Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Making a judgement about anything is a perfectly natural thing we humans do. In and of itself, it is neither right nor wrong. When we have a new experience we’ve never had before, when we visit a new place we’ve never visited before, or when we meet a person we’ve never met before, we naturally compare them—innocently and entirely without malice—with all other experiences we’ve had, places we’ve visited, and people we’ve met. That’s how we are then able to distinguish one from another. We rely on a spectrum of experiences by which we measure every new experience—from the extremely pleasant to the extremely unpleasant. We rely on a spectrum of places by which we measure a new place—from “Wow, I’d love to call this place home” to “We really should leave right now and never ever come back.” We rely on a spectrum of people by which we measure a new person—from “You are lovely; would you be my friend?” to “I will need to soak in bleach and boiling water for the next three days.” And of course, there are many levels in between. But all of this is really just information that our minds take in, information that is neither right nor wrong. But sometimes we betray our true feelings with facial expressions, gestures, or actual words, which do covey what we choose to share about ourselves. So for as long as we have not acted, reacted, or spoken, or until we choose to act on the feelings in a way that others can detect, we have done nothing wrong, or right as the case may be.

We might sometimes be asked about our gut reaction, or our first impression. Some people put greater value on such things. But to act on a gut reaction or a first impression is to dismiss what makes human beings rational. We absolutely need our minds to review any and all courses of action suggested by our gut, because we need to consciously choose how we interact with other people and with the world. Our gut reactions and first impressions tell us how much we are like everyone else. Our every conscious choice of what we say and do expresses what we intentionally and proudly want others to know about who we are. We can be shocked, surprised, offended, or angered at first. But after careful thought, we can still choose to extend kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding. Very often acting on a gut reaction or a first impression without careful thought and prayerful consideration can be exceedingly disastrous. That is why I do not have Twitter. At least with Facebook, you have time to rethink before you post. But that doesn’t always mean people will stop to rethink.

It seems the Law of Moses in several different places regarded people with external physical imperfections to be somewhat less than fully human, and provided for their exclusion from social interaction, and their designation as broken or flawed. As primitive as it sounds, this official sanction of the marginalization of fellow human beings may have been primarily motivated by concern for the common good. Broken and flawed people can potentially pass on their defects to others. Nobody wants that. So avoiding unnecessary exposure to danger was viewed as an excellent response. But with advances in modern medicine, exclusion only really made the problem worse.

Like observant Jews in his time, Jesus was bound by the prescriptions of the law, yet he decided he would act more out of compassion toward a fellow human being than out of blind obedience. “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand [to the leper], touched him, and said to him, ‘Be made clean.’”[1] Of course we know today that leprosy is not contagious the way people thought it was, and the way certain diseases can still be. But fear of picking up something nasty is often a stronger motivating force than compassion for someone suffering from both a disease and the social stigma that comes with it. Quarantine may have medical merit, but when implemented with express contempt and loathing, it transforms into abuse, and conveys a person’s intentional and irrational choice to act with hate and malice toward another.

That was how people were treated during the outbreak of the bubonic plague in the dark ages, and how people with HIV/AIDS were treated more recently when it first appeared in the 1980s. That is how we might react when we hear someone has SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), or Ebola, or West Nile, or the current deadly strain of the flu. Fear and revulsion are gut reactions, and as such, are not necessarily a choice. On the other hand, contempt and loathing, hate and prejudice, are always conscious and intentional actions. And their effect on the human spirit only adds insult to injury.

St. Paul was certainly not addressing the very legitimate concerns about leprosy that we read in Leviticus and the gospel. But his words offer insight into how our words and actions can potentially affect others. “Avoid giving offense,” he writes, “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.” We cannot always help our ignorance, whether or not we can pick up some nasty disease just by interacting with our neighbor. But we always make the conscious and intentional choice whether we act toward another with respect or with condescension, whether we show compassion or disgust, whether we are loving or dismissive of another. Paul reminds us to seek the good of others—“that they may be saved.” We may not ourselves bring about their salvation, but by keeping the door open because we were welcoming and respectful and kind, we give people reason to stay, and be open to hear God’s invitation, and receive God’s saving action.

In our current climate of divisiveness, whether we’re talking immigration or taxes, terrorism or gun violence, sexual harassment or domestic abuse, there is great potential for swift and disproportionate gut reactions that often tend toward the mean, the disrespectful, and the malicious. Jesus invites us to discover the person underneath all the yelling and posturing and name-calling. And before responding from the gut, we might recognize the great and unintended potential for harm. The more callous among us might just brush all this political correctness aside and tell them sensitive souls to grow up or grow a pair. But we need to remember that we are accountable to God for our words and actions. Everyone else will be accountable to God for theirs. A contempt for political correctness is not often easy to differentiate from a contempt for common courtesy and human dignity. While a first impression or a gut reaction is seldom right or wrong, the words and actions we choose emerge from who we are deep within. By his words and actions, Jesus shows us God’s desire to heal and reconcile and welcome. If we say we are his disciples, how do we justify words or actions to the contrary? Be my guest. You tell Jesus to grow up and grow a pair.

Rolo B Castillo © 2018

[1] Mark 1: 41