Thursday of the First Week of Ordinary time

Lectionary 308

A leper came to him and kneeling down begged him and said,
“If you wish, you can make me clean.”
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand,
touched the leper, and said to him,
“I do will it. Be made clean.”

Let us read this gospel and the phrase, “moved with pity” within the Year of Mercy.

Jesus’ pity may be misunderstood as a kindly glance upon someone of inferior status. Here is the Lord God of Power – clean, beautiful, popular, secure, powerful, and benevolent -- who feels sorry for this poor schmuck with leprosy. He might be saying, “Here’s a dime, Buddy. Buy yourself a cup of coffee.”

We might even hear that patronizing note in “he stretched out his hand.” The outstretched hand is usually a military expression. The hand has a sword and it smites the enemy, in this case: leprosy.

But Jesus’ mercy goes far beyond condescension. It begins in the life of the Trinity. Jesus is the Beloved of God who willingly surrenders everything of himself to God his Father. In that surrender there is nothing left of himself or for himself except what the Father will raise up in the indefinite future – “on the third day.” Every act of compassion is an act of faith.

We can get a feel for that when we consider the political situation of Jesus’ life and times. There are powerful mechanisms in place to make sure this upstart from Galilee cannot upend anyone’s apple cart. The Romans are all powerful; Pontius Pilate is the local administrator of that power; and the Herodians enjoy their authority as vassals of Rome. 

The Pharisees, on the other hand, generate their power out of popular religion. They represent the foot-dragging resistance to Rome that gives them some legitimacy with all those who despise the Roman occupation. Rome doesn't like Pharisees but it knows there are more dangerous dissidents who would gladly cut their shaven throats. Neither party wants to see a third party, even if it claims to have no worldly authority. Worldly authority is the only kind they know.

So every time Jesus heals someone or calls another disciple he ratchets up the tension, suspicion and resistance against himself. When he is moved with pity he must overcome his own fear of dying before he can act.

If you think that comes simply for the Son of God you’re probably right; but it is nonetheless a heroic, daunting decision for a human being.

When the Pope calls for a year of mercy he is asking us to dig deeply into our resources, not to skim a bit of surplus off the top. How can I do with less so that others might have more? True, we might find technological ways to improve the lives of the less fortunate and it’s good that we do so. But we should think long and hard about that before we surrender the opportunity to perform an act of mercy.

When Jesus stretches out his hand he is not striking the fellow’s leprosy, he is smashing my reluctance to embrace a fellow human being and share his poverty.

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I love to write. This blog helps me to meditate on the Word of God, and I hope to make some contribution to our contemplations of God's Mighty Works.

Ordinarily, I write these reflections two or three weeks in advance of their publication. I do not intend to comment on current events.

I understand many people prefer gender-neutral references to "God." I don't disagree with them but find that language impersonal, unappealing and tasteless. When I refer to "God" I think of the One whom Jesus called "Abba" and "Father", and I would not attempt to improve on Jesus' language.

You're welcome to add a thought or raise a question.