February 12 2012 6th Sunday of the Year (B)
A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
First Reading (Leviticus 13:1-2, 45-46). Biblical law concerning leprosy. The leper must live apart. This biblical reading, on what is called “leprosy”, is chosen to go with the Gospel passage on Jesus’ cure of a leper. The Hebrew word in the original of this text, rendered in older English translation as “leprosy”, or “a leprous disease”, is not quite precise. The modern condition of leprosy is limited to what is known as Hanson’s disease, and it is not clear that leprosy in this sense could even be included under what was intended by the Hebrew word in question. The condition covered by the Hebrew word in this biblical context probably included a variety of skin ailments such as scaly patches, burns, boils and such like. While the book of Leviticus and this text deal with religious ritual conditions, not medical, the situation in question is basically medical, and has to deal with contagious diseases or conditions, and isolation until the condition had been officially diagnosed as healed. No moral blame is included as cause for the sad condition, although the biblical text will later (Leviticus 14) speak of atonement sacrifices to be made for the person declared clear and admitted to the community. The two brief texts of two verses each, forty-three verses apart, are chosen because deemed sufficient as background for the Gospel reading.
Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 31). Joy after forgiveness of sin. The just are called on to rejoice in the Lord.
Second Reading (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1). The apostle Paul’s plea never to do anything offensive to anyone, or to the Church of God. A guide to this reading, and reflection on it in dialogue with current-day questions, is best done by setting this very fine passage in its original context in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. In the original setting this passage is still part of Paul’s dialogue with the Corinthian church regarding issues in a letter they had sent him and because of his awareness of certain divisions within the community, by reason of an “elite”, who regarded themselves “free”, endowed with special knowledge, and apparently as in a special position by reason of Christian baptism and the Eucharist (partaking in the Body and Blood of Christ). Some of their actions by reason of these beliefs were also a danger to those Paul refers to as the “weak”, that is members of the community with less understanding of true Christian freedom. Paul already reminded them that he, too, was free, but made himself a slave of all, in order not to give offence and to win Greek and Jew for Christ (1 Cor 9:19-23). He reminds them of the need of self control, like combatants in games (running, boxing), as they would be familiar with from the Isthmian games held in Corinth every second year. Break the rules and you are disqualified; as even Paul himself could be (9:26-27). He reminds them of how Israel, God’s chosen people in the desert, were severely punished for the sins of idolatry and fornication. Those in Corinth, priding themselves of “knowledge”, rightly believed that since idols were nothing, they could safely eat the meat of animals sacrificed to idols, and partake of a meal of such food with their friends, sometimes endangering the faith of other believers with weaker “consciences”, weaker in Christian faith and its requirement. Paul’s overriding principle is that what counts is Christian love, requiring respect for others’ “consciences”, this in whatever we do, eating or drinking, giving offence to no one. Paul is not boasting in giving himself as a model. It is what he knows he must do, lest he too be rejected.
Gospel (Mark 1:40-45). Jesus feels sorrow for a leper, forced to live apart, and heals him. This passage is easily understood against the background of today’s first reading, and Jewish religious society of Jesus’ day. Jesus would have violated Jewish law (and incurred ritual uncleanness) by touching the leper; yet he fully respects this law be telling the cured many report to the priests and make the prescribed offering – actions in any case required if he were to be accepted back into society. In touching the leper, he touched everyone in the human condition.
B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day
An inclusive society, and a personal knowledge of Christ. We live in a society where there is frequent mention of an inclusive, or all-inclusive, society. Political parties, politicians and public figures pledge themselves to work creating this. This is but part of a modern movement towards respect for the individual human person and the legal defence of human rights. What these rights are, are set out in individual national and international charters, and when violated upheld in established courts of justice.
This respect for the human person is very much in keeping with the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The human person is created in the image of God. After blasphemy (a sin against the deity), the next greatest sin was taken to be murder, the destruction of the image of God, and hence an offence against the One in whose image humans are created. Respect for the image of God had Jesus go beyond the negative “You shall not murder”, to declare anger, harsh words, insults against one’s brothers and sisters, to be serious sins (Matthew 5:21-22). In the second reading today Paul told the Corinthians, and all of us, “Never do anything offensive to anyone”.
Inclusiveness is the removal of exclusion. Today’s Gospel reading tells how Jesus worked to have the leprous man healed and reinstated within his community. Exclusion has various roots. One is fear, fear of contagious in the case of leprous disease. Another is the fear arising from the behaviour of certain groups, such as the Roma in Europe and the travelling community nearer home to us. Given the variety of causes, there can be pressure for being inclusive with regard to some groups (possibly by reason of good organization and media pressure) while the situation of other marginalized groups is ignored.
A movement or drive towards all-inclusiveness, without due reflection, may lead to attempted enforced uniformity. Such a movement will depend somewhat in the mind-set, the overall worldview, the weltanschaung, of individuals or groups. Thus it can come about that the all-inclusiveness in question can be imbued, if not driven, by a secular or secularist world view that would have religion excluded from every public domain, from primary schools, public life and public discourse. These forces are very much at work in the world in which we live, and should be borne in mind in any dialogue between the biblical and Christian vision and modern life.
An outright secular world view and the Christian view will almost certainly come into conflict. Both in a sense are absolutist, on the one hand in the matter of the denial of the divine, and on the other God and Christ at the very centre of vision and activity in the Christian approach. Christ’s church is, and must be, inclusive by reason of the second commandment to love one’s neighbour. But this will always be God’s commandment, not just social service. From its very foundation the church has been centred on Jesus Christ. He had a group of faithful disciples around him, and they were sent out to preach the good news. Christ’s message and that of his Church was and is: “Repent and believe in the Gospel, the good news”. Repent meant, and still means, changing focus from a Jewish or Greek, or any other world view to that of Christ and of his Gospel, the good news. Christ’s apostles had to be clear on their mission, to preach in a world at times hostile to their message, and to see to it that the new and growing Christian communities retained their cohesiveness and were not absorbed by any surrounding, non-Christian, culture. This is quite clear in Paul’s letters to his churches: conversion to Christ meant a break with a former view of morality and living. When he tells the Corinthians, and later generations, never to do anything offensive to anyone he has a missionary aim in view: to have them, if possible, convert to Christ. Christ himself had said something similar: So let your light shine before others, so that they may from this glorify the Father in heaven. Paul could truly say: “Take me for your model, as I take Christ”. We are called to be inclusive, or all-inclusive, but without losing our Christian identity and our sense of individual and collective Christian mission.