One of the most dramatic and disturbing pictures of the year was recently generated at the Vatican in Rome. Pope Francis, while greeting crowds in St. Peter's Square, reached out to a man who, suffering from a neural disease, was grossly deformed. His deformity was almost so great that it was hard to look at him. He nearly appeared inhuman. In the fashion of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who once hugged a leper as a way of overcoming his fear of the dreaded disease, Pope Francis spent time with the man, embracing him, thus assuring him that he was loved despite his appearance.
Pope Francis' act of love and compassion was remarkable but really shouldn't be for all who call themselves Christian. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are all called to reach out to the marginalized of society. We are called to embrace those who have been isolated by society for whatever reason. But how successful are we?
Do we really embrace those who have been tossed to the curb with any sense of respect and dignity? Some, depending on their circumstances, may. But many others never get our time of day, let alone the respect that is due them. Jesus addressed this many times.
We, who call ourselves Christians, worship the most marginalized human being to ever exist. He was at one time accepted, lauded, as a king. Then, just as quickly, once He became controversial, He was pushed to the side. So much so, that the government arrested Him and had Him crucified, suffering the ignominious death assigned only to the worst of society. Only the worst kind of man was crucified and Jesus was, in the eyes of His world, the worst kind of man!
With this in mind, one of the most famous quotes comes to us from Matthew 25: 40. "Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me." Christ's meaning is obvious here. Whenever we reach out to another in need, we reach out to Jesus. But there are more examples of Jesus Himself reaching out to the marginalized.
In Matthew 8: 1-17, we find more instances of Jesus reaching out to those in need, those who are on the fringes of polite society. In verses 1-4, Jesus encounters a leper who approaches Him, asking Him for a cure.
"Lord, if you will, you can make me clean." (Mt 8: 2)
Jesus touched him, saying, "I will; be clean." (Mt 8: 3) At that moment, the leper was cured.
This was no simple feat. It must be remembered how vile and repulsive lepers were. They were to be avoided at all costs and certainly never allowed to come so close so that they might be touched. Yet, Jesus fearlessly did embrace the man. The gospel explicitly goes out of the way to state that Jesus "touched" the man. He did not just speak to him. With one word, Jesus could have cured the man without touching him at all.
However, Jesus, as an example to us all, showed us that we need to be fearless in our approach to the outcasts of this world. We need have no fear of these individuals because in them, we find Christ. In fact, in one way, we can come to see Jesus as the least of our brothers for He came to be servant to all. Therefore, whenever we do something for the least of our brothers, we most definitely are reaching out to Christ to soothe His wounds, to ease His pain. And in that moment, He embraces us with His compassion and mercy, healing and curing our wounds caused by our sinfulness.
So you see, as Christians, the photo and actions of the Pope really shouldn't make headlines because these actions truly need to become the norm rather than the exception. Each one of us has our own definition as to who is one who is marginalized. For one it may be someone with Aids. For another, it may be the young woman who chose to abort her baby. For another it may be that alcoholic or drug addicted brother or sister. We must administer Christ's love to the weakest of those who are among us, for in doing so, we encounter the loving Jesus in a very special way. Make this the norm in your life! Come, embrace the Lord in the person of those who have been rejected. Your life will never be the same!