Focus on where it is you are and what you hope to be at the end of this session
Try to settle down, and get yourself still. There are a number of ways you might do that. Today become aware of where you are sitting. Sit as simply as you can, either on a chair, with feet on the floor, and eyes closed, or sit on the floor or in an armchair in a position that you know you can maintain for the whole period. Feel your seat beneath you, and focus on where it is you are and what you hope to be at the end of this session.
Then, when you have stilled yourself, at least for a while, turn to God, and say ‘Here I am; speak, Lord - your servant is listening’.
The richness of God’s word is beyond anything that we can imagine
This week we start by looking at a remarkable story, which Matthew places immediately after the Sermon on the Mount. You will notice that the translation that I will be using during the reflection is different to the one you are about to follow in the passage, and probably different from any other that you have ever heard; but allow that difference to speak to you of the richness of God’s word, which always is beyond anything that we can imagine, always offering a fresh challenge.
When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’
Why did the crowds follow Jesus, do you think?
- The first point is what has happened immediately before. Matthew tells us, after the Sermon on the Mount, that ‘he was teaching them like one who had authority, and not like their scribes’. Here he is referring back to what he had found in Mark where it referred to Jesus' ability to deal with demons; but now that Matthew has added the Sermon, it takes on much more significance. Do you recognise this authority in the story?
- You might notice that Matthew speaks of ‘their scribes’, which creates a certain distance. Later on, the scribes will be seen as enemies to Jesus, who powerfully denounces them for their rigidity, lack of mercy, in enforcing the Law. Do you recognise these people? Have you ever felt tempted to be rigid in your application of the law? What does this have to do with ‘mercy’?
- ‘Mountains’ are of enormous importance in Matthew’s gospel. We have just mentioned the ‘Sermon on the Mountain’, of course; but they are also places of prayer and healing in this gospel. In addition, it is on a ‘mountain’ that Matthew places the scene of Jesus’ final farewell to the hapless group, showing his ‘mercy’ to the broken group of eleven. Does the ‘mountain’ speak to you in any way?
- We hear that ‘many crowds followed him’. The word ‘follow’ refers to discipleship, but also, and quite obviously, as with Pope Francis, the crowds recognise the mercy that Jesus brings, in the context of the rigidity of the religious authorities who oppose him. Why did the crowds follow Jesus, do you think?
Talk to God
What effect does Jesus’ healing mercy have on you?
- ‘Behold a leper’. That word ‘behold’ seems rather unimportant, but actually Matthew uses it a great deal, and the point is that it is meant to attract our attention and get our antennae alert. Sadly, many translations think it such an unimportant word that they miss it out. What is it that you hear in this word?
- We hear that the leper ‘started to worship him’. The word ‘worship’ is a very important one in Matthew’s gospel. That is what the Magi came to do, back in chapter two, and what King Herod said he wanted to do (but we know what he meant by that). As you go through the rest of the gospel, you will see that the word always represents the correct approach to Jesus. So the leper has got him right; and we also notice that he correctly addresses Jesus as ‘Lord’. So we are immediately on the side of the leper, and are pretty sure that despite his condition he will receive the Lord’s mercy.
- The leper continues, ‘if you want, you can make me clean’. That is a remarkable statement, and carries the certainty that Jesus is powerful over our worst afflictions, and can bring healing. However we also notice that ‘if’; the leper is admitting to some doubt about whether Jesus is really as benevolent as he seems. Do you believe that Jesus is both powerful and benevolent? And is he merciful?
- Now comes an astonishing, not to say alienating, moment: ‘he stretched out his hand and touched him’. Matthew’s first hearers will have uttered a loud ‘Yuk' at that moment, as this is a very dangerous and disgusting thing to do. But perhaps we might remember the way Pope Francis expresses the loving mercy of God by embracing people on the margins of society, including those with all kinds of diseases and deformities. What did you feel when Jesus touched the leper?
- We can hardly wait for Jesus’ reply… and it comes: ‘I do want’, which settles the question of whether he is benevolent or not. What effect does Jesus’ healing mercy have on you?
- The effect of what Jesus has done is immediate: ‘the leprosy left him’. Imagine what the leper must have felt as he listened to Jesus' no-nonsense instructions:
- ‘Don’t tell anyone’ (as if that would be possible, but Jesus presumably wanted to discourage that kind of publicity)
- ‘tell the priest’ (otherwise the man cannot be restored to ordinary society)
- ‘offer the gift that Moses commanded’. Jesus is, you see, a good Jew, operating within the parameters of the Jewish Law, even if he is providing the mercy of God against the wishes of legalistically-minded religious people.
- ‘as a witness to them’. Who are ‘them’? We don’t know, but perhaps we are meant to think of the Old Testament injunction that there have to be several witnesses.
What do you make of all these instructions? And how would you respond if Jesus gave them to you? Bring your responses and feelings before Him now, as honestly and openly as you can.