Sometimes we may be willing to support good works as long as they are not set up in our neighborhood. It may be true that property value plummets when someone opens a halfway house or a hospice around the corner. This decline in value may also happen when the owners of that trendy ethnic restaurant down the street buy the house next door. It is possible for us to agree that people have a right to live and prosper and receive the care that they need. But does this have to happen in our neighborhood?
There are valid reasons for forcing some people to make their “abode outside the camp.” The first and third readings for this Sunday provide us with an example of this. Though the readings are really concerned with the reincorporation of the outcast into the community, it might be helpful to understand something of the reason for the forced separation.
Leprosy, or whatever the skin disease might have been, was considered contagious. Thus, the one afflicted with the disease was relegated to total isolation. Because the well-being of the entire community was at stake, quarantine was practiced as a precaution. In a community-based society like ancient Israel, such separation from the community was virtually a death sentence. This means that it was at the very time of greatest vulnerability that the one suffering from the loathsome disease was deprived of community support.
On the other hand, the possibility of contagion made the community understandably reluctant to allow the one afflicted to participate in community life. Such disease did indeed create a complicated situation, but this did not always result in permanent alienation. Both readings show that the separation might be only temporary. When the danger was eliminated, the individual could be brought back into the community.
“Outcast” may sound strong, but there are today unspoken attitudes that keep some people “outside of the camp,” and this often happens when they are in greatest need of community support. Many of us still shun people whose bodies are ravaged by an illness even when it is not contagious; we frequently avoid the company of friends or acquaintances who are consumed by grief at the death of a loved one; we keep our distance from people who speak with an accent; and we are suspicious of others whose religious beliefs and practices do not conform to ours.
It is one thing to keep dangerous people “outside the camp,” since they do, after all, threaten the security of the community. But are those people mentioned above really dangerous? They may annoy us or make us feel uneasy; their presence may unsettle the comfort of our structured lives. But how do they threaten our safety?
There is probably not a person alive who has not at some time felt like an outcast, and all because some people will have nothing to do with certain races or ethnic groups, with people of a particular age, social or economic standing, or level of education, with individuals who have a different sexual orientation. Reasons for keeping us “outside the camp” may have had no grounding other than the fact that we did not belong to the neighborhood. We know how such rejection feels, and yet we do the same to others.
How would Jesus respond? The answer is quite clear; we see it in the Gospel. He would be moved with pity. He would stretch out his healing hand to the outcast and say: Be made clean. Come join the community. And what would he say to those who tend to exclude others? They too need healing, so he would be moved with pity toward them as well. He would stretch out that same hand and say: Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks, or to those burdened with illness or mourning the dead, or to the newly migrated or religiously different.
This should not surprise us for, after all, Jesus too experienced being an outcast. And why was he forced “outside the camp”? Because he was different. Though he did belong to the community, he did not think like the rest of the group. He welcomed the outcast; he embraced the very people whom others shunned. No one was beyond the circle of his compassion. No one was kept out of his neighborhood. And for this he was ostracized and ultimately silenced.
But the silencing of Jesus’ compassion was not final. Paul, who proclaimed the Gospel to Jew and Greek alike, is evidence of the ongoing power of this compassion. He exhorted his hearers, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Down through the ages there have been others who continued this openness. Francis of Assisi kissed a man with leprosy; at the risk of their own lives, women and men welcomed runaway slaves into their homes; after Sept. 11, 2001, Catholic high-school girls wore head scarves in support of their Muslim friends. The embrace of Christ is without bounds; the neighborhood is expanding.