On 20th and 21st January this year a conference took place in Belfast offering ways for Christian churches to minister to “the lepers among us” – namely gays and lesbians. An identical conference organised by the Core Issues Trust took place in London the following week.
When it was pointed out to the organisers that the conference title, The Lepers Among Us, suggested that the church treat LGBT people in the way that lepers were treated by society in biblical times, namely shunned and regarded as untouchable, a press release was issued by the Trust. The conference organisers claim their intention is not to regard lesbians and gays as untouchables but quite the opposite, they criticise the church for behaving in this very way – treating LGBT people as “outcasts” – and calls upon it to help end prejudice wherever it is found, especially within the church. Core Issues claims to promote a “compassionate” approach to the “same-sex attracted,” but ultimately its message to gay Christians is that they need healing, and it is clear that by “healing” they are promoting “authentic reparative therapy”. The Trust’s homepage links directly to an article supporting such therapy.
Coincidentally, within two weeks of the London conference, the Sunday lectionary presented us with the Gospel passage that opens on a sharp and remarkable note for those times: “A leper came to Jesus” (Mark 1:40). It was very odd that a leper dared to go near anyone, considering that they were ordered to stay away from people. The passage from Leviticus linked to that Sunday’s Gospel is categorical: “A man infected with leprosy must wear his clothing torn and his hair disordered; he must shield his upper lip and cry, ‘Unclean, unclean’. As long as the disease lasts he must be unclean; and therefore he must live apart; he must live outside the camp” (13:45-46). This exclusion from even associating with others made having the disease even more terrible than it already was. The rabbis considered lepers similar to the living dead, believing their healing to be less likely than the resurrection itself. That is why it seems strange that a leper would dare to approach Jesus, thus overcoming the insurmountable distance prescribed by the law. Yet, to whom could he have turned? Everyone, protected both by legal dispositions and fear of contamination, kept at a distance from those who were sick with leprosy.
That same weekend the Catholic Herald featured an article focussing on a YouTube clip that had sparked an outcry at the dissent from the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality evidenced at one of the Soho Masses. Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice was responsible for recording the video clip and, true to form, it took a robust line: “I don’t want anyone to think that we’re homophobic, but they are serious sinners and going to holy communion and committing sacrilege, doing it deliberately to make a point that their way of life is fine, which it isn’t”. Thus, with a very broad brush, every single person attending the Soho Masses is judged a serious sinner and committing sacrilege. What solution is offered to these wretched souls? “It’s fine for them to attend Mass, but not to receive.” Staying, therefore, with the ‘leper’ analogy, homosexuals are to be shunned and they should keep their distance from Jesus because, “If you’re in a state of mortal sin, you’re excluded from the sacraments”. One is reminded of the fact that it wasn’t so long ago that Aids sufferers, like lepers, were treated as outcasts, untouchables, the living dead.
As Gareth Moore OP wrote in a chapter for AIDS: meeting the community challenge (St Paul Publications, 1987), “Restoration, the abolition of boundaries, touching the untouchable, are constantly stressed in the gospels. Jesus is especially concerned, not only with lepers, but with all those relegated to the margins”. When lepers heard that Jesus was coming, they would overcome all barriers of fear and mistrust and run to him, as did tax collectors, a woman with a haemorrhage, the blind, a dumb demoniac, a centurion, a Syro-Phoenician woman, the shepherds at Bethlehem, etc.
Gareth Moore later adds in his chapter, “God is for those whom people reject, even when they are rejected for being against God. Jesus offers community to those who have no community except with other outcasts. For this reason, for Jesus, the worst sins are those of division, of judgement, of separation, marking others off, refusing to be one with them.” God’s will is crystal clear: to fight against all types of evil. We really are far from that rather popular conviction that attributes to God the decision of distributing evil among men and women according to their sins. There is nothing farther from the Gospel. Yet, this conviction is still deeply rooted among some Christians.
“Mind you say nothing to anyone”, with these words Jesus sends the man on his way. It is a strange command, one that is certainly at odds with our customary habits of sharing every experience on facebook or exposing the intimate details of our lives on reality TV. It reveals a beautiful, rich and expressive silence that Jesus wishes to maintain. It highlights the fact that Jesus does not seek his own glory, nor does he want his fame to grow. It proves impossible for the man who was touched by this absolutely unique and unimaginable love to remain silent and he divulges the news to everyone. What happens next is fascinating for while Mark goes on to say that “people from all around would come to him”, before adding this he tells us that “Jesus could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived.” Thus, the roles have been reversed. In his gesture of reaching out and touching the man, Jesus technically puts himself in violation of the Torah, he renders himself ritually unclean. While the leper walks away, restored to society, the stigma of the leper, the outsider, attaches itself to Jesus. Christians would do well to ponder this example of humility before rushing into judgements about who is or is not worthy to approach Jesus in holy communion.
This text was originally published in the Quest Bulletin, no. 63 (Spring 2012)