February 12, 2006
Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46; Mark 1:40-45
Charity begins at home. Our first responsibility is to care for those who are closest to us: our family and our friends. This is a sound policy, and most of us follow it. So whenever someone appears as a threat, as a danger, we instinctively push that person away. We do this in order to protect those that we love, those who are closest to us. This is certainly the intent of today’s first reading from the book of Leviticus, because in this reading is found legislation concerning leprosy. Ancient Israel understood that leprosy was contagious. Therefore, Israel put in place this directive, decreeing that the person who was infected with leprosy should be separated from the community. Such people were to live outside the camp, and they were to call out “unclean, unclean” as a warning to others to stay away lest they also become infected.
So clearly, there are some circumstances in which setting up barriers and dividing ourselves from others is necessary. Yet we cannot deny that the gospel pulls us in the opposite direction. Even in those circumstances where we must accept divisions within the community, the gospel always regrets and mourns those barriers and longs for the time when they might be erased. At the heart of the gospel is the conviction that whatever divides us lessens us and that we are never complete until we are united with one another. Now to live in a world without divisions, without barriers, is probably impossible at the present time. But it is clearly God’s intention for the world. This is why the ministry of Jesus was always concerned with reconciliation, with bringing people together. This is why Jesus in today’s gospel heals the leper, not simply to remove the disease but to remove the barrier, so that the leper might again join the community. You see, Jesus knows that it’s all too easy to take necessary barriers and turn them into convenient prejudices. Jesus understands that it’s all too easy to take the fear of a real enemy and allow it to exclude someone who looks like an enemy. Jesus realizes that every time we identify a particular person or group within society and use that identification to push that person away, we are playing a dangerous game. Each time we exclude someone because of race or religion, because of sexual orientation or appearance, we are working against the kingdom of God. Moreover, when we work against the kingdom, we are in fact working against our own best interests.
Perhaps a parable might help. A mouse was looking through a crack in the wall of a farmhouse. He was watching the farmer and his wife open a package. “I wonder what’s in that box,” thought the mouse, “I hope it’s cheese.” But it wasn’t cheese. To the mouse’s horror, he saw the farmer unpack a mousetrap. Frightened, the mouse ran out into the barnyard and yelled out in warning, “There’s a mousetrap in the house! There’s a mousetrap in the house!” The chicken clucked and looked up from plucking her seed. “Mr. Mouse, I’m sure this is a grave concern to you, but it is no consequence to me. Please leave me alone.” So the mouse ran over to the pigpen. “There’s a mousetrap in the house!” The pig said, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, but I never go into the house. I’ll keep you in my prayers.” The mouse then ran out to the pasture to warn the cow. “There’s a mousetrap in the house!” “How unfortunate for you,” said the cow, “but it’s no skin off my nose. Please go away.” So the mouse went back to the house dejected, because he knew he would have to face the mousetrap alone.
That very night there was a sound throughout the whole house—a snap. The mousetrap had just claimed its first victim. The farmer’s wife got up to determine what was caught. But in the darkness she failed to see that the mousetrap had closed on the tail of a poisonous snake. When she reached out toward the trap, the snake bit her. The farmer took her at once to the hospital, where she stayed for a few days with a serious fever. Finally, when she was sent home, the doctor recommended that she be fed chicken soup. So the farmer took his hatchet and went out to the hen house. That was the end of the chicken. But the wife’s health did not improve. For days friends came and sat by her bedside, supporting her. The farmer felt the pull of hospitality, so he went out and slaughtered the pig to feed them. Unfortunately, the poor woman died. She was a very popular person, so people from all over the county came for her funeral. In order to provide the luncheon, the farmer slaughtered the cow. The mouse watched all of this through the crack in the wall. He shook his head, “I tried to warn them about the mousetrap, but they wouldn’t listen.”
Sometimes we imagine that we can separate ourselves from others without any consequence or danger to ourselves. Sometimes we might think that we can divide ourselves from those who are different with impunity. But the gospel warns us about setting up such barriers too casually. The gospel understands that when we choose to build walls, they are just as likely to hurt us as to protect us. It is a myth to think that we are better off alone, separated from others. We all inhabit the same planet, and the life of each person is interwoven with the lives of others in one great tapestry of life. Whenever we choose to pull out a particular thread of that tapestry, we mar the whole cloth.
There may indeed be times when dividing ourselves from others is necessary, but Christians always regret and mourn such barriers, because we know that they are not part of the ultimate plan of God. That is why we continually commit ourselves to reconciliation, to forgiveness, and to building unity. We above all others should know that whenever we choose to divide ourselves from one another, we do so at our own risk.