6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 13, 2000
First Reading: Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 32:1-2, 5, 11
Second Reading: 1st Corinthians 10:31-11:1
Gospel: Mark 1:40-45
For all practical purposes in the industrialized world, leprosy does not exist. On the other hand leprosy is still a vile disease and curse in other parts of the world, most notably in Africa, as well as in Indonesia and the Philippines. While most of us will not encounter leprosy as a formal disease, and we certainly will not encounter it as Jesus did in today’s gospel, I would like to suggest that leprosy is still a part of our daily lives. But the leprosy I’m speaking about is metaphorical.
In order to understand how this Gospel passage challenges us today, we need to know something about the context of today’s scriptures. Leprosy was a terrible disease and it came in various forms, several of which were contagious. However, part of the problem with leprosy stemmed from ignorance.
Many centuries ago people didn’t know much about the disease except that it was bad and that healthy people could be infected by contact with a diseased person. Rather than find a way to treat the person, or more poignantly, rather than discover a way of expressing some compassion for the afflicted, people with leprosy were isolated and cast out from society. They were not only cut off from society but also from any religious practice. A good Jew was under obligation to go to the synagogue or the temple on a regular basis. The worship of God was a community event just as it is in the Catholic Church today. But a leper was not allowed into the synagogue or into the temple. They were completely isolated. This isolation was not just a physical one it was also a psychological one because they could not enjoy the companionship or the support even of their families. A leper would not be able to be in the same room as we are today, because this area is too small. So a leper could not be as close as we are to each other. This isolation preyed upon the leper colony.
In today’s gospel Jesus encounters one such person who had been cast out from society, from religion, and from family. Two remarkable things happened. First of all, the leper bridges the chasm between himself and Jesus. Perhaps he was tired of the constant isolation or maybe he had heard puzzling stories about this young itinerant preacher who was saying strange things and doing strange things and healing people. Perhaps it was all these things. Whatever the cause of his courage, he steps into an area where he is not allowed. He comes up to Jesus, kneels down and says, “Heal me.”
It would have been startling enough had Jesus simply said, “Go on your way. You’re cured.” He did that in other gospel passages. But in this particular case Jesus actually reaches out his hand to touch the leper and make him whole. What is most compelling about this story is something usually missed in our reflection: in this story we have a complete reversal of roles. Once Jesus touches him, the leper is made clean. He is then sent to offer the sacrifice that Moses prescribed. No longer an outcast, he is no longer to be isolated from his family, his religious practices, his society. He is made clean. Jesus, however, has now become unclean. Rather stunning when you think about it--that the very Son of God, the Savior would be rendered unclean. As if God could ever be unclean! Nonetheless, Jesus violated the Law. Because he touched the leper he became the outcast. We don’t usually think of Jesus in those terms. But Jesus brought it upon himself, because while the leper only began to bridge the gap, Jesus closed it. He touched the leper, therefore rendering himself unclean and making himself one of the outcasts.
That is the ministry of Jesus that will continue to unfold not just in Mark’s gospel but in the others’ as well. Jesus, in fact, begins to spend his time with those people who are ostracized. He would be found not just among the lepers, but also among all people who were sinners. Certain kinds of sins required that people be considered unclean, untouchable. Jesus touched the untouchable.
Although you and I are not going to confront leprosy quite the way Jesus did, still there is another form of leprosy to be found in our society. It has the same rules as the leprosy of old. People in a particular group are designated the outcasts. They are to be isolated and, if possible, alienated.
In Southern California we live in the most remarkable society on earth. Los Angeles is the single most diverse city on the planet. Yet all the closeness of different races and ethnic backgrounds has not made us one. There is a cyclical problem that is fed by ignorance and fear. Like the people of Jesus’ time, we are driven to isolate certain groups of people. In sociological terms we can call it xenophobia.
In recent elections Californians were asked to vote on Propositions 187 and 209. Both initiatives sought to identify illegal people from Latin America, isolate them and then alienate them. Manipulative politicians devised and trumped up reasons as to why these propositions were necessary. But once the veneer and clever arguments were stripped away, we were confronted with nothing short of blatant racism. Then the propositions were unmasked for what they were; a direct contradiction to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We come to learn that it is not just Jesus who seeks to make people whole and embrace them. It is also the mission of the Church. We inherit from Jesus, not just an example but also a command to violate any law that isolates people--that alienates them from one another. The tragedy is that in the state of California, where the majority of the people who claim any faith, claim to be Christian. This state actually passed those two propositions. When future generations look back and write the history of the Catholic Church in California they will write positively about the California Catholic bishops who adamantly opposed both propositions 187 and 209 for being what they were: racism masquerading under the guise of national interest.
The story does not end in the past. Today we are confronted with another kind of leprosy. In the cyclical process of California politics it has wound its way into a proposition on next month’s ballot. Called Proposition 22, the Knight Initiative is euphemistically referred to as the ‘defense of marriage initiative.’
I must admit that it seems simple on the surface. It defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. But that is not what the proposition is about. In the language of the military, the proposition is a first strike. That is why they refer to it as a defense of marriage initiative. I have studied the initiative and I have examines our society. Marriage is not under attack, at least not in the way this initiative states. If something is not being attacked in the first place, how can it be defended? Behind this initiative is a prevailing ignorance and fear of “the other” in our society. In this particular case there is an ignorance and fear of homosexual men and women. In fact, this initiative is nothing short of prejudice and bigotry against gay and lesbian people in the state of California. This is not a defense of marriage.
Let us put this into a broader perspective in order to realize how critical this issue is. I presume that no one has been to a church that preaches hatred. After all, most churches that do preach hatred do not admit it. They claim that they are preaching judgment, although by what authority I have yet to figure out. They might even go so far as to say that they are preaching condemnation. But they will never say they are preaching hatred. No, they are standing up to defend the gospel of Jesus Christ, which, by the way, also is not under attack.
The other night the television channel A&E aired a program about the Church and Homosexuality. One element of the program showcased people like the minister who led a protest outside the church where Matthew Shepherd was being buried--while his service was being held inside. What could possibly possess a Christian minister to protest this young man’s funeral? Think it through. We have a young man who was killed violently and viciously simply because he was gay. We have a church where his funeral is being held and inside his parents are mourning him, as any of our parents would mourn us. Outside is somebody who claims to speak for God protesting a man who lies dead in a casket. Just how sick can religion get? Of course, it is not really religion; it is hatred. And hatred is always going to be sick. It is going to find expression in pathetically sick forms. This is just one of them.
Another clip in the program showed that same minister at a rally confronting a lesbian. He tells here that she is going to hell. This woman is going to hell simply because she is a lesbian. This guy seems to know more than God because he knows who is in hell, and who is going there. The woman he met is going to be one of them. After all this, he goes on to tell her that God hates her. All this preaching is done in the name of God, so if this does not qualify as a religion of hate, I would like to know what does. A&E’s program goes on to identify that for people who do not get enough hatred in their church, there is actually a website called ‘God Hates Fags’. Only a very strange God would hate the people that he has created. But that is what the website says.
In the name of God hatred is being spewed throughout the land. Who is going to stand up and really speak for God? Who is going to speak in the name of the love and compassion that Jesus preached and brought into our world? Jesus was willing to take the risk of making himself unclean by reaching out and touching a leper. He then passes on to the church that same ministry. Should it not be a lot less courageous for us to stand up and speak out for the rights of our brothers and sisters today? If Jesus were here today, he would not just reach out and touch, he would also embrace, the people who have been cast out in our society, thus rendering himself once again a fellow outcast.
Imagine for a moment. Jesus is here. He goes to the gay pride parade and he embraces some homosexual walking down the street and people then decide that Jesus is gay. I do not think Jesus would shy away from that risk. It is quite clear to me that Jesus would embrace that person, thus sharing the love and compassion that God has offered to all.
Unfortunately for the Catholic Church in California there seems to be a desire, perverted if you will, on the part of the Bishops to strike a balance in the history books. As with propositions 187 and 209, future generations will look back and write the history of Proposition 22. This time they will properly condemn the Catholic Bishops of California for their support of the initiative. The bishops have come out in support of an initiative that, once we stop playing all the politically correct games, is simply another form of bigotry. To be fair to the Bishops, they do not approach the initiative in the same way that State Senator Peter Knight, wrote it does. The Bishops are concerned about marriage on another level. But that is not the issue of the initiative, and the Bishops should have been more astute.
Cardinal Mahony is a marvelous politician. And he carefully crafted a response to the Bishops’ position in which he stated that the Bishops are holding a course on the perspective of marriage. They do not want anyone to take their position on Prop 22 as a license for bigotry against homosexuals. That is an uncanny stroke of naiveté.
The truth is that when we support an issue, a proposition, a position, an action that is itself bigoted, we are giving license to bigotry. No matter how we try to condition our response, we are still giving license to bigotry. Bigotry is one of those diseases of the human spirit that has to be met head on. One cannot compromise with bigotry. I do not know if we as a people of California are willing to take the stand, are willing to strike out against that kind of bigotry. After all this kind of leprosy is symbolic of other aspects of our lives, and risk is frightening.
The question before us is whether we can be as courageous as Jesus. Do we have the courage to oppose laws that unjustly cast out our brothers and sisters for any reason whatever.? The gospel pulls no punches and makes no exceptions. Alienating other people is contrary to the mission of the Church because it is contrary to the mission of Jesus. That mission was to bring God’s love to all people. It must be said: The Catholic Bishops of California are wrong, pure and simple, in their position on Proposition 22. They are most critically wrong because this proposition unleashes the passions of bigotry and hatred. Even though the bishops do not think like, and would never make the kind of statements frequently heard from, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and other fundamentalist ministers, this was the Catholic Bishops’ opportunity to say ‘no’ to anymore bigotry and hatred. They blew it big time. But just because the Bishops are wrong does not mean we have to be wrong.
We can still stand with Jesus and stand by the Gospel. Even those in unable to vote in next month’s election can speak with others, particularly those who do vote. Voting or not, all of us can speak and decide for ourselves what kind of values will root and guide the society that we want to be part of and the Church we profess to be a part of.
However this initiative turns out, the cyclical nature of California life means that we will have more opportunities in the future. That realization does not mean that we should pass up this opportunity. This is a chance for all of us to say ‘no’ to bigotry, ‘no’ to hatred, ‘no’ to prejudice, ‘no’ to isolation, ‘no’ to outcasts. This is our chance, like Jesus, to embrace everybody here and to share with one another the love that God has first shared with us.