Church as catalyst
Today’s readings: Levitic. 13, 1-2.45-46; 1 Cor. 10, 31 – 11,1; Mk 1, 40-45.
Very often we speak of identity and relevance as if they were mutually exclusive. Some may want to insist on identity as a distinguishing factor, creating clear boundaries which eventually become even barriers.
But what is the identity of a Christian community? What should distinguish a truly Christian community today from so many other forms and models of community that flourish around us?
A community that is unable to forgive, of reconciling, of breaking down barriers, is a community unworthy of its name. This is the difference the Church needs to offer, otherwise it is unworthy of its Master.
Judaism at the time of Jesus sought to safeguard religion at the cost of people. This is what Jesus challenges and changes. Today we are called to examine ourselves on what is left of Jesus’ healing power.
The laws of purity emphasise in their own way the holiness of God. Holiness in God’s people concerns the body as well as the soul. It is evident that the hygiene laws inculcated a sense of responsibility to live in a wholesome manner before the Lord. They also served to protect the Israelites from many of the diseases common to other nations of the time.
Today’s reading from Leviticus regarding the prescriptions given by Moses to lepers is terrible. Yet even in that Old Testament context, God’s infinite mercy is revealed and manifest. Mark’s gospel narrates this mercy in the person of Jesus confronting the evil spirit and all sorts of diseases. Today’s reading narrates how Jesus challenged all the religious set-up he found.
From its very beginning, Mark’s gospel delineates the march of Jesus towards clearing all that blocks man’s access to the saving God. Above all, it is about the healing power of Jesus who always refuses to put the law above man. He simply and fearlessly reaches out to a leper who comes his way, even touching him in a gesture that symbolically is strong and meaningful.
Leprosy was the most dreaded of all diseases because it separated people from family and community and thus constituted a living death.
Indeed, rabbinic sayings compare the cure of leprosy to raising the dead. The leper not only had to live away from others, but was also expected to wear torn clothing and to loudly declare himself unclean to warn people to keep distance.
Within our communities we still argue from standpoints that make us keep distance, and we still prefer to set boundaries for the sake of security. In the name of God we even go all the way to discriminate.
Social exclusion is a terrible thing in society and scandalous in the Church. It may even sound utopic to imagine a society free from exclusion. The Church’s role and mission in the context of a society that battles forms of exclusion but at the same time creates others, is not just to condemn but to help create the right conditions.
Lepers today are thankfully not treated as in the book of Leviticus. But we continue to create many other forms of ‘leprosy’, justifying exclusion in the name of order. This happens unfortunately even in our liturgies, which though meant to be healing, are at times being divisive.
After calling new disciples, Jesus challenges the ideological hegemony of the priests and the scribes. He challenges the social power of the ruling groups and introduces an alternative social practice. He offers a standpoint from where to look at human experience that is beyond the law and the demands of the institution.
Today, looking at our practices in society and Church alike, we need a fresh way of judging reality and of approaching people’s experiences. The more we stick to the institutional standpoint, the less we’ll be in a position to experience and to offer the healing power of Jesus to those excluded. The Church is called to be a catalyst, not just by denouncing social exclusion but by being itself a remedy to it.