6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Last Thursday, the New York Times published an article by Jon Ronson entitled “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life”. In it he talks about a 30 year old public relations executive who, while traveling from New York to South Africa for the Christmas holidays in 2013, fired off a series of tweets about the indignities of international travel. Most were just harmless complaining, but the last one completely changed her life. On December 20, just before boarding the plane for an 11 hour flight to Cape Town she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Little did she know that her inappropriate statement would go viral far beyond her 170 twitter followers to almost immediately become the number one trending tweet in the entire world. And she was completely oblivious to what was going on as she slept on the flight. By the time she arrived in Cape Town, there were tens of thousands of angry tweets in response to her comment, all calling for her head. But it went beyond that to become a form of entertainment, as thousands of people anticipated what Justine’s reaction would be when she got off the plane and turned on her phone to see what had happened. Someone even went to the airport to tweet to the world about what she was like as she deplaned.
Justine’s entire life since then has been a living hell. She lost her job and received hate mail and death threats. She has been mocked virtually the world over. She cannot date because any potential suitor runs away after Googling her. Her family in South Africa has been hiding in shame. She eventually took a job at a Non-Governmental Organization in Africa, trying to hide from her detractors, but as one of her friends tweeted, “Sorry, your tweet lives on forever.”
Ronson goes on to chronicle many more instances of public shaming today, usually because someone posted something stupid or insensitive on social media, or because a post was taken completely out of context. It is a sad reality of our times that the practice of shaming has become so widespread and vicious.
It was the same for the early Jews. We hear today Moses’ prescription for the treatment of lepers by the community. Lepers were to be treated as outcasts from the community. Even the suspicion of leprosy meant exile. There were two reasons for this; first, it was a public health issue. Leprosy is extremely contagious, so it made sense to isolate those suffering from it. However, it was also a question of morality. The ancient Jews believed that the sick suffered because they were sinners. If you pleased the Lord He would bless you with good health, wealth, long life and children. If you were poor, sickly or barren it was because you or your parents had done something sinful, and God was punishing you for it. Lepers had to actually take the posture of the penitent - rending their clothes and uncovering their heads – not because they were sick but because their sin had made them impure. They were unclean and to have contact with them not only exposed you to their illness but to their sin. To touch the unclean made you unclean.
And people would be very cruel to the unclean. They would drive them away, throw rocks at them, and cut them off from everything they loved. They would be publicly humiliated and shunned. Like poor Justine Sacco, they would lose everything and live in desperation. All because of ignorance and a mob mentality. Look! There’s the evil one. Not me. You!
And so Jesus’ compassion towards the leper in the gospel today has several meanings. Of course the leper wanted to be returned to health. He did not want to suffer and eventually die all alone. But he really wanted to have his dignity restored. He wanted to be clean again, both in body and soul. He also believed that he was suffering because of something he or his parents had done. His self-guilt was probably worse pain than his physical suffering. And he wanted the shaming to stop.
It was easy for Jesus to heal him physically. But what about the emotional scars? What about his family and neighbors? Would they really believe that he had been made whole? And even if they believed the evidence of his cure, would they ever think of him as more than a sinner? Would his tweet live on forever?
The leper came to Jesus out of desperation. He had nothing to lose. He fell at Jesus’ feet and groveled in the dirt. And he said basically, “You are the only one who can make me clean. You are the only one I trust not to judge me. You are the last person I can turn to and I desperately hope you won’t turn me away. Please make me clean. Please see me as a person of value. Please don’t join in the shaming but accept me.”
And Jesus did. What else could he do? He didn’t see before him a sinner being punished for what he had done. He saw him as a complete human being. He returned his dignity to him. And he made him feel that he was free from the effects of sin. It’s as if all had been wiped clean.
But what about the cultural norms of the day? Jesus was also telling Jewish society that this poor leper was a human being and should no longer be cut off from the community. Instead of joining in shunning him, he accepted him and gave the example of how to treat people with illness. Jesus did this often. “Which is easier to say, your sins are forgiven, or rise, pick up your mat, and walk?”
We fall into the same prejudices today against the sick, the poor, the elderly and the infirm. We often see them as unproductive, worthless, people to be shunned. Our hospitals and nursing homes are filled with people who suffer all alone. We visit folks every week here in Park City whose family and friends have abandoned them. They wait to die alone. All they want is to be made clean.
We look back on the public humiliations of the Middle Ages and think them to be ignorant and cruel. But we do the same thing today all over social media. We sit here in Church on Sunday yet tomorrow will revel in the vitriol that is hurled all over the internet against those who do not share our political beliefs, our nationality, our sports teams, or who simply make a mistake. Just ask Brian Williams. The only difference between now and a thousand years ago is that we can do it anonymously. The mob has only gotten bigger and meaner and crosses international boundaries.
With four simple words Jesus can change things. “I do will it.” God’s will is what is what matters, and he does will that we be clean. And he wants us to see those around us who are hurting as clean also. He wants us to step out from the mob and not join in the shaming of the vulnerable.
Because you know, some day that vulnerable, suffering, worthless-feeling person will be you.