Friday, February 10, 2012

A Touch which Heals and Liberates

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The name ‘Sungai Buloh’ is popularly associated with lush nurseries where one can get a good bargain for flowers and plants. Older Malaysians will also remember that Sungai Buloh served as Malaysia’s largest leprosy settlement since 1930. At a time, when medical knowledge of this disease was in its infancy and cure was rare, the only acceptable prognosis was segregation and quarantine. Sungai Buloh was considered at that time an ‘enlightened’ segregation project because it allowed the lepers and their families to settle in a self-sufficient commune. A visitor to the settlement today would only a see a shadow of its past. Only a few residents display the marks of disfigurement characteristic of leprosy, fingerless hands, noseless faces and missing limbs. And yet, there remains a fear among outsiders when visiting the nurseries and the little Catholic chapel nestled in the valley. Perhaps, it is the fear of somehow contracting the almost extinct bacteria that causes leprosy or the lingering prejudice in casting one’s eyes on disfigured bodies and faces. The walls of alienation and separation remain although the disease has long ceased to be a threat. Although leprosy is curable, it continues to condemn and ostracise many of its victims.

When the Bible uses the word ‘leprosy’, in Hebrew, ‘tzaraath’, it did not merely mean leprosy as corresponding to modern medical terminology. In the Bible, it was a blanket term that referred to all forms of ailments of the skin, including simple skin pigmentation. But the term was not just confined to a physiological condition but also had religious connotation. Biblical leprosy was one of the many scourges that the Israelites believed God had inflicted upon mankind in retribution for sins committed, especially the sin of gossip! The first religious exercise of the fundamentalist Pharisees was to thank God that they were not born in any of the four following categories, and they prayed, “I thank you God that I was not born a Gentile (a non-Jew), a slave, a ‘leper’ or a woman!” Bearing a mark of leprosy often meant a life of alienation because lepers were forced to live meager existences on the outskirts of civilisation.

Lepers in the time of Jesus suffered not only from the disease that they had to live with. What was even worse than the disfiguring effects of the disease was the isolation and loneliness that marked its victims. The Law of Moses concerning leprosy was strict – lepers simply had to isolate themselves from everyone. At some point of our lives, we might have felt lonely, unloved or isolated from the community. Imagine then if this were to become a permanent situation. How would you feel if you were cut off from the persons you loved and cared for forever? Surely some might say that it was no longer worth living as we, as persons, were made for love and companionship.

Lepers were no longer able to stay in close contact with their families, friends and familiar surroundings. Fear and prejudice led them to being treated with contempt and scorn as they would be regarded not only as diseased persons but also as great sinners! Many would have felt abandoned and isolated by God as they were not allowed to attend the synagogue services or visit the Temple at Jerusalem. Thus, the only company that they would have had would have been other lepers themselves – and we know that being with people with the same problem all the time may not be a good thing, as we might tend to compare notes and see who is in a worse-off situation and end up even more depressed.

Today’s first reading and the gospel does not only focus on the disease of leprosy or its alienating effect, but really points to the dynamics of prejudice and offers a means of healing it. Prejudice and discrimination are negative manifestations of integrative power. Instead of bringing or holding people together, prejudice and discrimination push them apart. Prejudice makes lepers of others. Ironically, even prejudice and discrimination imply some sort of relationship. When there is any relationship at all--even a negative one--there is some integration. Prejudice is often sustained by a ‘community’ of persons whose integration is achieved through hatred, fear, and the threat of a common enemy. Thus, the prejudiced or racist ‘community’ is a parody of the authentic one.

What do the readings, the example of Jesus and the Jewish ritual laws of determining leprosy and its treatment say to us about the dynamics required for us to move away from the paradigm of prejudice to that of integration?

Let’s first look at the Jewish laws of determining leprosy. The Torah teaches that during the early stages of what seemed to be a serious skin affliction, a sick person would stand before a Kohen (priest) who would diagnose the illness. If it was determined that the person was a leper, he or she would be expelled from the community for the duration of the recovery process. The Kohen or priest was also subject to rigid rules to ensure that their powers of investigation were not abused. The first rule is that the priest must be able to examine the entirety of the lesion and not just the spot which seems to be infected. We are often quick to make pre-judgments purely on cursory reading of a situation. There is a need to examine a situation or even a person in his or her entirety. They are to be treated holistically, and not just condemned for a single defect or fault.

The second rule governing the kohen is that a priest who is blind in one eye or who cannot see well may not perform the inspections. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ saying, ’Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brothers eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?’ (Matthew 7:3) There is a need for honest self criticism and circumspection in order to identify and root out the various filters or blindness which we suffer that prevents us from seeing clearly. There is a danger that we may be projecting our own faults on the other. When there is discontent, unhappiness, resentment, envy and fear in our hearts, we will always see the negative in the other.

We now turn to the actions of Jesus in today’s gospel, especially that of making contact and speaking to the leper as if he was a human person. By speaking to him and even by touching him, Jesus restored his dignity. By acknowledging the humanity of another person, we are effectively summoned to address his or her pain holistically. Jesus did not just see a leper before him. Jesus saw a human person, suffering alienation and rejection and Jesus loved him. Truly seeing the other is the only way to see the face of God. By extension, we are called to consider the needs of every person that we encounter with the same seriousness with which we would serve God.

The Catholic Church has been wracked with the scandal of sexual abuse in recent decades. This certainly calls for greater prudence and supervision in the training of priests, a more open and accountable way of dealing with new cases and reparation to and healing for those who have been made victims. On the other hand, many clergy and religious who used to freely offer the face of a caring Christ through a simple smile or a touch are now immobilised by the fear that these actions will be deemed inappropriate. We live in a world where we may no longer be surrounded by untouchables but the alienation and barrier remains because many feel crippled to reach across boundaries to touch the other.

We no longer live in a world where leprosy plagues us. But there are other new forms of leprosy – racism, AIDs and HIV positive persons, migrants and refugees and others who are marginalised either by our behavior or our omission to reach out. Man has taken his first step to breach the boundaries of space and yet continue to place obstacles and barriers in relating with his fellow man. We pray that we might have the courage to move out of our own prejudice and fear and begin to touch the hearts and lives of those who long for the presence of others in their lives. We need to take steps to see beyond the fault and defect, to examine ourselves honestly and finally to see the other as a human person, not just an object, deserving of respect and love. Let us bring Jesus to them – and we might end up being surprised! In them, we will also discover the face and heart of the Lord himself – the Christ who reaches out to touch us, liberate us and heal us.

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