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SIXTH SUNDAY: WHY IS JESUS UNCONVENTIONAL?




The gospel of this weekend is worth rereading:

A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once. He said to him, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.”


Place this gospel scenario side by side the original practice in Leviticus (chapter 13):

If the man is leprous and unclean, the priest shall declare him unclean by reason of the sore on his head. “The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean. He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.”


The gospel passage opens up with the sick man approaching Jesus with the question , “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Jesus’ response is different. He says to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” Note that wishing something is not the same as willing something. Wishing means to have a desire. The thing wished for may or may not happen whereas willing shows a firm eagerness to do something or to get something. When Jesus says to this leper, “I do will it,” Jesus demonstrates a commitment, a willingness to restore him to God’s unconditional love. Jesus wills a healing that redirects this man’s relationship as intended by God. This informs the man’s action at the end, “went away and began to publicize the whole matter.” It's like saying, "I don't care. I don't give a damn at what they say..." Prior to this time, he is ashamed and isolated, not allowed to appear in public. Now, he can sing, “Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch; like me! I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.” He is totally transformed.

 

Jesus’ statement of willingness proceeds from within. He touches the leper. What a huge step! The Old Testament law demands that a man such as this leper is not to associate with others or with members of the community. He shall wear signs that portray him as dirty and declare with his mouth that he is unclean. These are extreme, harsh conditions. This is the kind of man that Jesus touches, not like touching Simon Peter’s mother in-law who was with a fever. This is more serious for several reasons. 1). It is against the Jewish law to do so. 2). The religious belief is that a sickness such as leprosy is linked with the fate of the victim. He is suffering from what can be considered as destiny’s punishment for a sin. 3). Finally, there’s the belief that leprosy can contaminate others. Yet, Jesus touches him.

 

A fundamental component in the life and ministry of Jesus is his unconventional style. Jesus simply does not care about what the norm stipulates, especially if that contradicts the value for human dignity. The authors of the book, Rebuilt Faith: A Handbook for Skeptical Catholics, highlight an example of Jesus’ unconventionality with the call of Matthew the tax collector. In describing the scene, the authors write,

Jesus attends a party… with sinners! One of the accusations the religious leaders consistently made against Jesus was that he was a glutton and a drunkard. And it was because of scenes like this one, in which he was not afraid to have a good time and enjoy social gatherings. Neither was he in the least reluctant to hang around with people who thought and lived differently than he did. And, it turned out, people who were nothing like him liked him (p.23).

 

By the way, here’s what the word conventional means: 1). based on or in accordance with what is generally done or believed. 2). (of a person) concerned with what is generally held to be acceptable at the expense of individuality and sincerity.

 

In Matthew’s case, for instance, tax collectors are generally believed to be sinners, unworthy of friendship with others. Jesus does not care about that, even holds a party in his house. In the case of the leper, Jesus does not care about what is generally held as acceptable. He touches him and mandates him to “tell no one anything” about their encounter. Jesus is unconventional because he prioritizes human dignity and the salvation of souls. Touching this leper is one of those huge moments of unconventionality.

 

If you want to know someone who toed the line of Jesus in being unconventional in his pastoral style, it is Pope Saint John Paul 11. Here’s a story of his pastoral visit on May 4, 1984, to Sorok Island off South Korea, a leper colony where several hundred people with the disfiguring disease were receiving care. The protocol that day only called for Pope John Paul 11 to enter the Sarok pavilion, where the patients were gathered, give a brief speech on the meaning of suffering, then leave. But after surveying the scene, John Paul brushed aside a cardinal who tried to speed him along, and set to work. Arturo Mari, the Pope’s personal photographer captures that moment this way, “He touched them with his hands, caressed them, kissed each one. Eight hundred lepers, one by one. One by one! For me he was a man of God,” the 71-year-old photographer said. That is unconventional.

 

The messages from the gospel of today challenge us on what it means to truly know Jesus. Every encounter with Jesus is about who we are and not about what we carry. Every encounter with Jesus defines our entire being. Referencing the rich man who came to Jesus in the Bible and went away sad, the authors of Rebuilt Faith emphasize, “However, this passage is not about money; it is about the man.” We can repeat that about the leper. It is not about his leprosy; it is about the man. It is about his salvation. Still in the book, Rebuilt Faith, Michael White and Tom Corcoran identify eternal life as “a reference to the quality of life than can be experienced right now, as well as the life to come” (p.13). Jesus commands the man healed of leprosy to show himself to the priest as a “proof for them,” a reminder that God wills him to experience a quality life and be finally saved for eternity.

 

To know Jesus requires an unconventional faith. It requires faith that is solely dependent on God’s commandments, not on cultural norms. To know Jesus warrants us to will to act in the best interest of others, to show compassion like Jesus. To know Jesus requires a commitment to the course of the less privileged and the poor. We are defined not by what we suffer, not by society’s designation or stereotype, but by God’s love and mercy. To know Jesus and to preach him, we must adopt Jesus’ unconventional approach.


Readings: 1st- Lev. 13:1-2, 44-46; 2nd- 1 Cor. 10:31-11:1; Gospel- Mk. 1:40-45

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