Sunday, February 15, 2015

From Self-Preservation to Mercy

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Sisters and brothers, just imagine for a moment that there is a sudden outbreak of a deadly highly contagious disease. A disease that we are still unable to cure. What do you think we should do? How to prevent the disease from spreading? The answer is quite simple, isn’t it? A single word. Quarantine. We quarantine all those who have been infected. We separate them from the rest of us. We isolate them. During the recent Ebola outbreak in west Africa, for example, hundreds of people at a time were quarantined. Cut off from the rest of society. Even as frantic efforts were made to find a cure.

Although it’s a terrible and painful thing to have to leave the infected ones to suffer and die, yet we know that we have little choice. Even if our own relatives and friends are among those infected, we know that we still need to isolate them. And we do this for two main reasons. The first is self-preservation. We have to quarantine the sick to protect the healthy from infection. Of course, we wouldn’t have to do it if we were able to cure the illness. So the second reason is really our own powerlessness. We are forced to quarantine the sick, because we are unable to heal them. Preservation and powerlessness. These are the two main reasons why we isolate the sick.

And these are also the same reasons for what we find in the first reading today. The reading contains advice for dealing with certain infectious skin diseases. Diseases for which the people have no cure. What to do? How to prevent the diseases from spreading? One solution. Quarantine the infected. Isolate them. Separate them from the rest of society. Not only must they live outside the camp. They must constantly warn people to stay away. We can only imagine how terribly painful it must have been to live like that. To suffer not just the physical effects of the illness. But also the emotional and psychological strain of being cut off from family and friends. Of being treated as an outcaste. It must have been a horribly lonely life. But we know the reasons for it. As we said earlier. Preservation and powerlessness. The healthy are powerless against the illness. So, to preserve themselves, they isolate the sick.

Quarantine. This is the usual human response. The response of the powerless. The response of those who wish to preserve themselves. All of which should help us to better appreciate what we find in the gospel. Something very surprising. Something beyond the usual human response. Something that goes against all the precautions prescribed in the first reading. Instead of keeping his distance, a leper dares to kneel before Jesus to beg him for healing. If you want to you can cure me. And, instead of protesting, or scolding the leper, Jesus does the unthinkable. He reaches out and touches him. Of course I want to! Be cured! Why does Jesus do this? What gives him the courage to break the leper’s quarantine? The reasons are exactly the opposite of those for putting the quarantine in place.

In contrast to the people’s helplessness, Jesus demonstrates his power. At his command, the man is cured instantly. In contrast to the people’s desire for self-preservation, Jesus demonstrates his great mercy. Not only does he feel sorry for the suffering leper. Not only does he reach out and touch the man. The gospel also tells us that, as a result of the healing, Jesus could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived. In other words, Jesus traded places with the leper. To help the outcaste rejoin society, Jesus himself becomes an outcaste. And all because his concern is not to preserve himself but to show mercy. Like Paul, in the second reading, Jesus is not anxious for his own advantage but for the advantage of everybody else, so that they may be saved.

And it’s important for us to remember that what Jesus does for the leper, Jesus has also done for all of us. For, like the leper, we too are stricken with a disease that we are powerless to cure. The spiritual sickness of sin. Which cuts us off not just from one another. But also, ultimately, from God. From the Author of Life itself. Yet, God chooses not to isolate us. Not to quarantine us. Not to cut us off. But, instead, to show us mercy. By sending Jesus among us, God stretches out his hand of compassion to touch us. To become one like us. To bring us healing.

And as if this were not enough. Not only does Jesus touch us. He also takes the effects of our sins upon himself. He suffers and dies on a cruel cross. On an isolated little hill. Outside the city of Jerusalem. So that we might be saved. By becoming powerless in this way, Jesus actually demonstrates the wonder-working power of God. The healing power of the love and mercy of God. Which cures every incurable illness. Which breaks every painful quarantine. Which reconciles all outcastes to God.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t this the good news we celebrate? That we, who once were spiritual lepers, have now been healed by God? That we, who once were spiritual outcastes, have now been reconciled? And, having received such a great gift, we in our turn are called to do the same for others. Through our Baptism, we receive the mission of Christ. To do for others what has been done for us. To bring back the outcastes from their isolation. To free them from their quarantine.

But who are the lepers of our society today? Who are the people whom we quarantine? Whom we isolate? Whom we separate from ourselves? You may remember, sisters and brothers, what happened during the Pope’s recent visit to the Philippines. The Philippine government moved hundreds of homeless people from the streets of Manila to temporary housing at a luxury resort. Apparently to keep them out of sight. To isolate them. And Manila is not the first to do such a thing. Cities hosting the Olympic games have done it before. Moved the poor away from Olympic venues. So they won’t be seen. Why do we do this? Perhaps for the same reasons that lepers are quarantined. Powerlessness and preservation. Because we believe ourselves powerless to address the illness of poverty. Because we wish to preserve the status quo. To preserve our wealth. To preserve the economic system, in which, according to a recent Oxfam report, the richest 1% will soon own more than half of the world’s wealth.

Sisters and brothers, these days we don’t just quarantine the physically sick. These days, we isolate especially the economically ill. The poor and the homeless. But God calls us to make a different response. A response born not of the concern for self-preservation, but of the desire to show mercy. A response that focuses not on our own powerlessness. But that relies rather upon the power of God’s love for the poor and the sick, the suffering and the sinful. A power that we have experienced for ourselves. A power that we receive at this Eucharist. A power that we are called to exercise for the benefit of the outcastes among us.

Sisters and brothers, what are we doing to reach out to the poor? To break through their cruel quarantine today?

1 comment:

  1. O Lord of Mercy and Compassion,

    In our current society where the poor and underprivileged are regarded as "non-productive" and they are like a "burden" to society - please grant me the courage to dare to be different - to take the first step forward - to show Your Love and Compassion to those in need - even if such an act would put me in an awkward spot.

    O Lord, You have shown us by Your own example - how You had been selfless as You reach out to the poor and those in need of Your Love and Mercy.

    Teach us and grant us the courage to BE like You. Amen.

    Sih Ying
    15 February 2015


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