Sixth Sunday of the Year
The gospels portray Jesus encountering people who have their backs against the wall. We hear today of a leper who is alienated and isolated from mainstream life and community. In The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai (2006), John Tayman, writes that ‘Leprosy is quite possibly the most powerful metaphor for 'otherness.' Though leprosy itself has lost much of its stigma, other forms of ‘leprosy’ appear where new groups can be identified as the least, the last and the lost.
The ‘leper’ is a metaphor for people today who have their backs to the wall such as women, LGBTIQ people, Indigenous or First Nations people, people of colour, the unemployed or underemployed, as well as the planet itself. Jesus being poor and living under foreign oppression shared this and related to this plight in others.
We saw in the last four years how Donald Trump stoked fear about people of colour and immigrants in white people that the country was being taken over by people of colour resulting in a loss of privilege. Where the oppressed or discriminated against might come together in fraternal embrace, fear caused people to define themselves over and against others. The myth of scarcity economics was plain to see – one’s gain was loss for another. Where Jesus, and Pope Francis in our day, tried to close the gaps between people, Donald Trump and others like him validated negative feelings against people who are different and cemented isolation from one another by blaming some for society’s problems and even scapegoating them, e.g., Muslims, immigrants, and people of colour. Such hatred is not necessarily new, but it was fanned into flames in a public way where ill will towards others did not need to be hidden. In Jesus, we see the call to affirm life by living love by reaching out to both friends and enemies.
In 2014, Adrienne Clarkson, former Governor General of Canada, in the Massey Lectures (Canadian Broadcasting Commission) referred to the killing of an Ottawa policeman that shook the nation and how when two days later a mosque in Ottawa was defaced, the town’s residents immediately came to restore the mosque. Clarkson did not speak of this as tolerance or kindness but of identity defined by relationships. For her, identity and belonging was not about exclusion of others as happens when political leaders vilify or scapegoat certain groups. She said, ‘I have made belonging the interest of my life. I was, and am, a child of diaspora. I am someone who, for a while, did not belong anywhere. And I will always be someone who understands the everlasting anguish of not belonging.’ Clarkson, then continued, ‘We are most fully human, most truly ourselves, most authentically individual, when we commit to the community. It is in the mirror of our community – the street, the neighbourhood, the town, the country – that we find our best selves.’
The good news is that God’s vision and movement is directed toward abundant and connected life for all people - not just the privileged, worthy, or healthy. Jesus is approached by one who was considered one of the ‘living dead’ - alienated from family friends and society and relegated to society’s margins. Leviticus, in contrast to the Gospel, tells us who is out, who is rejected for fear of infecting others. One does not have to have leprosy at the moment as people seem to shun anyone they meet just in case they might infect with Covid-19. And how obvious that can be. More and more we face the question ‘who is in and who is out?’
The current bill before the Upper House in Victoria prohibiting LGBTQA+ conversion practices in Victoria has faced fierce opposition by religious leaders and the Christian right by provoking fear and disinformation. Again people who are ‘gay’ to have their backs against the wall. Though the Church continues to say that they are all loved and welcome in the church, it campaigns aggressively against the full and equal participation in society as well to changes in legislation that foster full inclusion. As one courageous writer put it recently, ‘The fact that people feel entitled to cast a moral lens on our lives largely remains unchallenged in our society. Once again LGBTQA+ people are being subject to a prolonged public debate, and intense media scrutiny. Our lives and relationships are dissected in the public sphere, which causes great harm to our communities….. (and)….We also need to reject the prevailing myth that religious-based prejudice does not actively cause harm. Rather, they contribute to an already hostile and stressful social environment for LGBTQA+ people.’ (Daniel Comensoli, Conversion bill debate reveals Church’s hypocrisy, The Age February 2, 2021)
Jesus was moved with pity (compassion) not just because of the person’s illness but because systems and structures caused people to live in misery. The gospel focuses on a man’s religious and social alienation and Jesus’ intervention in his life. People are still treated as modern day lepers – undesirables who pollute society and contaminate our way of living or way of life due to their difference in race, culture, social mores, or physical and intellectual disabilities.
In December (2020), after leading and preaching at a memorial service for people who have died of HIV/AIDS in the last 40 years and who had been made to feel outside the community, another Christian group labelled this as a ‘disgrace.’ I remember how so many of the people in the 1980’s-1990’s were shunned and cast off except by compassionate volunteer carers, the Sisters of Charity and other, mostly women, congregations. When a transgender woman was excluded by her parish priest, Pope Francis met with her and her partner. When a hideously disfigured man was sitting in St Peter’s Square, Francis was again not afraid to kiss and embrace him. Jesus touched a man with leprosy but so often communities can say that everyone is welcome but there are ‘terms and conditions.’ We have choices. Where will we sit and who will we sit with? Will our presence help to take down walls that separate people according to religious, social, economic, racial, gender, etc. differences, or build higher walls and greater gaps? The leper’s physical pain and misery was heightened by being considered unworthy of living amongst others. God does not touch us or love us in a vacuum. Did not Job look for God’s loving presence in his companions last week? So many young people have abandoned Church, even God, because they have been isolated by others in the community or in family.
Jesus makes no attempt to move away. A few weeks ago, Jesus invited some disciples wanting to know where he lived to ‘come and see’. He also invites us. Where do we see Jesus? We see him when anyone reaches out in compassion; we see him when stomachs ache in the face of exclusion and acts on it; we see him when we refuse to allow social taboos, colleagues, friends, family, determine our response to another person. We see him when we go beyond the usual boundaries set out by our church and society. Jesus tells us, when he cures the excommunicated leper, where we should be found, that is, ‘outside the pale’ – beyond traditional boundaries. That is where we find him … and his community.
The reign of God is at hand when we seek those at the margins. It is present wherever people stand in solidarity with people who are marginalised or disregarded. It is present when anyone from a minority group seeks not only his or her own rights but that of others –when First Nations’ people speak up for asylum seekers, when LGBTI people struggle alongside women, workers, people living with disabilities. Jesus has taken on the ‘otherness’ of others in whatever form they appear to us, and calls us to do the same.
We need to ask ourselves who we refuse to touch. Who are those from whom we withhold compassion? Those whom we are content to treat as the non-persons? Jesus is not referring to a person ‘out there’ but the people we encounter every day….. the reserved or shy, the ugly and the smelly, the thin skinned, the awkward, the depressed, those living with a disability, the over-talkative or the self-opinionated, the socially inept and the bluntly spoken ones. We cannot be uninvolved in this broken world where many are kept at a distance because of their race, national origin, lack of education, poverty, physical condition, gender and sexual orientation.
The man the gospel was changed not by any observance of religious codes or rituals, but by Jesus’ compassion - by his touch and his words. Jesus again stretched the rules by touching one others would not touch because in God’s Reign there are no outcasts because according to the gospel today, God is found among the outcasts. Will we be part of the chorus of voices that call for inclusion in all its forms despite what those in authority say?