Lv 13:1-2, 44-46; Ps 32:1-2, 5, 11; 1 Cor 10:31-11:1; Mk 1:40-45
“If you wish, you can make me clean …”
This 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time also marks The World Day of the Sick. And whether by chance or by design, today’s Gospel passage perfectly suits the occasion. In the episode of the miraculous cure of the leper, we receive both 1) a model for approaching Jesus when sick or in material need, and 2) a beautiful portrait of Jesus’ compassionate response. All of which naturally leads us 3) to seek in Jesus the response to our “unanswered” prayers.
1) With respect to approaching God in prayer, the leper models for us a delicate balance between boldness and surrender. The leper is bold in making known his real needs and in professing Christ’s power—“You can make me clean.” At the same time, the conditional statement that precedes the request hints at an even deeper surrender to God’s will—“If you wish …” The leper respects the fact that Jesus is not simply vending machine for miracles: He is a person in his own right, his own mysterious will, designs and plans. “If you wish …”
Scripture everywhere recommends both boldness and deeper surrender in prayer. We approach with boldness because God Himself teaches us to ask for what we need, even for crassly material necessities: “Give us this day our daily bread …”; “Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray” (James 5:13). On the other hand, we also approach God with surrender because we trust that He knows better: “You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). Even when we’re praying for legitimate things, such as health and safety, we still need the Holy Spirit’s assistance, says St. Paul, for we “do not know how to pray as [we] ought” (Rom 8:26). In other words, our perspective is limited; prayer always involves a certain breaking out of the narrow circle of our concerns and preoccupations. But this requires trust. And trust is not easy.
2) If we want to renew our prayerful trust, then, we do well to contemplate what follows—Jesus’ compassionate response to the leper. We recall from the first reading in Leviticus the terrible isolation that lepers had to endure. How many years had passed since this leper last touched another human being? How long had he yelled “Unclean, unclean” (Lv 13:45)? And yet, “Moved with pity, [Jesus] stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean.’” A quick glance at a Greek dictionary tells us that the phrase “moved with pity” (σπλαγχνισθείς) is derived from the word “gut.” It suggests that Christ feels the distress of the leper in his core, with every fiber of his being. He does not heal grudgingly, as if trying to silence a nagging panhandler. Moreover, though Christ often heals from a distance, today He does not. Christ deliberately stretches out his hand and touches the leper, being perhaps the first man to do so in many years. In dramatic fashion, Christ affirms his dignity.
If Christ truly represents God to us, then it is impossible to imagine that any prayer fails to gain a hearing, fails to touch God’s heart.
3) The obvious question: What about the prayers that seem to us to go unanswered? Rather than go on about the metaphysics of prayer or the riddle of divine providence, I would ultimately point to the experience of Jesus at prayer. For Jesus not only answered prayers, he also offered prayers. On the Mount of Olives, he prayed for his “health” in the most basic sense. He prayed for his very life—“ Take this cup away from me …” (Mk 14:36b). And while doing so, he exhibits the same confidence and surrender of the leper. He shows confidence in His Father’s power: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you.” (Mk 14:36a). Yet he simultaneously surrenders: “But not what I will but what you will” (Mk 14:36c). We all know that Jesus meant this second part no less than the first. We know how the story ended.
Yet, intriguingly, the Letter to the Hebrew teaches that Christ’s prayer was heard: “In the days when he was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Hb 5:7). Christ was heard. He was rescued from the power of death forever—though not without first passing through gates of death. Christ’s death and resurrection are perhaps the best answer to the mystery of unanswered prayer. Christ himself did not receive exactly what He asked for; he received something greater. All our prayers are taken up into His great prayer to the Father.
Christ’s prayer, to the Father, in the Spirit, is the prayer that we enter into at every Mass. We ask for commonplace things: freedom from distress, peace in our day, our daily bread, healing in mind and body. And in His prayer, our prayers our heard. Sometimes in the miraculous fashion of the leper. At other times in the mysterious fashion of Christ’s own prayer in the Garden. But the fact that the resurrection followed the cross means that there is none who clings to the Father in prayer, boldly and humbly, who does not receive greater life in return.