The following reflection, prepared by Tim O’Connell, who served as a lay missioner in El Salvador, was published in A Maryknoll Liturgical Year: Reflections on the Readings for Year B, available from Orbis Books.
All around our world more people are on the move than ever before in human history. They move from homes in rural areas to cities within their own countries or cross borders leaving their country for another. Maryknoll missioners across the globe work with people in swelling cities and minister to families separated by movement and restrictive immigration policies.
While not everyone migrates for the same reasons, most are seeking the opportunity to provide themselves with shelter, feed their families and gain access to education for their children. We all deserve to have these basic needs met. But in many places today this is difficult because of environmental degradation, violence, and economic injustice. And so people move.
They arrive in places that other people already inhabit. The newcomers are not always welcome, raising the question of who belongs where. Who is in and who is out?
In today’s reading from Leviticus, the leper is an outcast. The priest, the one of authority, declares him unclean and unwelcome. The community rejects him, fearing that his affliction will infect them all. He does not belong and must dwell alone, separated from society.
Many people on the move today encounter similar reactions. Those who believe they have an exclusive right to local resources label them foreigners or “illegals.” They accuse them of stealing jobs, draining community resources, and threatening their way of life. People of authority often use them as scapegoats, stirring passions and distracting attention from underlying problems. They give struggling people someone to blame for their problems.
Concern over how to integrate new people to an area is understandable, but the anger, hatred and demonization are disturbing. Working with immigrants outside of Philadelphia I have seen this play out. I have witnessed discrimination and exploitation by individuals and institutions. Fear forces many immigrants to live in the shadows on the margins of our society.
I have also seen people of good will and those who follow the Gospel call of welcoming the stranger. Their acts of compassion and hospitality are an inspiration.
Likewise, in Mark’s Gospel Jesus shows his willingness to help the unwelcome one. He is “moved with pity” for the leper. The man says, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” He does not doubt the capacity of Jesus to help but wonders if he will. Jesus reaches out and touches the man, breaking societal barriers to heal the man’s disease. Jesus then instructs him not to share this news but simply to go to the priest and show that he is healed. Jesus understands the priest has the power to say who belongs and who does not. The man who has been physically healed still needs the priest’s approval to reenter the community to be socially healed.
This is reconciliation, the establishment of right relationships. Because we live as members of communities, right relationships are the only way for us survive, to thrive, to live our full human dignity. We have the power to welcome everyone who enters our lives and our villages, but do we have the will? Will we follow Jesus?
Of course, the leper does not heed the instructions of Jesus. Rather he shares his good news far and wide. As a result Jesus could not enter a town, complicating his mission. This is our savior. Born a migrant to a family on the move, he is now limited in his movements.
Mark demonstrates Jesus’ divine power and reveals his human vulnerability. In Jesus, God enters into the human experience in a new way, as one of us. The Gospel ends with the image of people coming from everywhere to be with Jesus. Many who come are the outsiders, the sick and the poor. They come from the margins and yet, through their faith and Jesus’ love, together they create the center of God’s Kingdom.
That is a truth that should get us all moving on the road to justice, peace and right relationships.