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February 16, 2003

Moved by Compassion

(Mark 1:40-45)

As you know, in those days, they thought you were being punished by God if you had leprosy, so you were excommunicated from the synagogue and sent off to live in the desert by yourself, and not allowed to come near anyone. If any of you touched a leper, you too were declared unclean and excommunicated. Whatever you did, you never went near those horrible, sinful, evil lepers. You avoided them at all cost and hoped they died. It was a matter of national security! You have to protect yourselves from these terrorists. You don't want anyone else to get leprosy. So push them aside, get rid of them, and let them die.

Jesus will have none of it.

A leper comes to Jesus and kneels down in front of him--which no one else does, including the disciples--and says, "If you want to, you can heal me."

The question today is: What does Jesus do, and what can we learn from Jesus?

First, Jesus is moved with pity. He is full of compassion. Jesus always feels compassion toward anyone in need, toward anyone who asks for help. Always, always, always. He is the embodiment of infinite compassion. He is the compassion of God in action. He is the incarnation of the God of compassion.

Second, Jesus stretches out his hand. He does something. He doesn't say, "Sorry, there's nothing I can do. I'm not supposed to go near you. If I touch you, I'll break the law and everyone will be mad at me, and I might get leprosy too." He takes action. He reaches out to those in need.

Third, Jesus touches the leper. This is totally scandalous. Jesus touches the one person he is forbidden by law to touch. He breaks the law, violates the tradition, turns over all the cleanliness rules, is excommunicated and kicked out of society. If we lived then, how would we respond to Jesus' action? We would probably be mad at him and not want to go near him for fear of getting leprosy. Jesus always sides with lepers and in the process, becomes one of them.

Finally, Jesus says, "I do want to heal you; be made clean." He affirms the leper's request and heals him. Jesus always wants to help us and heal us and give us good things and make life better for every human being on the planet, especially those we push aside.

So the leper is healed, Jesus orders him not to tell anyone, but to go to the religious leaders, do what Moses prescribed, so that he will now be welcomed back into the synagogue, restored to the community and the excommunication ended. In other words, for Jesus, healing has social implications. Not only is the disease gone, but so is the exclusion, the excommunication and the broken relationship. The healed person is now welcomed back into society, and the community is reconciled. When Jesus heals the leper, the whole community is healed. When he touches the person who is excluded, everyone is healed and reconciled.

So what does the Gospel teach us? Two things.

First, the leper shows the proper attitude toward Jesus, by kneeling down and asking for Jesus' healing touch. We have to learn from the leper and identify with him. There is a part of each one of us that is like the leper, that needs healing from Jesus. Each one of us has leprosy of the heart, or the soul. We need to go to Christ in our brokenness, our weakness, our frailty and vulnerability and ask for help, and keep going to him, and he will be moved by compassion, stretch out his hand, touch us, and heal us. If we recognize that before God we are all lepers, all in need, then God will have compassion on us. If we do not recognize our need for healing, then we don't need God--which is a big mistake!

Then, once Jesus shows compassion to us, we will want to show compassion to each other and to every one on the planet. Jesus is always compassionate and we are his followers which means we have to become people of compassion too. But we can't expect Jesus to have compassion on us, and then we turn and not show compassion toward others. Jesus hates that. We have to show compassion to everyone everywhere.

Unfortunately, we are not that different from the people of Jesus' time. We have a whole new set of lepers today whom we ostracize, whom we exclude and excommunicate and declare unclean and push aside. In our culture, we ostracize people on death row, people with AIDS, people with disabilities, people who are Muslims, people who are different, people from Iraq and on and on. We get scared and think, they are the cause of our problems, let's push them aside or imprison them or ignore their sufferings or bomb them and kill them and get rid of them, and we'll be ok, we'll be safe, we'll be secure.

But that's not the way Jesus operates. If we are going to be like Jesus and really follow him, we can not ostracize or push aside anyone every again. We cannot judge others; that is not responding with compassion. Needless to say, we cannot support the bombing of people in Iraq; that is not showing compassion to people.

Like Jesus, we have to side with the lepers of our time, cultivate a heart of compassion, stretch out our hands, touch them, heal them, and welcome them back into the community. We have to reconcile with everyone everywhere. From now on, like Jesus, we are a people of infinite compassion.

Now you're saying, "Well, that's very nice, Fr. John. If everyone were like that, things would be better. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, while we can be compassionate to a lot of people, some people you just can save, you got to exclude them or kill them or bomb them. That's just the way it is." Of course, you're right. That's the way the world operates. The world does not show compassion. But we are not of the world. We are followers of Jesus. And Jesus always shows compassion to everyone. He always sides with those we push aside. He always stands with all those we don't like. He always identifies with the broken, the weak, the outsider, the marginalized, the enemy. Whatever we do to them, we do to him. He has compassion on them, and wants us to do the same. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says, "Be as compassionate as God." This is the heart of the spiritual life, this is what mature Christianity looks like, this is the goal of our journey, that he will have compassion on us and we will have compassion on one another and everyone everywhere.

So as we come to the altar now, we kneel before Jesus, like the leper, and ask him to heal us and the whole human race, and he is moved with compassion, stretches out his hand, touches us, heals us, becomes our food and drink and sends us forth to imitate him by having compassion on one another and everyone everywhere.

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