It is quite common for people to resist or fear change. There are reasons for this, one of the most common of which is the propensity of human nature to work within its comfort zone. Faced with an unusual or out-of-the-box situation, our default mode is to use tried-and-tested ways.
There is a famous story set in an exclusive girls’ college in the ’60s or early ’70s. The female character and the punchline change, depending on who is telling the story, but the plot is constant; it’s a true story.
The late Rolando Tinio is said to be giving a lecture in the college, and one of his main points is the power of the use of the vernacular. This famous female member of the audience—despite the many versions of who she is, it’s always a famous personality—is arguing against Tinio’s point. Tinio, the great theater director who would be National Artist, walks to the lady’s seat in the auditorium as the whole crowd watches in silence. He stands beside the lady and tells her to her face, “Ang p__ mo!” She turns red almost instantaneously. Then Tinio says with a smile, “You see? I told you the vernacular is more effective!”
This Sunday’s Gospel is an equally shocking scene. Understanding the cultural or contextual sensibilities of the story’s setting, we can see two shocking incidents. First, the fact that the leper approached Jesus. Lepers were outcasts and the law forbade any contact with society. Second, the fact that Jesus touched the leper. The leper and Jesus broke the norm and stepped out of their comfort zone.
Perhaps it is not the breaking out of one’s comfort zone that should be our focus—although this gives us lessons—but the reason or, as I like to say, the inspiration that makes the leper and Jesus step out of their comfort zones.
The leper obviously was desperate. He didn’t have much choice. But then the leper also had enough faith in the compassion of God for him to break the norm and make his appeal. He did not demand. He knelt and begged. His words—“If you wish, you can make me clean.”
“If you wish.” The leper knew it was no longer about him, but about the compassion of God. The move of desperation led him to the threshold of hope. He turned to the power of God’s compassion with a faith and hope humbled by the human situation, but empowered by divine love.
Jesus pointed to a deeper reality as he stepped out of the comfort zone when he touched the leper. Note the details in the story. “Moved with pity . . . touched him . . .
‘I do will it. Be made clean.’”
It was the compassion of God that moved Jesus to touch the leper.
Will we have the courage to do the same? More than courage, will we have the faith and the hope to do the same?
Rosa Parks is perhaps not too known to today’s young. In 1955, her simple act of defiance became a turning point in the story of the civil rights movement, in the US and in the world. At the time, segregation—the separation of African-Americans from the whites—was the norm in the US.
In early December 1955, Parks rode the bus in Alabama where she lived. The driver asked her to sit at the back where the African-Americans were supposed to stay, the front being reserved for the whites. She refused and sat in the front. This sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and her imprisonment became a rallying point for the civil rights movement.
Years after the act of defiance, she was asked what made her defy segregation. She said that she was already “tired of giving in” and at that moment she was simply physically tired to move to the back.
Parks became an international icon for the civil rights and freedom movement. Decades after this incident, she was conferred various awards and honors by the very system she rebelled against.
The 16th-17th century Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci shocked the Church with his inculturation into China where he served as missionary. He tried to use the Chinese culture in his work of evangelization. A highly occidental Catholic church found this a bit too controversial—shocking—and he was ostracized for it.
Centuries later, the same church that ostracized Matteo Ricci had the process of his beatification started. In post-Vatican II era, his strategy of inculturation became a major thrust of the Catholic Church in its evangelization efforts.
People who break norms are often called rebels. But authentic rebels do have a cause. They point us back to the core of authentic reality and authentic truth. They lead us back to the heart of the matter and what matters to the heart.
The rebels are the ones who remind us that we have veered away from the original inspiration of our life and mission, or the founding vision and inspiration of communities and organizations. They help us go back to our own original inspiration, our founding vision.
Jesus helps us remember in this Sunday’s Gospel that it is about compassion and love. And that we must be ready to stand up for this. This is the message. He is the message.