Human Dignity

Human Dignity Sunday: Not Just a Priest, but also a Prophet

Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45

Outcasts, there are many of them today. We see them on our streets, we watch them on our television sets, and their drowned corpses sometimes feed sea creatures as they flee from their countries in search of human dignity. They are not lepers, we now have treatment for leprosy: “outcasts” are the nobodies of today, the poor, drug addicts, prostitutes, immigrants, peoples of color, victims of war, prisoners of conscience, etc. Our democratic and autocratic regimes settle some of them in camps, condemn some to perpetually exploited labor market (they are popularly called undocumented workers), they are disenfranchised, brutalized and abused. We build walls to keep them out, except for those with monetary value. This is the new leprosy, the plague ravaging our humanity, and the trademark of our civility—outcasts!

Our first reading paints two scenarios for a priest-leader. First, the priest who presides over who should be displaced and relegated to the ghettos (outside-the-camp), is neither a democrat nor a despot; he is a frontline worker, who risks infection from leprosy in a bid to save his community from a catastrophe. For want of a cure for leprosy at the time, our first reading tells us of the role of a priest-leader when his society confronts a sickness—he is the first casualty, should anything go wrong. A leader risks his life to save others, not others risking their lives for the leader. The duty of the priest to investigate and make a declaration of uncleanliness of a leper puts him at risk of contamination himself. He is at the borderline of the clean and unclean.  

The second scenario of our first reading, the concept of “outside-the-camp”, suggests a situation of someone (a leper) out of favor with God. This is because, while the Israelites journeyed to the Promised Land from Egypt, they lived in camps, in the presence of God, with the Ark of the Covenant in their midst. The “camp” is the abode of those who belong to God, and “outside-the-camp” is the home of those abandoned by God. To have to live outside-the-camp is to live outside the presence of God. It is not a surprise that leprosy translates into a sickness of rejection by God and the sentence of ostracism: “He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:46). It is comparable to today’s situations of either the internally displaced or externally displaced and refugee camps of all sorts: they are separated from others and stigmatized!  

Imagine the role of a doctor, whose job is to cure patients, declaring Covid-19 patients beyond the reach of their families and loved ones. Imagine the stigma and apparent death sentence that comes with the declaration of a positive test for Covid-19 patient! Our present pandemic provides a curtain for contemplating the lot of lepers in Jesus’ times: loneliness, except for the presence of fellow lepers; cure was remote, and near unthinkable. Worse still, God seems to be unconcerned, because it is the priest who declares one unclean, just as doctors declare Covid-19 patients untouchable. Then and today, a leper’s corpse (then) and Covid-19 patient’s corpse (now) are at the mercy of “vultures” or total strangers. This was and is an unacceptable situation!

From all contaminants against human dignity, Jesus provides a remedy, a new humanity in the form of the presence of God among all outcasts and lepers of today! Our gospel reading provides us with a storyline that makes Jesus Christ a better priest and doctor: Jesus was a priest and prophet. The diagnostics of leprosy was not his preoccupation, his forte is curing leprosy and making lepers to realize that, even in their “outside-the-camp”, God is there with them. In fact, Jesus sets up his abode outside the town, among the lepers, to make them feel God’s presence with them, since the Temple convinces the city dwellers of the presence of God among them. Jesus, the mobile temple, travels around to meet with all those outside-the-camp and on the margins of society to show them God’s love: “Jesus remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere” (Mark 1:45). Because Jesus recognizes and restores the dignity of lepers, today qualifies as “Human Dignity Sunday”: an invitation to fight for the respect and rehabilitation of human dignity everywhere. It is not enough to know the plights of outcasts, we must do something to make them become inclusive members our society.  

Staying with those outside-the-camp is Jesus’ way of saying that there is no one who is outside of God’s love, even if their societies declare them so on account of sins, crimes or illnesses. God’s love for humanity transcends every boundary, just the way God himself is boundless and his love unfathomable. In Jesus Christ, we have a detergent that washes us clean of all defilements—sins, crimes and illnesses. The hope is to have leaders and citizens who are both priests and prophets. Beyond seeing and detecting the ills of our society, we must find the power to heal and deal with societal problems through the power of prophecy. We need to become prophets who bring in outcasts into our communities. It is the Spirit of God that leads prophets, not science and laws. Wherever the Spirit of God is, there is God himself present. Both for the priest-leader and the members of the society, it is by taking our problems to God inside the camp, at the Tabernacle, not outside-the-camp, do we find healing. The human person is the new temple of God, the residence of God.

Today, the problem is that our present society, like that of Jesus, is still a prisoner of doubt: “If you wish, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40), the leper says to Jesus. The leper abandons his right to good health, for lack of faith. Our society, in its turn, makes it normal to have outcasts, because we only recognize citizenships NOT humanity, we paid attention to our laws and NOT to the miseries of other human beings! But Jesus turns the doubt of the leper and ours today into claiming the right to good health and inclusivity: “I do will it. Be made clean” (Mark 1:41), Jesus says to the leper. Yet, another administrative bottleneck awaits the healed leper, he needs to convince his society to reintegrate him: “go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them” (Mark 1:44). In other words, a case already settled by God sometimes gets sentenced by people, instead of accepting God’s acquittal. Likewise, our present day legal quibbling keeps our brothers and sisters in camps and maintains their status of outcasts, instead of accepting their inalienable human dignity. Our laws classify us according to our races, tribes, continents, status, gender and NOT according to our humanity: yet,  we have “Human Rights Laws”!

The piece of advice Paul offers, in our second reading, is the way forward. In a pluralistic society, like ours, everyone deserves respect and love. We must humanize our society! Those we put in our ghettos and camps, and the walls of separation we erect daily need to cede ground to acceptance and rehabilitation. Human dignity is a God given right, that no individual or groups of individuals can alienate. As a matter of fact, every human being must demand and not just wait for his/her human dignity to be given him/her. To rehabilitate all our outcasts of today, we must respect their humanity and stop the disease of separation that condemns some to “outside-the-camps” or “inside-the-camps”. Let us imitate the example of Paul: “do everything for the glory of God. Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks or the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:31-33). In God, there is only one camp, the family of God!  

*Assignment for the Week:*  

Human dignity Sunday is the recognition of all as members of God’s family. Seek out someone on the margins this week and offer him/her help.  

By Fr. Ayodele Ayeni, a Spiritan

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