The Gospel for Sunday is one of the most beautiful in the Scriptures-Mark 1:40-45. Jesus was approached by a person with leprosy whose faith was great: “If you are willing, you can heal me. Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out a hand, touched the person with leprosy,and said, “I am willing. Be cleansed”. Immediately the leprosy disappeared,and the person with the disease was cured”. Then the person is so happy that he runs and tells his good news leaving Jesus besieged by the crowds once again and having to seek out lonely places to stay. This Gospel builds on a theme of Jesus’ inclusive love and risk taking, of stretching the law to embody its real meaning. That is in contrast with the first reading in Leviticus 13:1-2 and 44-46 where lepers are considered ritually unclean as their skin diseases mean having sinned to the ancient world then and in the times of Jesus. True lepers are to be shunned, banished from the community. The Epistle reading (I Corinthians 10:31-11:1 ) then challenges us to “imitate Paul as he imitates Christ”. Wow, what would it look like if we imitated Christ in touching and embracing the unclean of our world?
The practice of banning lepers from the community as discussed in Leviticus Chapter 13 has some good as its intent, the protection of the community from what is seen as a contagious and awful disease. The chapter goes into great detail as to which kind of skin diseases or eruptions merit cutting off from the community and which can warrant only a seven day period of examination and evaluation by the priest (whose expertise seems to include medical diagnosis) who, based on the nature of the presentation, says the person does not have leprosy and is clean-it seems both physically and ritually, for sin was associated with all blemishes. But not all blemishes or rashes were seen as leprosy. Those persons with minor blemishes and only superficial white sores are then free to remain a part of the community. “If the sore has faded and has not spread on the skin,the priest shall declare that person clean: it was only eczema” (Lev. 13: 6). But those with a white sore and white hair around it that is deeper than the skin and other signs of what they saw as a contagious leprosy shall be declared unclean: “A person infected with leprosy must wear torn clothing and leave his hair uncombed….and cry ‘unclean, unclean’. As long as the disease lasts he must be unclean and live away from others: he must live outside the camp”( Lev 13: 45-46).
While the leprosy of Scriptural times may or may not have been what we now call Hansen’s disease where skin and body parts are eaten away by the disease, there was a particular condition well beyond ezcema that merited isolation, ostracism and cutting off from the community. If one with that disease was healed the priest then offered a purification offering/sacrifice of two birds with a particular ritual and the person, now declared clean, was also told to bathe him or herself and wash clothing thoroughly. Later in the process a lamb is also involved in this ritual purification. (Mildew was also seen as leprosy on a house and had to be cleansed). We can see how these laws were health related as well as related to ritual cleanness.
But let us now put ourselves into the shoes/the sandals or bare feet of the leper who had to live outside the camp. In Judaism the community is everything- to be cut off from the community is to be cut off from life itself, is to be a branch cut off, a dead man walking. It is in this context that Jesus both touches and heals the man with leprosy. It is in this context that Jesus is “moved with pity” or “deeply moved” (MSG translation). This is a most human and most divine moment as are all moments when we are deeply moved by another’s suffering.
I can remember distinct moments when I was so moved by the cries of the homeless here in the USA and in other countries that their cries became God’s holy Spirit asking me to respond and to serve the homeless. I could no longer teach about poverty and homelessness, I had to do something about it. In 1982 I began my work in Washington Square Park that led me to the women’s shelters on the Lower East side. That experience changed my life as I realized that prayer and compassion was as necessary as the provision of clinical and social services and practice for me also became ministry. It was also the suffering of some of my gay students at NYU that gave me the courage to “come out” as gay(on the LGBT continuum) in the late 1970’s early 1980’s. These students would share very painful stories of being cut off from families, religious affiliations and friendship groups. They would cry in my office and sometimes feel that life was not worth living. I risked more than I knew professionally and personally by coming out openly, but it was worth it for them. If a Professor whom they revered could be gay, then maybe they too were “okay” and worth something precious and invaluable to God and to humankind. A gay male Professor and I offered to become the advisors to a GLBT Club on campus, and where community had been lost, for some it was found again. We both paid the price for this as our school was actually more disease oriented and conservative than any School of Social Work, especially one located in Greenwich Village, NYC, ever should have been and we were a little ahead of the times. But we were moved by their isolation and loneliness we would pay whatever we had to pay. We could each recall our own bearing of the stigma and rejections by important aspects of our communities-we could identify with being “cut-off”. For both of us our religious communities( Jewish for him and Christian for me) were painful sources of rejection. In retrospect, our courage also opened the door for progressive forces at the school, and the changes ,in time, became life-giving for the school as well as for the students who bore the stigma of gayness.
Jesus knows that the leper is suffering physically and socially having to live “outside the camp”. He also knows the man’s deep spiritual suffering. He risks the touch and he did not have to, his words would have been enough, but he touched the man who no one had touched since the onset of the disease. How wonderful is human touch for those untouched by love and compassion. Jesus then wills the man of great faith to be clean physically and ritually and spiritually. After the man is pronounced clean by the priest he will be restored to the community, grafted back to the tree of life that his religious faith and community represents. In this healing Jesus goes beyond the raising of Peter’s mother-in-law from serious sickness, he restores the man to community, to full participation in all that is life giving. The man is no longer marginalized, people will no longer avoid him. His dignity is restored. Jesus’ healing the man with leprosy spoke to the religious of his day- lepers are no longer unclean, the law is thereby extended by compassion although he adheres to the form of it by sending the man to the priest to pronounce him officially clean. For in this case that is how to restore him to community. But what of the lepers of our time, what restores them to full participation in community, and church?
In my lifetime I have had two friends with severe psoriasis that at times covered much of the skin, and this may have been considered leprosy in Jesus/time. They tried so hard to hide it when it flared up and covered most of the body, and they also became isolated in the attempts. As noted above, hiding one’s poverty or sexual orientation are also attempts to flee from expressions of rejection, revulsion and the bestowal of sinfulness and second class citizenship. Many of the youth and families we serve at Good Shepherd are poor but they work hard to hide this from others and even from themselves. Homeless kids are particularly conscious of this attitude and rejection. So in addition to living in a car or in a shelter or a homeless camp, or tripled up, they feel unaccepted in the community of peers and “regular” (housed) people. The attitude that there is something wrong with poor folks beside not having enough money to live has been conveyed to them, sometimes even by people who may come to help. I remembered that subtle rejection and communications of “not good enough” well enough from my own youth where relative poverty was a simple fact of life in our neighborhood and in our homes.. I understand why it is important to look like and dress like other kids, though some feel this way more than others. Jesus saw the dignity of each human being no matter how society or religion saw them. It is unconscionable to me today as it is to Pope Francis that the finery and gold in many churches could better be used to free people from poverty. It is also unconscionable to think that gays (LGBT people) and others(divorced, co-habiting, married civilly, etc) who don’t meet the “moral standards” of the RC Church are not served the Eucharist at the hands of many priests. Babies from these unions are also often not baptized. The Sacraments are denied, effectively cutting these branches of the tree of life, precious to God, off the tree.
The Psalm of the day (32) says “You are my shelter;You will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance”. Indeed, Jesus delivered the leper from ostracism and both healed him and made him completely whole, a valued part of the community again. For all who have experienced “outsiderness” Jesus the Christ is there-deeply moved to touch, to heal the pain of being cut-off, to make whole and to restore to community. For the poor and homeless this means action to end poverty and homelessness and full human acceptance, for the LGBT community it means full inclusion at the Table and in all aspects of church life including sacramental marriage and baptism for the children.
How can we who imitate Christ do anything less?
Rev. Dr. Judy Lee, RCWP
Good Shepherd Inclusive Catholic Community
This is a recent blog by Francis De Bernado of New Ways Ministries that shows priests who are very much trying to imitate Christ, and at great cost.
Although a Swiss bishop has asked a Catholic pastor to resign from his parish, after learning that the priest had blessed a lesbian couple, the parishioners of the community are supporting the cleric.
According to Gay Star News:
“Wendelin Bucheli, a priest in the municipality of Bürglen in the west of Switzerland, gave his blessings to a lesbian couple in October 2014 after discussing it with other members of the clergy.
Bucheli gave careful consideration to the action, and decided that blessing a couple was the right thing to do:
” ‘There was no considerable difference between this blessing and a wedding ceremony,’ the priest told Swiss newspaper Urner Wochenblatt, speaking about the occasion last October.
“Bucheli said he carefully considered his options before discussing the matter with a Jesuit priest.
“His main question was: ‘Can I give this blessing in the name of God and would it be his will?’, to which, so Bucheli, the answer was yes.
” ‘These days people give blessings to animals, cars and even weapons,’ he said, ‘why shouldn’t you give your blessing to a couple deciding to walk through life with God by their side?’ “
Not surprisingly, the local bishop did not approve of the action:
“Vitus Huonder, bishop of the diocese of Chur where Bucheli currently works, did not agree with the priest’s actions.
“He spoke to the priest and the bishop of Bucheli’s home diocese of Lausanne, Huonder said they want the pro-gay religious leader gone by summer at the latest and returned to his former pasture.
“Huonder’s spokesman Guiseppe Gracia told the Urner Wochenblatt: ‘His actions created attention, even across state borders, and angered many believers.’
“He claimed Bucheli’s actions could have ‘clouded the church’s teachings on marriage and family.’ “
But parishioners have come to the priest’s defense, organizing a petition, which, in a few days, has garnered over 3,000 signatures. TheLocal.ch reported on the community’s response:
“ ‘We stand behind priest Bucheli,’ Peter Vorwerk, vice-president of the parish council is quoted as saying.
“Christianity is based on charity so it is difficult to understand why the church should deny someone the blessing of God, he said.”
Fr. Bucheli has declared his intention not to resign:
“Bucheli defended his blessing of the lesbians and said he would not submit his resignation.
“He said it was his jobs as a ‘shepherd’ to address the weak, the injured and the marginalized, he said in an interview with the Nueue Urner Zeitungpublished on Wednesday.
“In a joint press release issued by the priest and the parish council, Bucheli reiterated that he wanted to stay in the village.
“ ‘I feel comfortable in Bürglen,’ he said.
“ ‘My work is not finished and I see no reason to leave the community at this time.’ “
Reverend Richard Estrada
In a somewhat related story, a Claretian priest in California, has resigned from the priesthood because he can no longer accept official Catholic teaching on LGBT and women’s issues.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Father Richard Estrada, a longtime immigrants’ rights advocate, has moved to the Episcopal Church, and said he could no longer tolerate the Roman Catholic practices regarding these minorities:
“For decades, Estrada saw the pain of gay and lesbian parishioners who were ashamed of their sexuality, and of women who he felt were treated as second-class citizens. He saw the Catholic Church evolving on those issues, but the changes felt too slow.
” ‘I saw a lot of people who were struggling,’ he said. ‘I just felt like I don’t fit anymore. Maybe I’ve grown, or shrunk or whatever, but I just don’t fit. And I haven’t fit. So let’s be honest.’ “
As we continue to pray for change in the Roman Catholic Church on LGBT issues, let’s remember especially our priests who speak out and act for equality and justice.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
Brothers and sisters, let us ,like these priests, imitate Christ!