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God's Word on Sunday: Compassion must be our guiding principle

  • February 7, 2021

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Feb. 14 (Year B) Leviticus 13:1-2, 45-46; Psalm 32; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45

Fear can be the most impenetrable barrier in the world, far surpassing any fortress or wall built by humans. Fear is strongest when people feel that their well-being and safety is being threatened.

Leprosy was one of the most feared diseases in the ancient world and even into our own time. The sight of one in the advanced stages of the disease was disconcerting and frightening. There was also a social stigma attached to the sufferer and the assumption that they must be cursed in some way by God.

As in many ancient cultures, the Bible ordained strict measures to ensure that others were protected, although we now know that leprosy is not directly contagious. The separation of those suffering from leprosy lasted into modern times. The shame and fear that the disease brought were bad enough, but there was something far worse: the loss of human contact and community. The isolation, loneliness and feeling of being unloved must have been unbearable.

Over the centuries, many laboured to bring compassion, emotional support and solidarity to the sufferers, most notably Fr. Damien of Molokai in the 19th century. In the time of our pandemic, the psychological effects of lockdown, social distancing and cancellation of celebrations and public activities — even though absolutely necessary and hopefully limited in duration — have been very painful.

Loneliness and depression have taken a toll. Imagine what it would be like if it were to last for the rest of our lives. Although separations are necessary during the pandemic, many have experienced division, isolation and separation for reasons of race, religion, social class, nationality or gender. The consequences are always damaging and painful for the psyche, soul and community.

There are powerful forces at work today seeking to separate, polarize and isolate people for similar reasons, and they do not come from God. In God’s eyes, there are no “others” or “them.” We must never lose sight of our common humanity nor allow fear to erect walls and barriers. Our guiding principle should always be compassion.

Paul had just finished a discussion of the eating of meat that had been sacrificed to idols. He was not overly concerned with purity laws, recognizing that for believers in Christ there was only one God and one Lord. Nothing else need disturb them, for the idols did not really exist and could not harm them.

Although he felt free in every respect, he imposed an important limitation on himself: the well-being of others. He would gladly refrain from meat if eating it would disturb the consciences of those of weaker faith or understanding. He did not want to become a cause of stumbling for anyone. The unity, peace and well-being of the body of Christ, of which we are all a part, was of prime importance.

People were more important than rules. And whatever Paul did — eating meat or not — was to be done for the glory of God. Focusing on the glory of God and the well-being of others clarifies many of the difficult choices that we are forced to make each day.

Jesus demonstrated the primacy and power of compassion in His ministry. A man with leprosy approached Him but with anxiety and desperation. He could not even bring himself to ask Jesus for healing directly — his request came almost in the form of a suggestion. “If you choose” was how he couched his request, almost setting himself up for a refusal.

Jesus was moved with compassion — “pity” is a weak and unsatisfactory translation — and immediately granted his request in a blunt and forceful manner: I do choose! Be healed! But what Jesus did just before that is striking indeed: He stretched out His hand and touched the leper.

He did not fear contamination, nor was He put off by the man’s appearance or illness. That simple touch conveyed God’s mercy and affirmed the man’s dignity and humanity.

There are many fault lines running through our world and separating us. We are constantly given opportunities to bridge those lines and chasms by word, thought and, most importantly, by deed. When we reach across those chasms and fault lines to touch another, virtually or otherwise, we have helped to heal and restore our world.

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