Outside the Camp
Outside the Camp

Outside the Camp

Sixth Sunday of the Year. Fr Joseph Bailham preaches on the importance, and the dangers, of barriers.

At the theatre recently—one of the joys of living in London and being able to get last minute cheap tickets—before the play began, I looked up and around to take in the setting. Looking upwards to the circle above, as people took their seats, I noticed how steep the rows were and how easy it would be to trip, with only the tiniest of barriers preventing one from toppling from a great height. A small barrier, but one that—hopefully—would prevent irreparable harm to human life (both to the person tripping and anyone sitting below!).

Barriers and boundaries have their place. They are useful and sometimes even lifesaving, as with the barrier at the theatre. But there are, of course, barriers and boundaries that are much more questionable, perhaps even sinister in their seeking to divide and separate.

In the first reading today, the Lord gives strict instructions to Moses and Aaron when a suspected case of leprosy is detected. Leprosy in the Old Testament can mean other related skin diseases and conditions beyond what we know as leprosy now, and not just people can catch it: tents and clothing can also. Skin, tents, clothing: they are important barriers in their respective ways as they protect us.

In the case of leprosy as we know it, it’s obvious why someone ought to be kept apart from others from a medical point of view. But as we became all too accustomed to in years which—fortunately—seem a long time ago now, we know there are problems when separation and barriers are erected between people who are deemed contagious from those who are not. The life of one deemed leprous was miserable, not only from a medical point of view, but socially. There are clear benefits to having separation, but there are also clear negatives.

We are separated or differentiated from God in a number of ways: we are created, for one, whereas God is the Uncreated Creator. We differ from God as creatures who have a fallen nature, who morally fail—in small as well as big ways—whereas God is perfect and whose nature is pure and untainted. A clear boundary exists then between divine and fallen human nature.

There are many who are open to belief in a god somewhere out there, totally other and unknowable in any meaningful way. The barrier is clear and insurmountable. But this is categorically not the Christian view. In the Gospel today, Christ re-presents the event of the Incarnation in his encounter with the leprous man: the All-Pure and Perfect God reaches out and touches human nature with all its blemishes and breathes new life into it. The man with leprosy stands for all of us who, because of sin, are out on the margins, living ‘outside the camp.’ Our Lord makes the first and necessary move, meeting us where we are, and showing us another way. By this he gives us hope.

Despite this, there are many in the church who feel without hope, who feel out on the margins, outside the camp. We often see online the battle lines drawn between those seeking the purity of the camp, of indiscriminately protecting it from the contagion of error at all costs; and we also see those who hastily try to take down or move barriers under the banner of inclusivity. Barriers protect, but they can sometimes blind; pulling and moving barriers down can lead to inclusion, but they can sometimes expose one to longer-term confusion and even delusion.

So, what’s the solution? Well, if you find yourself out on the margins, either individually or as part of a group, in one way or another, today’s Gospel shows us: like the leper, fall on one’s knees and turn to Jesus. Each and everyone of us must needs do this. It is he who remedies and brings life to where there is sickness and alienation. It is through his grace that we are converted and conformed to him who saves us. It is God alone who take us across that boundary from death to life but we must first seek and desire to be cured and healed. This is one barrier that we most certainly should overcome and thankfully are enabled to so by God, he who breached that barrier first.

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

Image: erracotta of Christ healing from the Workshop of Luca della Robbia the Younger (1435–1525), in the Louvre Museum, Paris, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew OP

Fr Joseph Bailham is the parish priest and rector of Our Lady of the Rosary and Saint Dominic (The Rosary Shrine), London.

Comments (3)

  • Catherine

    Thank you Fr Bailham for this. I know that what you say is not only right but in a way joyful. It seems to me we all also have a duty to listen to others and try to at least understand their point of view. Some things we can’t be a part of or it isn’t possible but kindness instead of rejection makes it easier. Thank you for enabling me think about it.

    • Alejandro Clausse

      The way of discernment between barriers and freedom is at the center of the reflection of the Church these days. I believe that there is no room for sensible equilibria, because optimum equilibrium requires boundary conditions. On one side, the circumstances of each particular case are impossible to abstract (by definition). But most importantly, God’s love is unconditional, namely, it has no conditions. When the leper came, the first thing that Jesus did was touching him. Pope Francis points out that this event contains two transgressions to the rules. Jesus’s act of touching is a transgression to the law – do not touch the impure! – and the leper’s approaching Jesus is also a transgression to the law – Hey, you, keep away from the sane! But keep in mind that God is the one that contaminates himself with our fallen humanity. Pope Francis mention that someone asked him once: “But Father!, are you saying that God is contaminated?”. And he responded: “It’s not just me, saint Paul already says so: He was made to be sin for us”.
      One observation: the solution proposed by Joseph in this text address to just half of the problem, namely, the leper transgression. It is a safe solution, with one caveat: it is an abstract solution. The risk is that it can easily become the “third leg of the chicken”, as Brothers Thimothy Radcliffe and Shigeto Oshida call it. To be sure, the condition “but we must first seek and desire to be cured and healed” is abstract. The problem is that nobody can control the primary desires. That is the result of the Fall. What we can control (politically, but not despotically) is the desire to have a primary desire to be cured and healed. Actually, this other superior desire should also come from God, so we must ask for it. Here we enter into the difficult waters of the free will, which are not so easy to navigate. Nevertheless, I think that it is very important to keep in mind that the condition mentioned by Joseph is an abstract principle whose actual particularization will entail infinite nuances, which any counselor, and particularly confessors, should pay especial attention.
      As for the other half of the solution of the problem, that is, what should we do if we believe that we are on the safe side of the barrier, I am inclined to the proposal of Thimothy Radcliffe, in the sense that we should not be afraid of “sending the wrong message”, because Jesus himself was nailed because of misunderstandings. Otherwise, we would end up saying nothing, like the one-talent lad of the parable. Of course, we can expect to make some mess doing so, so what? We will probably find ourselves time and again walking away from Jerusalem where the adolescent Jesus stayed to preach in the Temple. So, we come back, as Mary and Joseph did, and restart the journey with Him. We need confidence and faith more that safety, and for that we need to pray.
      Thank you, Fr Joseph, for your interesting homily. I loved the metaphor of the theater!

  • Alejandro Clausse

    Reflecting again on this issue of pulling and moving moral barriers, as Joseph metaphorically put it, I noticed something that our Dominican friends might like to study further, if they concur. It seems to me that there is a curious parallel between this debate on moral barriers and the old science-religion (or reason-faith, if you like) alleged conflict. The positivist solution to the latter is to limit all knowledge to verifiable statements: what cannot be verified is excluded from the “scientific camp”, left in the wild of superstition. Short, simple and believable. We know what was the flaw of this proposal: What do you mean by «verification»? Religion (the main target of the proposal, of course) is out, but then similarly, history should also be out, let alone psychology, archeology, and the list continues leading to the collapse of the debate. Nobody wants to be left outside of the camp. I am with the bunch of people that think that this is a pseudo-conflict, in the sense that it does not stand Petitio Principii, because the concept of verification cannot be verified, or simply said, we start with an unverifiable principle. Nevertheless, even disregarding these formal issues, from the practical point of view, we are left inside a camp with just a few arid statements and a very boring life.

    To be sure, I am not claiming a univocal correspondence between the current debate on moral barriers and the religion-science conflict. I am merely saying that the two are analogous problems, in the sense that, although they might differ in some respects, they seem to shear important aspects. And I am suggesting that the academic study of this analogy could be interesting and might illuminate the debate.


Post a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.