There may have been times in our life where someone or a group of persons could either deliberately or unknowingly excluded us from a conversation or an activity. No matter who we are, it surely doesn’t feel very good to be excluded from things. Imagine for a moment where you and a friend are talking and your friend tells you that he/she has been invited to a party of a mutual friend and you did not receive an invitation. Everyone experiences social rejection or exclusion at some point in life and these can bring about a sense of unpleasantness.
The Gospel presented to us today (Mark 1:40-45) is that of the encounter between Jesus and a leper. During the time of Jesus, anyone with leprosy not only experienced social rejection but also a religious rejection. In the ancient world, leprosy was considered a scourge and since it was incurable, lepers were forced to exist outside the community, separated from family and friends. Compounded to being socially isolated, lepers also struggled with spiritual isolation because many believed God inflicted the curse of leprosy upon people for the sins they committed – a double whammy.
It is obvious that the word about Jesus’ miraculous powers has gotten around, even to the reviled and outcast leper. Though forbidden to approach anyone, the leper’s desire to be reconciled with the community and God pushes him to approach Jesus. Was it his faith or an act of desperation, we will never know but once Jesus touches the leper, the leprosy immediately vanishes and the man is made clean.
The fact that this man is now cleansed of his disease will have a huge impact on his future because he is restored to his proper relationship with his family, his community, and God. Jesus has helped the man regain hope and meaning in life. The healing was not just physical, but also social and spiritual. He will no longer feel the pain of exclusion and that is why he could not contain his joy and went about telling people what had happened to him despite being told by Jesus not to do so.
In a Church that is made up of people of different experiences and coming from all walks of life, we know that like Jesus, the Church must be the place of inclusion and never exclusion. Pope Francis envisions the Church as “the place of God’s mercy and love where everyone can feel themselves welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live according to the good life of the Gospel.”
In order to realise this vision, it must begin with each and every one of us because we are the face of the Church to the world. In order to be an inclusive Church we must make others feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged. The greatest obstacle to doing this is ourselves – our prejudices, our tunnel vision, stereotyping into boxes, and also at times our pride and sense of self-righteousness (I am better than others). Often we “exclude” people without us even realising – the lack of sensitivity that can prevail in each of us.
A good example would be our own parish community. Whenever there is a new person who comes to Mass for the first time, and we ask them to stand to acknowledge their presence either by song or a thunderous clap, very few or sometimes even no one goes to make conversation with them after Mass, to make them really feel “included”. I am sure many of them would have felt like the leper in the gospel today, socially isolated in a place that calls itself a community of believers.
Being inclusive sometimes would mean leaving the safety and comfort that I have built around me and going out to be with those outside my circles – to be in a truly mutual relationship. The leper did and he found Jesus and the encounter transformed his life forever.
We live in a different culture and a different time from Jesus, but the call to evangelise, to reveal the truths of the Gospel remains. However, words alone are no longer enough. In order to proclaim the Gospel, we need to ‘meet people where they are’ and not starting from ‘where we are’. We need to welcome and meet people where they are – even in their brokenness, sinfulness, and struggles. If we are going to take the high moral ground of pride and righteousness, we will fail to make the face of the Church to be the face of Christ. For a start, the next time you see someone new in your parish, let’s not make them feel isolated or excluded like the leper in today’s gospel. We must to step out and make them feel welcome and included for this the mark of the Church Jesus founded.
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (14 Feb 2021)