Photo/Wikimedia Commons via Pedro Simões (CC BY 2.0)

Accept the other

  • February 5, 2015

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)

Those whom we despise, fear and exclude often reflect our own fear and lack of love. They show us who we are inside, and that is why we fear them so much. The ancient scourge of leprosy was a perfect example.

People suffering from the advanced stages of untreated leprosy could indeed be a discomfiting and frightening sight. Far worse than the ravaging and wasting effects of the disease, however, was the damage done to the mind, heart and soul. Sufferers were ostracized from normal society and viewed with loathing, fear and disgust. Ironically, leprosy is not directly contagious, but the ancients were terrified of this disease and a host of other skin ailments that mimicked leprosy.

Leprosy is still active in some areas of the world, although it can be treated and cured. But leprosy is also a metaphor for how we treat those who are different in any way — those who have other ideas, customs, language and forms of worship, as well as those who suffer illness in visible ways. AIDS sufferers are often treated in a similar fashion, as well as the mentally ill and addicts. Health measures must certainly be enforced at times, but nothing justifies the stigma that is so often attached to a person’s situation. Note that in the reading, sufferers had to wear torn clothes and keep their hair disheveled. This dehumanizing practice would not only damage one’s self-esteem but mark them out for exclusion and persecution. It is doubtful that “God” was ordering this measure — religious texts often invoked God’s name to add authority to regulations. We can find many examples in Scripture where God’s actual response was mercy and compassion. That is what God expects of all of us. A compassionate and loving response to others, regardless of who they are or how they are different, is never out of place and is often transformative and healing.

Paul thought in a similar vein. His advice was to treat everyone decently, regardless of who they were or what label they wore. Paul’s entire day, with every thought and action, was an act of praise to God, and God was best praised in compassionate behaviour. Paul did this because he was convinced he was imitating Christ, and his sole desire was to be Christ’s living witness.

Desperation and hope must have driven the leper to approach Jesus. It clearly violated social and religious norms. He couldn’t even bring himself to ask Jesus directly for healing. His open-ended “request” was more of a statement: “If you want to, you can heal me!” His expectations were probably not very high — he had probably been disappointed and hurt many times. Jesus was moved with compassion (not “felt sorry” as the anemic translation has it) and almost indignant. Of course I want to heal you! What were you thinking? Jesus did not fear the man nor was He repelled by him. On the contrary, He reached out and touched him.

This little detail escapes us sometimes — no one in their “right mind” would have done such a thing. The man was cleansed of the leprosy but also of much more. Gone was the shame and self-loathing. He was restored to his sense of humanity and his place in human community. This calls to mind the story of St. Francis, who overcame his own fear of a leper by forcing himself to embrace the man. Jesus’ admonition to tell no one but the priests fell on deaf ears, and who can blame the man. His sense of joy and gratitude swept aside Jesus’ warning and he spread the word far and wide.

Jesus fears no one, despises no one, excludes no one. This is the example we are invited to follow if we are serious about healing our world. The first step to overcoming the fear that dwells in our minds and hearts is to reach across boundaries and accept the “other,” whoever that might be, and to develop bonds of understanding and friendship. In many subtle ways, we are constantly confronted with someone or a situation that calls to mind the leper’s approach to Jesus. If you want, you can heal me. If you want, you can make a difference. Hopefully, our response in word and deed will always be, “Of course I do!”