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The 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Fr. Andrew Lee

My religious order is the Korean Missionary Society. We have missions in China. As you all know, all mission activities are prohibited in China. Missionaries might be kicked out if they are caught bringing religious missions to the Chinese people. Therefore, missionaries in China may be able to do social welfare services as a bypass instead of missioning there: managing hospitals, schools, orphanages, day care centers, shelters for homeless, and so on. The country let missionaries handle these problems because the government doesn’t need to spend money on them as long as the missionaries are dealing with them. My religious order started to send missionaries to China in 1996 to see if there was a possibility for missions. But we ended up starting a social welfare service in 2001: helping Chinese leprosy. The government isolated lepers in the western part of China and formed villages there: villages of lepers. My order, Korean Missionary Society helps them improve their lives by making them shoes. Some lepers lose their feet or legs because of the disease and can’t walk. So we measure their legs and provide them with prosthetic legs. In Korea, we also have some villages for lepers because people don’t want them around, so they are still isolated. This is how we treat lepers even today.

In today’s readings, we hear about leprosy. It is a disfiguring, infectious skin disease that has been surrounded by many social and religious taboos throughout history. In 1873, the cause of leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, was identified. We now know that leprosy is caused by a bacterial infection. Although it is infectious, modern medical studies have shown that transmission is more difficult than previously thought. Since the 1940s, medical treatments have been available, and the patient no longer needs to be isolated once long-term treatment has begun.

In Jesus' time, however, religious and social taboos dictated the behavior of those with leprosy and other skin diseases. The Law of Moses provided for the examination of skin diseases by the priests, and, as indicated in today’s first reading, if leprosy was identified, the person was declared unclean. People with leprosy lived in isolation from the community. They were instructed to rip their clothes and to announce their presence with loud cries when moving in the community. If the sores of leprosy healed, the Law of Moses provided a purification rite that permitted the person to return to the community. At that time the disease was treated not only as a physical disorder, but also as a result of a divine chastisement. Therefore, they were considered outcasts and excluded from the society.

Having an understanding of this background about leprosy, we are shocked by Jesus’ action in today’s Gospel. A leper comes to Jesus, kneels and begs. Jesus is filled with mercy and heals the leper. Jesus commands him to tell no one except the priest; the leper publicizes the news and Jesus must go out into the desert to avoid the crush of the crowd. This is the whole story. But Jesus’ simple action surprises everybody: the disciples, the crowd, the leper, and us. “HE TOUCHES THE LEPER.”

The people of Jesus’ time knew that diseases could be spread by touch. They did have an understanding of how it spreads. They thought that close contact could pass sickness. The strict instruction in the first reading demonstrates this. “As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean. He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp” They knew enough to keep someone with leprosy away from everyone else and out of the cities in the time of Jesus. But today Jesus touches the leper. How powerful an act of love is it?

Additionally, Jesus doesn’t have to touch the leper to heal him. Jesus heals people without or with touching them: Peter’s mother in law, the centurion’s servant, Lazarus, the blind man, etc. Jesus doesn’t have to touch the leper to heal him. But He does it. Imagine how long it has been since anyone touched this man. He never shook the hands of healthy people, never accidentally brushed against a woman in the marketplace, never bumped into anyone in public places, but Jesus comes and touches the man with leprosy. Imagine how touching and powerful it is for this man to be touched by a fellow healthy human being. 

Furthermore, Jesus moves forward and touches this man even though Jesus knows He might be infected. He knows He could be killed. He knows He could be isolated with the man. The risk is great. But Jesus doesn’t hesitate to reach out and touch the man. Jesus’ simple action is a great challenge to the disciples, the crowds, the leper, and all of us. We are required to ask ourselves today. “How much do we distance ourselves from people?” “Do we put a huge boundary around people and isolate them from us?” “Do we still hesitate to reach out and touch those who are suffering, hurt, wounded, and isolated?” The risk is great. We might be hurt. We might be infected. We might be killed. But do we take this risk of sacrifice in our lives?

Today we still have people who are cast out of the community: the homeless, the AIDS people, lepers, physically or mentally challenged people, and so on. They are minorities marked by a group of insiders, the popular group, for some way they are different. It could be a physical sign of difference; it could be a behavior. But the fact is that they are no longer embraced, fed, or spoken to by those on the inside. And we don’t want to risk ourselves to touch them. We fear associating with them. But Jesus’ touching the leper in today’s Gospel challenges people who don’t want to blend in with outcasts. Jesus’ stretching His hand asks us today to embrace them and bring them inside. Who is clean and holy? Who is just and normal? Those who are with Jesus Christ are clean. Those who are touched by Jesus’ sacred hand are holy. Therefore, we are asked to open ourselves to people outside the community. Let us continue the mass, asking God to give us his loving touch and to give us courage to touch outcasts in our community.

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