February 4, 2014
My Ignatius Study Bible and the “Gospels in a Year” adventure at Flocknote are exciting tools to help me know the Lord all the better. If you aren’t signed up yet, try it out. I’m loving it.
Some weeks back our study for the day was Matt. 8:1-13. I wanted to write about it then but didn’t get to it. Then the same passages came up for the Gospel of the Third Sunday after Epiphany a couple of weeks ago and again, the story kept tugging at me. The image of the leper is so touching I can’t get it out of my mind, as he is the symbol of the sin-sick soul we hear about in the beautiful American Spiritual, “There is a Balm in Gilead”. This is a beautiful tale of faith.
Matt. 8:1: When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed Him;
Jesus always withdrew to the high place, a mountain, to pray to His Father. Mountains symbolize the dwelling place of God. This is where Moses and the prophets often conversed with God, and where God gave commands and instructions to them. After dealing with the crowds, Jesus went to the heights for peace and quiet and to “recharge his batteries” if you will. Our mountains are the quiet places we go when we want to pray – the Adoration chapel or church, the home altar, a chair in the back yard, on the porch, or on the balcony, a peaceful place in the woods, anywhere we can be alone with God. Before we undertake any great work, a conversation with the Father will give us strength just as it did Christ.
Although this event occurred early in Jesus’s ministry, still many people knew somebody whom Jesus had healed. He was swamped with crowds wherever he showed up. Everyone in the vicinity who was sick or maimed, possessed by a demon or otherwise hurting wanted Jesus to make them well. Today Jesus is so easily accessible we don’t have to try to find Him in the midst of crowds or worry about missing His passing. We can go to Him any time we want in the Sacrament of Penance. We can nip in to the parish churches we pass as we go about our daily activities. He is always there to give us His healing grace and still today works miracles for those whom He will. If you read the “favors granted” notebooks in the back of most Adoration chapels you will find many testimonies of miracles Jesus worked for those who came to pray when they were in hopeless situations. Some are really amazing. Maybe you personally know somebody this happened to. Jesus came to open the gates of heaven for us and to heal our wounded nature. But if we don’t turn to Him, if we don’t show up, we prevent ourselves from encountering Him. He hasn’t forgotten us or stopped loving us. We are the ones who fail to remember Him, fail to turn to Him in faith.
Matt. 8:2: and behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”
The poor leper was “unclean” under Mosaic law. He was forced to wear rent garments and keep his head bare, both a sign of mourning, and a covering over his mouth. Everywhere he went he had to call out “Unclean, unclean” so that people could steer clear of him. He was not permitted to live inside the camp or city, but only outside and with other lepers. Only God could cure the leper.
My heart goes out to the suffering of this poor man, but rejoices also in his great faith. Here is a person whose life was changed overnight on the day he was declared unclean by the priest. No more business. No more sharing meals with friends. No more taking care of his family. No more worshipping with the assembly. Not only the leper suffered from his leprosy, but many others did, too, just as many others suffer from all our sinful acts even if we think no one is aware of them.
I can see him full of resolution that day, making a bee line for Jesus. Nobody would stop him, no one would touch him lest they, too, be made unclean. As the crowd hurriedly parts the leper falls at the feet of Jesus. Only Jesus did not shrink back. Only Jesus was not afraid of him.
I think the “knelt before Him” was probably a bit more than just a simple kneel like we do at church. I think he probably bowed his head to the ground before straightening up and declaring by his words that Jesus was God and if He willed, He could cleanse him. This would be the posture of a man seeking a favor from a king, common in the East.
When we kneel before Jesus in the confessional we express the same faith the leper had. Jesus can make us clean if He wills, and He does will it when we are truly repentant. Nothing we have done is outside the will of God to forgive if we are truly sorry and if we have a firm determination to amend our lives. Mentally, we can bow before the Lord when asking for healing from the effects of sin, a posture of the heart.
Matt. 8:3: And He stretched out His hand and touched him saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
By touching the leper Jesus showed His divine authority. He was above the Mosaic law. Nothing could make Him unclean in his all-pure holiness. All the Jews who saw it must have been totally shocked. Probably none of them were thinking at the time of Is. 61: 1-3 that the Messiah had come and was right there in front of them. But everyone would have known what it meant to that leper to be cleansed and would have seen the testimony of his joy.
Matt. 8:4: And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to the people.”
The priest is the one who declared the miracle of cleansing from leprosy, just as the priest declares our cleansing in confession. Jesus is the one who forgives our sins, but He has appointed the priests to be His intermediaries.
The admonition to say nothing to anyone always seemed odd to me. Here is a huge crowd who just witnessed a miracle in front of their very eyes. Whether or not the leper spread the news that Jesus had cleansed him, certainly that crowd must have blabbed it far and wide. I know various commenters give several reasons for the admonition, among which is the desire of Christ to stave off the hatred of the Pharisees too early in His ministry. It could also be simply an instruction to get to the priest without stopping to declare what Jesus had done to anyone else. Under Mosaic law, only the priest could officially declare the leper clean.
When I think of what was restored to that leper…in effect he went from having barely nothing to having everything. His free association with everyone, his family, his ability to make a living and provide for them, his admittance to religious observances as a member of the community, joy in living; he went from being looked down on to walking freely with his head held up. Jesus released him from a prison without bars to a full-fledged member of society.
This is what Jesus will do for each of us. This event is parallel to us being restored to what we were created to be when we have placed ourselves at the feet of the Lord and renounced our willful slavery to sin. The leper didn’t choose to be unclean, though, while we choose it every time. He was excluded from the family of his fellow Jews by law; we exclude ourselves from the family of God by our perverted choices.
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves,
- Are we honestly seeking liberation from sin? Do we hate it as much as the leper hated his leprosy?
- Are we willing to be honest with ourselves about our willful sinning and our bad choices that make us ever sicker spiritually?
- What will it take for us to run to the feet of Jesus and beg Him to make us clean?
Jesus is the true “Balm in Gilead”. None other but Him. He is just waiting for us to ask Him to make us clean.
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