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.
This is Sanctity of Life Sunday.
The biggest life issue now is, of course, the killing of unborn children. This stands out for
- The huge number of victims, tens of millions, many times that of any genocide that I
- It is direct killing of the innocent. That is different in kind from capital punishment,
from killing in a just war, or from the indirect killing that accompanies many activities
(driving carelessly is wrong, and has resulted in deaths, but it is not the same as directly
intending to kill).
- Proponents have set apart a group they classify as untermenchen (a term used in
Germany in the early 20
th century, it referred to humans they consider lesser, and therefore
not as entitled to protection). This has been done in the past to Native Americans, to Jews,
to African Americans, and other groups. It is a tool used for the greatest human atrocities.
Some have even referred to unborn children as “non-living fetal tissue.” Where is the
science behind that?
That said, it is essential that we not neglect other areas where the sanctity of life needs to be
affirmed. Many see the lives of the elderly, the disabled and the infirm to be of less value,
and advocate for euthanasia. We must recognize that their lives are precious, and not only
protect them from being killed, but make sure they are not marginalized or forgotten.
We have a constant need to care for the hungry, the homeless, and those trapped in
poverty. There is room to disagree about how, but no room to say that it is not our
We must do something about human trafficking. I don’t know what, but we must do
The Catholic Church has long accepted capital punishment as a proper tool of law
enforcement, but, starting with Pope Saint John Paul II and continuing with Pope Francis,
there has been a movement away. There is a strong body of thought that suggests it does not
help deter crime, and with proper incarceration, it would not be necessary to protect
people. I suggest we can be a better society if we hold precious even the lives of vicious
murderers. That said, I have a very hard time being patient with those who say it is
contradictory to oppose abortion and favor capital punishment. How come I never hear
people saying that if we favor incarcerating criminals, we must therefore favor the
legalization of kidnapping? Honestly.
I recently listened to Daniel Goleman’s book Social Intelligence. He speaks of the
“thingification” of other people, in which they are considered not in terms of their dignity,
their needs, their thoughts or their feelings, but only how they affect us. They are seen not
as people, but as things, as objects. Celeste Headlee in her excellent book We Need to Talk:
How to Have Conversations that Matter, mentions that studies show that empathy is on the
decline. It is easy to figure that the widespread use of social media rather than personal
contact makes things worse. The enormous use of pornography has to be a huge factor. I
see a lot of conversation showing contempt for people who disagree. That can’t help. How
do we build empathy in our society?
Final thought: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could
do only a little.” -Edmund Burke
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?”