Jesus Christ is the Healer! 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sermon by Emmanuel Suntheni – Sixth Sunday In Ordinary Time – Year B
Sermon And Christian Act In The Word
Theme: Which leprosy do I have? Transcending Human-made Boundaries! Jesus Christ is the Healer!
Point of Reflection: What we encounter in today`s readings is God’s healing and the spirit of inclusion not creating human boundaries. In our families, communities, and countries, have we not set human boundaries for others? Today’s liturgy of the word presents the theme of “transcending human boundaries.” Human-made boundaries are often enslaving and oppressive.
God shatters such artificial boundaries of exclusion and isolation by including the excluded through his acts of restoration; God “remembers” the forgotten ones.
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 (Reflection): The first reading of today is from the book of Leviticus and the central theme in the book of Leviticus is holiness. In the OT, the idea of holiness springs from the distinction between the sacred and the profane. Today’s reading is a part of the collection which outlines stringent laws for people with skin diseases, broadly referred to as “leprosy”. At the time, this physical condition was considered a social and religious affliction which made a person ritually unclean and unholy, and socially unapproachable.
As recorded in the historical books, 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. Lepers were “doubly marginalized”, for they suffered not only the physical effects of the disease but also utter social isolation. 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. Consequently, 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.
Am I not a leper? Am I not isolating other people?
Due to such measures and the extreme stigma and isolation, lepers were nothing short of being the “living dead”. However, if the disease receded and the leper was restored to health, the Mosaic Law provided rules to restore and reintegrate him or her to the covenantal community. 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.
Today’s Gospel narrates the story of the healing of a leper. Mark’s description of the encounter between the compassionate Jesus and a desperate leper is a perfect example of transcending man-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.
This compassionate act of healing initiated the return of the leper to his social and religious community. He had been abandoned by his own family, forsaken by the society in which he had grown up and censured by the religious authorities through their stringent legislation. 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 a 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. The leper in the story was in desperate need of restoration to a fully human life and normal human interactions. He needed someone to reach out and cross the 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.
Today’s second reading exposes divisions in the Corinthian community caused by conflicting approaches to food regulations, especially concerning the food offered to the pagan gods – idols. In ch. 8 of the letter Paul attempts to deal with the problem caused by the distinction between ritually clean and unclean foods. Among the congregation there were those called by Paul “strong in faith”. They could consume any food offered to idols with a clear conscience, knowing that no other gods, apart from the one true and living God, existed. However, there were also those among the Corinthians called “weak in faith”, who apparently had a very sensitive conscience and were scandalized by the consumption of such foods.
In this context, Paul challenged those “strong in faith” with a firm admonition to seek the good of others and not to insist on their own rights to eat whatever food they want. Paul thus set limits on human freedom for the sake of the good of others and the unity of the community. He also urged “the strong” to follow his example of flexibility and adaptation in order to avoid offending others and thus weakening their Christian commitment. His 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.
Christian Act in Word of God “Remove the human-made boundaries”
Of course all ancient societies had specific rules and customs regulating how they were to deal with illnesses. These were aimed at preventing contamination but also reflected how diseases were understood. Most of these regulations demanded the complete exclusion of the sufferer from the community. The first reading shows that such laws also operated in the Israelite community. For the Israelites, the commonly held view was that a person with leprosy was cursed by God because of his sins. Accordingly, it was right to avoid a person so punished by God.
With our words and actions, as Christians, are we not separating our family members and our fellow church members?
We know that God in his compassionate and merciful love reaches out to those who are unloved and excluded from society and that illnesses are not caused by God’s anger. This message is particularly applicable to contemporary situations when diseases continue to carry social stigma. This was and is evident in the case of those suffering from HIV/AIDS, and was strikingly evident during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like leprosy in ancient times, such illnesses carry a tremendous social stigma. The sufferers are considered to bring shame on the community or family. They are marginalised in schools, places of work and even in churches.
In this context, we are reminded by Paul 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 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 stigmatized, restoring them to the community by renouncing our prejudiced views and taking steps to include the excluded, and to re-member 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 today’s Gospel, Jesus offers us the 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. 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.
Action: From today onwards, I will not create human-made boundaries for others!
Prayer: Almighty and Eternal God, today in the Gospel, the hand of your son Jesus our Lord touched and cleansed and healed the leper. May you cleanse and heal us today from the sins of exclusion 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 today, we ask this through your Son Jesus the healer, Amen.