Why Step Across? (Leviticus 13; Mark 1)
A concept that shows up in the history of religions is the one of boundaries, the borders between what is permissible and what is forbidden. These lines in the sand separating the holy from the sinful figure prominently all through the Bible, many times for good but sometimes not.
A boundary that the Book of Leviticus sets up is an especially stark one. It builds a forbidding wall between the community and the lepers who were once its members. For understandable reasons, they are walled out and excluded from any interaction with the populace. If anyone inside the group tries to touch — let alone welcome in — a person with leprosy, that individual too will be cast out into the wilderness.
Mark’s gospel sets up a contrast between observers of this law who legitimately keep those shunned ones at a distance, and this law-respecting man, Jesus, who reaches across this frightful boundary. A good argument could be made that if everyone did what Jesus does here, there’d soon be contagion in the town. But at both personal and social risk Jesus crosses the line. It’s worthwhile for us to follow the progression of his head-turning reaction.
It’s hard to underestimate the severity of the handicap leprosy posed in that era. There’s surely the physical suffering, but even more the emotional and social devastation. Lepers could not come within breathing (let alone touching) distance of families, friends and neighbors. These were the castaways, thrown out of home and hearth and forced to wander in the wilderness away from all human warmth and support. If the phrase “untouchable” ever had a meaning, they modeled it.
What enormity of motivation operating inside of Jesus generates enough power to move him across that awful divide? Mark’s clue comes in three words. The leper kneels before Jesus and shouts out, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” And then, “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean.’”
Moved with pity. Commentators tell us the phrase is from the Greek meaning inner groaning or physical shuddering. It’s the gut-wrenching reaction Jesus has to the sorry state of that outcast beggar. The words convey profound, up-from-the-heart, bodily empathy — a passion for the suffering of another. A parallel incident occurs later in this gospel when the beseeching Syro-Phoenician (i.e., wrong side of the border) woman gets past Jesus’ religious defenses with her wrenching plea for the life of her daughter. “Moved with pity,” Jesus again crosses lines. It’s his visceral empathy that pulls him beyond his comfort zone to the suffering other.
Different ways to say it. This gut connection Jesus makes transmutes into an inner drive propelling his resolve to do something, taking him beyond propriety and even his sense of security. Compassion is the name of the personal bridge he builds to another’s pain that takes him across the chasm to bring in that outsider. Here is empathy turned to action on behalf of the stranger, breaking not just through physical segregation but more potently social rejection.
Listening to the news on any given night, it wouldn’t be long before this word “boundaries” showed up referring to the borders separating countries but also the subtler ones setting off ethnicities, races, generations, income and skill levels – all markers excluding the ones Pope Francis has called “the stranger.”
As with the common-sense prescription against contagion, there’s often a legitimacy to such partitions. But seen under the Gospel light, there’s something more in play here — that distinct kind of loving power modeled by Jesus that moves a person to take a risk and reach across divides. This is the power of feeling with, the might of compassion, the gift of suffering-along-with and of taking the risk to let in the pain of the other.
There’s a writer who describes this as “paying attention,” which he goes on to portray as “the deep power by which we see into the Life of things.” Our Lord Jesus and the Vincentian heroes and heroines pay this kind of attention. They would relate to everything and everybody around them through the halo of this deep seeing, feeling, understanding and loving. Doing this, they continue to follow Jesus as He crosses boundaries and forever invites us to step across with Him.