In Christ, we are able to transcend all barriers
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time/Feb. 15
Leviticus 13:1-2,44-46; Psalm 32:1-2,5,11; 1 Corinthians 10:31 — 11:1; Mark 1:40-45
Pus-filled sores, scabs and skin blotches may seem to be an unlikely subject in a liturgy, but they serve to call us to love those deemed to be the least among us in the readings for the Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time.
Leprosy evoked fear in the Children of Israel and elsewhere that continues today. According to the Infectious Disease Research Institute, “Leprosy is endemic in 24 countries, exposing 1.6 billion people. More than 1,200 new cases of leprosy are found every day. About 4 to 5 million people suffer from leprosy or have deformities due to leprosy.”
No surprise that the Children of Israel wanted something done to reduce their exposure. God explains to Moses and Aaron the plan. The Lord says, “The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean. He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.”
The Children of Israel acted not out of prejudice, but out of fear. The prejudice comes later. Living in segregation outside of the camp and shouting, “Unclean, unclean,” surely makes a person a target of prejudice. Lepers seemed to their contemporaries to be the least of all, punished for their sins by this horrific disease. In this context, a leper approaches Jesus, kneels before Him and pleads, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”
Jesus, moved with pity, says, “I do will it. Be made clean.” Jesus touches the leper and immediately the leprosy leaves him. Jesus tells the man to present himself to the priest and make the prescribed offering as Moses decreed.
Jesus also warns him sternly not to reveal how he was cleansed. Why keep it a secret? The Gospel according to Mark says, “The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.”
Jesus had touched a leper and might be contaminated. The Mosaic law of segregation now applied to Jesus, so he can no longer enter into a town openly. Despite a very real fear of a very devastating disease, people kept coming to Jesus. They didn’t let the fear and prejudice that segregated others keep them from Christ.
IDENTIFYING OUR PREJUDICES
Prejudice seems to have also gripped the Corinthians. Paul writes, “Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks or the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Trying to please everyone in every way seems a daunting task until we put it into the context of Christ.
In Christ, idolatry — wanting something more than God — gives way to faith. Expectation — wanting things to go my way — gives way to hope. Attachment — wanting what gratifies me — gives way to love. In Christ, we can transcend the barriers of Jew or Greek, clean or unclean. It’s a struggle that begins when we identify our own prejudices.
When we experience fear, no matter the cause, the pragmatic response of Moses and Aaron seems like the best way to preserve our comfort zone. Jesus has a different idea. The readings for the Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time ask us to struggle past our fears, and the prejudices that they cause, exit our comfort zone, and love those who seem to be the least among us.
TIM IRWIN teaches at Peoria Notre Dame High School, where he chairs the Theology Department. He is a member of St. Mark Parish in Peoria.