“He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” For me these are frightening and dreadful words. Spoken to a person in the wilderness, a person on the Exodus betwixt and between the slavery of Egypt and the promised land of Palestine. These are words spoken about brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers – now shunned to a life apart, a life without. No longer part of the only social fabric they had known. They are words which mean that you do not belong; and may soon not be remembered.
Imagine yourself walking away from the camp into the wilderness – the barren landscape, all quiet save the wind moving among the brush and brambles. You are outside the circle of safety when the evening comes. Outside the easy camaraderie of the camp. Away from the comforting touch of those who love you. What would it feel like to have to walk away, to be cast out, knowing that eventually you will lose contact, the intimacy of their presence. To begin to know the first aching, that longing in your heart for what and who is lost – and knowing the community will have to move on and resume the ordinary but without you.
In the silence comes the questions: why me? Why didn’t they come with me? Now what? This isn’t happening? What do you do now? Do you shadow the people as they move on in their travels? Ever apart and yet so close. Do you set out for a new life? How long can one live without the intimacy of your people, without the stories that help you know who are? Without the support of the camp? Without having your purpose in and among others? They were a part of your life.
There are those who watch you move into the wilderness alone. They are your parent, or your child your friend. The same aching, that same longing. The same questions. A part of their life now empty.
This is not just a problem of ancient times. We have in my lifetime those we shunned because of AIDS. We have those we quarantined because of Ebola. Think of the current reaction to the measles outbreak. And it does not have to be headline news. Those who suffer chronic illness may experience themselves as being outside all of the usual spheres of human activity. As the workplace carries on without them and their family goes about its business, they can feel isolated, out of the loop, helpless to contribute to the daily doings, left alone with their own suffering. Think of being a long term patient in an ICU where everyone who enters wears gloves, masks, and an isolation gown. There is never the touch of skin on skin. Everyone keeps their distance. It can seem to such a person that even God is keeping at a distance. The loneliness, the isolation can grow and be as bad as or worse than the illness itself.
It is life outside the camp
The readings today speak to life outside the camp – and what happens when the boundary is crossed. In today’s Gospel, a man with leprosy leaves his prescribed separate space and reaches out for Jesus’ help. He is tentative in his request, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Jesus responds with deep emotion. The verb splanchnizomai, usually translated “moved with compassion,” literally means to “have a gut reaction.” Ancient peoples considered the intestines as the seat of emotion. Mark’s use of this strong verb emphasizes the depth of Jesus’ feeling for the person “outside the camp”. Jesus reaches out his hand to him, touches him, and… and what? Does he cross over to join the man in uncleanliness? Does he pull / restore the man back into the camp? Or…does he extend the borders of camp? … I would suggest that it is the latter – the borders are being extended.
For Jesus there are no outsiders cast out far enough in his world to make him shun them — not Roman collaborators, not lepers, not prostitutes, not the crazed, not the possessed. Are there people now who could possibly be outside his encompassing love? 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 this new camp. And for this He was led outside the old camp, crucified 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.”
Be moved with compassion. Extend the borders of the camp – expand the camp. This camp in Christ will always need a strong center – without that we fall apart. But we will always need people on the edges, on the borders, the boundaries, willing to reach out, reach across and in welcoming the outcast, be the on-going evidence of the power of the compassion of Christ. The embrace of Christ is without bounds; the camp is expanding – if only we will extend the borders.
What stops us? I think it is because we all have people we have shunned from our lives; our list of lepers. Our attitudes and judgments towards those we consider lepers are a mirror for our own lack of cleanliness—they reflect, deep within us, our fears and our guilt, our inability to be compassionate, our paralysis which renders us incapable of loving, respecting, and touching those on our lists. In those moments we place ourselves outside the camp. We become the ones apart from Christ, the ones who need to be reconciled. We become the ones who will come with arms outstretched and hands open hungry for reconciliation and forgiveness. We will come to Eucharist. We will come to the center, seeking the touch that still cleanses and restores, pleading, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” Just as He said to the leper , “I do will it. Be made clean.”
And then we are sent into the world to expand the boundaries of the camp.