More about the Mercy than the Miracle: A Homily for February 14, 2021

“Unclean!”

How would you like to have a finger pointed in your direction and that very word uttered forcefully at you? And how would it feel to be told to gather up your things, say goodbye to friends and family and then move to a place on the outskirts of town where you are to spend the rest of your life, separated from everyone you know? And what might the experience be like to not only become afflicted by this terrible disease physically but also to know that everyone believes that you are unclean spiritually as well… that you brought this onto yourself by your actions and by your sin? You are banished. You are lesser than. You are unclean. Such was the experience of falling ill to leprosy during Jesus’ time.

And now imagine that a man who claimed to be the Son of God made you clean again. That you could return to your home, to your life, and that all will be well again. Think of how overwhelming that joy must have been for this man. What a miracle! What an incredible miracle.

So why do you think Jesus told the man to not tell anyone about it? This has happened before in the Gospel: Jesus cures someone and then instructs that person to keep it to themselves. If your job was to convince people that you are, in fact, the Son of God… why then would you not want everyone far and wide to know about it? Why would you even do the miracle in the first place if it was to only be kept between you and the one person impacted? That seems like a strange way to create a movement, to spread the Good News, to increase your number of followers, and to change the world. That seems so strange.

Conventional wisdom holds that Jesus was trying to keep a wrap on things because his reputation was spreading and he was increasingly drawing the notice and ire of those who opposed him. So, he tried for a time to keep things quiet in order to be able to continue his ministry. This theory never completely made sense to me. Jesus’ fame was already spreading, including among those who would ultimately call for his death. He traveled openly and moved freely from place to place. It seems to me that if his primary goal was to stay off the grid, he would have done so more intentionally and more effectively.

I have a different view of why he instructed the cured man to tell no one. My view is that this story is not about the miracle. Or better said, the healing of the leprosy was not really the miracle. Something else was. Something more subtle. And something more instructive for us.

Lepers were strictly forbidden from coming out into town, from getting near others for fear of spreading the disease. Today’s first reading makes it clear that an unclean person is to… stay away, far away. In today’s Gospel story, Jesus encounters a man who did something no leper would ever do. He came into town. He approached Jesus. He came to where Jesus was. And I’m sure he did so at great personal risk.

And then Jesus did something that nobody of that era would ever do. Struck with pity, he reached out and actually touched the man. He touched a man with leprosy. Back then, this is not something you would ever do.

The man came toward Jesus. And then Jesus came toward him.

Fr. James Keenan defines mercy is being willing to enter into the chaos of another. It is the movement of the one into the space and life of another. Even if that space is filled with unpleasantness, chaos and risk.

Jesus showed mercy.

This Gospel story, to me… is more about the mercy than the miracle. Or maybe better said: the mercy was the miracle. The mercy was what healed the man. The mercy was what made him clean again.

So, how is this instructive for us?

I believe this demonstrates the importance of reaching out to Jesus, of approaching him, of trusting and of the power of hope. Even if that means there is personal risk, such as the risk of appearing to be out of synch with society and current cultural norms. The risk of seeming different.

And I believe this shows that when we reach out toward Jesus, he will come toward us. Touch us. Heal us. And make us clean. So, we should ask ourselves, how can I reach toward Jesus? How do I move closer?

This could be our prayer: Jesus help me to move closer to you.

Our faith is about having a relationship with Christ. And that is a two-way thing, like all good relationships really. We must move toward Jesus… trusting that Jesus will always move toward us.

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