Leviticus 13: 1-2; 44-46; ICor 10: 31–11: 1; Mark 1: 40-45
I was listening to a podcast this week with Brené Brown. If you don’t know her, she in some ways rose to fame with a TED Talk she had done a few years ago on vulnerability and has since written many books. The episode I was listening to, she happened to be speaking about “belonging”. Belonging, according to her, demands us to be who we are, our most authentic selves even if the group expects something else from us. She would say that the deepest pain that we can experience is a loneliness that comes with not feeling like we belong, even within our own family and community. The paradox, as she puts it, is that feeling of loneliness actually is fed when we try to live up to the expectations of the community rather than being our authentic selves, sacrificing our truest selves for the sake of a false sense of belonging.
This sense of belonging and not belonging strikes a cord many times in Scripture, especially in the healing stories of the lepers that we hear today. Their separation, even more so, has nothing to do with their own choosing. The community, the law, the authorities, and certainly the fears force the leper to be separated and not belonging to the community. They are inflicted with the rejection of the community simply because their disability is seen with the naked eye. It’s all based on this sense of being unclean and somehow they are going to pollute the community. Yet, here comes Jesus. His approach seems rather radical for the community and the leaders because he sees the leper for who he really is. He’s going to step out of the comfort of the illusion of being clean to encounter the human person in their suffering and pain and their sense of separation that feeds into that lived reality.
We’ll hear many stories like it throughout the gospel and probably scratch our heads and why this is so much of a problem for the community and leaders of the time. What happens when the leper returns to the community? The leper simply shows back up like nothing ever happened and reintegrates into the community. Or so we would think. And we think that the leper even cares about such things anymore. The healing that takes place with the leper has implications on the community and their way of thinking and their judgment of this fellow human being. The judgment of the community upon the leper now becomes challenged and is also revealed in the healing of this guy. Their own shortcoming and what they have deemed important is revealed along with the healing. They will be left with a choice as the story goes on to whether believe in Jesus or continue to surrender themselves to the law, the prescriptions, the expectations, and most especially their fear and judgment. That’s the rub that these healings invoke within the community. We can be grateful for the healing, but we all know that the pain runs deeper and can the person stand as they really are, owning that sense of belonging now in the face of this newfound uncertainty.
As the story unfolds and we move into the Lenten Season, we’ll see that the community will move to this false sense of belonging, giving into the fear of the political and religious figures, around the common enemy in Jesus. There will be an unwillingness to encounter these characters in the healing stories in their own humanity because meeting people in their own suffering reveals our own sense of worth, and lack there of at times. It reveals our own insecurities on life. It reveals our own fears and judgments that we have towards others who may be different, even when it’s not their own choice. It reveals, at the heart of it, just how difficult it is for us to change in the face of it and to see what’s most important for and in our lives. Their sense of belonging, the lepers and all the rest we encounter and who have been pushed to the margins for one reason or another, has nothing to do with us. Brown will go onto say that it’s a matter of the heart. It’s a matter of accepting ourselves as we are, belonging to ourselves, and ultimately belonging to the Christ.
Paul tells us in today’s second reading about imitating Christ as he has and that imitation comes in the form of going out and meeting the other as they are, as a human person. Most of what divides us is of our own making and choosing. The implications of our own sin not only impacts us but the life of the community. We imitate the Christ when we show compassion, when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, when we meet suffering head on in our lives and in the other. Paul understood that when he seeks the benefit of the many and not his own. He understood his own insecurities and judgments but wasn’t going to allow his own thinking to prevent him from imitating Christ in that way. If anything, Paul teaches us that our own sense of belonging comes first with an acceptance of our belonging in and with Christ.
The greatest paradox, more than anything, is these healings not only reveal the far reach that God has in trying to heal one who has been separated, rejected, unloved in going “outside the camp” as we hear in Leviticus. When we recognize that our own sense of belonging has bearing on it, the demand of the Gospel is to do the same. It’s much easier to give into the expectations of the community and the fear associated with not fitting in, being rejected, but the fullness of life and the restoration of that life can only come when we belong in and with Christ. The implications of our own choices should weigh on our hearts. As a community, a country, a world, we need to see the other as we are, as human persons, who are often hurting and suffering in less obvious ways that the leper and in need of that human contact that binds us as one. When we feel we can’t, more often than not it’s our own fears, the expectations we’ve created, the laws and prescripts that have been decided on by the group, that prevents us from taking that step as Jesus does today out into the world so that what we do here really matters. When we find our sense of belonging in Christ, we recognize that there is only one choice in who belongs and who doesn’t and it isn’t even ours to make. When we see each other as human persons rather than our judgment then we all belong.