Outcast

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28th Sunday in Ordinary Time


It looks like we have to talk about it today. It’s not a subject I know a lot about, so I had to do some research. And I can tell you right now, you will wish after this you did not know as much about the subject as I have found out. And no, I’m not talking about the presidential election which takes place in 29 days, 21 hours, 38 minutes, 35 seconds. In a way, I’m actually glad these offensive revelations made the news just before the weekend, because what scripture suggests we reflect on doesn’t seem as repulsive. And truthfully, I would much rather talk about leprosy.

Leprosy today is known as Hansen’s disease. From the internet, I learned that it is caused by bacteria that enters the body through the respiratory system (which I did not know). It is infectious, although it is not highly contagious. (Small comfort.) It is treatable, and anyone exposed to it can be free of it in as little as two weeks of treatment. Initially, infections are without symptoms and typically remain this way from 5 to 20 years. (So I guess, treatment would be less effective by then.) Symptoms include inflammation of the nerves, respiratory tract, skin, and eyes. This may result in a lack of ability to feel pain, so that loss of body parts can occur due to repeated injuries, or infection can set in due to unnoticed wounds. Weakness and poor eyesight may also be present.

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There are a few chapters in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy that outline for the people of Israel how to diagnose this condition. We have to remember that medicine did not exist then as we have it today. So a lot of mysterious medical ailments got swept up in the term “leprosy.” Now the temple priests were considered the most knowledgeable in that society, so it fell to them to hand down the final verdict. They had to examine noticeable spots on the skin that were brought to their attention, as well as lesions, blotches, scaly infections, and any discoloration. I’m not going to share with you the gory details, but for the most part, these persons were quarantined for a week and the area observed. Certain things had first to be eliminated, to isolate the cause. I found it amusing that male pattern baldness warranted some attention in this regard. But the bible says you are safe, so breathe easy. And when a person was determined to have a “scaly infection” they would be declared “unclean.” And it is as bad as it sounds. Eventually, anyone declared “unclean” can only be declared “clean” again only after another thorough examination, which is why Jesus sent the former lepers to the priests.

Now being declared “unclean” had consequences. Leviticus (13: 45-46) spells it out for us. “The garments of one afflicted with a scaly infection shall be rent and the hair disheveled, and the mustache covered. The individual shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ As long as the infection is present, the person shall be unclean. Being unclean, that individual shall dwell apart, taking up residence outside the camp.” To live outside the camp meant total separation from the community, including, from participation in common worship. And any semblance of order among them ceased to be a concern of the community. They were on their own. In effect, the “unclean” were dead to them. They may just as well be referred to as “outcasts, untouchables, pariahs, garbage.”

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Now although the “unclean” were to reside outside the community by law, it did not totally hide them from view. In the gospel, they were seen roaming the city streets. But if they had to cry out “Unclean!” everywhere they went, they would be exposed to every manner of contempt, mistreatment, insult, and abuse, which meant they probably didn’t leave home often, except to find food. So among themselves, they most likely had their own rules. Newcomers had to be at the bottom of the pecking order. If they had any rights at all, the newbies had even less. And they would be easy to spot. Their clothes were not as tattered or dirty, their features not as disfigured. They would have no friends when they first arrived, no place to stay, no possessions, no influence. If there was food, they got whatever was left. They were literally outcasts among the outcasts.

Now these rules did not apply to those outside Israel. Naaman, the Assyrian general, was not regarded “unclean” in the same way. His soldiers and attendants did not shun him. In fact, he still commanded such respect that he could appear before the king of Assyria, and then the king of Israel, unhindered. The prophet Elisha did not meet the general at the entrance of his tent until after he was healed. But the prophet was seemingly not as concerned as Jesus about any expression of gratitude.

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The questions Jesus asked the leper, now healed, are for us to reflect on. “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” Clearly, Jesus desired to heal all ten lepers. I can only think of one other instance in the scriptures when he healed more than one person at once, as when he met two possessed men among the tombs, and sent the evil spirits into a herd of pigs. So Jesus desired to heal them, whether they were Jews or Samaritans, and whether they came back to give thanks or not. All it took was for them to ask. “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” they called out when they saw him at a distance. Perhaps aware their condition was not brought upon them by their choosing, Jesus did not examine their motives. Unlike other healing stories, he did not touch them, nor ask them if they wanted to be healed. He did not ask them for an expression of faith. He just gave them instructions, consistent with accepted practice. The lepers, on their part, did not approach. They did not argue their rights. They only asked for his pity.

So when we come upon our fellow men and women whom society would regard as beneath our own dignity, because they suffer physical or mental afflictions; or they profess a different religion, or different politics; or they are part of a different culture, race, gender, or sexual orientation; or they are elderly, or differently-abled, or unborn, or incarcerated, or clueless, or undeserving, or ungrateful—apparently any sensitivity to legitimate differences between people is no longer acceptable among portions of the American electorate—would it still be an acceptable Christian response to disregard the dignity that belongs to everyone by right? Despite how some Christians have behaved in the past, I can confidently declare this behavior can never be considered Christian, back then or ever. Jesus did have harsh words for the scribes and Pharisees on occasion, but only for their hardness of heart. He desired mercy for them as well, which they never did ask for. Jesus desires only healing for all, then and now. So we will hear this gospel passage of the ten lepers whenever we want to focus on giving thanks. We may hear it again around Thanksgiving. But that is the obvious lesson. A more challenging lesson is to follow Jesus’ example—that we bring healing where there is hurt. Not judgment, only mercy.

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Rolo B Castillo © 2016