Willing and Able

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 6
February 11, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: When our Lord reached out to heal a leper, one of the untouchables of his day, he set for us an example by feeling both heartfelt pity and perhaps even righteous anger at the customs of his day, customs that isolated those who needed support and love the most. The leper set for us an example by coming forward boldly in faith -- recognizing that Jesus was able to heal miraculously -- but also acknowledging that it's up to God to decide when healing would take place.

Flip a coin. That is, if you can find one in your pocket or purse. Since people pay electronically more and more often, it's possible that calling heads or tails will become a lost art.

So instead of flipping a coin, we're going to have to settle an important question about this miracle by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by talking about it. That's because in this opening chapter of the Gospel according to St. Mark, there's a real toss-up here about the healing of the leper. When this afflicted man said to our Lord, "If you wish, you can make me clean," our translation tells us that Jesus was "Moved with pity ...."1 Pity is a gutty word, literally. It is a translation of the verb splagknos, which means colon -- the gut. The ancient world believed we felt our deepest feeling in our guts, and Jesus was moved from deep within his guts with pity.

But wait a minute! Did Jesus actually feel anger instead of pity? Heads or tails.

You see, there's a strong manuscript tradition that says that Jesus was angry. But why would our Savior be angry with someone who came to him with hope to be healed and made whole. Let's not forget our Lord opened his ministry in his hometown of Nazareth by reading aloud from the massive Isaiah scroll, wrestling it to the proper place in the 61st chapter, to read aloud:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,

and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

So what was there about the leper's request that could make him angry? Maybe he wasn't angry at the leper's request. Maybe he was angered by the people who rejected the leper, who was isolated from friends, family and his religious community, in his time of great need. He lacked all the support we need most when we are sick. Either way, Our Lord was definitely passionate about the leper's situation.

Come to think of it, maybe it's both heads and tails. Jesus was moved both to pity at the plight of the leper, and anger at the way the leper was being treated by his community. Maybe both strong emotions were present in Jesus. And might not we too experience both emotions when we think about the fact that those who are most helpless are often denied both help and comfort by the world?

Lord willing? Yes. You willing? Well?

It was right and fitting that the leper, when he approached Jesus, said he would like to be healed if the Lord were willing. As it states elsewhere in the New Testament: "Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town, spend a year there doing business, and make a profit' -- you have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow. You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears. Instead you should say, 'If the Lord wills it, then we shall live to do this or that.'"3

Having said that, what may be easy to miss but important to note is that while it was important for the leper to say to Jesus, "If you are willing ...," it was just as important that he was willing to come forward, an untouchable in his society, reviled and hated not for who he was but for a physical condition over which he had no control. I repeat, he was willing to come to the Lord with his prayer to be healed. He trusted the Lord to hear his prayer.

While we must always leave the decision to act in God's hands, we must be bold in even the most desperate circumstances to come forward in faith to plead before the throne of grace and mercy. It may be God's will for us to continue to carry our cross a little longer, but it may also be the time for another miracle.

Taking a chance

We cannot fault the leper for saying "if" in his petition. He was not displaying a lack of faith, but a knowledge of scripture. The Old Testament includes rules for the healing of lepers. The book of Leviticus has a lengthy section on what constitutes that skin condition as it was understood in Bible times, and what procedures to follow to confirm that one has been healed.4 But though some people were healed naturally over the course of time, there are only two occasions in the Old Testament where people are healed miraculously by a direct intervention by God: when the sister of Moses was stricken with leprosy because of some remarks she made about the woman her brother married, and when an Israelite slave girl directed Naaman, a general serving under the foreign king Aram, to seek out healing from Elisha.5

Remember, according to St. Mark this incident happened early in the ministry of our Lord, before many had heard or had reason to credit the power of God made manifest in Christ Jesus. Yet this man with little hope set us an example by coming forward boldly in faith. Others may have said they believed in Jesus, but the leper acted on his belief.

And what does this mean for us? We too should on our knees implore our Lord that our prayers be granted, while also placing the decision in God's hands and not ours, and remaining faithful regardless of the answer.

At the same time, we, like Jesus, should feel both pity and anger at the plight of so many powerless people in the world, who are in need yet who are also excluded from the help they need because of prejudice, caste systems and pride.

Heads or tails?

It's both.

This story, told so early in the ministry of Jesus, calls upon us to feel both the pity and anger of Christ at the plight of so many in our world.

And to act on their behalf.

As well as to act like the leper, and ask for ourselves!

Read the directions

Finally let us not overlook, as we conclude, one other important thing. When Jesus said, "I do will it. Be made clean," He made sure that he stayed within the structures of the faith, which in this instance required that the person who was healed present him- or herself to the priest to confirm that healing had indeed taken place. In our prayers, and in ministry to others, we must remain within the approved boundaries of the church. We are the Body of Christ, and we act as the Body of Christ, not on our own but as members of one Communion.

This ministry of healing includes touch. Jesus never hesitated to be physically present and to touch the afflicted, especially because they were excluded from touch. Many in his time would have accused Jesus of being unclean because he touched the unclean in the process of healing them. But the touch of God is a healing touch, and we too are called to be present, because presence is part of the healing. Reaching out to the isolated, even in great difficulties, is important. During the recent pandemic, there were many restrictions, but even masked and gloved, and on some occasions remotely on Zoom, we found ways as the Body of Christ to be with each other, relying on trust in God, but also recognizing the place of doctors and reason. Like Christ, who healed and also honored the traditions and teachings of the faith, we too, in consultation with the best medical practices, seek to do the same.

And finally, there is the matter of the silence Jesus demanded -- and which ultimately the healed leper ignored -- because the news traveled fast and soon all knew about the miracle. Our Lord spoke out against those who prayed publicly not because they prayed publicly, but because they did it for their own aggrandizement.

The Venerable Bede, one of the great Saints of the Church, made a helpful comment. He said: "In the performance of this miracle Jesus requested silence. Yet it did not remain concealed in silence for long. So it is with the called people of God -- while following his precepts and example, they may prefer their responsible actions to remain unspoken, yet for the benefit to others providence may allow them to become known contrary to their own wishes."6

We too don't draw attention to our good deeds necessarily, but the Holy Spirit may see to it that people know -- or don't know. In either event, whatever we do, we do as the Lord permits, for the glory of the Lord and for the welfare of our sisters and brothers in Christ.