Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time 'B'

Sunday February 15, 2009

No one is quarantined in God’s Dominion.

On the front door hung a small poster with red lettering: “Quarantined.” I was in third grade and down with the 21 day Measles. It was a particularly bad case and I lost three weeks of school. Being the youngest in the class and a slow learner, I don’t think I ever caught up — even to this day!

From my quarantined zone, I watched my friends at play in the street. I had to keep my distance and they were not permitted to enter the contaminated zone that had become an invisible shield and a moat around our home.

It’s not really a terrible memory and I suffered no long-range psychological damage — of which I am aware.

Times have changed and with them progress in medicine and medical treatment making quarantine zones less necessary. Thank God for antibiotics! However, viruses and bacteria have also multiplied and progressed to the point that we do need to take precautions against infectious diseases that can invade our bodies with little or no warning.

And the sign at the entrance to the hospital still reads: “If you have a virus or experiencing any strain of the Flu, please do not visit patients lest you subject their immune system to further compromise.”

In fact, some viral infections and bacteria have mutated to new forms against which there are no antidotes and the fear of bacterial invasion from foreign soil has increased our anxiety index significantly.

This whole talk of disease and bacterial invasion whatever their source is unnerving and tends to caste a shadow over the optimism of believers. It can even weaken our confidence in an all-loving God.

During the early stages of the AIDS epidemic, I was asked to visit a patient who had been diagnosed HIV positive. Naturally, I responded with a compliant, “Yes, of course I’ll come.” But my pastoral bravado disappeared very quickly when I entered the ‘no-fly’ zone in the hospital. All sorts of thoughts crossed my mind as I entered the ‘space capsule’ in the isolation unit. The patient was on a respirator but conscious and alert. I wondered to myself, “Is the virus air borne? What will happen if I anoint him? What will people think if I contract the illness? ” These are thoughts I confess now with not a little embarrassment.

In any event, we have come a long way in our understanding of this dread virus but victims still fall prey to insensitive comments and those of same sex orientation still bear the brunt of disparaging statements none more condemnatory than those from so-called ‘religious’ people.

The Book of Leviticus describes for us this weekend how people in biblical times dealt with the fears, taboos and dangers surrounding contagious diseases. The Levitical regulations represented the codified wisdom and customs of many generations. The diseases themselves were considered a sign not only of physical contagion but also of spiritual impurity. Victims of skin disorders like Leprosy were ousted from the community not only because of contagion but also because of spiritual defilement. That is the reason why those who claimed a cure had to present themselves to the priest for a rite of purification.

This is the context in which Mark describes Jesus’ encounter with the leper. In all likelihood, the disease was not what we recognize as Hansen’s disease, but whatever its nature, it was considered a curse from God. The victim was ostracized — we know all the epithets that were hurled at them and the alert that they themselves were to sound as people came near, “Unclean, unclean!”

Not only did Jesus enter the contaminated zone, but he also touched the leper, lifting the curse that isolated the man from everyone and even alienated him from his very self.

Mind you, the entire Gospel of Mark is a proclamation and a proof of Jesus messianic role and of his relationship with God as “Son of God.” Already in the first sentence of the first chapter of Mark’s gospel we read: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the ‘Son of God.’” And later in the same chapter at the baptism of Jesus, “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved…’” and in chapter 15, verse 39: “Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s son!’”

So this is the way God’s son acts. He enters contaminated zones, heals infectious diseases, casts out demons and forgives sins. This last observation is very important in Mark’s gospel and suggests to us that Jesus’ mission is not only about physical healing but also about the healing of the soul — the hidden self, the sinner that exists in all of us. In chapter seven verse fourteen we read Jesus’ words: “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: it is not what passes through the mouth of a person that can defile, but the things that come out of the mouth are what defiles” because they originate in the heart. In other words, the disease of the soul is what truly defiles humanity. “Fear not those who can destroy the body. Rather fear those who can kill the soul casting it into Gehenna.”

In a world contaminated by hatred, disciples of Christ are challenged as never before to respond to evil with courage but to the contrite sinner with mercy and compassion.

The real question in today’s world is how to balance justice and compassion? How do we balance the harsh judgment of Jesus against evil with his mercy and compassion for the sinner? The words of the psalmist come quickly to mind, “Love and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss.” [Psalm 85:11]

Forbidden zones must be entered to heal those who suffer discrimination whatever the cause be it sin or the accidents of birth. Let those who are without sin cast the first stone. And boundaries must be crossed to speak even to our enemies. There is ample evidence in the gospel that supports this statement.

There is no duct tape or plastic shield as secure as the strength that comes from our complete surrender to God and conformity to the rule of love rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the powerless know wherein lay their strength.

“Grant, O God, your protection; and in your protection, strength; and in strength, understanding; and in understanding, knowledge; and in knowledge, justice; and in justice, mercy and compassion and in that knowledge the love that comes from you, the source of all goodness and life.” [Adapted from an anonymous prayer from ‘The Complete Book of Christian Prayer,’ Continuum Publishing Company, NY, 1995]

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