All men are created equal?
Ordinary Sunday 6, 12 February, 2006
Philip Bewley, Pastoral Worker & Stipendiary Lay Minister,
St Peter's, Eastern Hill
"Jesus touched him, and said to him, I do choose."
The United States Declaration of Independence made on the 4th July 1776 declares that, "All men are created equal!" A bold statement indeed, which I think I can safely say, has never been self evident!
For example, obviously not all people have the same measure of intelligence. Nor do all people have equal wealth. Some people are easier on the eye than others. Some have a green thumb, while others only have to look at a pot-plant and it dies!
Historically speaking, women have been considered nowhere near equal to men. Even the 4th of the 10 Commandments leaves out a key person, who it appears was allowed to work on the Sabbath Day the wife presumably to provide the meal for the men of the house. And the 10th Commandment lists those things "you shall not covet." The fact that the house of the neighbour is listed before the neighbour's wife is more than significant!
In Nazi Germany, Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, and the Disabled were not considered of equal dignity with "true" Aryans. Such people were sent away and exterminated.
In Australia, we have maintained a long history of prejudice against aboriginal people. Through my ministry at the Lazarus Centre, it is evident to me Aboriginal heritage still marks a social disability in our society!
Each new wave of immigrants in Post War Australia has also faced prejudice and discrimination. Recent Islamic immigrants seem to be the latest. And there isn't one person in this congregation who isn't either a migrant or descended from a migrant. My ancestors were convicts, sent to the Colonies from Britain against their will. I don't suspect they felt very equal with those who had them transported and sent into exile.
So it seems some people have it easy in life, while others receive the raw end of the deal. Humankind, therefore, has yet to realize the truth that "all men are created equal."
And so we come to the leper whom Jesus met in today's gospel. Life was against him. If anyone had suffered the raw end of the deal, then this man had. However he might have contracted the disease, he was in no way to blame for his leprosy. He certainly would have done nothing wrong to deserve it.
In biblical times, leprosy was unlike any other illness. Once leprosy was diagnosed, those having it were subjected to strict rules, guaranteed to ensure their segregation from the rest of society including the closest members of their family. These rules prohibited lepers from touching a healthy person and vice versa. They had to wear ragged clothes so they could be easily identified, and they were forced to announce their presence by yelling "unclean" if anyone approached.
The mental anguish and heartbreak of being completely banished from the local community was utterly devastating. In every sense, the leper was an outcast, with no hope of enjoying human companionship or receiving love. Shunned by the religious establishment, the leprous victim was reduced to the status of a non-person, scavenging for food on the town dump. Harsh as this may seem, given the medical knowledge of the time, it was considered necessary for the greater good of society.
And yet! "Jesus touched him" an act which would have brought horror to anyone who saw it. He chose to touch him, because it was the leper who needed so desperately to feel being touched of being accepted as he was.
A natural response to someone who tells you they have cancer, or perhaps not long to live, is to give them a hug or take them by the hand. It's the physical contact that is vital. It conveys acceptance as they are that they are not contagious that they are not cast out. This is precisely what Jesus did. In other miracles in the gospel narratives, we see that a word alone is sufficient for a cure. And surely it would have been here too. But No! Jesus does the unthinkable he touches the leper.
As some of you may know, I have just completed 10 weeks work experience as an Intern Chaplain at The Alfred Hospital. I was given a 40 bed Ward to look after, and each day I would visit and sit with around 8 to 10 patients. On more than one occasion, when I introduced myself to patients as a Chaplain, they would tell me that they were neither religious, nor church-goers. My response would always be something like, "As a pastoral care worker, I haven't come with a religious agenda; I've come rather to offer care and support where needed." This response was often received with some surprise, but more often than not, I would be invited to take a seat beside them. You see, I hadn't come to convert them. Out there in the world, Christians are often perceived as religious fanatics, out to convert whenever they can seize the opportunity. This led me to reflect on the nature of Christian ministry to those who describe themselves as neither religious nor church-goers.
Despite what many think, Jesus was not crucified by such people, but instead by those who defined themselves as "religious" the church-goers of the day. These people were offended that he associated with those who weren't the outcasts of society. Jesus' encounter with the leper is a good example of this.
We in the church need to hear the truth which lies behind people's perceptions. If in being religious we deny the truth that Jesus was crucified by religious people for associating with those who weren't then we have totally missed the point.
Jesus shows us that the gospel is for all people, not just the churchy ones. Our daily breakfast programme, St Peter's outreach to the marginalised of this city, is one expression of this ideal a cherished ideal, as a matter of fact, of our Catholic tradition. Therefore those who come daily to this church for food and community deserve our on-going support and commitment. Can we, as a faith community, afford to do less?
So for me, ministry to people who are neither "religious" nor church-goers is an essential part of my Christian faith. Jesus shows us the way by choosing to reach out to the leper, someone who was shunned by the religious establishment. He comes and touches all people despite their sense of uncleanliness or unworthiness. Is this not the mystery of the incarnation? He shows us how all people are equal in the sight of God, whether religious or not. This then is how we are able to say, "All men are created equal" in that Jesus comes and touches all people equally. Today's gospel shows us that we, the faith community, are called to do the same.
"Jesus touched him and said to him, I do choose."
The Lord be with you.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.