Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: REFERENCES]

Wisdom is a dominant theme in today's readings. Four times Jesus cites the old law by saying “You have heard it said…” And seven times He calls to a deeper interiority when He says, “I say to you…” He calls us beyond compliance to observance; beyond precept to wisdom.

Wisdom differs from common, everyday knowledge, even from scientific knowledge. Wisdom makes distinctions and its chief distinction is between what is temporary and subject to change and what is enduring, in fact, eternal. Wisdom applies to the eternal. It tells us that what matters most has enduring value. Today's Letter to the Corinthians tells us this wisdom is spoken “to those who are mature.”

So today Jesus is calling us to Christian maturity. Christian maturity is the capacity to reflect upon and distinguish between inner spiritual movements toward what is of enduring value, toward what matters most. It is the ability to recognize and respond to who it is that is calling us.

Sirach tells us “Before you are life and death, good and evil; whichever you choose will be given you.” Spiritually, “life and death; good and evil” don't always come to us clearly identified. We must be able to distinguish.

To make the distinction b/w good and evil we must ask: “Says who?” We must be able to recognize who is calling us, whose way of life we would follow. And that person must be able to give us the power to live that way of life.

Jesus here presents himself as the New Moses when he speaks on his own authority. More than that, though, He can give the power to live the life He teaches.

He has come to fulfill the law which Moses gave to regulate public life. Jesus, though, deepens the significance of public acts. Jesus shows that the public acts he mentions must have interior effects. His two chief concerns in the 6 examples that He gives are: the heart, and our relationships. It is not just murder, but hatred in the heart. It is not just adultery, but lust in the heart. The heart is commanded to be given entirely to God and secondly, in imitation of God, to love of neighbor.

The mature Christian gets this heart by listening. Listening is the basic stance of the Christian. It is synonymous with obedience. In other places Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it”; “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” Listening is important because we all struggle with Christian maturity. That is why St. Benedict begins his Rule of Life with the word “Listen.” He ends his Rule by calling us beyond obedience to observance, which requires an interior life.

We can better speak of Christian maturity as “maturation.” Maturation is an emerging, on-going experience of interior encounter with Christ that changes our motivation. We gradually stop resisting the demands of love.

In today's gospel Christ call us to maturity by developing a discerning heart. He tells us it is not just what we undertake for compliance with law, but the things to which we devote ourselves for their own sake that will form us in His likeness. Being a self-gift will form a heart that has the capacity to reflect upon, distinguish between and respond to inner spiritual movements toward what is of enduring value, toward what matters most.
It is doing the Father's will.

Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Lev. 13 1-2, 44-46; 1Cor. 10: 31-11:1; Mk. 1: 40-45]

The extent to which we may have been excluded from some situation in which we wanted to be included, or been slighted by someone, can give us some small appreciation of the situation of the leper in this morning's gospel. A leper in Israelite society was completely excluded from association with the community; including its worship of God. He had to maintain a distinctive appearance and wear distinctive clothing. Most humiliating of all, he had to cry out, “Unclean, unclean” to anyone who approached him. With a little imagination it is easy to appreciate the joy and gratitude the leper felt at receiving Jesus' compassion and cleansing, and his desire to share his joy and gratitude with others.

Nevertheless he did not do what Jesus told him to do. Jesus said nothing about telling others about what Jesus had done for him. On the contrary, Jesus said to see that he did not say anything to anyone. Jesus only said that the cleansed leper should show himself to the priest and bring the offering prescribed by Moses for his cleansing. This story always leaves me unsettled: intellectually and emotionally. I sympathize with the leper. I probably would have done the same thing. Yet I know he did not follow Jesus' instructions.

I doubt that I am the only one here who has had experience with well-intended mistakes; both having made a number of them myself and having been on the receiving end of someone's actions who wanted to be helpful, but was not. The result has been embarrassment when I realized that my good intentions in fact made a situation more difficult for someone; and on the other hand annoyance with someone who had good intentions to help me. The latter is usually accompanied by a sense of guilt at being annoyed with someone who wanted to be helpful. What then of our well intended mistakes at trying to be Jesus' faithful disciples?

Here too we can count on Jesus' compassion. We do not frustrate God's will; however, we can make life difficult for ourselves and for those around us. It seems that making mistakes is part of learning to be disciples. The gospels make it clear that this began with Jesus' original disciples, including his chosen apostles. This does not give us grounds for complacency and irresponsibility, but it is a foundation for hope in God's mercy and forgiveness. Like St. Paul our motivation should be to do everything for the glory of God. We should always try to do God's will. We should try not to be offensive to those God brings into our lives. In imitation of Jesus we will be more effective with kindness than with belligerency. But at times our good intentions will miss the intended goal. In these situations we should be open to correction; either from others, or from seeing the results of our misguided enthusiasm.

I think it is especially important that when we want to show our gratitude for what God has done for us, we use Jesus' example and teaching as our guides and not project our own or society's standards onto God. We can always show our gratitude for God's understanding and compassion by extending understanding and compassion to those who enter our lives.

Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Lev 13:1-2, 45-46; 1 Cor 10:31-33; Mk 1:40-45 ]

Fr. StephenOne day Lucy asked Charlie Brown life’s most important question: “Why do you think we were put on earth?” He replied, “To make others happy.” Lucy reflected, “I don’t think I’m making anyone happy. But nobody’s making me very happy either.” Then, raising her voice she shouted, “Somebody’s not doing their job!”

The leper approaching Jesus was not happy. He was locked in the skin of leprosy more tightly than the man in an iron mask. Oh, how he wanted to be free of this loathsome disease, like Naaman, the Syrian leper, whose flesh became as smooth and rosy as the beautiful cheeks of a little child when he washed seven times in the river Jordan.

The man approaching Jesus was horribly disfigured, untouchable, an outcast, one of the most unhappy and unfortunate of people. Now, for the first time in his life of physical and religious uncleanness, his heart was trembling with hope. He heard that Jesus was nearby, preaching and healing and driving out demons. This leper was a visible sign of all humanity’s fall from the innocence and happiness of paradise.I will, be clean. And Jesus was the visible sign of God’s desire to reach out and touch us with healing grace. Jesus wanted this leper’s flesh and heart and soul to be made clean like that of a young child. Jesus wanted to make him happy.

This diseased miserable leper is the first person to approach Jesus publicly in a spirit of profound reverence and docile prayer. He falls on his scabby emaciated knees, looks at Jesus from sunken eyes, and gently asks to be made clean. The mutilated body of this leper, the wretched physical circumstances of his life, were his occasion of grace for body and soul, impelling him to seek Jesus. “He comes to the Lord in tremendous need, but his relationship with Christ is not reduced to his need to be healed. By acknowledging the freedom of the divine will to heal or not to heal, the leper manifests an awareness of the all-encompassing reality of God’s providence. … This man knows how to pray … from the bottom of his heart: Thy will be done!”1 He says, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Unlike Lucy who complained that someone wasn’t doing his job, the leper surrenders everything to God’s freedom and designs. Created to be happy, hoping to be healed, he is ready to persevere in reverence even if he is not healed. His attitude of trust, his humble gesture of kneeling before Jesus, is a perfect model of Christian prayer.

Then, in a gesture that foreshadows our ultimate union with God, Jesus extends his hand to touch the leper and says, “I will, be clean.” In Michelangelo’s fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel the hands of Adam and of God reach out to each other but don’t quite touch. Now the leper, who represents the fallen condition of Adam and Eve, doesn’t dare extend his hand to touch Jesus. Instead, he bows down in great reverence in all his wretchedness and asks to be made clean. And Jesus will do more than the leper dares to ask by cleansing not only his flesh but also his soul, restoring in him the divine likeness that was lost by pride. The creation of AdamJesus extends his hand to caress the leper’s cheek and lift his chin so that he can look into those sunken eyes. At that moment the “divine energy passes from God through Jesus into the dissolving flesh of the leper.” His cheeks and his whole body became like the beautiful soft flesh of a young child and his face radiated the joy of his inner healing. The complete healing of this leper inside and out foreshadows the happiness we will experience when Jesus reaches out to caress our cheeks and to raise us from our mortality to divine happiness.

Lucy wanted her will to be done. Instead of making others happy she demanded that people make her happy. What is it like to have the spirit of Jesus who desires to make others happy, and to have the leper’s spirit of reverent prayer surrendering completely to the divine will? A few years ago a ten year old Protestant girl named Olivia heard that our Fr. Bernard was in the hospital because of a very serious car accident. Her mother writes, “Olivia, without me asking her, has been praying for Father Bernard for at least a month. We were chatting the other day about a story she was reading of Queen Victoria as a girl. One of the little girls in the book gets dressed up like a mystic prioress. Olivia figured out she was some kind of nun. Olivia I told her mystics were people who experienced exceptional things and maybe had visions. She said, ‘Is that bad?’ and I said, ‘No, not if its from God,’ which was the best answer I had at the time. She said, ‘Well Mommy, I had something happen the other night. After I read about Fr. Bernard I said my prayers. Mommy, I just kept praying and I kind of fell asleep, but I was still praying. I woke up around a quarter to one and I was still praying and when I woke up or during waking up a hand touched me and it was kind of like a hug. It felt like a doctor’s hand. It was very kind but it wasn’t Daddy.’ Later she said to me, ‘When I go to bed I say my prayers and after I climb into bed I pray for the monastery and the monks and especially for Fr. Bernard who is hurt.’ All this without any promptings from me. It was all her own. She also said, ‘I don’t know what it is, Mommy, but my schoolwork has been so much easier lately and I love going to school now and I am getting lots of A’s.’ Olivia is a very regular caring little kid raised totally in Protestant Christian schools that don’t talk about visions and that kind of thing. So, as this was the first time she said anything like that to me, I definitely noticed it.” That’s what it’s like to have the spirit of Christ wanting to make others happy, and the spirit of prayer that impels us to draw near to Jesus with humility.

When Jesus caressed the leper’s cheek it felt like a hug, and when Jesus laid his hand on the leper’s shoulder it felt like a doctor’s hand, and indeed it was. The man whose flesh was now like that of a ten year old child knew not only that he was healed but that he was loved.

Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Sir. 15: 15-20; 1Cor. 2: 6-10; Mt. 5: 17-37]

I expect that many, perhaps most of us experience some degree of ambivalence in our attitudes about laws. Probably the main concern is that in one way or another laws restrict our freedom. On the other hand there is at least an intuitive realization that without laws our life together would become chaotic; and where there is chaos there is no freedom. We would be too preoccupied with trying to hang onto our sanity. Our challenge is to achieve a reasonable balance between license, where everyone does what he or she wants to do, and a mechanical conformity to what we are told to do.

In this morning’s gospel Jesus does not approach law in terms of obeying or disobeying. This is the dilemma in which we often find ourselves caught. He offers fulfillment as an alternative to breaking a law. There is an irony here. Because the scribes and Pharisees were living out of a legalistic mentality, breaking the law was the accusation they made against Jesus. If we are to accept Jesus’ teaching about law, a first step is to realize that external conformity is not necessarily fulfilling the purpose of a law.

Three characteristics of fulfilling a law stand out in this morning’s gospel: interiority, justice and humility. There are more, but these three give us a beginning in understanding Jesus’ attitude toward law. Using murder and adultery as examples Jesus makes the point that external behavior is the result of attitudes and mental processes that we have formed, perhaps over an extended period of time. We need to look within ourselves and ask if our attitudes support us in obeying a law, or are they an obstacle with which we have to struggle in order to stay within the letter of the law? Our difficulty with a particular law may be a call to conversion of heart. Jesus states forthrightly that the law which allowed a husband to dismiss his wife was unjust and could force a woman into a situation of moral compromise. Are we willing to accept the consequences of opposing an unjust law in our speech and in our behavior? Probably the more frequent question we need to ask is: Does our behavior in obeying a just law inflict injustice on those we live with? In regard to oaths Jesus calls for simple and honest speech and not elaborate and presumptuous verbal displays. Do we simply and quietly fulfill a law without using it as an opportunity for self aggrandizement and drawing attention to ourselves?

Fulfilling a law calls for more subtlety of thought and discernment than simply obeying or disobeying; especially in regard to fulfilling God’s laws. In St. Paul’s words we need a wisdom greater than the wisdom of this age and the rulers of this age. If we are to experience true and responsible freedom, we need to be guided by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ has poured his Spirit into our hearts. It is our task to live in harmony with the Holy Spirit we have received.

Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Lev 13:1-2, 44-46; 1 Cor 10:31-11:1; Mk 1:40-45]

Fr. StephenPimples, boils, wrinkles, lumps, blotches, rashes, blackheads, dandruff, crusty scabs, open sores and ugly scars. When looking good is everything skin afflictions are humiliating. When the skin affliction is leprosy it is not only humiliating but ostracizing. Fear of contagion frightened many societies into expelling lepers from their midst. Similarly, our culture doesn’t like to see pimples, boils, wrinkles, lumps, blotches, rashes, blackheads, dandruff, crusty scabs, open sores and ugly scars. But looking good isn’t everything.

The man approaching Jesus was full of leprosy, covered with it. People turned away from the sight of his putrefying ulcers. He had to cry out a warning in his scratchy voice, “Unclean, unclean.” He was ugly, repugnant. That was “strike one” against him. Jesus saw this man who looked like walking death coming toward him and Jesus waited for him because he knew that looking good isn’t everything.

He was full of leprosy The leper’s heart was no less disfigured and scarred than his face, neck and arms. No hands had grasped his hands for years, no lips had kissed his own. The only greetings that came his way were jeers, and looks of ice and stone. He was an outcast, debarred from social life, forced to withdraw from his family, from his trade, from everyone he had known and loved; he was, oh, so lonely. If he once had children, now he could only watch them grow from a distance, never able to hug them, never touching them. His heart was in more pain than his skin. He was socially, totally unacceptable. That was “strike two” against him. Jesus saw this man in torn clothes with disheveled hair who had a wild, frighten, hungry look coming toward him and Jesus waited for him because looking good isn’t everything.

The leper’s soul was no less stricken than the emotions of his heart and the skin of his body. In those days leprosy was thought to be a punishment for sinfulness. It was as if his sins had broken to the surface and were devouring his flesh. He was expelled from the synagogue and the Temple. He received no blessings, no prayers, no greetings of peace. He felt abandoned by God. His spiritual uncleanness was far more contagious than his physical disease. Anyone who touched a leper was immediately defiled, unclean, cut off from the praying community. The leper was considered a very bad sinner. That was “strike three” against him. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually the leper was a loser, he was alone. He had no one to comfort him, not even God. Jesus saw this man who was forsaken, separated from God coming toward him, and Jesus saw himself hanging on the cross like one stricken and smitten by God, afflicted and bruised, with no beauty or loveliness to be desired, despised and rejected, a man of sorrows from whom all hide their faces, someone cut off from the land of the living. But, looking good isn’t everything. When compared to Christ hanging on the cross looking good means nothing at all.

Jesus reached out and touched the leperAs the leper drew closer Jesus was moved with compassion. Jesus did not flee or pick up a stick or stones to drive the man away as others would have done. Jesus let the leper come very close. The poor man fell down at Jesus’ feet and said in a trembling, raspy voice, “Lord if you will, you can make me clean.” Jesus stretched forth his hand, gently stroked the leper’s cheek and swept all his sores away. He looked into his eyes with love and said, “Of course I want to, be clean.” All at once the leper knew he was loved by God, healed by Jesus, and made whole again. The goodness and love of Jesus poured into his heart and soul. Looking good isn’t everything; being good—a loving person, that’s everything.

Blessed Damian of Molokai after he became a leper From the moment Jesus touched this leper, the values of a culture based on appearances were reversed. Never again would touching a leper make a Christian disciple unclean. Just the opposite. Reaching out to comfort the afflicted, to love the unlovely, to embrace the ugly, makes us more like Christ, more spiritually beautiful. St. Francis of Assisi overcame his repugnance by kneeling to kiss the hands of a leper after first fleeing from him. Blessed Damian de Veuster of Molokai not only ministered to lepers but willingly became one. His handsome face grew blistered and swollen, dreadfully disfigured. Mother Teresa of Calcutta found Christ in the ravaged faces of dying wretches she picked up from the gutters of India. She caressed them, and they thanked her.

A few days ago I sat down next to Fr. Joseph Knapp in the infirmary. I said, “Fr. Joseph, it must be very hard and lonely to sit here all day long and not be able to say what you want to say.” He turned his eyes to me, his lips began to quiver, and he started to cry a little. I just held his hand with both of mine and prayed with him. During this Great Jubilee of the year 2000, Pope John Paul II has asked us to make frequent, even daily pilgrimages to Christ present not just in our churches, but present in our brothers and sisters who are in need or difficulty, especially the elderly and the sick. They might not look good, that’s nothing. Loving them, that’s everything. Will you stretch out your hand to touch them, will you show your love to them?

Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Lev 13: 1-2, 45-46; 1 Cor 10: 31-33; Mk 1: 40-45]

A frustrating situation we have to deal with from time to time is someone’s misguided good will. We know the person intended to be helpful, but in fact his or her behavior made our situation more difficult. We usually say the person meant well and try not to give in to our irritation. In addition to being frustrating, it can also be embarrassing when we realize that our own well meaning behavior has made a situation more difficult for someone else.

As with all our human weaknesses Jesus encountered misguided good will too. In this morning’s gospel Jesus responded to the leper’s request for healing with compassion. He not only healed him, but by touching him Jesus became unclean himself. He simply asked the cleansed leper to show himself to the priest and make the customary offering for his cleansing. I assume that in his joy the man wanted to share what Jesus had done for him with others. We may agree that telling others what Jesus did was better than fulfilling a ritual requirement; but the man who had been cured did not do what Jesus asked him to do. It seems that he made Jesus’ mission more difficult. Jesus had come to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of God to Israel, but because of the man’s misguided response Jesus could not enter a town or city publicly to carry out his mission. Nevertheless the leper’s behavior did not frustrate God’s will; he simply made things more difficult. Jesus stayed in deserted places and God brought the people to Jesus.

Jesus’ words and actions always point beyond themselves and point to us; just as they have pointed to all Jesus’ followers down through the centuries. They tell us something about Jesus’ inauguration of the kingdom of God in our time and situations, and something about our response to Jesus entering into our lives.

We all have our infirmities. Not all of them are as visible as leprosy. We can bring them to Jesus and ask for his healing. For reasons hidden in the mystery of God’s will, he may or may not heal them. Jesus did not heal all the lepers in Israel; nor all the blind; nor all the cripples. Perhaps he heals us in ways that we do not expect or recognize. When we experience Jesus’ healing, do we listen to hear what he asks of us, or do we assume that we already know how to use his gift? However well intentioned we may be, are we helping to spread the gospel or are we interfering with God’s intentions? We cannot frustrate God’s will, but we can make things more difficult for ourselves and for those we live with. Fortunately, in his patience God accepts our well intentioned mistakes and works with them.

I have no remedy for well intentioned mistakes. I make too many of them. And there is something positive to be said for good intentions, even if the results leave something to be desired. Nevertheless it would be better to put a check on our impatience and presumption, and in humility seek to discern what God asks of us in response to his kindness.