Today Jesus heals lepers. I’m always in favor of physical healing, but I would suggest that
when Jesus heals, He is also teaching something deeper. We do not look at someone
suffering and conclude they are being punished by God. Jesus closed that door (John
9:3). However, leprosy does teach us some things about the effects of sin.
Our foundational teaching about sin is the infamous Fruit Incident in Genesis 3. After
sinning, they were alienated from their own selves/their bodies (v. 7), from God (v. 8), from
one another (v. 12) and from nature/the earth/work (vv. 16-19). A leper experiences similar
alienations. Their bodies became their enemies. They were not able to enter the temple or
the synagogue, and so were cut off from much of the practice of their religion. They could
not be with their families, friends or community. They could not engage in any trade to
earn a living and couldn’t even draw water from a well. When Jesus healed a leper, He not
only cured the disease, He restored their lives. They could reenter the Temple and the
synagogue. They could reconnect with friends and family, with the community. They
could earn a living again. Their bodies became home again and not a prison.
When people go to heaven, God glorifies their bodies (1Corinthians 15:35-49; Philippians
3:21). People of every tribe and tongue and nation will be gathered around the divine throne
(Revelation 7:9). There will be a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1). We shall
know God face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12; 1 John 3:2). The challenge now is to live like
people longing for that future.
In a couple of days, we start Lent. It is a time for examining ourselves and repenting of our
sins. Through prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we shall have a chance to see ourselves in a
clearer way. We seek to know our sinfulness so that we can better repent and follow Jesus
more faithfully. It is a time to grow in our desire to become more like what God made us to
be. It would be good to consider the four areas of healing:
• Relationship with God: Do we treat God at least as well as our best
friend? Where do we need to grow in trust? Is He welcome in every aspect of
• With others: Where do our relationships need healing? Is there something we can
do? Are there situations where the other person will not try, and we just need to
keep ourselves as safe as we can, pray for them, and avoid giving into hate?
• With nature and labor: Balance between work and rest? Care for the
environment? How are we focused on leaving the world better than it would have
been without us?
• With ourselves: Are we growing in chastity? Are there times we look upon others
as objects rather than beloved children of God? Do we treat our bodies with at
least the care and respect we give our smart phone or our car? Do we engage in
destructive self-talk? When we fail or make a mistake, do we spend time and
energy berating ourselves, or do we learn from it and strategize how to do better?
Obviously, these questions are not a complete list, but just a few examples. What might
God be calling us to become in the four aspects of ourselves? How can we better receive
God’s gift of Himself, and better give ourselves as gift to Him?
“Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd (clever/cunning/
crafty) as serpents and simple (innocent) as doves (Matthew 10:16).” The greater the evil
that we fight, the more important to hold ourselves to a higher standard of behavior. On
Amazon I saw a book called “In Defense of Looting” that apparently suggested that looting
was an effective tactic of protest. (Wasn’t Amazon the group that de-platformed Parler?
But they allow this?) If we say that our tactics are justified because our cause is so right and
just, we want to remember that Everyone’s cause is right and just in their minds, and those
tactics may be used for causes we don’t approve of. Many have pointed to those who
defended the rioting last summer as making it easier for others to believe they should break
into the capital. I highly recommend Ann Garrido’s book “Redeeming Conflict.” Her habit
4 is “Undo the knot of intention.” Good intentions do not guarantee good actions. The
scribes and Pharisees who opposed Jesus certainly thought of themselves as the good guys,
but they lacked self-reflection. They had a mighty lens for seeing any hint of fault in
others, but were blind to their own shortcomings, or dismissed them because they
considered themselves so good.
Of course, the Bible has some helpful stuff. Ephesians 4: 26 “Be angry but do not sin; do
not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil.” James 1:19-20
reminds us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” and that our wrath “does not
fulfill the righteousness of God.” Matthew 12:36: “You shall be held accountable for every
idle word that you utter.” When we are about to say something or type something, imagine
talking with Jesus on the last day and explaining how this comment is serving the kingdom
and showing His goodness. Jesus was sometimes fierce, but He wasn’t mean for the sake of
being mean, no matter how much someone deserved it. Jesus was very angry in Matthew
23, but he didn’t stay there; he moved to sadness and mourning for Jerusalem. Then He
went to work.
In Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” he says, “In any nonviolent
campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices
are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action.” He knew that their efforts needed
to be based on facts that would stand up to skeptical scrutiny. He did not just grab a few
tidbits of information that seemed to support his narrative. He describes their purification
like this: “We started having workshops on nonviolence and repeatedly asked ourselves the
questions, ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ and ‘Are you able to endure
the ordeals of jail?’” This was disciplined and they held themselves to a very high
standard. They showed their power not with physical force but by imitating Jesus.
After the murder of George Floyd, there was a lot of consensus in this country, and a great
moment to have some serious conversation about how to prevent such things in the future.
There could have been serious steps taken so people could be confident that when they
interact with the police their lives would be protected and their dignity respected, as well as
the police being confident that if they do their jobs wrong there will be consequences and if
they do their jobs right their superiors and the community will stand by them. Then there
were riots night after night. The country was divided, and the moment was thrown away.
That may be the greatest tragedy of all.
I think we can heal as a nation. It will take a lot of self-examination. It will take many
deciding to look beyond their anger at what is wrong, to some well thought out strategies
for solving problems. It will require being clever as serpents and innocent as doves.
Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. If I understand correctly, the Feast of
Epiphany used to mark the coming of the Magi, the Baptism of the Lord, and the miracle at
Cana, and that marked the end of the Christmas season. It was apparently decided that the
Baptism needed its own feast, and this marks the end of the Christmas season, so tomorrow
we begin good old Ordinary Time.
When Jesus was baptized, He was not, of course, repenting of sin. He was sanctifying
baptism and it will be by the power of His pascal mystery that Christians will be born again
in baptism. It begins His saving work: His life as a manual laborer is over, and now He is
beginning the journey that leads to the Cross. He will refer to His death as a baptism (Mark
10:38; Luke 12:50) (see Catechism of the Catholic Church #536).
John 3:5 says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without
being born of water and Spirit.” The Church has always understood this to refer to baptism.
Baptism has never been treated as a detail, and it is not an option or a matter of
preference. In Jesus’ final commissioning of His disciples at the end of the Gospels of
Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ very concise instructions include baptizing as a core part of the
work (Matthew 28:19 and Mark 16:16).
This leads to a question: what about those who are sincere but were not baptized. What
about children who died before baptism? This led to a theological theory called
limbo. Although the Baltimore catechism taught limbo as if it were a fact, limbo has never
been the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict finally laid it to rest and
said it is not a part of the Catholic faith. We now understand John 3:5 to be a mandate on
us but not a restriction on God. The God we have gotten to know in the New Testament is
not about keeping people out of heaven because of something they couldn’t control of have
not been properly taught. Unfortunately, in the meantime, many Catholics have come to see
getting sacraments as the ultimate end of the faith (sometimes literally the end, when they
drop out after getting confirmed because they are “done”). They have come to see the
practice of the faith as a pale shadow of what it is meant to be. The great danger is of people
being sacramentalized but not evangelized. They have helped convince a lot of other people
that Catholicism is superficial, mechanical and legalistic. Seeing the fruits of this is one of
the most heart-breaking things about being a priest.
How should we look at sacraments? St. Paul sees baptism as something we must live out.
“What then shall we say? Shall we persist in sin that grace may abound? Of course not!
How can we who died to sin yet live in it? Or are you unaware that we who were baptized
into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through
baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the
Father, we might live in newness of life (Romans 6:1-4).”
Our belonging to Jesus is meant to make all the difference. It is as drastic as dying. It is
meant to be the controlling, defining reality in our lives, by which all other things find their
meaning. We hand God our lives and invite Him to do whatever He chooses with us,
holding nothing back. Our faith and our response to God is, of course, imperfect, but if our
faith is real, our goal is nothing less than being completely His. Peter Kreeft’s book Jesus
Shock gets deep into this.
A question for 2021 is, “How are we living our baptism?”
It has been said that the task of a prophet is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the
comfortable.” Reading the book of the prophet Isaiah, we see he can start with some fierce
“get your act together” talk, and then switches. Starting around chapter 40, he is talking to a
people in exile who are beaten down and discouraged and telling them wonderful things about
the tender love of God. Isaiah has some of the most beautiful and moving language in the
Bible about the tender love of God, and much of the imagery will be picked up in the New
God loves us very much, and in that love calls us to be the best we can be, what we were
created to be, and sometimes that means we need to hear things that are hard to hear.
Some people are alienated from the Church because they received hard sayings when they
needed comfort, and they were beaten down and fell into despair. We can try hard to avoid
that, but it is going to happen sometime.
There are others who are mad at the Church because they needed to hear something hard but
believed they should only receive comfort. Jesus was not shy about saying fierce things when
it was appropriate (see Matthew 5:29-30; Matthew 23; Matthew 25:41-45, John 6, etc.).
Some have drifted away from the Church because they have only received happy messages
and have never been challenged (how long would you keep going to a gym that had
Styrofoam weights that took no effort to lift? It would be more comfortable but wouldn’t
accomplish anything worthwhile). Eventually people decide they have better things to do
with their time.
A pivotal question for all of us, then, would be: How ready are we to hear and respond to hard
sayings? This question is trickier than it sounds.
Some people want more “fire and brimstone,” but are quite sure that it should all be directed
to other people. Some people spend a lot of time talking about what terrible people they are,
but if you point out a specific behavior that perhaps they should examine and change, they get
M. Scott Peck in his book “The Road Less Traveled” talked about some people who were
neurotic and believed that everything was their fault, and some people with a character
disorder who believed that nothing was their fault. There will always be people who tell us
we are wrong, and there will always be people who tell us we are right. If we are too afraid to
stand by our beliefs and decisions we will be paralyzed, and if we are too certain we are right,
we will never learn anything new. Discernment and balance is needed. If, when we were
younger, we received harsh and unproductive criticism, we will find it extremely painful to
learn that we are wrong, and the temptation will be strong to rationalize our position and reject
any negative feedback. If learning we are wrong is not an occasion for great agony, but
opportunity to learn and grow, we can be much more open. Jesus was very patient and gentle
with those who were willing to look at themselves honestly and change their ways, no matter
how bad their sins had been. His anger was for those who were sure they didn’t need to
change, but only other people.
How is God calling us to learn from our current situation? How is God calling us to respond?
Now we begin Advent, and advent is about waiting for something that is coming. One of the
things Christians wait for is surrendering more completely to God. Someone once said that the
Christian journey is essentially the gradual realization which one of us is God and which one of
One of the big issues in the Bible, perhaps the big issue is: who’s in charge. We are quick to say
God is in charge, but human beings (you know how we get), can be almost as quick to try to keep
control, to do it our way and not God’s.
There is a fierce ban on idolatry. It is not because God hates statues (we see He doesn’t in the
mandate to have two gold cherubim made for the ark of the covenant in Exodus 25:18-20 and in
the command to make a bronze serpent in Numbers 21:7-9). Idolatry was about having something
one could possess and control. If one had this statue, one believed he possessed the god and had
a certain power over him. This would not work with the God of Israel.
It is not just about statues. It became a problem with the temple. We see the people thought they
would be protected because the temple was in Jerusalem. “Do not put your trust in these
deceptive words: ‘The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord!’
Only if you thoroughly reform your ways and your deed; if each of you deals justly with your
neighbor; if you no longer oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow; if you no longer shed
innocent blood in this place or follow after other gods to your harm, only then will I let you
continue to dwell in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors long ago and forever (Jeremiah
The Scriptures corrected people for attempting to bribe God. We see in Psalm 50 and Isaiah 1, for
example, people thought if they offered sacrifices, they could live how they wanted without
concern for how God wanted to correct them. The temptation is to think that we decide what we
will do for God, and we are therefore entitled to get certain things our way in return. In “The
Screwtape Letters” the devil teaches his nephew a trick, to encourage a person to think that if he
sacrifices for a time, he is entitled to have things go his way next time, and when that doesn’t
happen, to feel cheated, betrayed by God. Then he falls into despair. There have always been
people who take Bible texts and try to figure out when Jesus is coming again and when all this
will end. This gives them a sense that we only need to deal with this a little longer, and then
everything will be fine. This, in spite of that fact that Jesus tells us very clearly in our Gospel that
we will not know, and must be ready at any time (Mark 13:32-37). People often say, “Things
have to turn around soon” and “We can’t take much more of this.” We don’t know what we can
take until it happens. We don’t know when things will change. I’m hoping as fiercely as anybody
for the current troubles to be over, but we don’t know what the future will bring, and Jesus warns
us against that illusion. He tells the story of the rich fool in Luke 12:16-21. A man has
accumulated a lot of wealth, and thinks he is going to live how he wants to live for a good while,
and he is in control. Then the hammer drops: “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of
you; and these things you have prepared, to whom will they belong? Thus it will be with
someone who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.” It is good to
be prudent, to save money and manage it intelligently, but we remember that is not our ultimate
security. It can be lost in an instant. Our ultimate security is our relationship with God.
As we face the challenges of life, there are always two questions to focus on: “What does God
want me to learn from this?” and “How is God calling me to respond?”