THE PRINCIPLE OF COMPASSION IN EXERCISING OUR RIGHTS AND FREEDOM
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ Lev 13:1-2, 44-46; 1 Cor 10:31 – 11:1; Mk 1:40-45 ]
The theme of today’s liturgy is on the question of how we should exercise our Christian freedom. If we are to appreciate the message of the second reading of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, then we must understand the context. St Paul was speaking about the exercise of Christian freedom and rights with respect to the question of eating food offered to idols. As Christians who believed only in the One God and Father of Jesus Christ, and considered all other deities as non-entity, they would have had the right to eat of food offered to idols by their pagan friends and relatives. Yet, St Paul cautioned them about using their rights even though it was legitimate for them to do so.
This question is urgent and very relevant for our world today. Some time ago a European newspaper, in the name of freedom of expression, portrayed a cartoon of Prophet Mohammed which incensed the religious sentiments of the Muslim world. The question is whether it was right for them to do what they did. Where do we draw the line between what is right and what is wrong? Certainly, the principle of the freedom of expression is correct. Yet at the same time, that principle could also cause disunity and anger those who are offended. For the Muslims who see this issue from the context of the divine law, it is wrong to portray or make any image of God or of the prophet Mohammed. So we have two poles of argument; one is based on the personal freedom of the individual and the other on the legalistic obligation of freedom.
Today’s liturgy explains the dual poles in the exercise of freedom. The case in point is the way we should treat lepers. In the first reading from the Book of Leviticus, it is clear that leprosy was considered a most dreaded sickness. It was believed, rightly or wrongly, that it is contagious and therefore those infected must separate themselves from the community. Such social alienation was further reinforced by the theological explanation that leprosy was a divine punishment for sins. Indeed, we are told that Miriam, because of her disobedience, was struck with leprosy. So too was Job, who was accused of having sinned against the Lord because he suffered from a form of skin disease thought to be leprosy. Hence, in both instances, lepers were unclean and must “live apart … outside the camp.” So from the Torah, we see the legal dimension in the exercise of freedom.
However, in today’s gospel, we have Jesus Himself apparently breaking the law. Jesus went beyond the dictates of His culture and the Law by allowing the leper to come close to Him and to even touch Him. Surely, that would have made Him unclean. Certainly, Jesus must have been a courageous man to permit such close contact, and to act contrary to His time. After all, Jesus Himself was a man of His time. He would surely have shared the fears and even religious beliefs that leprosy was contagious, a terrible sickness on account of one’s sins. Hence, Jesus and the leper would have both broken the law.
What was His basis for breaking the law? The underlying principle is charity. It was out of compassion that Jesus stretched out His hand to touch and cure him. The leper was the untouchable, lacking love and acceptance. So it was necessary for Jesus to heal him, not just spiritually or physically, but emotionally. On compassionate grounds, Jesus broke the law.
Indeed, this is what St Paul is also urging us to do. Of course, in his case, it was to refrain from exercising freedom for the sake of charity. He urged, “never do anything offensive to anyone – to Jews or Greeks or to the Church of God; just as I try to be helpful to everyone at all times, not anxious for my own advantage but for the advantage of everybody else, so that they may be saved.” So if something causes our weaker brothers to sin because of a right action that we do, then it is necessary to restrain ourselves for a greater good. By so doing, St Paul supplies us the principle which is to do everything for the glory of God.
This is also the principle of the Society of Jesus. To do everything for the greater glory of God, “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam” should be the principle that guides all our actions. In situations when we are faced with a dilemma, we must ask ourselves whether what we do will bring about not simply the glory of God but His greater glory. So even if what we do is good, it is still not sufficient for us to act. We must act for the greater good. So in two instances when both actions are good, we must choose the one that brings about a greater good for everyone and therefore for God. In the example of the Muslims’ anger over the publication of the cartoons of Prophet Mohammed, it shows that although there is a right with regard to the freedom of expression, yet that right should not be exercised when it offends the sentiments of another group.
For us to be able to act courageously like Jesus, to do what is truly right and just, we need to be like Jesus. That is why St Paul exhorted, “Take me for your model, as I take Christ.” For in the gospel, we read that Jesus “immediately sent him away and sternly ordered him, ‘Mind you say nothing to anyone, but go and show yourself to the priest, and make the offering for your healing prescribed by Moses as evidence of your recovery.’”
Why was Jesus in a hurry to send him away, and why did He forbid him to speak of the healing miracle? Perhaps, it was because if the authorities had found out about His contamination, He could also have been branded unclean and be alienated from the community. At any rate, “the man went away, but then started talking about it freely and telling the story everywhere, so that Jesus could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived.” Ironically, the leper who had to stay outside the camp could now return to the community, because he had been restored to health. Jesus the healer on the other hand, had to stay outside the camp!
Most probably, it was the evangelist’s way of underscoring Jesus’ identification with the poor and the marginalized. Unless we stay outside the camp, or have been ostracized ourselves, we can never feel with them and have compassion for them. By staying outside the camp, Jesus showed His willingness to take our sins upon Himself and carry all our infirmities and sicknesses. Jesus is truly the compassion of God in person.
Of course, by staying outside the camp and away from the people, Jesus could grow in compassion, because in the desert He was able to strengthen His communion with the Father in prayer. Indeed, only by identifying with the poor, living with them and being one with them on one hand; and being with God, sharing His compassion and love, could we truly reach out to others and find the courage to do what is right and just.
Yes, today we are called to be like Jesus and imitate Him as St Paul did. Let us in all that we do be motivated by love and for the greater glory of God. We must avoid falling into legalism as the Jews did. On the other hand, we must be careful not to fall into moral subjectivism and insist on doing whatever we feel is right and just, regardless of how others may be impacted, as the early Christians at Corinth did. It is not enough to do what is right but we must do what is right and also good for everyone. Not our interests, but the interests of the larger community, must take precedence over personal and individual rights. This is charity. Hence, it is clear that as Christians, we cannot exercise our freedom and rights if it is against the principle of charity and compassion. Let everything be done for the greater glory of God.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
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