For each of us it started back in grade school. We began to build an internal screening system that determined with whom we would and would not socialize. By the time we reached high school we could name those who were popular and those that our peers deemed unpopular. By aligning ourselves with those who were part of the "in crowd," we knew that our own stock would soar. Likewise we knew that if we associated with those that were not a part of the "in crowd," our friends may reject us, or so we thought. By the time we reach adult hood, we have basically cemented our sphere of social contacts and rarely go outside of it.
In Jesus' day, there were lepers, people not permitted to interact with mainstream society. These unfortunate individuals had contracted leprosy, a contagious disease that attacked the nervous system, often resulting in withering body parts.
If there is one word that sums up this dreadful disease, it's fear. Those who contracted leprosy were filled with gripping fear. How would their relationship with their loved ones change? What about their career, not to mention the terror of anticipated rejection? For those who were not infected, there was the fear of contracting the disease by coming into contact with the leper.
According to the Mosaic Law, touching a leper brought defilement, which in turn resulted in a distinct separation from the mainstream of society. Moses writes, "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" (Leviticus 13:46).
Rejection and isolation are terrible things to endure; yet many among us live a life that could be defined as a quite isolation even while walking through a crowded mall. Two thousand years ago, Jesus walked among those who were rejected and isolated. He broke with the norm, and actually reached out and touched a leper. He then told the man, formerly infected with leprosy, to go and show himself to the priest and offer for his cleansing what Moses commanded for a proof to the people (Mark 1:44).
The Law of Moses made provision for the purification of a leper. In curing the leper Jesus expects that the priests will welcome and reinstate the cured man into the religious community. Over and over the Church Fathers instruct us that when Jesus performed physical healings, it was a sign of the deeper healing he was bringing to humanity, the healing of the soul. Jesus message was not only for the leper himself, but also for the religious leaders. The message? God has accepted this man and cleansed him, therefore they must also accept him.
The acceptance of people different from ourselves is not based on our feelings or convenience, but the deeds of God. St. John tells us that we love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). Since we know that God loves those around us who are not normally within our comfort zone, we too can love them. We can go beyond our comfort zone to do what Jesus does -- reach out and touch them. This was the key to Mother Theresa; her willingness to touch those who nobody else would touch is what made her so attractive on the world scene. She did what all Christians are capable of doing, lending her body, heart, and mind to Christ for the purpose of touching lives.
What would the world be like today if Jesus had only touched those who were just like him? What will the world be like tomorrow, if today you touch those who are "outside the camp?" We crossed our fingers in grade school in attempt to prevent girl or boy-itis. But as adults, is our heart crossed for fear of coming into contact with those who are not like us? The only way we can reach those "outside the camp" is to walk in the love of Christ. Again, St. John says, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).
We travel daily along well-worn paths that lead us through established comfort zones. As Christians we are following Christ and that may very well take us off our familiar path and onto, in the words of writer Scott Peck, "a road less traveled."
A couple of things to do:
1. This week, seize the opportunities that God gives you; take a risk by interacting with someone with whom you would normally not interact. Listen to them carefully and get to know them. Perhaps down the road you will have the opportunity to share Christ with them.
2. Prejudice can be defined as a preconceived opinion or notion. It carries with it the idea of premature judgment. Take some time to pray and check the condition of your heart. Ask God to show you if you have made some premature judgments about someone or some group of people. Ask him to replace that prejudice with his love.