Readings for 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: LV 13: 1-2, 44-46; PS 32: 1-2, 5, 11; I COR 10: 31-11:1; MK 1 40-45.
“Get out of here, you low life scum!” Those were the words U.S. Senator, John McCain, shouted at protestors two weeks ago when they confronted Henry Kissinger as a “war criminal.” The 91-year-old ex-Secretary of State had been invited to give testimony at a U.S. Senate hearing.
Those are pretty strong words – and perhaps justified, you might think, depending on your political persuasions.
However the point of bringing them up here is to highlight the deeper significance of Jesus’ curing a leper in today’s gospel. In Jesus’ day, lepers appearing in public would have merited Senator McCain’s disdain. Anybody would have felt justified shouting at them, “Get out of here, you low-life scum.” After all, the reigning morality of the day considered lepers not only sick, but morally degenerate. They must have committed some terrible sin to bring the disease upon themselves.
Today’s readings invite us to reject such superstitions. They highlight the radical nature of Jesus’ act of actually touching a man afflicted with one of the ancient world’s most feared diseases. They invite us to identify with those our culture tells us are “unclean.”
Begin by considering today’s first reading from the Book of Leviticus. It lays out the prescriptions of the Mosaic Law for dealing with skin diseases marked by “scabs, pustules and/or blotches.” Leviticus prescribes a priestly declaration designating the afflicted person as “unclean.” Thereafter “lepers” had to wear distinctive dress. They were forbidden to wear head covering that might disguise their affliction. They were to muffle their beards. If they happened upon apparently healthy people, lepers were to declare their status by shouting the warning, “unclean, unclean!” They were to be segregated from the community – banished “outside the camp.”
So in Israel’s ancient world, leprosy was painful physically, but even more so socially. Contracting the disease meant banishment from family, community, synagogue and temple. It made the diseased one “low-life scum” – totally ostracized. No one could touch a leper without themselves incurring the status of “unclean.”
However, today’s responsorial psalm says “no” to all of that. It reminds us that in God’s eyes, no one is scum. God endorses no system of clean and unclean – no caste arrangement of insiders and outsiders. Instead, the psalmist has us singing, God wants only joy for the troubled. God takes away any fault, covers any sin, and completely removes guilt complexes. No room for ostracism there.
Lepers in Jesus’ day needed that kind of acceptance. (And so do we!) And complete acceptance is just what Jesus offers in today’s gospel. There he addresses not only a physical disease, but even more importantly the social ostracism and lack of compassion that the Master evidently found insufferable for anyone.
So just what is it that Jesus does?
A scum bag of a leper kneels before the working man from Nazareth. “If you wish, you can make me clean,” the poor man begs. The Compassionate Jesus is moved by the leper’s simplicity of faith. So he first gives him a healing touch.
But remember what I said about that: in doing so, Jesus deliberately contaminates himself! By that fateful act (right here in Chapter One of Mark’s Gospel) Jesus identifies with the lowest of the low in his culture. He makes himself an outsider. As a result, Mark informs us, Jesus afterwards could not enter any town openly. As “unclean,” he had to sneak around.
Jesus’ act of identification with “the least of the brethren” holds a powerful message for all of us. It invites us to embrace absolutely everyone as the Master did – even (and especially) those our culture rejects.
Remember how a few weeks ago, following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, mourners carried placards proclaiming, “Je suis Charlie!” (I am Charlie!)? Remember how in Ferguson following the police shooting of Mike Brown six months ago, mourners carried signs saying, “I am Michael Brown!”? Well, Jesus’ example calls us to go even further.
It tells us that we are one not only with the persons with whom we agree, but even with those our culture (and personal prejudices) tells us are somehow “unclean.” So, yes, we might gladly say, “Je suis Charlie!” but we are also the killers who shot up the Charlie Hebdo office. We might be proud to say, “I am Mike Brown.” But we are also his killer, Officer Darren Wilson.
John McCain is somehow the same as those protestors he called “low-life scum.”
Please remember that today at our liturgy’s “kiss of peace.” The person beside you, behind or in front of you might be on a completely different page politically, socially, or even religiously. But Jesus says “touch them;” embrace them; recognize them as your brother and sister – as yourself!
Then continue doing that all week – and beyond.
February 10, 2015
Mike Rivage-Seul is a former priest who in 1972-’73 served St. Clare’s parish. A liberation theologian, Mike has been a member of St. Clare’s since then. He taught at Berea College for 40 years and was co-founder of its Peace & Social Justice Program. He blogs at https://mikerivageseul.wordpress.com