chasm that separated the leper from human companionship. His reply is almost indignant — of course I want to! And Jesus actually touched the man, an act which would have been considered polluting and defiling. In that touch there was a lack of fear as well as a compassionate acceptance of the suffering man. Healing was not far behind.

Jesus wasted His breath when He asked the man not to say anything about the healing. How could he be silent? The response to such kindness and grace could only be gratitude that could not be contained.

Not only was the man’s health restored but his sense of worth and dignity and his place in the community. There are so many people in our world — as well as situations — that are in desperate need of compassionate action that is free from fear and judgment. The lines in the sand that separate human beings from one another are human creations and as such cry out for removal. But that can only be accomplished by those who have overcome fear with love.