I can’t say I really truly know what it’s like to be alienated. I don’t ever remember being picked first – not for dodge ball, not for basketball, not for soccer, not for capture the flag, not for quiz bowl. I was willing to embrace this reality growing up, as I was convinced I did not possess fundamental life skills to guarantee my survival in the high school wilderness. So I made sure I did not attract undue attention. But I did notice there were those who seemed more adept at fitting in. People liked being around them. They did things together – they talked, they laughed, they spent time together. They even referred to each other as best friends. I suppose I was a little deficient in the social skills department. But I caught on eventually. I realized there were more advantages at having friends than enemies, that I was less paranoid around strangers if I was more agreeable and hospitable, that my parents did not have to send me to a therapist later on to straighten me out. Nonetheless, I learned the value of positive social interaction as an essential element of being a member of the human family. Every now and again, I would hear of recluses and modern-day hermits, people like J. D. Salinger who wrote The Cather in the Rye and died in 2010, and Harper Lee who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, and wonder if professional success had anything to do with their withdrawal from public life. In the end, it makes a lot more sense to be connected to people, despite their limitations and flaws. Whoever saw Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and said, that’s what I want to be when I grow up? I would much rather be in the crowd that quietly pointed him out to others for being strange. And although I value my privacy a great deal, I know I wouldn’t survive in a monastery.
But there are people who experience alienation who are powerless to reverse the undesirable consequences of their human condition. Scripture today highlights the stigma of leprosy, whose definition encompassed a much wider variety of illnesses in biblical times than they do today. One of the commentaries I read included any skin discoloration, flaking, unsightly bruising, pustules, mold and mildew. Athlete’s foot and psoriasis would have been considered leprosy! Not only did the physical ailment bring with it pain and discomfort, it also struck fear in the hearts of others. And the unfortunate consequence sanctioned by the law of Moses was banishment from the community. The illness made them unclean in more ways than one. They were judged unfit to participate in community life, as well as in public worship. So they had to live outside the camp, as exiles and untouchables. And they had to warn others of their approach, by saying aloud, “unclean, unclean.” It was humiliating and demeaning. No one in their right mind would choose to live like that.
So when a leper came to Jesus and begged him, “If you wish, you can make me clean,” the leper was asking Jesus to take away not only the illness he suffered but more importantly the heavy burden of alienation and shame that came with it. The thinking prevalent in that day was that illness came as the result of sin, either of the one who suffered the illness, or even of the person’s parents. You might recall Jesus’ healing of the man born blind which we read in the weeks before Holy Week, and the healing of the cripple who sat at the gate of the temple made whole by Peter and John after the resurrection. We might not seriously think it, but sometimes we express our frustration with illness when we ask God in our prayers, “Why me? What have we done to deserve this?” Clearly, we still associate physical illness with sin. And our faith teaches us that there is an indirect connection, that alienation from the human family is a reflection of our alienation from God which is a consequence of sin.
Few people would intentionally choose to reject God. But whenever we lose sight of our vital relationship with God and our consequent connection with one another, whenever our highest priority becomes our own self to the exclusion of God and our neighbor, we run the risk of alienation. In the reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he was dealing with an issue that has little relevance to us today. But the principle he invoked still makes sense. In his day, animal sacrifice to pagan gods was a common practice. But after offering the meat of these animals in sacrifice, they were taken to the market to be sold for public consumption. The question Paul was addressing was whether Christians should knowingly purchase and consume meat that had been offered to idols. One group argued strongly that since pagan gods did not really exist, the meat offered in sacrifice was not rendered unfit for Christians. It made total sense. But Paul argued for the prevention of ill feelings, especially among unbelievers and those whose Christian faith had not yet matured. “Do everything for the glory of God. Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks or the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved.” Clearly, the principle of doing everything for the glory of God, and of avoiding giving offense to anyone, holds us to a much higher standard than just being right. It requires of us a level of sensitivity and compassion that is an expression of our care for one another. We cannot knowingly and intentionally desire what is hurtful or harmful to our neighbor. We cannot be smug and arrogant and ruthless even when we are right. The higher standard is not what feels good, but what gives glory to God. And we can and should apply this principle in all aspects of our life as Christians, especially when dealing with fellow Christians and everyone else, whether addressing questions of politics or church governance, of health care or assistance to the needy, of safety for the vulnerable or economic prosperity for all. Paul’s response was clearly an attempt to show the church how to put the gospel into practice concretely. There cannot be nor should there be a disconnect between the gospel and the lives we live.
Jesus said to the leper, “I do will it. Be made clean.” God clearly would not desire that we experience alienation from him or from one another. But Jesus also instructed him to do as the law required, to show himself to the priest and make the proper temple offering. In reality, none of that was necessary. Jesus just took care of the problem. Yet he also chose to give glory to God and avoid giving offense to anyone. So if you think following Jesus would make your life easier, think again. Jesus calls us to a higher standard, to choose the values of the gospel, and sincerely desire the glory of God and the good of our neighbor. Rejoicing in the downfall of our enemies, or puffing ourselves up with self-righteousness is not the way of Paul, and it is definitely not the way of Jesus.