To say that something is “necessary” is to declare that it is so essential that to be without it causes grave if not deadly harm. The word comes from Latin: ne– (not) + cedere (to withdraw, go away, yield). The root sense is that what is necessary is something from which we cannot stray, something from which there is no withdrawal, something we cannot evade. There is an expression in Latin, sine qua non, which literally means “without which not.” Its fuller meaning expresses something so essential that without it, other required things cannot proceed.
Do you see prayer in this way, as necessary, as essential? Do you view at something without which other things cannot happen? Sadly, it would seem that many do not. Prayer is something easily postponed. It’s something to be done if the mood is just right, or if we have an urgent need. It is seldom scheduled and easily skipped in favor of almost any other activity. We seem to be able find time for everything else, but prayer is easily set aside—I’m busy; I’m tired; I forgot; something came up.
These sorts of issues arise because most people don’t really view prayer as necessary.
But prayer is necessary. St. Augustine said, “God who made us without us, will not save us without us.” Jesus stands at the door and knocks (see Rev 3:21), but we must open the door of our heart for him to enter and feed us. Prayer is our way answering, of opening the door. Little else will happen until we open the door each day to Him.
This brief column is not intended as an exhaustive exposition on prayer. Rather, it is intended to remind us that we should see prayer as a necessity. To that end, here are just a few quick thoughts underscoring the essential nature of prayer.
Jesus said, This sort of demon can only be driven out by prayer (Mk 9:29). Those who do not pray and are not prayed over may suffer intractable demonic attacks.
Jesus said, Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation (Matt 26:41). Deadly temptations will certainly assail us if we do not pray. How can we expect to avoid serious temptations and Hell if we do not pray?
Jesus said that we must always pray and not lose heart (Lk 18:1). We must pray, we mustnot give way to discouragement.
James said, You have not because you ask not (James 4:3). How many gifts are lacking for us and others because we do not pray? Some gifts are only unlocked and sent forth by prayer.
John Chrysostom said, “As the body without the soul is dead, so the soul is dead without prayer” (Homily lxxvii). We are dead without prayer!
Augustine said, “God gives, without prayer, the first graces such as the vocation to faith and to repentance; but all other graces, and particularly the gift of perseverance, he gives only to those who ask them” (De Dono Persev, xvi). Notice that it is only to those who ask!
Thomas Aquinas said, “Now after baptism man needs to pray continually, in order to enter heaven: for though sins are remitted through baptism, there still remain the fomes (tinder) of sin assailing us from within, and the world and the devils assailing us from without. And therefore it is said pointedly (Luke 3:21) that ‘Jesus being baptized and praying, heaven was opened’: because, to wit, the faithful after baptism stand in need of prayer” (Summa Theologica, III, q. 39 art. 5).
St Teresa of Avila reasoned, “Ask and you shall receive … then he who does not ask will not receive.” Now that is some straightforward wisdom!
Alphonsus said, “He who prays is certainly saved; he who does not pray is certainly lost” (Considerations on the Eternal Maxims 13.2). Prayer is necessary! It is the sinequanon.
Pray, my brethren; pray. Pray for the gift of prayer. Pray for the desire to pray. Pray! Prayer is necessary; it is essential.
We do not always know everything we should pray for; we do not always remember to pray for everything. God knows our weakness. But failing to pray as a general norm is deadly to our life and our salvation.
Continuing our series of questions related to the Incarnation, we next ponder whether Jesus would have come at all had we not sinned in the garden. We also consider why He waited thousands of years before coming to our rescue.
Would Jesus have come if Adam had not sinned?
St. Thomas Aquinas (in his SummaTheologica) first states that there are different opinions on the matter. He also notes that God’s power is not limited and therefore God could have become incarnate even if sin had not existed. However, St. Thomas believes that if man had not sinned then the Son would not have become incarnate. As I often do, I’ve presented St. Thomas’ words in bold italics, while my commentary appears in plain red text.
For such things as spring from God’s will, and beyond the creature’s due, can be made known to us only through being revealed in the Sacred Scripture, in which the Divine Will is made known to us. Hence, since everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of Incarnation, it is more in accordance with this to say that the work of Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, Incarnation would not have been (Summa Theologica, Part III, Question 1, Article 1).
While theological speculation may have its place, it is certain that the Incarnation was instituted by God first and foremost as a remedy for sin. While the Incarnation offers more than is required to remedy sin (e.g., an increase in human dignity (because God joined our family), God’s visitation, the opening of a heavenly (not merely earthly) paradise), Scripture presents remedy for sin as God’s primary motive. In remedying our sin, God shows the greatness of His mercy because He does not merely restore us but elevates us to a higher place. The least born into the Kingdom of God is greater that the exemplar of the Old Covenant, John the Baptist. Had we not sinned and had God merely wanted to elevate us, He could have done so in other ways. It seems to me that St. Thomas’ position is best suited to the evidence.
If the Incarnation is a remedy for sin, why did God wait so long to apply it?
St. Thomas provides a sensible answer that addresses aspects of the question we might not have considered. His answer is found in the Summa Theologica (part III, question 1, article 5). First, he addresses why the Incarnation did not happen before sin:
Since the work of Incarnation is principally ordained to the restoration of the human race by blotting out sin, it is manifest that it was not fitting for God to become incarnate at the beginning of the human race before sin. For medicine is given only to the sick. Hence our Lord Himself says (Matthew 9:12-13): “They that are in health need not a physician, but they that are ill … For I am not come to call the just, but sinners.”
Next, St. Thomas addresses why the Incarnation did not happen quickly, soon after Original Sin, rather than thousands of years later. He sets forth four reasons:
First, on account of the manner of man’s sin, which had come of pride; hence man was to be liberated in such a manner that he might be humbled and see how he stood in need of a deliverer. … For first of all God left man under the natural law, with the freedom of his will, in order that he might know his natural strength; and when he failed in it, he received the law; whereupon, by the fault, not of the law, but of his nature, the disease gained strength; so that having recognized his infirmity he might cry out for a physician, and beseech the aid of grace.
Quick solutions to problems do not always permit proper healing to take place. Most parents know that if they solve every problem a child has, important lessons may be lost. It is often beneficial to live with our questions for a while so that the answers are more appreciated and more effective.
Indeed, it took us humans quite a while to acknowledge the seriousness of our sin and pride. Shortly after Eden, the tower of Babel indicated that human pride was still a grave problem. Even when given the Law, a good thing, the flesh corrupted it, turning its perfunctory observance into an occasion for pride. The prophets then had to keep summoning Israel and Judah back to the Lord and away from prideful self-reliance. The Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom and the Babylonian Captivity only further illustrated the depths of our sin, so that this cry went up: “O Lord, that you would rend the heavens and come down” (Is 64:1).
We had to be led gradually to recognize our profound need for a savior. Otherwise, even if the remedy were offered, too few might reach for it.
Secondly, on account of the order of furtherance in good, whereby we proceed from imperfection to perfection. Hence the Apostle says (1 Corinthians 15:46-47): “Yet that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; afterwards that which is spiritual … The first man was of the earth, earthy; the second man from heaven, heavenly.”
There is a kind of theology of grace implicit in this answer. Grace builds on our nature, and it is our nature, physically and spiritually, to grow gradually. While sudden conversions and growth spurts have their place, the best and most typical growth is that which occurs steadily and in stages.
Thirdly, on account of the dignity of the incarnate Word, for on the words (Galatians 4:4), “But when the fullness of the time was come,” a gloss says: “The greater the judge who was coming, the more numerous was the band of heralds who ought to have preceded him.”
Here is underscored the dignity of the Son of God, that many should precede Him, announcing Him. There was also a need for us to be prepared to meet Him, so that we would not miss Him or refuse Him when He came. As Malachi says, See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction (Mal 4:5-6). Those who were prepared were able to abide the day of the Lord’s coming and heed His call.
Fourthly, lest the fervor of faith should cool by the length of time, for the charity of many will grow cold at the end of the world. Hence (Luke 18:8) it is written: “But yet the Son of Man, when He cometh, shall He find think you, faith on earth?”
This is an interesting aspect of the question that many might not consider; we typically ponder more what is good for us than what is good for succeeding generations. It is sadly true, though, that fervor, both collective and individual, can fade as a wait becomes lengthy. Therefore, St. Thomas suggests that God appointed a time for the Incarnation within human history such that the greatest possible number of people could be saved.
As a priest and pastor I work very closely with others: clergy, religious, laity who work for the Church, and laity who volunteer. We all work for the Church because we love her and her people.
At times, though, there is disappointment, hurt, or even disillusionment. Perhaps these feelings result from issues in the wider Church: sexual abuse by clergy, the lack of courage and leadership from some bishops and priests, the scandal of dissent at the highest levels, questionable partnerships with anti-life and anti-Catholic organizations, the breakdown of discipline, and the strange severity of response to some infractions contrasted with the almost total laxity in the face of others. Perhaps they are the result of local problems found in any group of human beings: gossip, hurtful actions, hypocrisy, power struggles, misplaced priorities, favoritism, and injustice.
While these things happen everywhere, many hope that there will be fewer occurrences in the Church. Some who come to work for the Church begin by thinking, How wonderful it will be to work for the Church instead of out in the cutthroat business world! Maybe they envision a place where people pray together and support each other more. Perhaps they think the Church will be a place with less competition and strife.
Alas, such hopes are usually dashed quickly. We are, after all, running a hospital of sorts; and just as hospitals tend to attract the sick, so the Church attracts sinners and those who struggle. Jesus was often found in strange company, so much so that the Pharisees were scandalized. He rebuked them by saying, People who are well do not need a doctor, sick people do. I have come to call sinners, not the righteous (Mk 2:17).
Idealistic notions of working in and for the Church evaporate quickly when the phone rings with an impatient parishioner on the line, or when two group leaders argue over who gets to use the parish hall, or when the pastor is irritable and disorganized, or when the maintenance engineer is found to be drinking on the job, or when certain members of the choir are making anything but harmony, or when some favored parishioners get attention from and access to the old guard leaders while newcomers are resisted.
For all these sorts of situations that engender irritation, disappointment, or disillusionment, I keep a little prayer card near my desk. Sometimes I read it for my own benefit and sometimes I share it with those who feel discouraged at what happens (or doesn’t happen) in the Church. It is a beautiful mediation; it recalls that although great love often generates the deep disappointment, in the end love still abides.
Consider, then, the following words. They are perhaps over-the-top in places, but love has its excesses. Take these words as a kind of elixir that speaks to the pain that love can cause.
How baffling you are, Oh Church, and yet how I love you! How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you! I would like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence.
You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand what sanctity is. I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and yet I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful. How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.
No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, though not completely. And besides, where would I go?
Would I establish another? I would not be able to establish it without the same faults, for they are the same faults I carry in me. And if I did establish another, it would be my Church, not the Church of Christ.
Today I’d like to reflect further on the Gospel reading from today’s Mass (Thursday of the 13th week of the year). It tells the story of the paralyzed man whom Jesus tells to have courage because his sins are forgiven.
In one sense this is a rather peculiar response to a paralyzed man: Jesus looks at him and says, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.” Now we might be tempted to tap Jesus on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me, Lord, but this man is paralyzed. His problem is paralysis; that’s what he needs healing for!” (The Pharisees and scribes get all worked up for a different reason: they don’t think that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins.)
Of course, Jesus is neither blind nor lacking in intelligence. Unlike us, however, when Jesus looks at the man he does not consider paralysis to be the most serious problem. To Jesus, the man’s biggest issue is his sin.
Living as we do in this world, most of us have the world’s priorities. The Lord sees something more serious than paralysis, while we wonder what could possibly be more serious than paralysis! But not as man sees does God see. For God, the most serious problem we have is our sin. We don’t think like this even if we are told we should think like this.
Influenced by the flesh as we are, most of us are far more devastated by the thought of losing our health, or our money, or our job, than we are by the fact that we have sin. Threaten our health, well-being, or finances, and we’re on our knees begging God for help. Yet most people are far less concerned for their spiritual well-being. Most of us are not nearly so devastated by our sin (which can deprive us of eternal life) as we are by the loss of our health or some worldly possession.
Even many of us who have some sense of the spiritual life still struggle with this obtuseness and with misplaced priorities. Even in our so-called spiritual life, our prayers are often dominated by requests that God fix our health, improve our finances, or help us to find a job. It is not wrong to pray for these things, but how often do we pray to be freed of our sins? Do we earnestly pray to grow in holiness and to be prepared to see God face-to-face? Sometimes it almost sounds as if we are asking God to make this world more comfortable so that we can just stay here forever. This attitude is an affront to the truer gifts that God offers us.
So it is that Jesus, looking at the paralyzed man, says to him, Your sins are forgiven. In so doing, Jesus addresses the man’s most serious problem first. Only secondarily does He speak to the man’s paralysis, which He almost seems to have overlooked in comparison to the issue of his sin.
We have much to learn about how God sees and about what are the most crucial issues in our life.
Joseph and Mary were told to call the child “Jesus” because He would save the people from their sins. In his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI writes,
… Joseph is entrusted with a further task: “Mary will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). … On the one hand, a lofty theological task is assigned to the child, for only God can forgive sins. So this child is immediately associated with God, directly linked with God’s holy and saving power. On the other hand, though, this definition of the Messiah’s mission could appear disappointing. The prevailing expectations of salvation were primarily focused upon Israel’s concrete sufferings—on the reestablishment of the kingdom of David, on Israel’s freedom and independence, and naturally that included material prosperity for this largely impoverished people. The promise of forgiveness of sins seems both too little and too much: too much, because it trespasses upon God’s exclusive sphere; too little, because there seems to be no thought of Israel’s concrete suffering or its true need for salvation.
Benedict then cites the story of the paralytic and comments,
Jesus responded [to the presence of the paralyzed man] in a way that was quite contrary to the expectation of the bearers and the sick man himself, saying: “My son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). This was the last thing anyone was expecting; this was the last thing they were concerned about.
The Pope Emeritus concludes,
Man is a relational being. And if his first, fundamental relationship is disturbed—his relationship with God—then nothing else can be truly in order. This is where the priority lies in Jesus’ message and ministry: before all else he wants to point man toward the essence of his malady.
Yes, God sees things rather differently than we do. There is much to ponder about the fact that Jesus said to the paralyzed man, Your sins are forgiven.
C.S. Lewis is revered for his solid insight and for his ability to look beyond the ordinary understanding of things. Although he was not a Catholic, I would like to present several of his thoughts on sin, contrition, and repentance as part of our Lenten consideration of these matters. The quotes below are all drawn from a collection of passages from Lewis’ writings entitled The Business of Heaven. The page numbers in my citations refer to that book.
On contrition and the honest assessment of our own wretchedness:
Most of us equate the word contrition with remorse or sorrow, but Lewis reminds us that there is more to the word. He also recaptures the word miserable, which most of us take to mean terrible or despicable. He writes,
Contrite … is a word translated from the Latin, meaning crushed or pulverized. Now, modern people complain about that …. They do not wish their hearts to be pulverized and they do not feel they can sincerely say they are “miserable offenders” [as the English prayer books of that time said] …. I do not think whether we are ‘feeling’ miserable or not matters. I think [the prayer book] is using the word miserable in the old sense—meaning an object of pity. … [p. 55].
Indeed, the word miserable comes from the Latin miserabilis, meaning “pitiable, miserable, or lamentable.” We sinners are surely pitiable in our condition, and God does show us great pity, mercy, and love in this lowly and lamentable state. For a well-formed Christian the recognition of our lowly condition and of God’s pitying love for us can bring forth gratitude and relief.
Sadly, as Lewis notes, many too easily take offense at such notions and thereby reveal their thin-skinned natures. In our pride we do not often see ourselves as pitiable or wretched. For example, some Catholic hymnals removed the phrase “that saved a wretch like me” from the hymn “Amazing Grace” because it offended modern sensibilities. While we do not accept the Protestant notion that we are utterly depraved, wretch can be understood in a very Catholic sense. We are pitiable and do not stand a chance without the Lord’s grace and mercy through Jesus. We should be careful to check our pride when we bristle at such notions, for Jesus warned the proud church of Laodicea,
You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent (Rev. 3:17-19).
C.S. Lewis goes on to observe that even if we do not feel pitiable, we are. He writes,
A person can be an object of pity when he is not feeling miserable …. Imagine yourself looking down from a height on two crowded passenger trains that are travelling towards one another along the same line at sixty miles and hour. You can see that in forty seconds there will be a head-on collision … The passengers are an object of pity … though they do not feel miserable themselves [p. 55].
This is our condition, too, all the more so if we deny it. God sees our pitiable state from on high. Many of those on the imaginary trains may think of themselves as quite secure. Some may be jovial, others content. Still others may be anxious about lesser things. Not one of them is thinking of an approaching train and likely death. No, they do not feel pitiable and are not thinking about the fact that they are contingent beings, dependent on God for every beat of their hearts. They are not thinking that they are about to be summoned to judgment.
Recognizing our condition is a first step to healing. Through contrition we announce not only our sorrow but admit that our sins have crushed and pulverized us. Surrendering our pride, we realize that we are, as the Lord says, wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. In our pitiable state, though, the Lord’s pity and mercy can now reach us.
Forgiving is not excusing:
We often conflate the idea of forgiving and excusing, but they are not the same. C.S. Lewis points out,
There is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiving says, “Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology and will not hold it against you … But excusing says, “I see you couldn’t help it, or didn’t mean it. You weren’t really to blame.”
[But] If one was not really to blame, then there is nothing to forgive. In that sense, forgiving and excusing are almost opposites.
This is an important insight because it is a very different thing to say to someone, “I did something wrong. I admit it and ask for your forgiveness,” than it is to say, “I didn’t really mean it. I’d had a long day and was upset. Please excuse me.” The second option in effect is saying this: “I have an excuse and want you to accept it. Because I have an excuse I didn’t really do anything wrong, or at least I didn’t mean to.”
How rare it is for someone to think, let alone say, “I did it. I will not excuse what I did or ask you to excuse it. I will not try to explain away what I did. I simply and humbly ask for your forgiveness.”
Our good qualities do not simply do away with what is wrong in us:
We have a tendency to minimize our sins by focusing on our better qualities. Surely, we have good qualities, but this does not eliminate the fact that we have sins and they must be attended to. Lewis makes this simple observation:
When you go to the doctor you show him the bit of you that is wrong—say, a broken arm. It would be a mere waste of time to keep on explaining that your legs, and eyes, and throat are all right [p. 60].
Looking to our sins does not mean that there is nothing good in us, but neither will the good in us simply make the sins of no account. Using our virtues to make light of our sins betrays the virtues by turning them to pride.
The forgiveness of sins is not just about receiving; it is about giving as well:
Do you believe in the forgiveness of sin? If so, you do well. But do you also believe in forgiving the sins of others? C.S. Lewis makes the following interesting observation:
We say in the creed, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” … The people who compiled the creed apparently thought this was a part of our belief which we needed to be reminded of each time we went to church [pp. 57-58].
But why? It is not widely disputed that God forgives sins. As Lewis next observes, believing in the forgiveness of my sins by God may seem easy, but in saying “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” I am also stating that I believe that I must forgive the sins of others. This is harder, and often we’d like to forget that part. Thus, the creed has us mention it every Sunday. Lewis says,
We [easily] believe that God forgives us our sins; but also that He will not do so unless we forgive other people their sins against us [pp. 57-58].
Do you believe in the forgiveness of sins?
On the easy substitution of communal sin for our own sin:
We live in times when it is popular and often demanded that we apologize for the sins of our ancestors or of our nation. Of itself, this is not always wrong, but it has many pitfalls. Lewis notes,
The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the [more] congenial one of … denouncing others … [by this] you can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practicing contrition [pp. 56-57].
Yes, indeed! How quickly we congratulate ourselves on being more enlightened than our ancestors. How easy it is to claim the we are not part of any collective problem in our nation. There is a lot of “virtue signaling” going on today rather than personal repentance or action. Surely there are times when it is appropriate to point to our collective and communal sins, but strangely enough, the collective is made up of individuals—like you and me. Denouncing communal sin, as Lewis notes, is too easily a substitute for looking in the mirror.
These are just a few thoughts on sin, repentance and contrition.
In the Gospel this Sunday, we see the healing of a leper (this means you and me). In Scripture, leprosy describes more than just a physical affliction; it is a metaphor for sin as well. Obviously leprosy itself is not sin, but its effects are similar. Like leprosy, sin disfigures us; it deteriorates us; it distances us (lepers had to live apart from the community) and it brings death if left unchecked.
The following passage can be seen as comparing sin to leprosy:
There is no soundness in my flesh because of thy indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me. My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning … there is no soundness in my flesh … My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my kinsmen stand far off (Psalm 38).
Perhaps a brief description of leprosy might be in order so that we can further appreciate both the physical disease and by analogy how sin gradually devastates us. I have compiled this description from several sources, among them, William Barclay’s Commentary on Mark.
Leprosy begins with an unaccountable lethargy and pains in the joints. Then there appear on the body, especially on the back, symmetrical discolored patches with pink and brown nodules and the skin becomes thickened. Gradually the symptoms move to the face and the nodules gather especially in the folds of the cheek, the nose, the lips, and the forehead. The whole appearance of the face is changed till a person loses his human appearance and looks more like a lion. The nodules grow larger and larger and they begin to ulcerate, and from them comes a foul discharge of pus. The eyebrows fall out and the eyes become staring. The voice becomes hoarse and the breath wheezes because of the ulceration of the vocal cords. Eventually the whole body becomes involved. Discolored patches and blisters appear everywhere. The muscles waste away; the tendons contract until the hands look more like claws. Next comes the progressive loss of fingers and toes until a whole hand or foot may drop off. It is a kind of a terrible and slow, progressive death of the body.
The disease may last from ten to thirty years and ends in mental decay, coma, then finally death.
Yet this was not all. The lepers had to bear not only the physical torment of the disease, but also the mental anguish and heartache of being completely banished from society. They were forced to live outside of town in leper areas. Everyone they knew and loved was lost to them and could only be seen from a distance.
In the middle ages, when people were diagnosed with leprosy, they were brought to the Church and the priest read the burial service over them, for in effect they were already dead, though still alive.
This description of leprosy shows how the illness develops, how it disfigures, deteriorates, and distances the leper. At that time, not every diagnosis of leprosy was accurate (there are many skin conditions that can resemble leprosy in its early stages). If the skin cleared up or at least did not deteriorate, the supposed leper could be readmitted to the community.
What about us spiritual lepers? How are we to find healing? Today’s Gospel suggests four steps to find healing from the spiritual leprosy of sin.
1. Admit the Reality– The text says, A leper came to Jesus, and kneeling down, begged him and said, “If you wish you can make me clean.” The man knows he is a leper; he knows he needs healing. He humbles himself and pleads for cleansing.
Do we know our sin? Do we know we need healing? Are we willing to ask for it? We live in times in which sin is often made light of; confessional lines are short. We often excuse our faults by blaming others or perhaps we point to some other sinner who is apparently “worse” than we are and think, “Well, at least I’m not as bad as he is.”
All of us are loaded with sin. We can be thin-skinned, egotistical, unforgiving, unloving, unkind, mean-spirited, selfish, greedy, stingy, lustful, jealous, envious, bitter, ungrateful, smug, superior, angry, vengeful, aggressive, unspiritual, and un-prayerful. Even if everything on that list doesn’t apply to you, certainly many of them do, at least at times. And that list isn’t even complete! We are sinners with a capital S and we need serious help.
Like the leper in the Gospel, we must start with step one: admitting the reality of our sin and humbly asking the Lord for help.
2. Accept the Relationship– Notice two things:
First, the leper calls on the Lord Jesus. In effect, he seeks a relationship with Jesus, knowing that it can heal him.
Second, note how the Lord responds. The text says that Jesus is moved with pity and touches him. The English word “pity,” though often considered condescending, comes from that Latin pietas, which refers to familial love. Jesus sees this man as a brother and reaches out to him in that way. Jesus’ touching of the leper was an unthinkable action at that time; no one would venture near a leper let alone touch one. Lepers were required to live outside of town, typically in nearby caves. But Jesus is God and He loves this man; in His humanity, He sees this leper as a brother. Scripture says,
For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, “I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee” (Heb 2:11).
It is in our relationship with the Lord, a relationship established by faith, that we are justified, transformed, healed, and ultimately saved. If we want to be free of the leprosy of our sin, we must accept the saving relationship with Jesus and let Him touch us.
3. Apply the Remedy– Having healed the leper, Jesus instructs him to follow through in the following manner: See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.
Among the ancient Jews it was the priests who were trained to recognize leprosy and distinguish it from ailments with similar symptoms. Priests were trained to observe and then make the final determination. A confirmed leper was banished from the community. Sometimes, out of an abundance of caution, a person was expelled on suspicion of leprosy, but the condition cleared up or remained stable. It was the priest who made the decision for the community as to whether the person should be readmitted.
Of course this is a metaphor for sacramental confession. What does the priest do in a sacramental confession? He assesses a person’s spiritual condition. If he sees God’s healing mercy at work in the person’s repentance, he reconciles him. In the case of a serious sinner who repents, the priest readmits him into the full communion of the Church. It is God who forgives, but He ministers through the priest.
To us spiritual lepers, the Lord gives the same instruction: go, show yourself to the priest …” In other words, “Go to confession.” The Lord tells us that we should offer for our cleansing what is prescribed. That is to say, we should offer our penance.
Why should the leper bother to do that? After all, the Lord has already healed him. To this we can only answer, “Do what Jesus says: show yourself to the priest and offer your penance.” It is true that God can forgive directly, but it is clear enough from this passage that confession is to be a part of the believer’s life, especially in the case of serious sin.
4. Announce the Result– When God heals you, you feel that you have to tell someone. There’s just something about joy that can’t be hidden—and people notice when you’ve been changed.
That said, there are aspects of this Gospel that are perplexing: Jesus warns the healed leper not to tell a soul other than the priest.
This (and other passages in which the Lord issues similar commands for silence) is puzzling. The reason is made clear later in the passage. Jesus did not want His mission turned into a magic show at which people gathered to watch miracles occur and see “signs and wonders.” This man’s inability to remain silent means that Jesus can no longer enter a town openly and that many will seek Him for secondary reasons.
That said, commands to remain silent cannot hold for us who have this standing order: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matt 28:19).
Hence it is clear that we need to shout what the Lord has done for us and give Him all the glory. When God acts in your life, there is joy that cannot be hidden or suppressed. If our healing is real, we cannot remain silent. To quote Jesus at a later point (when the Temple leaders told Him to silence His disciples), I tell you, if they keep quiet, the very rocks will cry out (Lk 19:40).
The heart of evangelization is announcing what the Lord has done for us. An old gospel song says, “I thought I wasn’t gonna testify … but I couldn’t keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me!”
Yes, tell someone what the Lord has done. If your healing is real, you can’t keep quiet about it.
Today I want to return to a reading from last week’s Mass. In that reading (from 2 Samuel 24) we hear the story of how King David ordered a census to be taken. Joab, David’s general, strongly cautioned the King against it, but David insisted. When the census had been completed, the Prophet Gad informed David of God’s anger and of His intention to punish David and all Israel. God offered David his choice of punishments: a three-year famine, three months of military fighting from Israel’s enemies, or three days of pestilence. David chose the pestilence, figuring that it was better to fall by God’s hand than an enemy’s. About 70,000 people died during those three days.
This raises two central questions:
What’s wrong with a census?
Why was Israel punished for something David did?
What’s wrong with a census? – The first explanation can be found by focusing David’s lack of trust. God had called David to trust in Him—not in man, not in numbers. We have a tendency to rely too much on numbers, thinking that something is good, or right, or successful based on how many people attended or how many supported our cause or view. Of this tendency we must be very careful. Is our power or rightness rooted in numbers, in popularity, in profit, or in God? In counting his people, David seems to be seeking confidence in numbers rather than God; this is a sin.
David may also be guilty of pride. It could well be that he considered with pride the fact that he had amassed such a large number of people in reuniting Israel and Judah, in conquering the Philistines, the Hittites, and others. Taking a census was perhaps a way of flattering himself, of making a name for himself. The numbers are quite impressive—so impressive in fact that we moderns doubt them: 800,000 men fit for military service in Israel and 500,000 in Judah. Including women, children, and those men too old or frail for service, would probably bring the number closer to 5 million people. Such a figure seems unlikely number and is a source of great debate among biblical scholars about biblical enumeration. That debate is too much to handle in this post, but may be a topic for future discussion. For now, let’s simply say that David ruled over a populous nation; his taking of a census likely indicates that he was proud of his accomplishment and wanted it acknowledged by his contemporaries and recorded in the annals of history: David, King of multitudes!
Others point out the sinfulness of counting God’s people. These are not David’s people to enumerate; they are God’s. Because counting hints at accomplishment and control, David sins in trying to know a number that is none of his business. This is a number that is for God alone to know, for He numbers His people and calls them by name (cf Gen 15:15).
A final area of sinfulness surrounds the manner in which a census can be and often is used as an oppressive tool of government. The census provides David with the number of men “fit for military service.” In the ancient world, a census was often a tool for military draft. It was also a basis for exacting taxes. Finally, kings used it to measure their power and to manipulate and coerce based on that power. Even in our own time, the taking of the official U.S. census every ten years is often surrounded by power struggles, gerrymandering, tax policy changes, spending priorities, and the pitting of certain ethnic and racial groups against one another. A lot of troubles can be tied back to the census; numbers are powerful things. Those that have “the numbers” get seats at the table while those who do not have to wait outside. In amassing numbers, David increases his power and his ability to manipulate the people in sinful and/or unjust ways.
The taking of a census is not necessarily morally neutral. While there may be legitimate reasons for a country to collect this information, it can be used in sinful or unjust ways and can lead to power struggles. With this in mind we can see why the military commander Joab may have advised David against taking a census.
Exactly where David’s sin lay—a lack of trust, pride, acting as if they were his people rather than God’s, amassing power, or in some combination of all these things—is not made clear in the text. God is clear though in letting David know that he has sinned and seriously so. This leads to a second and more difficult question.
Why was Israel punished for something David did?As an opening disclaimer we ought to admit that there are some mysterious aspects of this incident and we may not be able to know the answer fully. All we can do is to offer some speculation. Let’s look at a few thoughts as to why all of Israel was punished.
The most common explanation emphasizes that Israel was not sinless in the matter. The census story begins as follows: The Lord’s anger against Israel flared again and incited David … to number Israel and Judah. Hence God was angry with the whole nation for some undisclosed reason, and therefore permitted David to fall into this sin. Perhaps the census was also a matter of national pride, with the people thinking, “Look how big, prosperous, and powerful we have become.” This is only speculation, but the point is that according to the text, Israel was not blameless.
Another point must be to emphasize that the modern western notion of individualism is not a biblical one. We tend to think that what we do is our own business and what others do is theirs. We are thus outraged at the idea that many would suffer for the sins of one. In the biblical worldview, though, we are all interconnected: There should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one member suffers, every member suffers; if one member is honored, every member rejoices. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a member of it (1 Cor 12:25-27). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. This is the biblical vision.
The decisions we make affect the people around us for better or worse. Even what we call “private” sins set evil loose, reduce goodness, and increase the likelihood of future and more public sins. We are our brother’s keeper and what we do or fail to do affects others.
To those who would say that God is not being “fair” in punishing Israel for what David did, there must be this strong advice: Be very careful before you ask God to be fair. If God were fair, we would all be in Hell right now. Rather, it is mercy we should seek. Fairness is a bad bet; it will land us in Hell.
This is a difficult passage, but God knows how to shepherd us rightly. There are times when tough measures are needed. We do not know the precise nature of Israel’s sin that angered God, but His anger is His passion to set things right. He’s getting us ready for the “Great Day.”