Radical freedom

My brother Tom was always better with his hands than the rest of us were -- an important characteristic for a surgeon. One day, a few years into his career, I asked him, "How can you get up in the morning, go to work, wash your hands, dress up and then pick up a knife and slice someone open?" He replied that he was not "slicing someone open," but removing something that was hurting someone. His profession is science that strives to do the greatest good and the least harm. It is, in vocational terms, a continuation of the healing ministry of Jesus.

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Sixth Sunday in
Ordinary Time
Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
Psalm 32
1 Corinthians 10:31 - 11:1
Luke 17:16
Mark 1:40-45

Our reading from Leviticus 13 reflects a time when medicine was a cultic matter, not a scientific one. Beginning with the belief that everything God created was good, Israel interpreted death as the punishment for sin (Genesis 3:19), and following that interpretation, anything that did not reflect the goodness of creation was ungodly and unclean, a threat to the well-being of a community that had to be protected from evil.

In the case of "leprosy," protection was needed from the physical blemish as well as the evil believed to be behind its outward manifestations. Although we think we are free from our ancestors' pre-scientific fears, we still experience disease, and particularly disfiguring disease, as dreadful. If you're not sure, just ask adolescents about the plague of acne!

When we come to today's Gospel, we can read it as a simple healing story, a manifestation of Jesus' power to transform the condition of a person who sought his help. That is a true reading of the story, but it only touches the surface. The interaction between Jesus and the man afflicted by leprosy can also be read as a brilliant proclamation of Gospel freedom.

When Jesus reached out and touched the man with leprosy, he displayed the unconditional freedom he knew as God's Son. In his society, the law's demands, promulgated to help people maintain their closeness to God, had become distorted; strict obedience had taken center stage, overshadowing the law's true goal of unity. Interpretation of the law had become a fine art that too often obscured rather than promoted love of God and neighbor.

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In the case of a person with leprosy, the strictures designed to protect the community from contagion had taken on moral implications, deviating from their original purpose and fostering the belief that a disfiguring ailment signaled interior corruption -- thereby justifying the utter marginalization of the victim.

The law had been transformed. It was no longer a road but a prison. It divided the sick from the well, isolating the afflicted and feeding the fear of the community. Healthy people's contact with someone designated as a leper identified them with the afflicted, leaving both as untouchable.

When the suffering man called out, "You can heal me!" it was a cry of faith. Because everyone believed that only God could heal leprosy, that plea proclaimed his faith in Jesus' unique power. Assuming that this was their first encounter, it's unlikely that the man knew or believed anything more about Jesus than that God's power worked through him.

Then Jesus touched the man, and everything changed. Jesus' touch broke down the wall of separation, changing the man's identity from "leper" to "the healed one." That was salvation: restoring the man to community, enlarging the possibilities for communion.

When Jesus touched the man, he acted out the very meaning of the Incarnation. With that touch, he identified himself with the man; he stood before God and the community as one with the outcast. Jesus offered vivid testimony to his divine freedom, the freedom to identify with anyone in need with no fear of repercussions.

An old Kris Kristofferson song proclaims, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." Jesus' evangelical freedom sprang not from poverty, but from the wealth of having everything he needed. What mattered to him lay beyond the realm of ordinary gain and loss. The message of his life, from birth to resurrection, was that living in love is all that matters. To the extent we believe that, we, too, are free, free to love anyone and everyone.

The Gospel tells us that the healed man became an evangelizer. Today's readings call us to be the same. Not everyone is good enough with their hands to be a surgeon, but all of us are capable of extending a healing touch to the outcast. In today's second reading, Paul calls us to do everything we do for the glory of God. That is our vocation, and we are offered the freedom to live it to the full, following Jesus, who showed us that to love is to live in the freedom of God's own.

[Mary M. McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She is a freelance writer and executive director of FUVIRESE USA.]

This story appeared in the Jan 30-Feb 12, 2015 print issue under the headline: Radical freedom .

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