12 January 2012

Be made clean!

1st Week OT (Th)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, New Orleans

Listen Here (5.30 Mass)

As far back as the 4th and 5th century B.C., Greek philosophers and physicians practiced an art called “physiognomy,” which roughly means “judging character by physical attributes.” Physiognomy seeped into the western world and flourished in the medieval period, especially in literature and popular plays. Think of the way Chaucer described the physical features of his pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales as a way of letting us know that this pilgrim is sneaky and that one is lazy. But even before the ancient Greeks and medieval Europeans discovered the dubious value of physiognomy, we find in scripture a closely related notion: our sins are written on our flesh; that is, one's sins are translated onto one's body as an ailment or deformity or disability. A man born blind was assumed to have committed some blinding sin. A woman suffering from hemorrhages probably suffered so because she or a relative in her past had sinned against purity. Thus, the Mosiac Law incorporated a strict set of purity laws for those with diseases, disabilities, and deformities. The equation of sin and sickness was nearly absolute. This is why our gospel account this afternoon is so extraordinary. Jesus breaks the Law of Moses in order to obey the Law of Love. He—a rabbi—touches a leper in order to heal him. 

The conversation between Jesus and leper is telling. Notice in the story how fluently the two conflate health and cleanliness. The leper begs at Jesus' feet, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Jesus says, “Be made clean.” And the leper is relieved of his disease. If we didn't know that physical disease and spiritual impurity were equated in first century Judea, we might think that Jesus is scrubbing the poor guy with a stout lye soap and a tire brush! And in one sense, that's exactly what he's doing. He's scrubbing the leper's soul. By healing his leprosy, Jesus is making the man ritually clean, fit to be presented to the temple priests for a declaration of cleanliness. After healing/cleansing the man, Jesus tells him to go to the priests for just such a declaration and offer the prescribed sacrifice. This order seems out of place b/c Jesus is telling him to obey the Law (by going to the temple) while Jesus himself is breaking it (by touching someone unclean)! This oddball order is accompanied by another oddball order from Jesus, “See that you tell no one anything. . .” The poor guy is ordered to the temple to show that he is no longer a leper, but he's not allowed to tell anyone how he was healed. Of course, he disobeys this last bit and shouts the news of his miracle all through the streets. Apparently, good news won't be silenced.

Though we have a much more nuanced understanding of the relationship between spiritual disobedience and physical disease than did our first century ancestors in the faith, we can still point to the fact that persons and not just bodies get sick. This is what is at the root of the conversation between Jesus and the leper. The leper is looking for more than just relief from a fatal skin disease; he's longing to be readmitted into his family, his community. Leprosy got him declared “unclean” and cast out. Healing got him declared “clean” and brought back in. When we sin, we separate ourselves from the community. To be brought back in, we must be made clean, healed of our spiritual disease. Our Lord accomplishes this through the ministry of his Church, the sacrament of reconciliation. Like the leper, we drop to our knees and say, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” The Lord says, “I do will it. Be made clean.” Now, do we follow the leper's example and spread this good news abroad?

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