A medieval mosaic of Christ healing the leper. Photo from Wikipedia

God's Word on Sunday: The ‘proper’ response is welcoming the other

  • February 9, 2024

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

People tend to fear what they do not understand or what is unfamiliar. The advanced stages of leprosy can be a very disturbing sight. Although the cure is now readily available, the disease is still active in some parts of the world. In its advanced stages, the sufferer loses fingers and extremities and their facial features are often disfigured. Leviticus dealt with the problem as best it could, calling for isolation and preventative measures.

It is ironic that leprosy is not directly contagious. But far worse than the ravages of the disease were the social isolation, shame and avoidance by others. Those with leprosy were made to feel loathsome and repulsive. In our own time, we have our own forms of “leprosy,” often social in nature. At the peak of the AIDS outbreak, sufferers were shunned by many, and often their disease was regarded as deserved.

Sometimes people are judged and avoided because of their appearance, beliefs or lifestyle. Many recoil from the homeless or those with mental challenges. We must always ask ourselves what it is we fear. Is there a legitimate caution, as during the worst stages of the COVID pandemic? Or is prejudice and fear of the “other” at the root of our rejection?

But rejection is never the proper response. The only acceptable response is compassion and mercy. Fr. Damien knew this and gave his life to the lepers in the leprosarium on Molokai, finally succumbing to the disease himself after many years. Mother Teresa tended to the sick and dying who had no one to care for them. Many men and women have put aside their own fears and given their lives to helping those whom others reject or ignore. If we take a careful look around, we will probably be able to identify at least one group, maybe more, of people who are labelled and sidelined. 

People often get caught up in agonizing over what is “proper” in various situations. Paul discussed the turmoil that food and drink were causing in his community. Was it permissible to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols? His answer was typically Pauline: do what shows love for others and builds up the community and the common good. But whatever you do, do it for the glory of God. In most ethical situations, that should provide all the guidance that we need. We should always seek the good of others and not be focused primarily on ourselves.

The man with leprosy was hesitant and nervous. He desperately wanted to be healed, but who was he to ask this great healer and holy man to do this for him? And what if Jesus did not want to come near him? His request was indirect — he merely said that Jesus could heal him if He wanted to do so. He was pleasantly surprised — the response of Jesus was an emphatic assent: “I do want to! Be made clean!” It was as if He were saying, “Of course I do!” But Jesus did more than this — He reached out and touched the man, something that few people in the ancient world would have been willing to do. By doing this, He showed compassionate solidarity and that He was not in the least repelled by the man or his situation.

As always in Mark’s Gospel, He sternly ordered the man to keep his mouth shut and tell no one. But that is virtually impossible, and true to human nature, the man spread the word far and wide about what Jesus had done. Jesus’ cover was blown, as it would be many times, and He found it very difficult even to move about. It is interesting that Jesus sent the man to the temple to offer testimony to the priests and make the traditional offering for healing. Jesus made it clear that the source of this healing was the God of Israel.

Perhaps the lesson we can draw from this account is that we should not be timid or tentative in bringing our needs and requests to God. The Lord does choose or want to help us in any way possible and does not play games with us.