Tag Archives: Miracles

If You Choose, You Can Make Me Clean

A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.  Mark 1:40-45.

At some point in our lives, most of us have experienced the pain, shame and loneliness of being an outsider.  In today’s Gospel reading, we find a man who knew that isolation intimately.  At that time, leprosy and most skin diseases were treated as a kind of plague.  Because of his illness, the community shunned him, and the Mosaic law justified and condoned their fears.  He had no right to approach Jesus, and Jesus had no business having anything to do with him, let alone touching him.

This man lived the life of walking ghost, or perhaps more accurately, a walking corpse. As a leper, this “unclean” man could not enter the Temple; he could not even enter any community other a community of other lepers.  Jesus enters into this ostracism by touching him and sharing in his uncleanness.

This man’s statement (“If you choose, you can make me clean”) carries a number of messages within it.  First, we can hear the pain in the voice of a man who simply doesn’t have the power to help himself.  We also hear a remarkable affirmation of faith in Jesus’ healing power.  And perhaps we also hear just a hint of a challenge to Jesus’ willingness to reach out to this man.

Jesus then tells the man something that God’s been trying to convey throughout the Old Testament:  I choose to heal you.  The text thus illustrates an important idea of divine freedom, reaching out to restore God’s creation.  As He did with Sarah and Abraham, as He did in the Exodus, and as he did on the Cross, God instinctively exercises His freedom to redeem our broken lives.  I think Jesus is telling us:  “This is what the kingdom looks like.”

Mark describes Jesus as “moved with pity”.  The phrase suggests a very deep emotional response, the sort of reaction that you feel deep within your gut.  It has also sometimes been translated as “moved with anger”.  I suspect that Jesus felt a certain anger at all those things which separate men from God, and perhaps at the lack of depth or vision in the priestly interpretation of the holiness code.  Perhaps Jesus was angry  with the very notion, embedded into this man by a life as a lonely outcast, that God would choose anything other than to heal him.

Regardless of whether Jesus was moved with pity or anger, we shouldn’t miss the important point:  His immediate response to this emotion was to reach out, to redeem and to restore.

Jesus then gives this man a strict warning not to tell anyone, but to simply present himself at the temple.  This instruction falls into what theologians call the “Messianic secret.”  In this passage and many others, Jesus often instructs those He heals (and even the demons he casts out) to keep quiet about what they’ve seen.  We get the impression that until the Resurrection (which would clearly reveal the meaning of Christ’s life) Jesus tried to avoid an incomplete understanding of his ministry.

Despite Jesus’ warning, the man begins to proclaim the news about Jesus.  This leads to a curious and ironic reversal.  While the man was originally kept from society, Jesus now finds himself an outsider because of his fame and the press of the crowds.  Cleansed of his disease, the man can now rejoin his town and family.  Having restored this man to his health and freedom,  Jesus could no longer travel freely and had to remain “out in the country” .  Jesus therefore becomes an outsider himself, no longer able to go to the towns and villages.  Even Jesus finds himself marginalized, and thus those who follow him should not be surprised when it happens to us, too.

In one sense, this passage is about risk.  Jesus took a tremendous risk in healing this man, risking contamination.  Jesus also took a risk in asking for this man’s assurance of secrecy, risking his own isolation.  By subjecting Himself to human history and sin, Jesus risked our judgment and condemnation.  In fact, the Gospels point to the final risk of the Incarnation, the Cross.

I think today’s Gospel reading teaches us another important lesson.  Mark illustrates one of the core tenets of the Christian faith:  ours is religion for the last kids picked for dodge ball, the kids no one wants to dance with, and those who always get their hearts broken.  We shouldn’t read this as a story about something that happened once, a long time ago; Jesus still choses to make us clean, to restore us and heal us.  Following Jesus is all about second chances.  It was for this man in today’s Gospel.  And it is for you and me, too.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis

© 2012 James R. Dennis

The Pool of Siloam

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

Jesus heard that they [the Pharisees] had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.”  John 9:1-7; 35-38.

I regularly travel with some friends to a camp in the Sangre de Christo mountains of New Mexico.  There, away from the lights of the city, when the sun sets in the forest, I’m always struck by just how dark it can get.  That kind of darkness impresses us with fear, with vulnerability and with isolation.  I suspect that’s exactly the sort of life the man born blind led until his encounter with Jesus.

In the Daily Office today, we find the story of Jesus and that man, set out in the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel.  It’s a powerful story, powerful enough to have inspired the former slave-trader John Newton to pen one of our favorite hymns, Amazing Grace.  (“I was blind, but now I see.”)  This story also illustrates two of the attributes of Jesus’ name described by Bernard of Clairvaux in my last post:  Jesus is light and Jesus is healing.

Back then, the Jewish people associated blindness and most any sort of physical infirmity with sin.  The disciples echo this assumption, asking whether this blindness resulted from this man’s sin or the sins of his parents.  That assumption, expressly rejected by Jesus, lingers on with us today.  From illness to  natural disaster, people and their “religious” leaders try to assign the fault for these events to some past moral failure.  Jesus refuses to take part in that speculation. 

Blindness and many other physical infirmities would exclude one from the Temple, from the place where good devout Jews could encounter God.  In almost every icon depicting the story, therefore, we see the Temple in the background.  The man born blind, therefore, becomes a sort of icon for those who the religious structure of that time excluded.  And into the darkness that enveloped this man, Jesus enters and describes himself as the “light of the world.”

Jesus spits on the ground and makes mud which he spreads on the man’s eyes.  It’s an interesting and curious approach to this man’s predicament, but I think part of the key to understanding this story lies just a couple of sentences earlier.  Rather than explaining to the disciples the real cause of this man’s blindness, Jesus tells them:  “We must work the works of him who sent me….” Having been sent by God, Jesus must engage in God’s work.  Jesus didn’t need a poultice to cure this man’s blindness, but I think he intentionally invoked the image of God’s creation of Adam.  Just as God created Adam from the clay (mud) of the earth, Jesus will re-create this blind man’s life.

Jesus then instructs the man to wash himself in the pool of Siloam.  (Notice that this is the work for which God “sent” Jesus into the world, and the very name of the pool means “sent”.)  The Jewish people used that pool as a place for ritual purification, necessary for entry into the Temple.  The man born blind is thus “baptized” back into the community of those eligible to encounter God in that Holy Place and his sight returns.   The pool, intended as a place for purification, has become a place for healing and reconciliation.

Now, all this transpires on the Sabbath, and provides the Pharisees with one more instance of Jesus’ disregard for the religious traditions (and authorities) of the day.  The Pharisees convince themselves that Jesus is a great sinner, just like the man born blind, whom they expel. John thus makes clear that they remain in the darkness, spiritually blind.

When Jesus encounters the man born blind later, the man confesses his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of Man.  There are few moments in Scripture more poignant than his final acknowledgement:  “Lord, I believe.” 

I’m wondering, who is unwelcome today and who have we excluded because their “sin” disqualifies them?  Like the Pharisees, have we fallen in love with doing “churchy things” rather than falling in love with God and his children? Are we instruments of reconciliation in the world, or do we place obstacles in the path of those who want and need God’s help?  And perhaps more importantly, I wonder where are the dark places in the world and in our lives not yet illuminated by the light of Christ?

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis