Sunday, February 12, 2012

Jesus and the Leper

                           6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Leprosy was one of the most dreaded diseases of the ancient world. In the Gospels we have a clear picture of the roads of Palestine, particularly those near the entrance of the towns, haunted by lepers, who would hold out their dreadful fingerless hands to awaken the pity of those who passed by, but who would only succeed in terrifying them by the horrible "lion's mask" that the disease sets upon the sufferer's face.

There was no cure for leprosy. The only remedy was to cast the leper out from society. The leper was to go bareheaded, wearing special clothes; he was to live far away from towns and villages, and whenever he came near a healthy person he was to call out in a loud voice, "unclean, unclean." It is no wonder that the disease was considered a spiritual as well as a physical malady.

Today’s first reading contains instructions from the Book of Leviticus on how to deal with lepers. The gospel follows up with the account of the cure of the leper from the first chapter of St. Mark’s. Incredibly, this leper actually approaches Jesus and kneels down before him and begs, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”

Hearing this gospel, it is natural for us to wonder about who are today’s lepers. Who are today’s outcasts? Any number of different types of people will come to mind but maybe we should consider the question from another point of view. No sane person today would think that a dreaded disease like leprosy was the result of someone’s sins. However, there can be a kind of spiritual leprosy.

Whenever we read the gospels, we should always try to put ourselves in the picture. It’s a kind of unofficial sign of the divine inspiration of the gospels that we can usually see that they apply to us and not only to people who lived 2000 years ago. Today, instead of wondering who are the lepers in our society, it might be better to consider that we ourselves are lepers.

While our bodies show no sign of the dreaded disease, our souls could be disfigured. Just because our society no longer believes in the seven deadly sins, it does not mean that they have gone away or that their ugly sores do not disfigure our souls. Pride, anger, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, and envy have not disappeared from our world.

All we have to do is read the newspapers or watch TV to realize that these things are still among us at every level. Lust is so common that there is no point in even discussing it. Anyone watching Judge Judy knows that anger is all around us. Even children are not immune. When children want everything their friends have, that is envy and it disfigures their souls more than the worst case of acne. Sloth is spiritual laziness and it attracts us even at a young age. It leads all of us to avoid difficult tasks and shirk difficult assignments.

Despite what some say, you don’t have to be rich to be greedy. Sure, the rich and famous build huge mega-mansions for themselves, but just watch ordinary people searching for homes on the Home network if you want to see greed. On one recent episode, a woman wouldn’t even consider a home unless it had granite countertops. Maybe, her attitude also showed the beginnings of pride. She had led a good life and had reached a modest level of success and now felt that she deserved her reward.

Pride is the worst of the sins since it can infect us even after we have managed to avoid or overcome the others. Seniors should be especially concerned since they are often prone to think they know it all.

The whole point of today’s gospel is that we all need to be made clean, and fortunately Jesus has shown us the way. “I do will it. Be made clean.” Interestingly enough, after he had cured the leper, he told him to present himself to the priest and follow the rules prescribed in the Law of Moses. Jesus was telling him that he was now free to re-enter the community. He was no longer a spiritual outcast.           

Today we live in the wealthiest society on the face of the earth. Even our poor have a standard of living that would be the envy of others living in other parts of the world. And yet there are disturbing signs. Who can deny that there is so much unhappiness in our country today? Millions of people are taking anti depressant medication. Just the other day the newspaper carried a story about the increasing use of anti-depressant drugs among teenagers.

Could it be that our unhappiness is related to the constant attacks on religion and morality today that are aimed at destroying the spiritual immune system that once protected us from sin and its consequences. Why do so many people feel like spiritual lepers, unloved and unwanted? Is it because self-indulgence has replaced self-sacrifice?

In today's second reading, St. Paul advises us to practice the virtues that are the opposite of the seven deadly sins. Humility, for example, is the great antidote to pride. No matter what we do we should do everything not for ourselves but for the benefit of others.

The words that Jesus spoke to the leper were also spoken to us:

“I do will it. Be made clean.”

 Reading 1. Leviticus 13: 1-2, 44-46
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 10: 31—11: 1
Gospel. Mark 1: 40-45 (Be made clean)






Thursday, February 2, 2012

Jesus Speaks with Authority

      4th Sunday in Ordinary Time:   B cycle

In today’s first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people that the Lord will one day bring them a Messiah, a new Prophet,

            I will raise up for them a prophet like you…
            And will put my words into his mouth;
            He shall tell them all that I command him.

In other words this new Prophet will speak with the authority of God, Himself. Sure enough in today’s gospel we see Jesus, at the outset of his public life, impressing the people in the synagogue at Capernaum as one speaking with authority. This passage in Mark’s gospel comes right after last week’s account of the calling of the first Apostles. You may remember that last week Jesus called the brothers Andrew and Peter, and then James and John, the sons of the fisherman Zebedee. Jesus had met these fishermen on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and archaeologists have discovered ruins of an ancient synagogue at the seaside city of Capernaum.

What does it mean to speak with authority? Scholars tell us that it might refer to the methods used by the ancient scribes. Whenever they were asked for an opinion on some issue, it was their practice to search their books for the opinions of learned rabbis. Typically, there would be many opinions that had to be reconciled. Sometimes the opinions would even be contradictory. Sometimes this method could even provide loopholes that could allow any kind of behavior.

Doesn’t this sound terribly familiar to us today? Look at our cable talk shows. People literally screaming at each other-- some arguing that white is black, or black is white, or that their particular shade of gray is the only correct one.  We have come to expect “spin” from any political or social commentator. During our political campaigns didn’t we wait to hear the supporters of each candidate provide their spin immediately following each debate?

What we see in the media reflects what goes on in society. In politics it seems that corruption has become the normal way of doing business. What authority can a governor or mayor have whose been caught with hands in the cookie jar of bribery or payoffs? Only a fool would listen to their words or be guided by them. In business it’s much the same. Even in sports and entertainment we should know better than to trust the words of celebrities whose words are often belied by their private lives.

There’s an old saying that “It’s not enough to talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk.” Some examples. I once heard of a business owner who developed a unique plan to save his company when it got into financial trouble. He cut his own salary and the salary of the top third of his employees by 15%. The middle third were cut 10% and the bottom third 5%. This action saved the company without anyone losing their job. This owner spoke with real authority. I knew a sales manager who would never ask his salespeople to do anything that he was reluctant to do himself. He led by example, not by words.

One of the greatest coaches of all time was John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach of UCLA when they won 4 national championships in a row. Never would you see him jumping off the bench yelling at his players as so many do. He must have realized that if his team was not prepared, it was his fault, not theirs.

In today’s gospel St. Mark says that the people were astounded at the teaching of Jesus for “he taught them as one having authority.” Nevertheless, there was someone there who questioned his authority as many do today,

            What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
            Have you come to destroy us?

In our Missal we translate the answer of Jesus as, “Quiet,” but it literally means be “muzzled.” He then cures the man as He often did to show that His teaching had authority, an authority that sprang from who He was. He would not agree with those people today who say that their private lives can be separated from their public lives. If parents neglect their children, will they care for their clients? If politicians lie to their spouses, will they tell the truth to their constituents? People speak with authority if they possess real personal integrity.

Certainly, the people of Corinth thought that St. Paul spoke with authority. Today, we have a somewhat difficult to understand excerpt from the 7th chapter of his famous letter to the Corinthians. If we read the whole chapter, we would see that he had been asked to advise them on some difficult matters of personal behavior. He admits that he can find no specific rule or commandment in most of these matters and only offers what he calls his own opinion.

In general, he urges the converts to remain in their current situation and work within to achieve the kingdom of God. It is not a question of whether your married or unmarried, circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free, male or female. You can do the work of God in any station in life. That’s speaking with authority. For Paul, love transcends all.

            Love is patient, love is kind.
            It is not jealous, it is not pompous,
            it is not inflated, it is not rude,
            it does not seek its own interests,
            it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
            it does not rejoice over wrongdoing
            but rejoices with the truth.
            It bears all things, believes all things,
            hopes all things, endures all things.

 Reading 1. Deuteronomy 18: 15-20
Reading II. I Corinthians 7:32-35
Gospel. Mark 1: 21-28 (teaching with authority).