Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
I have a friend who is HIV positive. Had he been born ten years earlier, he would probably be dead now. Fortunately, advances in science and medicine—and access to treatment—have allowed him to live and to prosper. Many of us who remember the height of the AIDS crisis in the U.S. know the double tragedy that occurred. First and foremost, it was a tragedy in terms of human suffering and death. Secondly, it was tragic in terms of judgmentalism (sometimes fueled by religious self-righteousness) and a wanton lack of compassion.
Mark was infected with the disease through a blood transfusion he received as a hemophiliac when he was a child. It is funny to hear him tell the story of his parents sitting him down when he was about ten years old to tell him something very important. He says, “I thought they were about to give me ‘the talk.’” Instead, they told him he had a second deadly disease and that he would have to be very careful to protect himself and others.
Between the first and the second paragraphs of this story, some people move toward deeper compassion. Although we are doing better as a society (I think), there is lingering judgmentalism and even lack of compassion, isn’t there? Some people hear “HIV” or “AIDS” and immediately begin to question the person’s life choices. Is he sexually promiscuous? Is he gay? Is he sharing dirty needles? Once they hear that Mark was a mere child when he contracted the disease, there is a surge of compassion. It is as if there are the “good sick” and the “bad sick.” For some people, at least, mercy and compassion are reserved for those they deem are worthy of it.
That, of course, is not the Christian way. The disease that made one an outcast in Biblical times was leprosy. We hear from Leviticus the law regarding lepers: “The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean. He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” It was a common assumption that the disease was a punishment for one’s sins—not unlike what some preachers proclaimed about AIDS in our day. Yet, when the leper in today’s Gospel approached Jesus and begged him, “If you wish, you can make me clean,” Jesus did not rebuke him for being unclean, nor did he castigate him for his sins or the sins of his parents, nor did he avoid him out of fear. His immediate reaction was compassion, seeing a human person and not a disease: “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean.’”
Christian discipleship requires these same three movements. I have witnessed this many times, and I am always grateful for those who continue to mentor me, especially those Christians (and others) in the healthcare field. What is it that they model? First, regardless of the disease or the way in which it was contracted, their first response is compassion. They see the human dignity of the person in front of them. They are moved to pity. Second, they touch the person when others are afraid to get close. When their own health is at stake, they use universal precautions, but nonetheless, they engender the very idea that medicine is not just about prescriptions and technology, but is about the healing hand. Third, like Jesus they take action. Using what power they have, they administer treatments, advocate for their patients, and educate the public and public officials about health care, human dignity, and the common good.
Jesus said, “When I was sick, you cared for me” (Matthew 25:36). He did not say, “When I was sick, you made sure I was worthy of your care and then, and only then, offered me compassion.” St. Francis of Assisi embraced a leper in the thirteenth century. St. Damien of Molokai ministered to the lepers in Hawaii in the late nineteenth century and was canonized in 2009. St. Teresa of Calcutta reminded us that the sick, including AIDS patients, give us an opportunity to care for Christ himself. The real disease in any society is indifference and judgmentalism. Today is the World Day of the Sick. Perhaps as we enter into Lent this Wednesday, we could fast from indifference and judgmentalism whenever we see them infecting us. Those un-Christian qualities are the viruses we should fear. They should be the outcasts among us.