Wednesday, February 11, 2015

He Sees You

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

A leper came to Jesus and pleaded on his knees. A humble posture of supplication from someone who fully realises the depravity of his situation. But kneeling is also the proper posture for worship. The leper then makes a humble request of Jesus, “If you want to, you can cure me.” No demand, no pressure is placed on Jesus. This man understands that Jesus owes him nothing and that he deserves nothing. He can only hope for a few generous crumbs to be thrown his way by the Lord.

Though, the text is silent, I would like to invite you to picture the expression on the faces of the onlookers and their reaction to this event.  The leper must have been a loathsome spectacle. 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 the sight of him the people would crowd upon one another in their eagerness to escape from contact with him. Though they see him in all his pathetic ugliness, the leper neither sees nor hears them. Their expressions of loathing are lost upon him. He sees only the Son of God. He hears only the voice that speaks life to the dying. Pressing to Jesus, he casts himself at His feet with the cry, “If you want to, you can cure me.”

And the amazing turning point of the story is that Jesus sees him. The crowds, the Pharisees and the priests regarded his affliction as an evidence of divine displeasure. They have coldly pronounced him incurable, and abandoned him to the wrath of God. But Jesus sees differently. Jesus chooses not to judge but only offers healing and forgiveness. But more than just resisting to follow the mob’s aversion and disdain for this leper, we witness here the lovely picture of sheer simple compassion and tender-heartedness. “Feeling sorry for him,” i.e. Jesus is moved with compassion, a factual note which occurs only in Mark’s account, he “stretched out his hand and touched him” and said, “Of course I want to … Be cured.” Note, then, three things: the compassion, the touch, the word.

It was no mere condescending pity that moved Jesus to touch the leper with his hand; but it was the result of a far greater and more wonderful piece of compassion and self-emptying love that He had stretched out his hand to touch. The touch of Jesus on this “untouchable” goes beyond pity and absence of fear. It symbolises His identifying of Himself with mankind, the foulest and the most degraded. He is truly the fulfillment of the hope of Israel. According to a Jewish tradition (midrash), when the Messiah comes He will be found sitting amongst the lepers at the gate of the city. And this is how we are to recognise him – he will be numbered amongst the transgressors in his life, and with the wicked in his death.

Leprosy in Hebrew thought was more than a disease and the ritual of cleansing, was more symbolic than sanitary. Leprosy was as an emblem of sin. That is why it is the priest and not the doctor who must give the final diagnosis that the leper is cleansed of this disease. Doctors could only examine the physiological symptoms but the priests were entrusted with the spiritual task to determine whether God’s wrath had been appeased, and thus the punishment for sin, the leprosy, had been lifted. Therefore, the story of Jesus cleansing and healing the leper must be a story that goes beyond the miracle and physical cure. It is an illustration of his work in cleansing the soul from sin. It was a work of redemption and reconciliation.

Today, Jesus continues to reach out with compassion to touch the “untouchables”, the “new lepers” of our society. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the most troubling aspect of all this is how little has changed. We still live in segregated, isolating communities. It is true that 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 behaviour or our omission to reach out. There are the pure and the impure, the leper and the undefiled. Their alienation is sealed by both our prejudice and self-righteousness. We are shielded in our cocoon of indifference to take little cognizance of the other. Instead of seeking to reconcile those who are lost, self-righteousness continues to push them away. Prejudice and self-righteous judgment continue to make lepers of others.

The reconciling path of Jesus is a common theme in the preaching of our Holy Father who challenges us to reach out to the peripheries, to come out of the comfort and safety of the sacristy and to go among the sheep in order that we smell like them. Pope Francis, since the beginning of his pontificate, has inspired us to put on a new set of lenses, a new way of seeing the poor, the marginalised and even the sinner. It’s a lens which uses the hermeneutics of compassion. Our Holy Father reassured us that God always forgives those who show him the “inner wounds” of their sins. He provides that necessary reminder to all of us, especially to us priests who are confessors, “that the mercy of Jesus is not just sentiment: indeed it is a force that gives life, that raises man up!”

But compassion can never be interpreted as a licence to sin. Recently, Pope Francis railed against “the dominant thinking (that) sometimes suggests a false compassion, that which believes it is helpful to women to promote abortion; an act of dignity to provide euthanasia; a scientific breakthrough to produce a child and consider it to be a right, rather than a gift to welcome; or to use human lives as guinea pigs, presumably to save others.” Compassion can never mean compromising the truth nor can it be an approval for sinful lifestyle. “Fidelity to the Gospel of life and respect for life as a gift from God sometimes require choices that are courageous and go against the current, which in particular circumstances, may become points of conscientious objection,” Pope Francis said. Compassion requires courageous defence of the liberating truth, not false tolerance and certainly not moral compromise.

We often ostracise, we banish, and we exclude, and sometimes we do all these in the name of God. But the actions of Jesus provides a stark reminder that we must also enable the banished and the excluded, a way back in.

Both the gospel story and the message of Pope Francis are crucial reminders that compassion is the true revelation of the heart of Jesus Christ. The compassion of Jesus Christ is the summit of His revelation of the Father. Here is a God who does not remain untouched by our pain and sorrows, but rather one who reaches out to touch us where it really matters. Let us not be afraid to show him our sorrow and pain, our sores and wounds. Let us be not afraid to bare our soul and acknowledge the putrid corruption of our sinfulness. Let us not be fearful that we will be turned away. Only come to him, like the leper, demanding nothing, open to everything and only humbly expecting a drop of mercy and a tinge of compassion, and we would certainly be surprised by the generosity of God. Yes, God sees. He sees you. He sees not the loathsome putrid rot of sin, but the sinner who requires healing, the sinner who yearns for the touch of grace to be made whole, the sinner who desires liberation, and the alienated sinner so much in need of reconciliation.

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