Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle B
Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45
As many of you know, I am an electrical engineer. I work for a manufacturing company during the week. One of the things that I am fairly good at is troubleshooting. I’m often consulted when there are difficult problems, since I seem to have a knack for putting the pieces together and finding root causes of problems. I try to bring this to my homilies. How can I connect the dots, find the thread of ideas discussed in one or more of the readings that will help people in their lives, in their relationship with God. Here’s what I came up with for this week: zombies.
Now humor me for just a little bit. I’ll admit that my understanding of zombies is simplistic. I’ve never seen a movie or read a book that has zombies in it. I’m just not into that sort of thing, I don’t like horror movies, and the idea of the living dead is completely fiction and has no relationship to any teachings of the Church. However, I have seen clips from movies that have zombies, so I think I know the gist of what’s going on. So my take on the first reading today is that, once a person in ancient Israel was diagnosed with leprosy, he or she was essentially treated like, well, a zombie, like the walking dead. No, the people around them don’t try to destroy them like in the movies, but they do run away from them like they had an infectious disease, which they probably did. I say probably, since leprosy in the bible is a term which included Hansen’s Disease, what we moderns refer to as leprosy, but it also included many other skin conditions, some of which, unlike Hansen’s Disease at that time, a person could recover from eventually, and therefore there were procedures to prove to the priests that you were no longer sick, that you were no longer unclean. But if you had any of these conditions, people would treat you as if you were no longer person fit for society. These people were essentially living lives like the Living Dead, the zombies of our fiction stories.
Most of my life, due to modern medicine, I’ve never known what it was like to live in fear of infectious disease. You heard about Father Damion with the lepers in Hawaii in the 1800s, about people making their kids play indoors when an outbreak of polio was going around in the first half of last century, and the people in Africa that deal with deadly Ebola even today. But it really came home to me, during the pandemic, the burden put on people that became isolated, especially for those who lived alone. But it became even more personal when my mom told me about its effect on my uncle.
My uncle Dick passed away last spring. He had suffered for years with dementia, and before the pandemic it had gotten to the point where my aunt was no longer able to care for him at home. Initially during the pandemic, the nursing home that was caring for him went into lockdown, as all such facilities did, and with valid reason. However, later they allowed the patients to visit their family behind a glass partition. My aunt was happy initially, since this promised at least some sort of normalcy. But unfortunately, my uncle actually became quite aggravated and upset during these visits, since with his dementia he could not understand why he could not get close to and touch his family. The dementia clouded his understanding of what was going on, but it did not lessen his basic human need for a very personal contact with his family.
This is what Jesus is trying to teach us today in the Gospel reading. The society at the time of Jesus treated those with diseases as if they were zombies. They made them yell out “unclean, unclean” as they went around. But Jesus did not. The leper should not have been near anyone, so when he approached Jesus this was a violation of the law. But Jesus should not have touched the man – this too was a violation of the law. So Christ is telling us that it is important to love our fellow humans in spite of the obstacles that the world presents.
Despite the fact that Hansen’s Disease is now curable, there are many lepers in the world today. There are the homeless, many suffering from mental issues that drive people away. There are people in the prisons who are locked away, people who may have broken the law but still have inherent human dignity. There are drug addicts who have alienated their friends and family. And there may be some people here who suffer from low self-esteem, who feel that they are not worthy due to some sin in the past, some addiction that they struggle with. Christ is telling you today that he wants to help. If you ask for his help, he will tell you what he told the leper when he asked for help: “I do will it. Be made clean” [Mark 1:41b]. He is telling the rest of us: “I do will it. Do your part to make clean the lepers that you encounter.”
For a Christian, there is no outcast. Our respect for life is unconditional. It is not just against taking the life of modern-day lepers, whether they be unwanted unborn babies or horrible criminals. It is giving to every human being a life of dignity and respect, where they are not zombies to be fled but God’s creation to be loved. Today’s Gospel is telling us that we should turn to Christ, and he will touch us and heal us. Today’s Gospel is also telling us that, if we are followers of Christ, we need to be willing to reach out and touch those in need around us, even those with serious problems that we would like to ignore. Today’s Gospel is telling us that, when we die, God will not ask us how many times we sinned, but how many times we reached out and touched someone in need.
This week we start Lent on Ash Wednesday. Lent is the time set aside by the Church for preparation for the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We do so with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Another translation of the word almsgiving in the bible is doing merciful deeds. In other words, it’s not just giving money, it is also giving of yourselves in other ways as well, and today’s Gospel shows Jesus giving to a person in need in a way that we can also do this Lent. Maybe it’s calling a relative that you’ve been meaning to call, and now it’s been a long time and you’re embarrassed to admit that you’ve dropped the ball. Maybe, for you younger people still in school, it is reaching out to the kid that nobody seems to like, and saying a kind word to them or inviting them into your group. Maybe it’s a neighbor that is going through a divorce and needs someone to talk to. Whatever it is, now is the time to live up to our baptism and show the power of the Spirit working through us to touch those in need.
As we continue with our Mass, let the Eucharist be the communion that we receive together, binding us into the Body of Christ in union with all of our brothers and sisters, including the lepers of society. May the Holy Spirit help us to reflect on how best to deal with the lepers in our lives, whether it is helping others or asking for God’s mercy for ourselves. May we all hear Jesus tell us, “I do will it. Be made clean.”