Saturday, May 15, 2010

Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean

And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

When he had come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him. And behold, a leper came and worshiped him, saying, "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean." Then Jesus put out his hand and touched him, saying, "I am willing; be cleansed." Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, "See that you tell no one; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them."

- Matthew 7:28 - 8:4

We are now at the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, and included in today's reading is the beginning of Matthew's witness to Jesus' healing ministry. For all the readings of the Sermon on the Mount, see readings and commentary from Monday, April 26th through Saturday, May 8th, 2010 - beginning with The Beatitudes and ending with The Narrow Gate, and yesterday's reading, Build your house upon the rock.

And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. In yesterday's reading and commentary, I noted from my study bible that Jesus' words portrayed a threefold testimony to his own deity - in his use of the word "Lord" in reference to himself, in the phrase "the will of my Father," and in his teaching on his future judgment. In today's reading, this section gives us the perspective of those who are listening to the sermon. Jesus teaches as "one having authority, and not as the scribes." This is the perspective of witness - Jesus has no credentials, does not cite anyone else's opinions or any other great teacher he has followed as reference for what he teaches, which would confer authority. He does not have "worldly" authority - and yet he teaches as one that does; there is a presence in and of himself to be reckoned with.

When he had come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him. I note this sentence in reference to yesterday's feast day - Ascension Day. The Sermon on the Mount is yet another "mountaintop" experience, (as my friend Fr. Vazken Movsesian has reminded me in his recent podcast). In the context of Ascension Day, we recall that it is here that Jesus draws us closer to the kingdom of heaven. On Ascension Day, he took our nature to the Father, and draws us with him, into salvation and reconciliation. The Sermon on the Mount gives us what Jesus calls (in yesterday's reading) "these sayings of mine" that draw us to the kingdom, that initiate us as his disciples and bring us into reconciliation: God to humanity, and humanity to God. On this mountaintop, Jesus has taught us that we "shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect."

And behold, a leper came and worshiped him, saying, "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean." Then Jesus put out his hand and touched him, saying, "I am willing; be cleansed." Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, "See that you tell no one; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." My study bible notes, "The biblical law concerning leprosy is found in Lev. 13;14. Deuteronomy 24:8 describes the purification of lepers and leprous houses, which is a duty entrusted to the priests. Leprosy was considered a direct punishment for sins, and lepers were unclean, not permitted to live in the community or to worship God in synagogues or the temple. Touching the unclean was forbidden under Mosaic Law (Lev. 7:21). Jesus touched (v. 3) the leper, showing his compassion, and demonstrating he is not subject to the Law but over it. To the clean there is nothing unclean." Immediately upon finishing the Sermon on the Mount, and coming down from the mountain, Jesus performs a healing act on one whose affliction is considered a direct punishment for sins, and so unclean that he was not permitted to live in community nor to worship God in synagogues or the temple. This is his first act following his teachings of love in action - a demonstration of all that he has just taught, his summing up of the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets. (We note, also, that he tells the healed leper to act in accordance with the Law, to "show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.")

Jesus' first act, then, is one of love in action, and also is an act of authority - as one who is not bound by the Law but who instead fulfills it in himself. He also asks the healed leper not to tell anyone. His authority is all in all - he needs no one to testify to it; his acts (as did his teaching) convey authority in themselves. His identity is his own, and comes from a source that does not need "worldly" authentication.

But the most striking thing about this reading for me is this wonderful phrase from my study bible: "To the clean there is nothing unclean." Jesus will teach this to us himself. In Matthew chapter 15, he will teach us that it is what comes out of a person that defiles, not what goes in. Compassion, then, is the central role here, demonstrating love in action. Those who are clean, who follow "these sayings of mine" and sincerely seek union with the Father have no need to fear contamination by touch. Those who seek to heal, who practice love, and seek to do the Father's will - to become like him and in his image - need have no fear through association, "touch." It is an important insight and understanding, and one that defines what we know of Christian action, and redemption. It goes to the heart of how we judge, and who we wish to be or to become ourselves. How often our judgment works by association!

Christ also feels no fear of the crowds' opinions about him. He neither fears what people will say because he has violated the law in the spirit of compassion, nor that he associates with the "unclean." And again, we know that there are many times in the gospels when Jesus will demonstrate this in various forms. In a bible study I recently attended (by Deacon Shant Kazanjian), we were studying the prayers of women in the bible. There is the reflection of the same theme in comparing the joyous prayer of Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1-10) and the Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1:46-55). In both prayers, the theme is that the work of the Lord is to reverse an order: the lowly are lifted, the afflicted are healed. This is the work of salvation - and it is a common theme throughout Scripture. It is demonstrated perhaps most clearly in healing miracles in the gospels. Jesus' love in action, then, and this first vivid healing miracle of the leper, teach us this same theme. He has lifted up the lowly, and the proud are scattered in their conceit. He is illustrating, without qualification or explanation, the true power of salvation and the action of the holy in our lives, the redemption that is promised in this fulfillment of Scripture in his person. Can we remember this in our encounters with others? As we are to be the Salt and Light of a heavenly kingdom here on earth, as his disciples, can we remember that "to the clean, there is nothing unclean?" How do we come to practice this, in whatever forms we are called, in our lives? And what contemporary worldly notions in our own milieu - social rules - need we reject to do so?

A special thanks from me today to Fr. Mark Hummell of, appropriately for this week, The Church of the Ascension, who honors love in action through a Recovery Eucharist each month. "Recovery Eucharists are times to acknowledge the grace of God by which so many who have addictions, or love someone with an addiction, have been transformed and restored to health and well-being, and to praise God for their recovery."