We are wired for the community
Readings: Leviticus 13:1-2, 45-46; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45
Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI, St. John Paul II and their predecessors have been consistently teaching us and the world that faithfulness to Jesus Christ requires us not only to: proclaim the dignity of every human being created in the image and likeness of God, but also, to work to protect the God-given dignity and rights of all people without exception, and we are to opt for a preferential concern for the poor, weak and vulnerable, those who need our help the most. You know this more than I do. Now, one of the unique way to respect human dignity and to sustain it is to recognise the place of relationship and having a place within a community of faith, a community of life.
Our human life is made worthwhile by satisfying our core or basic needs such as air, water, food, shelter and relationship. Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of human needs identify biological and psychological needs, safety needs, belongingness and love needs, esteem needs and self- actualisation needs. Our readings of today, focus on the need for belongingness and love. This need is satisfied through the family, affection, relationships, work, groups and a sense of community.
The first reading from the Book of Leviticus tells us how Laws were made to protect people and the society from the dangers of leprosy. Leprosy in the ancient times was a serious or virulent skin disease that rendered the sufferer piteous, dejected, ostracized and isolated. It was thought to be a serious contagious disease and a punishment from God due to sin. Therefore, to protect the society, lepers were not allowed to stay in the company of people. It means leprosy created a vacuum in the life of the people afflicted by it. I can sense the feelings of lepers in the days of the Old Testament and Jesus. The feelings of pain, rejection, isolation, exclusion, trauma and depression.
In the Gospel reading we have a leper to demonstrate the pitiable situation of leprosy on lepers. Today’s equivalent would be Ebola and Lassa fever. Even though there are great scientific and medical advances and attention given to leprosy, it is a fact that leprosy is caused by a bacteria; and the development of the disease is associated with malnutrition; it is curable; and once treated it is not contagious. However, very many societies today still stigmatise leprosy and lepers.
Today, we have heard of the story of leprosy and the leper from our first reading and the gospel of Mark of respectively . What is the story all about? Or put differently, what is scripture challenging us about? It is a story that explains that we are wired for community, and when we are deprived of it, we become truly less than human. It is a story that says, all human beings need to enjoy a healthy relationship within a given community. Therefore, we must not exclude, isolate or segregate people. Exclusion, isolation and segregation kills very fast. People with terminal diseases, cancer and other health threatening issues live longer if they experience support that is devoid of isolation, exclusion and segregation and vice versa.
A certain sense of morality was in operation at the ancient time that influenced the mindset of the Jews, especially toward leprosy and lepers. The morality of legalism. The moral behaviour of the Jews was governed by the Law. What the Law says is right is right and what it says is wrong is wrong. On the other hand, for the popular Western morality, right and wrong is determined by how one feels about a course of action. So, traditional Jewish sense of right and wrong tends toward legalism; that is, placing the letter of the law before flesh – and – blood and human needs. On the other hand, western morality leads to moral subjectivism and relativism. By which of the two attitudes or morality am I inspired?
My dear brothers and sisters, the Christian in the modern world is caught between these conflicting systems of morality. Thanks be to God, St. Paul in the second reading rejects the two standards of morality above. He rejects the Jewish legalism and advocates for freedom from the Law. He says “All things are lawful but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful but not all things build up (1Cor. 10:23). More so, he rejects the popular Western relativism by reaffirming the trademark of Christianity – DUTY OF LOVE OF NEIGHBOUR, which means that we have to put the interest of others first before our own. He says “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (1Cor. 10:24).
So, Jesus in the Gospel today, sets a model for us as He heals a leper. Jesus shows us the new face of God and a new way of reintegrating those that have been excluded from our families, from the church and from the society. This is surprising because anyone who touches a person with leprosy would be considered ritualistically unclean and unfit to join the community and unworthy to worship God. But because as individuals we are wired for community, we are wired for a sense of belongingness, we are made to be relational and connected to one another and when we are deprived of it, we become less truly human. That ingrained desire to belong, to relate with the community and feel whole would lead the leper to courageously approach Jesus and say: “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I will; be clean.” Jesus not only restores the leper’s physical wholeness but he also restores him to the community by saying “Go, show yourself to the priest.” This moment of healing is so beautiful, yet simple but it must not be interpreted as simplistic. Because the first principle of Christian spirituality is charity. Charity demands that we love beyond all telling, we love beyond all imagination, we love beyond our understanding. In my priestly ministry, I have realised that what human beings detest most and is very distressing to us is isolation, exclusion, segregation and marginalization. When the leper fearlessly approached Jesus he asked for cleansing. However, his original need was for Jesus to reintegrate him into the society that he was cast out.
Dearly beloved in Christ, there are many cases of new leprosies and lepers in our world today. First and foremost, we are all leprous in one way or the other and we all need salvation because we are alienated, separated and divided from others due to our weaknesses, problems, disappointments, sins, vices, bad habits and we need a healing touch from Jesus and others in other to sustain our dignity, self-esteem, and our relationships. Follow the steps of the leper and bring your leprosies to Jesus. The principle of advertisement says, “If you do not say here I am, no person will say there you are.” Note, Jesus will always desire us to ask him for our needs. Remember Matt. 7:7. More so, don’t forget to testify to the Lord’s healing and goodness just the way the leper did.
Our human society has created so many social lepers today and we are consciously or unconsciously biased towards people. Please let us face this issue! Instances abound where we have excluded people based on social customs such as nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation or social class. There are many who are marginalized in many families, in our parishes, in our dioceses, in our religious congregations and the larger society. In spite of 2000 years of Christianity, Christianity’s biggest challenge is how to avoid exclusion and marginalization of some categories of people – those with AIDS, alcoholics, immigrants and migrants, homosexuals, drug addicts and addicts of various types, divorced persons, the prostitutes, the tax-collectors, those who have done abortion, victims of violence, racism, sexism, ageism, and all who are hurt by life. Also there are those who are depressed or lonely, those rejected by certain church people because they consider their lifestyles immoral.
The greatest challenge posed by Jesus to us today is his over-riding love for the human person. For Jesus whether a person is virtuous or sinful, he/she is a human being with full dignity and honour. As individual Christians and as a community we have to follow the footsteps of Jesus and risk touching and healing people and reintegrate them into the society. I am sure with the grace of God, we can imitate Christ as St. Paul did in the second reading. God bless us to love every human being as God loves us unconditionally and to foster a healthy human relationship.