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Sixth Sunday in ordinary time: The touch of empathy

Today’s readings: Leviticus 13, 1-2.44-46; 1 Corinthians 10, 31 – 11, 1; Mark 1, 40-45.

There is a stark contrast in today’s readings between the cold and detached approach of the law towards the marginalised in Leviticus, and the empathic touch of Jesus in Mark. Jesus is not held back from integrating even what the law excludes. His divine touch is so human.

This is what many who are disconnected from God need mostly today: our human touch, which can become divine. Leprosy at the time of Leviticus and at the time of Jesus was a serious and contagious disease. Lepers were excluded and had to alert people of their presence for security reasons, for the health of the collectivity. The empathy Jesus shows goes beyond the fear, and puts people before the institution.

The Scriptures stimulate us to see the many faces of leprosy in our culture and in our dealings with each other. We speak so much of inclusion at all levels of society and within the Church. Yet we keep finding a hundred and one reasons to justify all sorts of exclusion of those whom we fear might infringe on our security, or even on our peace of mind and heart.

The prescription laid down by Moses regarding lepers in Leviticus is harsh and very impressive. Lepers were not only excluded and condemned to live apart and outside the camp. They were also constrained to dress disorderly so that they could be clearly spotted, and they had to shout “Unclean” so that he could be heard. Cruel indeed, to say the least.

It was a law enshrined in religion, distorting the very nature of religion and eliminating outrightly the healing power that should transpire from lived religion. This is not only the experience of Leviticus. Unfortunately, it trickled down through the centuries, found its way in Christianity, and perpetuated a culture of exclusion in the name of religion and for the sake of the community.

It simply becomes a ‘sacred exclusion’, an injustice perpetrated in God’s name. Its justification is sought in theological disquisitions and in a fine typical way of putting the law above the people. It fabricates divisions and inequalities in our communities and in the most sacred spaces of our liturgies, as if there are those whom God created in His own image and likeness and others who for some reason are children of a lesser God.

This is how we continue to look down on people whom we want labelled. It is the judgemental approach that has clearly and deeply marked much of our work which instead was meant to be caring, loving and integrating. The more we lose touch with who God really is, the less caring we become. God’s name is mercy, Pope Francis reminds us.

Jesus touching the leper is the icon of the Church’s mission in today’s world. It is the divine touch so many thirst for. We think of people as simply in need of learning, and of our mission as simply to teach them. ‘Touching’ becomes a sacrament when it transmits warmth to the heart, warmth that very often communicates God’s healing presence, even more than the presence we project in the Eucharist.

In the second reading St Paul warns about this. Eating and drinking – referring to the Eucharistic meal – and being insensitive to a simple touch that may be healing, can be very contradictory. It empties the Eucharist of the very presence it generates. It makes our communities less and less credible. It is insensitivity and exclusion that make our communities broken and fragile, not the culture of encounter and inclusion that we so often perceive with fear.

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