Hearts, flowers, chocolate, wine, jewelry, poetry, love songs, romantic movies … today is Valentines’ Day and all around us attention is focused on love. But even when our attention is on love, even when we are contemplating extravagant acts of devotion, we often neglect the expressions of love to which today’s readings call us. Perhaps that’s because they point us toward sacrificial love rather than reciprocal love. Today’s scripture readings aren’t about the kind of extravagant Valentines’ Day love that blesses both giver and receiver; they are about the kind of love that places all the attention on the receiver with nothing in it for the giver.
The Leviticus reading provides instruction for those with leprosy. These rules are often understood as a cruel rejection of those who are suffering, but they can also be understood as a call to communal love. Those who are ill are not simply cast out of the community; the community is not told what to do with the leper. Instead, the instructions are given to the ones who have leprosy, telling them what to do to protect the rest of the community. They are to move to the outskirts of the camp where they are to continue to show care for the others in the community by covering their upper lip, effectively blocking much of the airflow from their nose and mouth, and by calling out a warning of disease to any who came near.
In the gospel reading, Jesus cures a man of leprosy and instructs him to show himself to the priest and follow the rituals for reinstatement into the community but tell no one about how he had been cured. Jesus is instructing him to keep the focus on the care for the community that the gradual reinstatement of the rituals entailed. The man who was cured chooses instead to turn the focus away from the community and toward himself, and the result was that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly. The joyful celebration and the inability to contain his excitement are so easy for us to understand that we often overlook Jesus’ request that he make the sacrifice of remaining unnoticed and unappreciated for the sake of others.
Today’s call to make choices that benefit others more than they benefit us, is expressed most clearly in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians when he instructs them to imitate his choices to seek the advantage of others rather than his own advantage. “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the Church of God.” Paul spoke these words to a community that was frequently polarized, like much of our society today. In such a community, the only way to avoid giving offense to one group or another is to set aside one’s own need to be “right” and to try to see from the perspective of the other.
This week we will enter the season of Lent. I find myself wondering, how different my world would be if, between now and Easter, each time I found myself wondering how to get someone to understand my perspective, I changed the question to: what could I understand if I tried to see the world from their perspective? And what would change, if each time I was upset because someone did not recognize or understand my needs, I asked myself: do they have needs that I am not seeing or understanding? It seems like it would be a lot easier to just show love by giving chocolate and prepare for Easter by giving up chocolate, but maybe easy is not the goal.