On the way out of early Mass this morning a woman told me, "Father, your beard is looking very biblical today." I'm not sure how she meant it, but I took it as a compliment...
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time B
How about that first reading today? All the talk about scabs and blotches and pustules is so appealing—especially first thing in the morning. If you read the entire chapter from Leviticus, it goes into great and gory detail about how to distinguish one nasty sore from another—and it was the temple priests’ job to check them all out. As we were doing the dishes after supper last night, I told Fr. Scott, “I’m awfully glad I’m a New Testament priest and not an Old Testament one!” Gross!
But as bad as it would have been to be an Old Testament priest, it would have been far worse to be an Old Testament leper.
Wasn’t it bad enough to be terribly sick? But all kinds of regulations are laid out for lepers: they must dress in torn clothes; they must live outside of town; wherever they go, they must cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” Most intriguing to me—no surprise—is the part about muffling one’s beard. Back in the day (and even still in the Middle East), a man’s beard was considered his glory. (I rather like that idea!) In times of mourning or distress, a man would cover over his glorious beard with the edge of his robe as a sign of sorrow.
All these restrictions can sound pretty harsh. In fact, we might think they’re downright primitive or backward. Why do they seem to hate sick people so much? If only they had antibiotics and good dermatologists!
But we mustn’t forget that these rules are found in the Scriptures. They are part of the law given by God. Three considerations can help us understand why this is a bit better.
(1) True leprosy—although exceptionally rare and quite treatable today—was a highly contagious, very debilitating, and oftentimes fatal disease. Kind of like not shaking hands at the Sign of Peace when you have a cold, minimizing contact with lepers was a matter of public health.
(2) These laws are not so much medical as they are spiritual. To be ritually “unclean” meant—above all—that one was forbidden to enter the temple. (Many other things besides blotches on your skin could render a person unclean for a period of time.) But to be unclean was not a moral matter—as if to say a person were sinful or wicked. You see, the temple in Jerusalem represented paradise; it was a symbolic effort to recreate Eden—the way God originally meant things to be. Thus anything that spoke of death—such as leprosy, bleeding, contact with corpse—was to be kept outside, since death was never part of God’s plan for us. The distinction between clean and unclean was meant to serve as a reminder that this world isn’t as it should be.
(3) Of course, we’re tempted to think, “But we’re so much more civilized and enlightened than that. That sort of thing would never happen today.” But remember when AIDS first came on the scene—and all the irrational fears and the stigma? What about the immigrants and refugees who, if given legal entry, often end up segregated into slums and ghettos? I also think of registered sex offenders who have served their sentences and are trying to reform their lives. Given all the legal restrictions concerning where they can live and what they can do, many of them end up in housing that looks an awful lot like the leper colonies of old. Yes, we must take prudent precautions to keep people safe…but maybe we’re not so very different after all.
“A leper came to Jesus…” Right away, in the first words of this Sunday’s gospel, we should take note that this leper has come into town and isn’t crying out, “Unclean! Unclean!” He isn’t doing what he’s supposed to. He’s breaking the rules. Is he reckless? Or courageous? I’d guess that he was desperate.
And kneeling down, what does the leper ask of Jesus? “Make me clean.” Notice that he doesn’t ask to be cured, but to be cleansed. He wants to be restored to a place in the community: to be reunited with others, reunited in worship; to be in touch with God, in touch with God’s people.
And how does Jesus respond? He “stretched out his hand [and] touched him.” Jesus breaks the rules, too—but not just to be a rebel. He could have healed the man by simply saying the word. So why touch him? Imagine how long it’s been since anyone has touched this man. He’d been banished, forbidden all human contact. In touching him, Jesus not only heals his sores, but meets his human desire, his deep human need to be accepted, to belong. According to the old law, to touch a leper was to make oneself unclean. Jesus turns that right around. His actions say that those who stay in touch with him don’t have to be worried about being tainted. Those who are touched by Jesus are made clean, and they then bring the cleanness, the purity of God to the world they touch.
There are plenty of outcasts in the world today, whether they’ve been pushed out through their own fault, through someone else’s fault, or through the fault or no one whatsoever. There are plenty of folks who feel like outsiders: “I’m good for nothing. I’m not worthy. If they only knew how I really am. Could anybody love me?” And there are some we have cut off: “They’re too rich/too poor. They’re a different color/speak a different language. They lead a different lifestyle.” We keep our distance. We put up barriers. And sometimes, we even justify this on religious grounds: “I’m just going stay all safe and snug here in my little Catholic bubble and not be contaminated by the evils of the world.”
Jesus came to unite us. (It’s the devil that divides.) Jesus came to bring together the scattered children of God—to bring us into communion with himself and with each other. So as members of the Body of Christ, we are to continue his work. Remember in the first pages of the Bible, at the end of each day of creation, God looks over what he has made and calls it good? There’s only thing that God sees and pronounces not good: after creating Adam God declares, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Coming together as one: that’s how the world was always meant to be! Strengthening our bonds of community, reaching out to those on the margins—that’s what we’re called to do.
But it’s risky business.
The leper in the gospel quickly changes his tune. He didn’t cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” like he was supposed to, but—despite Jesus’ clear warning—he starts announcing to anybody who will listen, “Look! I’m clean! I’m clean!” And what’s the consequence for Jesus? “It was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places.” Those circumstances should sound familiar. Jesus is now like the leper was before: marginalized, pushed out. In freeing that man from his isolation, Jesus takes it upon himself.
Are we willing to take that same risk?
This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. Your forehead won’t be marked with the sore of leprosy (please God—I hope not!), but it will be marked with a smudge of ashes. And there’s a good chance that others—coworkers or classmates, family members or friends—may notice at mealtime that you’re fasting and abstaining from meat. You’ll be rather clearly marked as a Catholic for all to see. Now you don’t need me to tell you that what the Catholic Church stands for flies in the face of much that’s promoted by contemporary culture.
Like the marks of leprosy, your fasting, your abstinence, your ashes will be a reminder of death: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” They’ll be a reminder that this world isn’t as it should be—a reminder that much of it is unclean and in need of intense purification. But the world doesn’t like to be reminded of that. And so some people might misunderstand you. Some people might question you. Some people might mock you. Some people might reject you. But know that if take that risk, that if you do find yourself pushed out, that that’s precisely where you’ll find Jesus: on the outside, in deserted places.
I’m really glad I’m not an Old Testament priest—and not just because of all those pustules! I’m glad because, as a New Testament priest, time and time again I get to bring people to Jesus, and to see him touch them, and to see their souls cleansed, and to see their deep wounds healed, and to see them reunited with God and with his people. But that’s not a duty or a privilege reserved to the clergy; it’s the right and the responsibility of every one of us here. What Jesus has done for you and for me, we are called to go forth to do for others.
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” So out to the margins and gather in the outcast. And make a real effort to work on relationships right here within our parish community. And take a chance on living your faith for all to see, even if it means you might get the cold shoulder. Do it all for God’s glory! That’s why Jesus brings us together as one: to give ever-greater glory to God.