In today’s Gospel, we have the continued 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, because 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, to be fair, 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 through the ministry of the Church.
Sin is a terrible thing. It’s often cyclical. Because not only does the judgment of the Pharisees – and others – 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 – he has come to put an end to that cycle once and for all. Jesus is the One who 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, so thanks be to God for the manifestation of Jesus as one who came to dine with sinners.
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. 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 should 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.
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.