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Jesus wants us to be careful what we say and follow his plan, not ours, in how we tell the world about him. When we refuse, we thwart his work. That’s what happens in the Gospel for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B, and that’s what happens in our lives.
While Jesus Christ can certainly handle the setback, he really did mean it when he asked for our obedience, and our disobedience really does mess his plans up.
The Gospel story begins the way our personal Christian stories begin — with our act of faith and Jesus’s loving embrace.
Once again, this week’s Gospel begins right where last week’s Gospel ends. Last we saw him, Jesus was headed out from Capernaum, past the waiting crowds, to go and preach in synagogues, saying: “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose I have come.”
That’s a huge statement: The Second Person of the Trinity has become incarnate “for this purpose” — in order to go town to town and teach in synagogues, reaching people in local houses of worship.
That means a lot of travel, and all that travel means a lot of time spent on the road. But the roads were dangerous in the ancient world, not just because of robbers, but because of all those characters who had been ostracized by polite society, including lepers.
Lepers were twice cursed. First, they were quarantined outside of town as a public health hazard. Second, they were isolated as an “unclean” spiritual hazard. Of the two, the latter was more absolute. If you touched a leper you may or may not get leprosy; but you were automatically rendered unclean.
The leper in this story has heard about Jesus and takes advantage of the fact that he is traveling through the land of the lost. He sees Jesus, drops to his knees in front of him and begs.
He also made a clear profession of faith, saying, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”
He doesn’t see Jesus only as a healer, but also as a sanctifier: Jesus can do more than just make leprosy go away; he can confer spiritual wholeness.
Jesus’s method in curing the leper is the same method we saw in his cure of Peter’s mother-in-law. He “grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her.” In this case, “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand [and] touched him.” Jesus’s healing touch comes first, and then he says to him “I do will it. Be made clean.”
Both the leper and Jesus are focused on the spiritual dimension of his predicament: The goal is to make him clean again, able to fully participate in worship — after all “For this purpose I have come.” Mark tells us, “The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.”
But then the story of the cure of the leper takes a dark turn.
Jesus had been moved with pity, but now Mark reports a different demeanor. “Warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once,” we learn. Jesus tells him to “Go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed.” He becomes all business, addressing the situation in the way the First Reading, from Leviticus, says to.
He also says: “See that you tell no one anything.” Unfortunately for Jesus, this leper has faith, but he doesn’t have obedience. Mark reports: “The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.”
Jesus doesn’t want to be a celebrity, he wants to preach. He wants to meet people on his terms and draw them into a spiritual relationship; he doesn’t want the false understandings notoriety brings. But the man’s disobedience has an immediate negative effect on Jesus’s mission.
You can hear the annoyance in Mark’s description of the consequences: “He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.” That directly messes with Jesus’s plans. Because of the leper’s disobedience, he can’t meet people in the public spaces, in towns and synagogues, showing them who he is and why he has come.
Mark reports that after this, Jesus “remained outside in deserted places.” When Jesus cured the leper, the man was a castaway, outside of town. Now the leper has made Jesus take his place.
It is impossible to ignore how relevant this Gospel is to our own day.
This man in the ancient world used word of mouth alone to thwart Jesus’s plans. In our time, we have powerful communication tools. The leper could tell neighbors his version of what happened to him. In social media, we have access to international public forums on which we can tell complete strangers what is on our minds.
The leper was filled with faith and the conviction that it was his right to share what he wanted about Jesus the way he wanted. So are we. The leper heard Jesus tell him to restrain himself — but he probably pridefully thought he could regulate his own speech and tell his own story without censorship.
Compare us to the leper. Jesus “warned him sternly.” He has warned us sternly too, saying:
“Men will render account for every careless word they utter, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Scripture gives us positive instructions, too. In the Second Reading, Paul says “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” and instructs: “I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved.”
Our instructions: Don’t argue about things that are beside the point. Instead, as Paul continues, “Avoid giving offense, whether to Jews or Greeks or the church of God.”
But how are we doing at avoiding giving offense to those who disagree with us, and to the Church?
On social media, Catholics are not doing well at all at this. The Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy spell out what kinds of things we should say to people, but we often do the very opposite online.
The leper decided that his own honest excitement about his singular meeting with Jesus outweighed the Lord’s stern warning. It’s the same with us. We have such a burning passion to say what we want to say, we don’t care if Jesus Christ himself told us not to, to say nothing of his Church.
Like the leper, our willful disobedience of Christ’s stern warning thwarts his important plans.
Jesus was kept out of the centers of population because of the leper’s words that made him a celebrity instead of a savior. Our words keep him out of the hearts and minds of the people of our time.
We put our own agendas before his. Jesus is the Holy One who transcends all politics and social issues; but we would rather use him merely as an ideological booster for our poltical team. Jesus is the great lover of mankind eager to enlighten sinners; but we would rather use him as a harsh spotlight calling out the sinners that bother us most. Jesus is the origin, means and end of his Church; but too often we paint the Church as an embarrassing failure, whose hierarchy is either stupid or wicked or both.
We can change all of that, though, by doing exactly what St. Paul says: by “avoiding giving offense” and “trying to please everyone in every way,” not for our own benefit but “that they may be saved.” Elsewhere, he specifies how to do this with our words:
In the First Letter of Peter, the first pope sums it all up beautifully with:
“Give a reason for the hope that is inside you. Do this in gentleness and reverence.”
Let that be our motto when we speak about Jesus and his Church, and the beautiful ways in which he has reached us and restored us. Even if there is something else we want to say.
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