Insiders, outsiders, and everyone in-between

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

It’s hard to believe, but the stigma of leprosy is still alive and well, and by that I do not refer to the unacceptable social alienation suffered by many of our brothers and sisters. I mean it literally. In a report dated January 22, 2015, Reuters news agency reveals the presence of discriminatory laws in around 20 countries where leprosy survivors’ rights to marry, work, study and travel are limited.

Although leprosy was once believed to be highly contagious, nowadays cases are quite rare and are easily treated with antibiotics. Still, being cured is apparently not enough; millions suffer a lifelong stigma rooted in antiquated laws and fears. In some countries entire families are regularly evicted from their neighborhoods and left to live a life of unbearable loneliness.

In Biblical times, any variety of dermatological conditions could be suspected as leprosy. Once spotted, a person afflicted with a “scab, pustule, or blotch” was obliged to meet with the priest whose positive diagnosis included no cure, only immediate isolation from the community. Of course, the reason for quarantine was to prevent the spread of the disease, particularly in public worship spaces. However, the outcome was the creation of colonies which separated the clean and the unclean who also could be understood as the whole and the broken, the insiders and the outsiders, the useful and the useless.

Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus removing barriers, bridging the gap between insiders and outsiders, returning broken people to wholeness, liberating the socially alienated and bringing people to a new understanding of what his Father’s kingdom was really about. Jesus is both the great emancipator and the great unifier. In her book of reflections on the lectionary, God’s Word is Alive, author Alice Camille writes “Jesus understood that people needed community more than they needed a cure.” She’s right. And while we might not be lepers, nor are we possessed, and we might not have a wilted hand or a sensory disability, many of us suffer from isolating social conditions. Loneliness, for example, is one which continues to magnify the distance between social insiders and outsiders.

A friend of mine who struggles with loneliness told me it reaches its peak when she is in a crowded place. There, she says, she is neither an insider nor an outsider because from her point of view those two labels still imply some kind of community to which she does not belong. When she shared with me her sense of Jesus in the midst of her desolation I suggested that perhaps her loneliness and desire to belong were a mirror of God’s longing for her and for the entire world. Think of this. Might the divine spark which dwells in each of us, and in whose image we were created, drive our desire to build meaningful and life-giving relationships? Yet, for countless unacceptable reasons a vast gap still exists between those who fit in and social outcasts. As an evangelizing people  we are compelled to seek the missing, widen our welcome, eliminate barriers, heal brokenness and loneliness, practice forgiveness, and work to unify God’s people in all that we do, just as Jesus did.

Today’s readings can be found here.

Image © [Daniel Dunca]

Who’s in your circle?

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

It seems more now than ever people surround themselves solely with like-minded individuals and groups, and avoid social interaction with the rest.  It is nicer this way, some might say, we have more in common. The growing divide between opposing views and the avoidance of thoughtful discourse (which could lead to mutual respect) has nearly reached a societal impasse. Those people. Can’t stand them. And it is not only politics that divides us, the other day I read  comments on a nutrition blog which devolved into ad hominem attacks on those who voluntarily eliminated wheat and dairy from their diet. No wonder we distance ourselves from any situation that might lead to a confrontation. The truth is many people go to great lengths to steer clear of situations that challenge the security of the status quo. It can ruin a perfectly nice day.

Clearly this is not what Jesus would do. Take, for example, Jesus’ teaching about those with “unclean spirits” [MK 1:21-28]. Rather than steering clear Jesus dives right in. Jesus objected to Jewish purity laws which prescribed keeping one’s distance to avoid contamination and alienation from the community. For Jesus, purity laws were problematic in that they actually established a dwelling place for unclean spirits. And because Jesus is all about unity he risked his own contamination, approached the possessed man and called the evil out. Jesus carried his own purity into the situation in order to cleanse the other. So powerful was Jesus’ truth it expelled, but not without a fight, what separated the human person from the community. Like the stunned witnesses, Jesus shows us a different way to deal with people we would ordinarily avoid.

Today the words “unclean spirit” are tricky. Are we to understand this to mean literal possession by evil or should we consider the behavior of the biblical demoniac a form of mental illness? The latter calls us to compassion. Either way, the suffering human person is alienated from others. Might an unclean spirit also refer to one whose behavior is misguided and destructive to the self and others, and not grounded in the love that brings about creation and community? Can we, like Jesus, attempt to call out what dwells in the darkness by shining the light of truth on it? We must. If we continue to separate ourselves and keep our circles small, we do nothing to affect change in the world.

The tiniest spark of hope from one to another is capable of restoring wholeness, and is often the other’s only chance for survival. A open ear, a quiet mouth, a hand extended in compassion is the life-giving bridge between isolation and inclusion. This is challenging but necessary work.Open your circle and allow yourself to be the wick that carries the flame of Christ’s love into the world.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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