In today’s Gospel, we have the epiphany of Jesus manifested as one who identifies with sinners. That is not, of course, to say that he was a sinner; quite the contrary, we know that Jesus was like us in all things but sin. But today we see that he is certainly concerned with calling sinners to the Kingdom, and concerned enough that he will be known to be in their company. He eats with them, talks with them, walks with them.
This of course, riles the Pharisees. And for good reason; Jewish law taught that sinners were to be shunned; they were cast out of the community. But Jesus has come to say that he hates the sin but loves the sinner, that nothing in us is beyond the power of God to redeem. Nothing that we have done can put us so far away from God that we are beyond God’s reach. And God does reach out to us, in tangible ways, in sacramental ways, in the person of Jesus and in through the ministry of the Church.
Sin is a terrible thing. It’s often cyclical. Because not only does the judgment of the Pharisees make sinners feel unworthy; but also does the guilt that comes from inside the sinner. The more one sins, the less worthy one often feels of God’s love, and so the more does that person turn away from God, and then they sin more, feel less worthy, turn away again, and so on, and so on, and so on.
But Jesus won’t have any of that. Instead, he walks into the midst of sinners, sits down with them and has a meal. He is the divine physician healing our souls, and those who do not sin do not need his ministry. But we sinners do, and for that we should be always grateful.
Today, Jesus manifests himself not just as one who came to do flashy deeds and heal the sick, but as one who does will that we would be made clean. If we take the miracle we have in today’s Gospel at face value, then it’s really nothing special, to be honest. Jesus comes off as a doctor with perhaps supernatural powers. But when Jesus performs a miracle, there’s always something deeper he’s getting at, always something more profound that he intends to reveal. The healing of the leper reveals that Jesus is one who intends to heal us from the inside out.
“If you wish, you can make me clean.” It’s kind of a weird statement, don’t you think? On the face of it, it’s obviously true. Jesus can do anything he wishes. So it really seems to be a test of what it is that Jesus wishes to do. And in the light of continuing epiphany, Jesus reveals that he does, indeed, wish that the leper – and all of us too – would be made clean. Notice that the leper doesn’t ask to be healed of his leprosy, although being made clean could certainly be construed to mean just that. And Jesus doesn’t say, “I do will it, you’re healed.” He says instead, “be made clean.”
I think Jesus intends for the leper, as he intends for all of us, that his sins would be forgiven, and that he would indeed be clean on the inside just as much as on the outside. This may even have been the deepest desire of the poor leper’s heart, as it certainly may be for all of us. To be made clean inside and out is certainly within the power of Jesus’ abilities, if he would just will it. And today, we don’t have to tap dance around the issue or walk on eggshells to see if Jesus wills our complete healing. We see that he certainly does, and for that epiphany we should continue to rejoice.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to live a life faithful to the Gospel today – while it is still “today” – and not to be deceived by sin. The Psalmist exhorts us not to harden our hearts on hearing the Lord’s voice, as we so often do. And so we bring our unfaithfulness and our slightly-hardened hearts and all of our uncleanness to the Lord, and with the leper invite him to make all of it clean. He does will it; and so may we be made clean!
Some people would say that Jesus was a peaceful man. Saying that is really misunderstanding Jesus and who he was. Because peace wasn’t necessarily his primary interest, at least not peace in the way that we often see it.
Because sometimes I think we misread what peace is supposed to be. We might sell peace short and settle for the absence of conflict. Or even worse, we may settle for peace at any price, swallowing our disagreements and never coming close to true healing in our relationships. There are families in which never a harsh word would be said, but the underlying hostility is palpable. There are workplaces in which there are never any arguments, but there is also never any cooperative work done. Sometimes there are relationships where fear replaces love and respect.
And this is not the kind of peace that Jesus would bring us today. This is the One who came to set the earth on fire, and his methods for bringing us to peace might well cause division in the here and now. But there is never any resurrection if we don’t have the cross. And so there will never be any peace if we don’t confront what’s really happening. The fire has to be red hot and blazing if there is ever to be any regrowth.
And so today we have to stop settling for a peace that really isn’t so peaceful. We may just have to have that hard conversation we’ve been trying to avoid. Of course, we do it with love for our brothers and sisters, but out of love we also don’t avoid it. Our words and actions must always be guided by the fire of the Holy Spirit, but we must never choose to neglect the Spirit’s guidance and instead just settle for something that is really not peace. We have to work for true healing in all of our relationships.
The Psalmist tells us today that “the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.” That goodness resides in all those people God has given us in our lives. This day, we are called to relish their goodness and work for lasting peace with all of them.
There is a wonderful, comforting message in today’s readings, and it’s a message that speaks to all of us when we’re at the end of the rope in our faith life. That message is that God hears the cries of all of us who are poor in one way or another. Whether we’re actually poor, or whether we’re oppressed, or are spiritually poor and struggling, or our relationships are poor, or we’re just feeling impoverished by a life that is one struggle after another: God hears us. He can’t help but hear us.
The Psalmist echoes the cry that goes on in all of us when we are in the midst of hard times: “Do not forget the poor, O Lord!” How often when we are being tested, do we wonder where God is and demand that he do something right now? It might even feel like we’ve been forgotten. But today’s readings say that isn’t so. God is with us, God hears us, and will always be with us in our need.
That’s what Micah is reminding Israel of in today’s first reading. They can’t be ignoring the poor, because God doesn’t. They can’t be oppressing the innocent, because God doesn’t. They can’t be living evil lives, can’t be cheating people out of their inheritance, can’t be taking what is not theirs, because God does notice, and God will not ignore the evil deeds of this sinful people. There will be justice for the poor, God will reach out to them in their need.
Jesus, in the Gospel, was almost running for his life. He knows that the Pharisees are turning up the heat and trying to kill him. But he will not miss healing the sick and broken along the way. He warns them not to make him known, but he does heal them. Because he cannot be deaf to their cries for wholeness and healing.
That message of comfort comes to us this day. Wherever we find ourselves this morning, whatever need we may have, whatever brokenness in us needs to be bound up and healed, we can know that God is aware of our needs, and will be with us in good times and bad. No matter what.