26 June 2008

Healing of a Leper

Tomorrow's Gospel is a challenging one for me personally, and I think for many of us despite our 21st Century sophistication regarding illness, etc. I have already written about my own difficulties with healing stories: one must both pour out one's heart regarding one's need to be healed, and at the same time know that miraculous healings happen VERY infrequently --- thus recognizing that either Jesus does not will one's healing (which is hard for us to believe) or that healing miracles simply cannot be expected by sophisticated believers today. For me personally, I balance the need to pour out one's heart with the belief that sometimes Jesus does NOT will one's healing, and that illness, can not only lead to a deeper healing, but witness to the Gospel in a more vivid way than physical health and healing might (again, God's power is made perfect in weakness). But, as significant as this is for me, I think it is not precisely where the challenge stands for us in tomorrow's gospel.

In Matthew's text for Friday we move from Jesus' teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, his outline of the ethics and scope of the gospel, to his own making it concrete by healing a leper. The leper says, "If you will, make me clean" and Jesus affirms that he does will it. The sermon on the mount has reaffirmed time and again in the last two weeks that God's justice and values are not as the world measures them. It is the poor and disenfranchised that are called blessed, those who are hungry and thirsty in ordinary terms who shall be filled, etc. What God values is not what the world values. Most often God acts in ways which involve a reversal of values. And of course, again and again Jesus reminds us that what God calls us each to is an ethic that goes far beyond the law, far beyond the minimalism or defined norms of the Torah, divine though those may be. Jesus fulfills the law, that is, he perfects it and embodies in his own life all the Law is meant to foster and make possible among human beings. He lives out the fulness of the Law in his complete giving of self and in his communion with his Father and healing acceptance of all those the Father entrusts to him. If fulfilling the Law is a matter of generosity of heart, and not the cold calculation of what is required according to the letter, if it is the act of giving oneself and putting oneself on the line for others -- especially the marginalized, then Jesus is the one who embodies and demonstrates this most perfectly and paradigmatically.

And so, Jesus reaches out to one of the most severely marginalized of his culture. Lepers evoked horror, fear, and outright loathing. Such skin diseases (and many things passed for leprosy) were the externalization of one's own sin. As one commentator puts the matter, it is as though the state of the individual's soul was turned inside out and revealed for all to see in the skin lesions and distorted features! Physical infection was dreaded, but that combined with the ability of such a person to render others spiritually "unclean" was the basis of the fear and loathing which met the infirm. For God to heal such a one was to justify the ungodly. It represents the acceptance of the unacceptable and points beyond itself to the One whose Law is perfected in generous healing. While Jesus heals the leper physically, the deeper healing is the reconciliation of the leper to his faith community. He is asked to show himself to the priests in order to demonstrate Jesus is the one who fulfills the law, but in so doing, he is returned from marginalization to the heart of human society.

I am afraid we have not grown beyond marginalizing people for some illnesses. We do it with certain brain disorders, mental illnesses, AIDS, addictions, and the like. We may even link these illnesses to the notion of personal sin. But the challenge of today's Gospel for most of us is to put such ways behind us. We are asked to reach out to the marginalized and bring them right into the heart of our faith communities. We are asked to be Christ to others as Christ has been to us --- for once we were the unacceptable. If our faith communities are notable for the absence of the once-marginalized, for the absence of "lepers" of whatever kind, perhaps we are failing to be the people Christ calls and empowers us to be. Healing comes in many ways, and while we may be unable to heal people physically with our touch, we CAN make sure we work to overcome the marginalization that is still so-often with us. It actually will involve a generosity of heart that goes far beyond anything law can legislate, for it is a piece of the fulfillment or perfection of the law we have heard outlined in the Sermon on the Mount and seen embodied in the Christ Event we ourselves share in and are called to extend to the whole world.