A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Then, warning the him sternly, he dismissed him at once. He said to him, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.
In reflecting on today’s Gospel lesson, I got to thinking about Lenten preparations and from that this question arose: “How many times do we sin in the midst of a blessing and not even know it?” Perhaps we’re like the leper in today’s Gospel lesson. Christ cured him of his leprosy and immediately afterward Jesus gave him two specific instructions: the first was to go to the local priest and get the healing verified according to the OT law, and then the second was “don’t tell anybody.”
There’s no indication that he went to the priest and he certainly didn’t keep his mouth shut. The text tells us that the man went away and began to tell everyone he met about the whole matter. The cured man lapsed into sin in the midst of his blessing.
I think it may be more common than we think. Like the cured leper, we may be euphoric over some really Good News: perhaps there’s been a wonderful promotion, perhaps one of the kids got a full ride to the college of her choice, perhaps there’s been a supernatural healing and the joy knows no bounds. But in response we did something that displeases God. We may have imbibed way too much in our favorite adult beverage. In our joy we may have crossed the line in showing affection to someone of the opposite sex who wasn’t our spouse.
Or perhaps we betrayed a confidence, shared a story that wasn’t ours to tell. Remember Jesus told the healed leper “mums the word” but he wouldn’t do as he was told; he relayed something he was forbidden to share; he couldn’t or wouldn’t properly channel the exuberance. There are so many reasons which require confession and reconciliation.
Sometimes we disobey because we forget or are overwhelmed by the moment. I suspect this was the case of this healed Leper. Other times we succumb to a long time temptation, a chronic sin, regularly it concerns one of the three “Ls”: lust, loathing or lucre (sex, hatred, money). They are the stuff of big time sins.
Other times we disobey and offend God because we demand to know why we should be faithful and if the reason doesn’t measure up to our satisfaction, then we say “I’m not doing that. If this instruction can’t be defended to my satisfaction, then I’m not even going to bother to try to be obedient.” That’s often the case with those who use artificial birth control or who opt not to follow rules on fasting or almsgiving.
As you know, hubris, pride, is the foundation of all sin and the basis of hubris is the desire to be in control and to avoid submission to God in all things. In some things most asuredly, but certainly not all things. Most of us want to pick and choose. We think or say ‘’Jesus you can be the Lord of my life, except in these specific areas, I’m keeping control here.”
I’m reminded once again of the old story told about Russian Czar Ivan the Great and 500 of his soldiers. They were to be baptized, but they had some reservations; after much pondering and discussion each man agreed to be baptized, but as he was immersed, he held his sword hand out of the water making it clear that “My sword and my fighting hand will not submit to the Lord Jesus. I get to choose how I engage in battle.”
This story of the unbaptized sword hand is a wonderful illustration of how folks pick and choose to be obedient. Figuratively speaking, if this story were to be re-told about us modern Catholics, what would the illustration be? What would we be holding up out of the waters of baptism? Would we be holding up our wallets, our checkbooks? How about our watches? We offer God our spare time, if and only when we don’t need to dedicate ourselves to more important matters. How about our will, our pride, our sexuality? There are a lot of things that we do and have which we will not submit to God. Let’s ponder some of those things.
How about our unreadiness to forgive or to let go of old grudges? How about our hesitation to be generous, our laziness in taking initiative to help when our aid is sought? How about our social pretensions or our hopes of recognition by people we long to impress and with whom we want to associate? What of our hopes of claiming status for our families and ourselves? Our snobberies and our judgments in careless talk and gossip? Our reverse snobbery in our snide and cutting comments about the affluent and successful? How about our choice to dwell in the past and to be unwilling to come to terms with lesser realities and more current sober circumstances?
How about our tendency to savor and to keep at the ready all that resentful criticism and self-justification? And then there are our secret betrayals and disloyalties to those we love and to those to whom our loyalties are owed. The list is legion.
One of the more common manifestations of sin is a hardened heart, manifesting a lack of compassion and kindness. There is the calloused heart that is the particular sin of people who are competent, those who are efficient and proficient and skilled, they are the ones who get things done. But as a result they often are the ones who get really impatient and critical of those who are less competent, who are not very efficient, who are not proficient and lack skill. It is easy, even common, for those who are blessed with competence to get annoyed with those who are not as gifted. Those with calloused hearts get very disparaging of those who are less capable. Kindness is put aside and impatience is linked with condescension. Those with calloused hearts often detest people who don’t follow through or are perceived as being lazy, confusing behavior with a person’s basic worth. In some cases, folks with calloused hearts become apathetic to the plight of those in need and I would remind you that apathy, not hate, is the opposite of love.
Another frequent manifestation of a hardened heart is the scarred heart. It’s the heart of those who have been wounded by some mal-treatment, perhaps by the abuse of a parent or an adult in authority, perhaps by someone to whom you’ve given your heart and they have scorned or abandoned you and these wounded hearts have become hardened with scar tissue. As a result, there is a strong desire to avoid pain: emotional, psychological and spiritual pain especially, so there is a stuffing of compassion and kindness. If you have a scarred heart, you are not going to make yourself vulnerable.
Those with severely scarred hearts will shut down or lash out irrationally because of the old wound and vulnerable people, children in particular, will be the recipients of neglect or rage and if the wounds of the heart have been severe, then the rage will be savage as it is inflicted on little ones. It’s a prime reason for child abuse in families and both men and women are subject to this.
To soften a hardened heart, whether due to callous or scar tissue, takes prayer and perhaps psychological counseling and of course the grace of the sacrament of reconciliation. If your heart is hardened, I regularly recommend envisioning our Blessed Mother coming to you and with her strong, dexterous fingers, massaging the callous or scar and breaking it up. It may be painful, but the heart does become softened.
It’s important to know why the heart is hard, so then the reason can be addressed and healing can take please. And of course there must be the desire to have the heart be softened so that love and kindness and grace can flow out of it.
I bring all this up now because this coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and Lent is upon us. It’s time to address our sins and to bring them before the throne of Grace for forgiveness and healing and reconciliation.
In closing, I’d like to share with you this prayer for Lent by the onetime Dean of York Cathedral in England, The Very Rev. Eric Milner-White:
Lord, bless me this Lent.
Lord, let me first most truly and profitably,
By feeding in prayer on the Spirit—
Reveal me to myself
In the light of thy holiness.
Suffer me never to think that I have
Knowledge enough to need no teaching,
Wisdom enough to need no correction,
Talents enough to need no grace,
Goodness enough to need no progress,
Humility enough to need no repentance,
Devotion enough to need no quickening,
Strength sufficient without thy spirit;
Lest, standing still, I fall back for evermore.
Show me the desires that should be disciplined,
And sloths to be slain.
Show me the omissions to be made up
And the habits to be mended.
And behind these,
Weaken, humble and annihilate in me
Self-will, self-righteousness, self satisfaction,
Self-sufficiency, self-assertion, vainglory.
May my whole effort be to return to thee;
O make it serious and sincere,
Persevering and fruitful in result,
By the help of thy Holy Spirit,
And to thy glory,
My Lord and my God.