February 7, 2018

Homily for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, February 11, 2018, Year B

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Provincial Superior, La Salette Missionaries of North America
Hartford, Connecticut

It’s flu season. In many parishes the distribution of Communion under both species is discontinued until further notice, and people are encouraged to offer the Sign of Peace with a nod rather than a handshake. If you have the flu, you are expected to stay home rather than risk infecting people around you.

You have heard the recent serious concerns about measles, and the controversy surrounding parents who decided not to have their children immunized. Before that it was Ebola. Before that it was AIDS.

A sixty-five-year-old woman in India lives in a hut outside her village, and hasn’t had a visitor in at least 22 years. She has leprosy. People are afraid, even though they have been assured the disease is not communicable. Fear trumps science. In some parts of India leprosy is accepted as valid grounds for divorce — this in the country with the lowest divorce rate in the world! The woman is also considered “ritually impure,” and is excluded from the temples.

So we can understand the situation described in today’s Gospel, both from the point of view of the people’s fear of contagion and from the leper’s isolation from society. This explains why lepers have often tended to live in colonies, like the Island of Molokai.

In the Old Testament there were many ways to become unclean, which is not at all the same as being dirty. For example, if a member of the family died, whoever touched the body became unclean. In most cases you simply waited till evening and then you were clean again. Sometimes you had to wash your clothes, as well, and occasionally you had to take a bath. But you would always be clean once evening fell. Meanwhile, in Numbers 19 we read, “Anything that the unclean person touches becomes unclean itself, and the one who touches such a person becomes unclean until evening.”

There were a couple of notable exceptions. Leprosy was one; as long as it lasted, you were unclean. If it cleared up, you went to the priest who would verify that you were in fact healed. Then you would offer a sacrifice to God — a sign that you were fully reinstated. That’s what Jesus told the leper to do.

But Jesus didn’t just heal the leper. He touched him! He touched an untouchable person, reaching out to him. No one, not even the leper, could have expected that.

That gesture is normative. The famous Fr. Damien, now St. Damien, followed that example literally on the Island of Molokai. Missionaries in many countries have built leprosy clinics, where lepers are treated with medicines, and shown respect.

But the gesture is normative for us all. In the second reading, St. Paul tells the Christians of Corinth to avoid giving offense. In context it is a little like the medical principle, “First do no harm.” He also indicates by his own behavior that Christians ought not to seek their own personal benefit but that of the many.

This doesn’t mean we should go around shaking hands with flu victims, or that Christian nurses should cast off their protective gear when treating infectious patients. We can’t all be a Fr. Damien.

But we do need to abide by St. Paul’s principle: “Do everything for the glory of God.” How? There are many ways, of course. Among them is treating all persons with respect, and then doing whatever, in our heart of hearts, we know we are personally called to do for others.

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