“We have never seen anything like this.”
That statement, from today’s Gospel reading, can be taken in a at least a couple of different ways. It could be an expression of amazement: the people were seeing something new in Jesus and found it to be astonishingly wonderful. “We have never seen anything like this!” That’s almost too much to hope for from them, unfortunately, so what they probably meant was something much different. They probably meant, we have never seen anything like this, and since it’s not what we are used to, we dislike it, we distrust it and refuse to go there. “We have never seen anything like this. Harumph!”
What’s sad about that is that we react that way too sometimes, don’t we? The old joke is that the last seven words of the Church will be, “we’ve never done it that way before.” If someone challenges us in new ways, we have a tendency to automatically assume it’s wrong. People tend often to distrust anything that puts them outside their comfort zones.
And Jesus was dragging people out of their comfort zones all the time. The scribes, Pharisees, and religious leaders all distrusted him because he hit them right where they lived. He challenged them to new ways of thinking and praying and fasting and giving and even loving. He showed them a Messiah that was much different than anything they ever expected. And so they dismissed him: “We have never seen anything like this.”
But it cannot be so for us. Jesus still challenges us today, beaconing us out of our comfort zones, challenging us to live for God and for others, and to reach out and live the Gospel with wild abandon. Will we dismiss him and his message too? Or will we say with eager expectation: “We have never seen anything like this!” – with eyes wide open to see where he will lead us next?
My niece is now in college; I can’t believe how time has flown. But back when she was little, she knew how to wrap Uncle Patrick around her little finger. I remember one time when we were out at the mall, she said something like, “If you want, you can buy me a cookie.” It reminded me of the way the leper approached Jesus in today’s Gospel. And Julia found out that I did indeed want to buy her a cookie!
You know, the most amazing thing about this miracle isn’t really the miracle itself. Sure, cleansing someone of leprosy is a big deal. But for me, the real miracle here surrounds those first three words the leper says to Jesus, “If you wish…” “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Isn’t it true that we so often wonder about God’s will for our lives? Especially when we’re going through something tragic, or chronically frustrating, we can wonder how this all fits into God’s plan for us. If God wishes, he can cleanse us, forgive us, heal us, turn our lives around.
And here the poor leper finds out that healing is indeed God’s will for him. But not just the kind of healing that wipes out leprosy. Sure, that’s what everyone saw. But the real healing happened in that leper’s heart. He surely wondered if God cared about him at all, and in Jesus’ healing words – “I do will it” – he found out that God cared for him greatly.
Not all of us are going to have this kind of miraculous encounter with God. But we certainly all ask the question “what does God will for me?” at some point in our lives. As we come to the Eucharist today, perhaps we all can ask that sort of question. Reaching out to receive our Lord, may we pray “If you wish, you can feed me.” “If you wish, you can pour out your blood to wipe away my sins.” “If you wish, you can strengthen my faith.” “If you wish you can make me new.”
It is always interesting to me how clearly the unclean spirits know who Jesus is. For them, Christ our God inspires fear and rebellion. But even these unclean spirits, hearing his voice, begrudgingly obey. Jesus teaches with authority, as the people standing by admit of him. This is a teaching that cannot be ignored. Each person may hear it and respond differently, but they do respond. Many hear his voice and follow. Others turn away.
In these early days of Ordinary Time, we essentially have the continuation of the Epiphany event. We continue to see Christ manifest in our midst, and continue to decide what to make of him. Today we see him as one who teaches with authority and who has authority over even the unclean spirits within us. Today he speaks to our sinfulness, to our brokenness, to our addictions, to our fallenness, to our procrastinations, to whatever debilitates us and saddens us and says “Quiet! Come out!”
This Epiphany of Christ as dispossessor of demons is an epiphany that does more than just heal us. It is an epiphany that calls us out of darkness, one that insists we come out of our hiding and step into the light, so that the light of God’s love can shine in us and through us.
What the Pharisees were missing in this gospel story was that there is something that paralyzes a person much worse than any physical thing, and that something, of course, is sin. And if you’ve ever found yourself caught up in a pattern of sin in your life, of if you’ve ever struggled with any kind of addiction, or if a sin you have committed has ever made you too ashamed to move forward in a relationship or ministry or responsibility, then you know the paralysis this poor man was suffering on that stretcher. Sin is that insidious thing that ensnares us and renders us helpless, because we cannot defeat it no matter how hard we try. That’s just the way sin works on us.
We cannot just raise our hands and say, hey, I’m only human, because nothing makes us less human than sin. Jesus, in addition to being divine, of course, was the most perfectly human person that ever lived, and he never sinned. So from this we should certainly take away that sin does not make us human, and that sin is not part of human nature.
And it doesn’t have to stay that way. We’re not supposed to stay bound up on our stretchers forever. We’re supposed to get ourselves to Jesus, or if need be, like the man in the gospel today, get taken to him by friends, because it is only Jesus that can free us. That’s why the church prays, in the prayer of absolution in the Sacrament of Penance, “May God give you pardon and peace.”
Freed from the bondage of our sins by Jesus who is our peace, we can stand up with the lame man from the gospel and go on our way, rejoicing in God. We can rejoice in our deliverance with Isaiah who proclaimed, “Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; They will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee.”
It could have been jealousy. Or maybe they just felt threatened. Either way, the Pharisees had lost sight of the mission.
You could see how they would have been jealous: here they are working long and hard to take care of the many prescripts of their religion, attending with exacting detail to the commandments of God and the laws that governed their way of life. But it is Jesus, this upstart, and not them, who is really moving the people and getting things done. People were being healed – inside and out – and others were being moved to follow him on his way. That had to make them green with envy.
And, yes, they probably felt threatened. The way that he was preaching, the religion he was talking about – well, it was all new and seemed to fly in the face of what they had long believed and what they had worked so hard to preserve.
But how had they gotten here, how did they lose the way? Because what Jesus advocated was really not a different message: it was all about how God loves his people and that we should love God and others with that same kind of love. That message was there: buried deep in the laws and rules that they were so familiar with, but somehow, the laws and rules became more important than the love.
The Pharisees wanted to preserve their religion and the way of life they had lived for so long. Jesus wanted to make manifest God’s love, forgiveness of sins, and true healing. It’s not that the rules of religion are not important, but the underlying message and the greatness of God cannot be overshadowed by legalism. That is the argument in today’s Gospel; that is the argument that ultimately brought Jesus to the cross. He would rather die than live without us; he paid the price that we might be truly healed and might truly live. As the Psalmist reminds us today: Praise the Lord!
The leader of the synagogue had it all wrong, and he of all people should have known what was right. God always intended the Sabbath day to be a day of rest, yes, but also of healing, also of mercy. There is no way that we can rest if we are in need of those things. The woman in the story was plagued by a demon that kept her bent over for eighteen years. Some translations of this passage say that she was “bent double.” So she wasn’t just slouched over or bent part way, but more like this, bent in half, for eighteen years! For eighteen years she never had a moment’s rest from this demon. Not only that, because she was bent double, people never even really saw her – really looked her in the eye.
We find great healing when we rest, and so the healing of a person who had been plagued for so long by a demon that she was bent over double from the weight of it, that healing had every right to take place on the Lord’s Day, the Sabbath Day of rest. Who are we to decide when someone should be healed? That grace comes from God, and his mercy comes on his timetable, not ours. The Sabbath has come and gone for us this week, but as we head into the workweek this day, it would be wonderful if we could take a moment to plan for the coming Sabbath day of rest. We too are offered healing and mercy if only we would ask for it, if only we would rest in the Lord.
(Image by Doris Klein)
Angels are messengers that God sends sometimes to let us know his plans for us, or to guard and guide us, or even to help us to see what’s really important. And it’s that last thing that the archangel Raphael does in today’s first reading. If we remember all the way back to Tuesday, we heard about Tobit being made blind by cataracts caused by bird droppings, and later in that same story, he scolded his wife for accepting a goat as a bonus on her labor, because he did not believe her story. I mentioned then that Tobit had to learn that charity – for which he was quite well known – begins at home. His period of blindness gave him that very insight, I think, and in today’s story he rejoices in his cleared vision.
Through the intercession of St. Raphael, Tobit regained his sight and was able to see his son safely returned from a long and dangerous journey. He saw also the return of his family fortune. And he saw the union of his son Tobit with his new wife Sarah. There was great cause for rejoicing in all that he was able to see and Tobit didn’t miss a beat in placing the credit where it belonged. He said,
Blessed be God,
and praised be his great name,
and blessed be all his holy angels.
May his holy name be praised
throughout all the ages.
Because it was he who scourged me,
and it is he who has had mercy on me.
And so we praise God today for angels who help us to see what’s really important. We praise God for angels who clear up our clouded vision and help us to see past the obstacles we’ve put in God’s way. We praise God for angels who help us to overcome our pride and self-righteousness so that God’s way can become clear to us. May we rejoice along with Tobit and Anna and all the rest that God has truly sent his angels to us often to bring us back to him.