Down through the centuries, the world has been beset by many illnesses. The bubonic plague wiped out almost half of the population of Europe in 1350, influenza killed 20 million people worldwide in 1918, and polio swept the world crippling and maiming thousands in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The Ebola outbreak a few years ago threatened lives throughout the world, and certainly the COVID 19 epidemic has killed over 400,000 people last year and continues to threaten the lives of many more. Today, many people have experienced the tragic result generated by the isolation required by COVID 19 victims.
Leprosy was a death sentence for those who contracted it until the last century when it was conquered and controlled. Moses prescribed isolation for lepers and isolation continues to separate the sick from the healthy in society. When sickness threatens our health and our lives, we are quick to isolate those who pose a threat to our health.
The ancient curse of leprosy encountered by Jesus in today’s Gospel established guidelines by which victims of leprosy were to exist. However, Jesus’ encounter with the leper was radically different from what custom demanded. He did not react in horror or fault the leper for not keeping his distance. Moved by compassion, Jesus touched him, cured him and sent him to the authorities who could legally affirm his healing and return him to his family and community. Jesus’ response, which is staggering in its tenderness, went against everything in his culture, society, and religion. His tenderness challenges us to ask ourselves which groups of people we exclude.
Mother Teresa, famous for her care of the sick and dying, once said, “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the disease of being unwanted.” Our Gospel asks us to examine our attitude toward any group that we have relegated to isolation status and labeled “unwanted!” They are the A.I.D.S. patients, the undocumented workers, the inconvenient pregnancies, the poor, the homeless, and the mass of suffering humanity whose overwhelming struggles weigh us down. For that reason we turn to Jesus to take note of his compassion and extend that compassion to those in our society whom we have labeled, by word or by action, “unwanted!”
Jesus does not reject outcasts. The term “unwanted” is not in his vocabulary. In fact, he deliberately went looking for those that society rejected. He established a new set of standards based not on race, ritual, or tradition, but on faith, love and forgiveness. Today, we are invited to challenge the evils of our culture, especially those attitudes of alienation within our hearts and our communities that exclude people for any reason. We have been baptized into Christ, cleansed of sin, and sent to change the world. That action has released us from quarantine, separation, isolation, and alienation. Like the leper, we have been healed and touched by Jesus. We must pull down existing barriers and welcome everyone.
It is with that same touch that Jesus reaches out to us. With hands outstretched, we receive him into our bodies as gently as we swallow. Then it is our turn to go out to touch the world with love and compassion, especially those whom the world labels, “unwanted.”
----Deacon Wilson Shierk