Transcending Human-Made Boundaries: 6th Sunday of the Year
Sermon by Emmanuel Suntheni OSB
First Reading: Leviticus 13:1–2, 44–46
Psalm: Psalm 32:1–2, 5, 11
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1
Gospel: Mark 1:40–45
SERMON AND LISTENING TO THE WORD
Theme: “Transcending Human-Made Boundaries”
Point of reflection: Human-Made boundaries have brought stigma and isolation on Earth. In the First Testament, we hear of leprosy, if you are a leper then you were supposed to be excluded and you were regarded as unclean and outcast. In the New Testament, Jesus transcends all human-made boundaries and heals the leper, we too, with Christ-help we need to transcend human-made boundaries.
Sermon (Reflection): The liturgy of the fifth Sunday in ordinary time presents a theme of crossing and transcending human-made boundaries. Human-made boundaries are often hard, enslaving and oppressive. But today’s Scripture readings tell us that God shatters such artificial boundaries of exclusion and isolation by including the excluded through His acts of restoration; God “remembers” the forgotten ones. God has not forgotten you in the situation you are under-going: Jesus Christ is ready to restore you.
The first reading from the book of Leviticus13:1–2, 44–46outlines stringent laws for people with skin diseases, broadly referred to as “leprosy”. At that time, leprosy physical condition was considered a social and religious affliction which made a person ritually unclean and unholy, and socially unapproachable. Leprosy was a dreaded, contagious disease, with an enormous social stigma attached to it. It disfigured the body and led to certain death, as there was no known cure.
Religiously, the person afflicted with leprosy was considered to be under the divine curse. It was assumed that a leper deserved such a horrible affliction because of sins he/she had committed. These made a leper religiously unclean, and an outcast excluded from the Israelite covenant community. As a result, the leper had no place within the community, and was forced to live outside of the inhabited areas, separated from family and friends. If a leper were to enter the city, he had to make his presence known by crying out loudly, “unclean, unclean”, so that others would not come into contact with him.
There were other specific ways that indicated that one was suffering from leprosy, such as wearing torn clothes and dishevelled hair. Due to such measures there was extreme stigma and isolation. Today in our societies and communities are we not calling other people unholy, unclean, unworthy and useless? The leprosy stigma and isolation of Old Testaments is being manifested to us in different ways.
In the OT, the rite of re-inclusion was performed by the priest, who had to personally examine the leper and, if the cure was confirmed, declare the leper cured and pure. To be cured of leprosy meant restoration to the community and becoming once again “alive” in the physical, social and religious sense.
In the New Testament, it is Jesus Christ who is God healing the leper just with a word. The encounter of fifth Sunday Gospel narrates the story of the healing of a leper (Cf. Mark 1: 40-45). Mark’s description of the encounter between the compassionate Jesus and a desperate leper is a perfect example of transcending human-made boundaries, which have no relevance in God’s salvific plan.
Jesus not only healed the leper but also touched him, thus challenging the prevailing Jewish religious laws on purity and pollution. Contrary to the expectations of his time, Jesus treated the leper as a person with full human dignity. By his touch, he reinstated the leper into the society and the covenantal community. Jesus transcended the human-made boundary of stigma and isolation of leper. Today, as Christians, can we not touch someone who is stigmatized and feel isolated? God loves a cheerful and compassionate person
This compassionate act of healing initiated the return of the leper to his social and religious community. He came to Jesus pleading in words “if you wish, you can make me clean.” In his prayer, the leper acknowledged his dependence on Jesus and demonstrated his confidence in Jesus’ ability to heal him.
In response, Jesus, moved with compassion, immediately and spontaneously stretched out his hand and healed the leper through direct touch. Despite the religious beliefs of the time, Jesus was not defiled or contaminated by the disease, because no external force could defile or render him unclean. By acting in this way, Jesus demonstrated that human need always takes priority over legal prescripts which are often human-made laws.
The leper in the story was in desperate need of restoration to fully human life and normal human interactions. He needed someone to reach out and cross religious and cultural boundaries. Jesus did just that. To complete the process of the leper’s reintegration into the religious community of Israel, society, and family, Jesus sent him to the priest to obtain a certificate proving that cleansing had indeed occurred.
In his ministry, Jesus, whenever he was faced with a choice between observing the law and responding to human need, always placed the latter above the former – the human need and well-being above the letter of the law. Doing so he transcended and crossed the boundaries in the interest of restoring harmony. We can ask ourselves today, in whose interest do we serve?
All the fifth Sunday readings show that God acts contrary to the human tendency to divide. God desires inclusion and embraces all humanity, irrespective of a person’s social, religious, and economic status. The second reading issues an invitation to tear down the walls built on biased perceptions, and to preserve the fellowship of the community by seeking the good of others, even to the point of sacrificing one’s own legitimate interests (Cf.1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1).
St Paul exposes divisions in the Corinthian community caused by conflicting approaches to food regulations, especially concerning the food offered to the pagan gods – idols. In chapter 8 of the letter, Paul attempts to deal with the problem caused by the distinction between ritually clean and unclean foods. They were two groups: strong in faith and weak in faith.
St Paul overriding concern was that no one should be excluded from fellowship because of his or her attitude towards food. Paul urged his readers not to create artificial boundaries based on other believer’s practices and limited understanding, but rather to seek their good. He always followed that principle in his ministry and set it as a pattern and example for his Christians to follow. Today too, as Christians, we need bridge the gaps which has been created with human-made boundaries.
Listening to the Word of God “Dismantling human-made boundaries”
Contextually, as Christians, we are reminded by StPaul of the need to seek the good of others by taking all the steps necessary for the reintegration of the excluded. We might not find the cure for HIV/Aids, Covid-19 second wave or similar illnesses, but we can cure the social and human isolation the disease brings. Just as the lepers in the OT were restored to the community by the action of a priest, we can act as “restorers” of the stigmatised, restoring them to the community by renouncing our prejudiced views and taking steps to include the excluded, and to remember the abandoned. Often it is enough to demonstrate our own lack of prejudice and fear by simple acts of association with these isolated persons, to give them the confidence necessary for taking further steps towards social restoration.
In the Gospel of Mark 1:40–45, Jesus offers us an example of how to transcend man-made boundaries that are not relevant to God’s salvific plan. Jesus did not run away from the leper who was considered unclean. We have to learn from Christ to seek out ways of connecting with those rejected for one reason or another, especially those who are in need of company and a listening ear. As Christians, we should approach them and make them feel the love of God in their lives. We are reminded to help others experience the effects of God’s liberating love for them; to help them taste life as a full member of society through our simple loving gestures.
At all cost, as Christians and people of goodwill, we have to learn to rise above our unhealthy tendency to create boundaries that cause exclusion and isolation. These boundaries might be created by the wrong use of religion, prejudiced cultural customs, or false and biased beliefs. Our Christian vocation includes the call to tear down such walls of separation, stigma and isolation by placing the human needs of others above the dividing boundaries which are human-made not divine made.
Action: I will reflect on those whom I have excluded from my life. Which of those relationships can be mended? I will take a step in that direction. Today, I(we) make a choice to remove all human-made boundaries which are my(our) barriers to attain salvation; I(we) choose to deny any stigma and isolation towards any human being.
Prayer: Almighty God, today in the Gospel, the hand of your son Jesus our Lord touched and cleansed the leper. May you cleanse us today from the sins of exclusion, stigma, isolation and hate we have committed in the past. Grant us the courage and wisdom to act with openness and mercy so that, through us, you may restore those in need of your healing touch, we ask this through Christ our Lord, the Redeemer and the Healer, Amen.
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