Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

“Cooties! You have cooties!”

Perhaps you heard that childhood chant aimed at you in the schoolyard when you touched (or were touched by) a child of the opposite sex – or a child that stood out as ‘different’ in some way. Perhaps you aimed that chant at some other unfortunate kid caught in the same circumstance. Children, from a very early age, set up among themselves certain boundaries. Some are marked off – for whatever reason – as ‘radioactive’ or ‘unclean’, and woe to those to transgress the boundaries! 

These boundaries may feel like just another game to most kids, but for those who find themselves painted as ‘radioactive’, it feels quite serious. It hurts. As kids grow, the ‘cootie game’ looks less like a game, and more like a way of life. Some people are marked off as ‘black sheep’, ‘from the wrong side of the tracks’, as different or inferior in some way, or as convenient scapegoats for things that many others people also do. Some people, because they were so labeled, or because of some perceived failure on their part, begin to perceive themselves as outcasts, unworthy, radioactive, or unclean. They pull themselves away from others, and wonder if they have any hope.  The reactions they usually see from others only reinforces this self-perception.

When we read Sunday’s first reading from Leviticus and the Gospel passage from Mark, we may be tempted to see the laws in Leviticus about lepers as cruel or inhuman. We may interpret Leviticus in the light of how we tend to exclude and discriminate against certain people. However, discrimination – in the modern sense – is not the issue here.

It’s helpful for us to ponder our current “flu protocols” in this light. Because of the recent flu outbreak, the bishop of this diocese has activated our “flu protocols” as a preventive measure. We are asked to limit our physical contact with one another during Mass as much as possible – no sharing of the cup, no shaking of hands at the Sign of Peace, and no receiving the Eucharist on the tongue. Now, for healthy people, the flu is, at most, an inconvenience. For people who already have some health challenge, however, the flu can be dangerous. Hence, the protocols.  They are meant to protect the most vulnerable in our community from a health threat.

It’s also helpful to consider what ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ meant in the Law of Moses, or the Torah. It was not about something being morally good or bad. Something was designated as ‘unclean’ when it was out-of-place, not where it should be. For example, a woman who is bleeding during her monthly cycle was called ‘unclean’ for blood was outside her body, where it should not be. ‘Unclean’ was also used in the same sense as our ‘flu protocols’ – to mark off something as a potential serious threat to the life of the community. Certain objects were ‘unclean’ because of their association with the worship of other gods. ‘Leprosy’ – which, at the time, included several serious skin diseases – was considered ‘unclean’ because it was perceived as a significant threat to the life of the community. So, then, the leprosy regulations in Leviticus were intended to serve a very similar function as our ‘flu protocols’ and other ‘best practices’ we may follow.

Such practices may have helped protect the community, but they could do nothing for the one afflicted with such a skin disease. Such a person was forced to live outside the community, apart from extended family, and not allowed to participate in community worship. This was, in essence, a living death for people for whom extended family was vital.  Moreover, given our tendency to stigmatize and scapegoat those who are different, it didn’t take long before such ‘lepers’ were seen as not merely bearers of a serious disease, but also as themselves ‘bad’ or ‘subhuman’ in some way. They were, quite literally, the untouchables.

We turn now to our Gospel passage. Jesus is proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God. Anyone of the time who heard this would have understood it as meaning that right now, in Jesus, God was now bringing together His scattered people, people who seemed to have no hope, and giving them new life – beginning a new creation. This is not merely by teaching, but also by action. Jesus heals and casts out demons, thus gathering those who were sick or possessed into the family of God.

Jesus has now left Capernaum and is on the road, outside any town. There, a leper sees him. The leper has somehow heard of Jesus. In faith, mixed with some desperation, he chooses to trust that he, too, might be one of those who will be healed and gathered back into God’s family. He believes that Jesus can heal him. Notice that the leper does not insist on anything. He simply says, “If you wish, you can heal me”. The leper is used to rejection. He has heard it many times. But if Jesus can heal and cast out demons, can he not heal leprosy, too?

Then something happens that goes beyond anything the leper – or anyone else – expects. Jesus could have healed the leper from a discreet distance. Instead, he approaches the leper, touches him, and says, “I do will it. Be made clean”. To touch a leper was to become unclean. However, nothing can make Jesus ‘unclean’. Jesus’ touch cleanses the leper of his disease. Jesus then tells the leper to go and show himself to the priests, for only the priests could – in Leviticus – verify a cure and allow someone back into the community.

We are told that later, as a result of the leper’s speaking the news of the cure (against Jesus’ instructions), Jesus could no longer enter a town openly. Of course not. Jesus was not perceived as ‘unclean’ for a time, as he had touched the leper. Yet that touch brought healing, fulfilled faith and hope, and made the leper part of a new creation.  Jesus’ ‘uncleanness’ didn’t keep people from coming out to him anyway in order to seek healing. Most interesting!

We may see ourselves , in the early 21st century, as beyond this kind of stigmatizing of people who are simply ill. Yet we do the same to one another in some cases. Take the example of people with AIDS, or with any new and potentially dangerous contagious disease that the media has hyped. Or, take people who are physically disabled. One couple (a man and a woman) did this simple experiment. They went out one day to a street corner and engaged people in conversation. People interacted with the man and the woman normally. The next day, the couple went to a different street corner. This time, the woman sat in a wheelchair. No one spoke to her or even looked at her; conversation was only with the man. Or, take the example of people with some kind of mental or emotional illness. We may muster some sympathy for some people with physical infirmities, but do we not (still) tend to blame the mentally ill for their condition? Are they not also like the “lepers” in Biblical times?

There is more. Let’s look at ourselves. How often do we see ourselves as ‘unclean’ because of some past sins or because of how we were excluded or rejected by others – even though no fault of our own? We feel unworthy; we feel like failures.

Just as Jesus crossed the protocol line to give hope and healing to the leper, so, too, He comes to each one of us who feels “outside”, hopeless, excluded, unworthy, radioactive, even now. He takes upon Himself, through His touch, our seeming ‘uncleanness’, and destroys it on the Cross. Then, in the Resurrection, He makes of all who have faith in Him a new creation. We are all made clean in Christ.

If that is so, then that news needs to be shared. We, too, need to cross the ‘protocol’ lines for one another, just as Jesus did for us (even at the risk of cooties!). We are called to touch the ‘lepers’ of our own time – emotionally, spiritually, and physically – and share that gift that comes from the Lord. In so doing, we witness that we also were ‘lepers’ whom the Lord has healed. There are no lepers – of any kind – in heaven. since heaven begins even now for those who believe, we live – even now – as though this were already true. For it is.