Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
February 15, 2009
It is unkind to say it, but in our unkind contemporary society, probably no one is more unfortunate in the eyes of many people than a person with the Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). One may steal billions from the government, have more than one wife and make erroneous decisions that affect the life of our people; but one can still be acceptable and even perceive oneself as respectable. To be known as a person with AIDS, however, is to invite ridicule and ostracism. It is to be banned from one’s social circle and suffer loneliness; it is to die before one goes to the grave. No wonder that save for a few, those who have AIDS keep their misfortune to themselves. But how would AIDS victims feel should the government legislate that those who contracted AIDS are to wear distinctive clothing, identify themselves whenever other people are in their vicinity, and be confined in an island between Jolo and Palawan ?
One may not be inclined to believe it, but a lot almost similar to this befell on one who has leprosy in the Jewish society at the time of Jesus. (We may assume that in this particular case, the man had Hansen’s disease, though one should bear in mind that the biblical term covers any repulsive scaly skin disease, like psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis.) As the first reading and the Gospel today indicate, the leper had an appearance that easily distinguished him from others, and gave him a bad identity: his garment was rent, his head bare, and his beard muffled (Lev 13:45a). He was ostracized, and unable to talk with others who were unlike him. He had to shout from a distance, “Unclean, unclean!” (Lev 13:45b), as a warning for people not to approach him. Wretched and ritually unclean as he was (Lev 13:46a), he could not participate in religious activities. He lived as an expellee from the normal community (Lev 13:46b; Num 5:2). Of course, all these stipulations served to protect the community, and considering that medicine was primitive, they were justifiable. Still, these could not hide the pain which the victims of Hansen’s disease felt. Indeed, they suffered not only physically, even as their bodies rotted away. Even more painful for them was their being unwanted, their loneliness, since, social outcasts as they were, people avoided them. It is not an exaggeration to say that many of them would have felt themselves worthless.
However, the experience of such pain and suffering is contrary to God’s will. Far from wanting that they live in misery, he it is his will that men be saved from all forms of evil (cf 2 Pet 3:9). It is not his desire that anyone be lost; rather, it is his plan that all form part of the community of the saved, where there is acceptance, togetherness, wholeness and happiness. Which is why Jesus was angry at the misery (pain, loneliness, ostracism [Mark 1:42]) which accompanied the disease, and took pity on the leper. He healed him of his leprosy. The consequence was of course more than just the restoration of the sick man’s health. Even more important to Mark was the fact that he was socially and religiously made whole again. He returned to his family, to his circle of friends, and was restored to the normal religious community. People could now associate with him, and he could participate of the sacrifice in the Temple .
Of course, today, we have few lepers, but we have a number of modern counterparts whom our unkind society normally rejects. We can think of moral lepers: prostitutes, guest relation officers, calls girls and criminals. We also have physical lepers: HIV and AIDS victims, tuberculars, neurotics and psychotics. And to some extent, we have social lepers: dockworkers, squatter settlers, barkers, hold-uppers and small-time thieves (big-one ones, ironically, are often honored in high places). In many ways, they are the alienated, the unwanted in our contemporary world. We normally discriminate against, if not exclude them from the respectable society. We erect various walls to keep them out, in much the same way that the Jews put barriers between those within and those outside the respectable Jewish society. But if the Gospel (Mark 1:40-45) has any lesson, it is that we are invited to accept such people to the Christian community where no one is excluded on the basis of money, morality, and gender: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave or free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus”(Gal 3:27), for our vocation is to be one: “to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body, one Spirit… one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all…” (Eph 4:3-6). So as Christians, we have to make every effort that all people, no matter the kind of leprosy they have, should have a place in our Christian community, where humanity, justice and dignity are restored, and where they will be accepted, and treated as fellow Christians. We have to make every effort to support them, and uplift them from misery through our love and concern for them.