Not all gospel passages are hard to decipher. Today’s reading is unusually simple and straightforward. It describes a sign that Jesus worked early on in his public ministry: the cure of a leper. Mark describes the event in three stages: a man with leprosy but with faith came to Jesus for a cure; then, Jesus touched the man and the leprosy left him; and finally, the man went away, telling everyone who would listen about what Jesus had said and done.
It’s easy to see that the theme of this gospel passage is prayer. As such, it teaches us something about our relationship with God, and God’s relationship with us. Starting, first of all, with the man, it becomes immediately obvious that the prerequisites for his cure were faith and trust. He first had the faith that Jesus possessed the power from his Father to heal, and second, he trusted that God not only could heal him but would heal him. Faith led the man to seek Jesus out, his trust—what we call hope—led him to ask for what he needed. Notice that he asked and did not demand. “If you wish, you can make me clean,” he said.
Next, the passage turns to Jesus’s reaction to this request. When we read about what Jesus did, we’re given a glimpse into the mind of God himself. The first thing to notice is that Jesus paid any attention to the man at all. Lepers, by virtue of their disease, were excluded from Jewish society entirely, and, not only that, but they were also excluded from participation in the promises of the Law of Moses, as well. An observant rabbi such as Jesus should rightfully have ignored the man. That Jesus heard him and paid attention to his needs tells us that God’s grace and his power have no prerequisites. God’s love is not contingent on obedience to rules or even on good behavior. We should never feel like we’re not “good enough” to pray. In fact, Jesus not only sets no criteria for healing the man, but he doesn’t even ask him any questions concerning his behavior or his lifestyle. Jesus sees a person in need who has faith in him and trusts him enough to ask for the impossible.
Finally, Jesus, mirroring God his Father, doesn’t hesitate to get his hands dirty with human affairs. Our God is not hiding away on the top of Mount Sinai, nor in the holy of holies in some remote temple. He walks with us. Many times, we hear Jesus say to those who’ve approached him with some need, “Go your way, your faith has saved you.” However, in this instance, Jesus breaks down all the barriers. He reaches out and touches the man. We read in today’s first reading a description of what Jesus saw when this man approached him. His garments were ripped, and his head was bare. His beard was muffled, and he came to Jesus shouting, “Unclean! Unclean!” Even in Jesus’s time, people understood that you could catch the disease if you came in contact with someone who had it. And yet, Jesus touched him. No one is diseased enough or nasty enough that God will not touch them.
What Jesus says to the man is also significant. “I do will it,” he tells him. “Be made clean.” You know, some people say that God always answers prayer, but sometimes the answer is no. I don’t buy that. No is not an answer to prayer. We might also pray, imitating the leprous man, “If you wish, you could fulfill my need.” What else could God’s response to that be, other than, “I do will it”? We trust that God always answers prayer. Our problem is that we often pray for things that aren’t for our ultimate good, or the good of those we’re praying for. Saint Paul describes it this way, “… for we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” [Romans 8:26] We always know what we want, but we’re often ignorant of what it is we genuinely need. If we can hold off telling God what we want him to do, he will always provide us with what we need, even if it’s not what we want. That’s why every prayer must end with “… if it be your will.”
One more little aside … Since we don’t know what is best for us, what we most need in every situation is guidance, that is, the knowledge of what would be the right thing to do or say in any given situation. That is wisdom, and we should always pray for that. But that’s not all. How often have we been aware of the right thing to do, but hesitated to do it—or chickened out entirely? The right thing to do is often not the easy or popular thing to do. What we need from God in these instances is the courage, the strength, the power, … the grace actually to follow through with it. That’s why I believe the perfect prayer is one that asks God for the knowledge of his will for us in every situation, and the power to carry that out. Pray this, and only this, and your prayer will never disappoint.
There’s yet one more final lesson we can take away from this gospel reading. What happened after the man was cured of his illness? “The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.” As we touched on last week, receiving a gift of grace from God carries with it certain responsibilities. However, these are neither burdensome nor any sort of legalistic requirements. The response of anyone who has been the recipient of a gift is the responsibility to express our gratitude. When she was cured of her fever, Simon’s mother-in-law got up to serve others as an act of gratitude. The leper today had to spread the news of what Jesus had done for him because he was overflowing with gratitude. He couldn’t keep it to himself.
How about us? Here we are, blessed beyond all measure. Here we are with the knowledge of God’s will for us instilled in our minds and the power to carry that out filling our hearts. The psalmist sings, “What return shall I make to the Lord for all the good things he has given me? I will take up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.” [Psalm 116:12-13] People speak of our Sunday obligation as though it were an onerous imposition. But, where’s the gratitude? Doesn’t eucharist mean “thanksgiving”? Isn’t our coming together as a community to render thanks simply a responsibility we take on out of love for our God?
“Lift up your hearts.”
“We have lifted them up to the Lord.”
“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”
“It is right to give him thanks and praise.”