Saturday, February 11, 2012

Do Miracles Really Help?: Readings for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

In this weekend’s readings, a healed leper disobeys Jesus and spreads the news of his miraculous cure everywhere, impeding the Lord’s ministry. Why did Jesus tell him to be quiet about the healing? What is the role of miracles in the Jesus’ ministry, and in the life of the Church today?

1. The First Reading for this weekend’s masses was obviously chosen to provide the background for understanding leprosy as it was experienced by the Jews and other ancient peoples.

Skin diseases of all sorts were a major cause of mortality in the ancient world, especially in Egypt, the land from which the ancient Israelites escaped. In the Pentateuch, God gave Moses extensive instructions for the quarantining and observation of those afflicted with leprosy and other contagious skin infections. Obviously these regulations were for the good of the community: infected persons were a public health risk, and had to be kept separate.

However, for the infected person, the experience was one of misery. A threat to those around them, they were cut off from normal social contact, even with family. Moreover, they could not approach the sanctuary to worship (the sanctuary was the most public place, where their disease could be most easily transmitted), therefore they felt cut off from God. This religious dimension of leprosy/skin disease is often overlooked. Leprosy disrupted communion with both God and man.

Although the Scriptures recognize that leprosy and other skin diseases were not the result of moral offense on the part of the sufferer, at the same time, these kind of diseases were viewed as a powerful symbol of the effects of sin. Sin is a clinging contagion that contaminates the sinner and those he contacts. It destroys human relationships and our communion with God. Sin is a spiritual “leprosy.”

Reading 1: Lv 13:1-2, 44-46
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron,
"If someone has on his skin a scab or pustule or blotch
which appears to be the sore of leprosy,
he shall be brought to Aaron, the priest,
or to one of the priests among his descendants.
If the man is leprous and unclean,
the priest shall declare him unclean
by reason of the sore on his head.

"The one who bears the sore of leprosy
shall keep his garments rent and his head bare,
and shall muffle his beard;
he shall cry out, 'Unclean, unclean!'
As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean,
since he is in fact unclean.
He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp."
2. The Responsorial Psalm takes up the symbolic meaning of the disease. Verses 3-4 of the Psalm (unfortunately not recited in the liturgy) make the connection:
3 When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
The psalmist is experiencing physical effects of his sin: “When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away…” The “wasting away” of the body is a good description of the effects of leprosy.

In the Scripture, it is clear that physical suffering sometimes is not the result of the sufferer’s sin (e.g. in the case of Job), but at other times it is the result of his sin (John 5:14; Romans 1:26-27). It is highly politically incorrect in today’s culture, however, to point out the physical effects of sin.

Around 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with some form or stage of lung cancer each year. In part as a response, smoking is banned in all public places in Ohio. Many states have similar laws. On the other hand, 19 million new cases of STDs are diagnosed each year—the majority of these effect young women, roughly ages 15–30. Half of all sexual active (outside of marriage) adults in America will eventually contract a sexually transmitted disease. But are we going to get a ban on promiscuity? Is the government or the school system going to encourage self-control and marital fidelity? You know the answer.

Sin also causes psychological dysfunctions—in fact, sin is itself can be viewed as a psychological dysfunction. It is an illness of soul that can manifest itself in illness of mind and body.

The Psalmist hails the curative effects of confession. A forgiving God is able to heal body and soul.
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 32:1-2, 5, 11
R. (7) I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.
Blessed is he whose fault is taken away,
whose sin is covered.
Blessed the man to whom the LORD imputes not guilt,
in whose spirit there is no guile.
R. I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
my guilt I covered not.
I said, "I confess my faults to the LORD,"
and you took away the guilt of my sin.
R. I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.
Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you just;
exult, all you upright of heart.
R. I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.
3. In the Second Reading, St. Paul exhorts us to take into account the effect that our actions and example have on others. “Avoid giving offense,” St. Paul says. Therefore, it’s not enough to be “within our rights”—our deeds also have to build other people up. A classic example is the use of alcohol: there may be nothing wrong about enjoying a beer or glass of wine in moderation. However, when I worked in urban evangelism, I knew many pastors and lay ministers who would not imbibe at all, in order not to weaken the resolve of so many young Christians who were struggling to get free from substance abuse. Our concern has to be “not seeking [our] own benefit, but that of the many.” The way we spend our money, the entertainments that we choose, the places we shop or dine—none of these should become the occasion of scandal to others:
Reading 2: 1 Cor 10:31-11:1
Brothers and sisters,
Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do,
do everything for the glory of God.
Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks or
the church of God,
just as I try to please everyone in every way,
not seeking my own benefit but that of the many,
that they may be saved.
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

4. In the Gospel Reading, we find a leper who, in fact, sought his “own benefit” after being healed rather than obeying Jesus and doing what was food for “the many.”

Coming to Jesus, the man begs to be healed. The Lord is overcome with compassion and cannot deny the man his request, but warns him sternly to remain quiet, and go fulfill the law.

Jesus may have had several reasons for this. He may have hoped to give witness to his identity to the Temple priests. Public authorities like the priesthood were not impressed with mass enthusiastic movements, but people quietly being healed and modestly coming to fulfill the divine regulations for worship—this would be more persuasive for them.

Our Lord was strategic in his ministry. He knew that crowds were easily swayed and fickle. He spent the majority of his time and effort invested in a small group of men, his apostles. His public ministry with the crowds was more the opportunity to train his apostles than an end in itself.

Gospel: Mk 1:40-45
A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said,
"If you wish, you can make me clean."
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand,
touched him, and said to him,
"I do will it. Be made clean."
The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.
Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once.

He said to him, "See that you tell no one anything,
but go, show yourself to the priest
and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed;
that will be proof for them."

The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.
He spread the report abroad
so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.
He remained outside in deserted places,
and people kept coming to him from everywhere.

As a result of the disobedience of the man, Jesus becomes a “celebrity”—something he did not desire (cf. Matt 4:5-7). Instead of being able to preach in the synagogues, where the attention would be on the content of his teaching, he’s mobbed by curiosity-seekers who want to see another miracle (cf. John 4:48).

Our Lord displays, throughout his ministry, an ambivalence toward working miracles. He often tries to keep them quiet, and at times seems almost reluctant to perform them. Perhaps because he knows that the effect of miracles is less than what people think.

I saw a few miracles during my years doing urban evangelism. One middle-age man who had some contact with our church was dying of a sever lung disease in the local hospital. My co-pastor went up and baptized the man on his death bed in the ICU. Two days later, the doctors were unable to find any sign of disease in the man. Mystified, they released him, and for about three to six months he was the most faithful church-goer we had ever seen, showing up to the church most days of the week to help out, praying and studying the Bible, and playing the drums in our praise band (very enthusiastically, I might mention!) every Sunday. After several months of this, he had a dramatic dispute with his wife in which he felt wronged, and we never saw him in church again.

Miracles can be a consolation to those who love God, but they don’t always bear the lasting fruit in people’s lives that we think they will. Just because you see something extraordinary does not mean you suddenly want to live a holy life. And if you don’t want to live a holy life, you will eventually find an excuse and rationalization to walk away from God.

The real "leprosy" is not external but internal. What keeps us separate from communion with God and others is not something outside of ourselves. Christ’s presence in the Eucharist—if we have faith—is able to change us this weekend, to heal the disease inside, to give us the love that thinks not of “our own benefit” but that of “the many” who surround us: our spouses, our children and parents, our fellow parishioners, co-workers, who also need our love and the healing that comes from Jesus.


Martin said...

Thank you.

John Bergsma said...

You're welcome!