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THE SIXTH SUNDAY ORD TIME B 2018
‘OF COURSE I WANT TO’- THE HEALING OF THE LEPER (MK 1:40)
Leprosy was the most alienating of all diseases in the world of Jesus. Its cure was the equivalent of resurrection from the dead. The most appalling aspect of leprosy was being totally excluded from social intercourse, except with fellow lepers. One was simply quarantined forever if there were no cure- cures would have been most rare. All the helps that people needed to cope were simply not there. In the days of Jesus, two thousand years ago- what do we know of psychological help for the mentally ill, what do we know of the care for those wounded in battle etc.? Very little if there is anything to know. Our first reading from Leviticus today is very stark, with not a word of feeling for the sufferer in it. Indeed it is terrible: the sufferer has to shout out in public that he or she is a leper. It might have been only skin disease taken to be what we now know was not necessarily leprosy. They did not know that then- they had to wait and see..show yourself to the priest!
The Leprosy metaphor
To this day we use ‘leper’ as a metaphor for being excluded from society and despised. But Jesus was not a leper in his society- quite the opposite. He was not seeking popularity if that meant compromising his mission. He not only pitied the crowds but was also afraid of them. What crowds in their poverty normally need is basic and elementary: food, health, jobs, breathing space, some freedom for the future. When we read the Gospels and the Epistles against the background of the OT we can see that the basic data remained the same. We only read texts; they lived lives, not always different from our own. How rich the rich were, and how poor the poor. When Paul said ‘just try to be helpful to everyone and at all times’ we presume he was not just saying that conversation should be polite and relationships easy. When there was a famine in Jerusalem he asked his non-Jewish converts to help as much as they could with his famous collection for the suffering saints in Judaea. When he said “Take me for your model as I take Christ’ he was surely not saying that making a living was unimportant. There was a very heightened sensitivity in the Jewish communities for the needy. They had a daily distribution of bread, with special care for widows and orphans. People in the synagogue were commissioned to do that. Paul inherited that tradition and implemented it in the communities he founded. The world in those days was a world of patron and client. The rich owner had his obligations for the people who made up his household. Unfortunately when the economy was bad the client was abandoned. Then with the passing of the centuries things changed- and the world became industrialised. That is a mixed and for many a horrible story. Gradually the issue of justice was addressed. We live now here in the west in the wake of this. We get our pensions in old age, and have a health system that comes as a right for citizens not as a concession from those who have a lot of money. Things were and often so very unfair. We must be appalled at how much footballers earn today. In the world of the gladiators those who survived were treated as heroes and sometimes lived at state expense with not dissimilar adulation. Some things at least have not changed!
On being a leper
But today we can be a lepers for standing up for our Christian principles. It is so hard now to be truthful about the causes of sorrow without giving offence. Yet something is always wrong in society if people are unhappy in it. Unhappy at home, unhappy in a marriage,without work or unhappy at work, unhappy at school. If everybody is alienated who will do the reconciling? Paul wanted the Christian community to be different. It was a place where alienation would be eliminated. He was not talking about leprosy- how very few miracles figure in Paul’s life. He was talking about human relationships as a prelude to eternal happiness. Perhaps it was easier for him to under-stand because he was used to the synagogues where life was centred for all practising Jews. The big difference after his conversion was that his communities included both Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free persons, men and women. When he talks about imitating Christ Jesus he is especially thinking of the Son of God as humble and selfless. As our Gospel puts it today: Jesus was filled with compassion for the leper and cured him- and reminded him of the procedures for being reinstated into social intercourse-go and show yourself to the priests.
Paul said: I try to be helpful to everyone at all times. Some people are like that. They are the pillars of every family and institution and community. Christianity did not spread simply by abstract truths. Nor do we stay with it because it is logically safe and can give an intellectual defence of itself. We are Christians because of our love of Jesus and for each other. And we love him because he comes to us as someone so like ourselves, that he is moved to tears at the sight of the sick and alienated and afflicted…and does something about it. St Paul had that same mentality. And those we admire most in our communities have it- they are the ones who encourage us, make space for us, provide warmth, have time and smiles for us, and the generosity of giving us access to their experience and genius- and leave the impression that in doing so we are doing them a favour. No wonder people from all around would come to see Jesus. And no wonder that they come together- as we do here today- because of respect and love and affection and values that are beyond price and propaganda. We do not just profess our faith together- we commit our lives together- and we are full of gratitude. This is celebrating the Eucharist.
On Wednesday next we begin Lent and unusually celebrate St.Valentine’s on the same day. A happy Lent to you all. Amen.
Rev Richard J. Taylor
Spritual Advisor, MaterCare International
Boarbank Hall, Cumbria, UK