Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Do Not Touch?

6 Sunday B #77

Lv 13, 1-2. 44-46
Ps 32
1 Cor 10, 31. 11, 1
Mk 1, 40-45

Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
February 15, 2009

Deacon Tom Cornell

Today’s Gospel reading is a simple little story, but there’s more to it than meets the eye at first glance. The leper approaches Jesus and the crowd that has gathered around him. He has to push his way through, touching people to make room. That was a no-no! We just heard in our First Reading from Leviticus that lepers were excluded from ordinary society. This man had no business among healthy people, no less touching them. But he left his place, where the Law assigned him, away from other people, on the margins away from the community, “outside the camp.”

The people around Jesus were startled to see him; many of them must have been afraid. They knew that leprosy is contagious. That’s why the Law of Moses excluded lepers from the community, to live away from other people, as best they could. Some of them lived in cemeteries on the edge of town, where relatives and former friends might leave them something to eat, where they could build a little lean-to or shed propped up against a tomb, not too far away, but away.

The leper says to Jesus, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with compassion, Jesus does a no-no too! Instead of commanding the leper to get back where he belongs, Jesus stretches out his hand. He even touches the leper, taking the risk that he himself might contract the disease. That’s a radical way of identifying with this poor man. The leper is made clean. Jesus tells the leper now cured to go and show himself to the priest. He is not to tell anyone on the way what happened to him, but only the priest, and to make the customary offering. That will be a proof to him.

A proof of what? Proof that the man has been cured, yes, but more, proof about Jesus, that his ministry is authentic. The priest would understand that Jesus is not just another wandering preacher and faith-healer exploiting simple people’s credulity. There were people like that, in those days. There was something different about Jesus. That was clear. But what? Jesus keeps his secret, the nature of his mission, but little by little as the Gospel unfolds, Jesus will reveal himself as the Christ, the Messiah of God.

We don’t know what the priest thought or if the leper ever got to him. We are told only that the leper now cured could not keep his story to himself. He was so overjoyed that he began “to publicize the whole matter.” The Greek says he “preached the word.” The leper is not only cured but he is welcomed back into the community and becomes a herald, proclaiming the good news of Jesus. He is healed and the community is healed and Jesus’ fame spreads from town to town. In the last verse, Jesus identifies with the leper again by going out by himself into the margins, to deserted places, if only to get away from the crowds.

Today’s story teaches the lesson of unity and compassion, a compassion that becomes love, the love that casts out fear and restores community. Fear can be a legitimate defense mechanism. There is good reason for us to be careful, to avoid contagion, to wash our hands before we leave the bathroom and to sneeze into a handkerchief. We have to teach our children simple precautions, how to cross the street and not to take rides from strangers. But we can overdo it.

Thomas Merton taught that fear is the root of violence; fear is the root of war. Love casts out fear, and we are called to love, not to fear. How many times in Scripture do we hear the words, “Fear not!” “Don’t be afraid!” If fear becomes our primary way of looking at things, if we look at everything and everyone through the lens of suspicion and fear, then we blind and cripple ourselves. Fear will keep us from stepping out onto an untried path, or from stretching a hand out to a stranger, or from taking a chance, the chance that might open up a whole new world to us. Fear will keep us stuck in old familiar ways of thinking and acting, even long after they serve any purpose.

In the Book of Proverbs we read that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Fear is not a good translation of the Hebrew word here; it is misleading. Reverence says it better, or reverance and awe. “Awe-filled reverence of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The Holy Almighty Immortal God showed himself to us as a little baby, to love, then as a criminal on a Cross, in love. That, as the kids say nowadays, is truly awesome!

Today’s story points to the basic truth in all authentic religion, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, all ways to Wisdom, to God: truly religious people sense in their hearts unity, the unity of all Creation, the whole universe “charged with the grandeur of God,” and the unity of the human family, no one left out, and from that a sense of compassion, a “suffering with,” feeling the pain of the excluded. Unity and compassion. That is the profound lesson of today’s simple little Gospel story.