Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
The Gospel. Matthew 8. 1.
When he was come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him. And behold, there came a leper and worshipped him saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus saith unto him, See thou tell no man; but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them. And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, and saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him. The Centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Come, and he cometh: and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. When Jesus heard it, he marveled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you, that many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast our into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour.
The Gospel lesson today presents us with two excellent illustrations of faith in Our Lord, and the benefits that result from that faith. On the surface, these examples may seem to be quite different in nature; but taken together, they tell us how faith can heal us, and how we should go about the proper conduct of our faith.
St. Matthew tells us first about the healing of the leper; and he begins by recounting that this leper had the audacity to approach Jesus as Our Lord was returning from a period of prayer and meditation. Now you have to remember, that just by doing this, the leper was in violation of Jewish law.
Leprosy was, and still is, a very terrible disease. The body develops numerous and painful ulcerations, both within and without. Muscle tissue is gradually eaten away. Digits and limbs become useless, even falling off in more advanced stages. Finally, in a state of mental decay, the leper falls into a coma and dies. The average length of time for this process is nine years.
In Our Lord’s time fear of contracting this disease lead to the banishment of those who were infected. Lepers were commanded to come no closer than six feet from any other person; this was extended to over 150 feet, if the leper was up-wind.
They were considered to be “unclean” and treated as if they were already dead. In fact, according to the law of that time, if they were just walking down the street, lepers had to announce their coming by calling out, “unclean, unclean”. Anything that they touched or so much as breathed near, was likewise considered to be contaminated; even if they did something as seemingly harmless as sticking their head inside a doorway.
So it is somewhat remarkable that this leper even approached Jesus in the first place. Why he would do so is fairly obvious; desperation. In some cases, people would resort to throwing stones to keep a leper away; but this one judged the risk to be worth taking. He had heard of Jesus, and he knew that this man held the only real hope of being healed from his terrible condition.
Now we might justifiably expect that the leper’s next move would be to beg for his healing. But this is not the case. Instead, he approaches with great reverence; the description that the Gospel uses is that he worshipped Jesus. So instead of immediately presenting his personal case, telling his “tale of woe”, if you will, this leper starts by acknowledging that he is in the presence of something special, something great, something Divine “And behold, there came a leper and worshipped him“. It is only after this act of worship, that the leper makes his request. And the way that he does so is even more remarkable.
“Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean”. Please focus on the first four words of this statement; “LORD, IF THOU WILT…”. This is not a demand. It is not even really a request. “LORD, IF THOU WILT…”. This man, this leper, presents himself to Our Lord as an unclean person; suffering horribly, ostracized by society, doomed to a terrible end. And yet, and yet, he doesn’t beg. He doesn’t ask for anything, really. He starts right off by showing that he is ready, willing, and perhaps even able to accept the will of God. “LORD, IF THOU WILT…”.
What great faith this man must have had! To come before Jesus knowing that Our Lord had the power to cure his disease, and yet to understand that the Will of God may be different; that the Will of God may be that he live out his days in pain and suffering. He comes before Christ knowing that his personal suffering is not a thing that God particularly wishes; yet at the same time he acknowledges that it may be a part of God’s larger plan.
“LORD, IF THOU WILT…”. This is a very humble approach to faith. This is humility inspired by true faith. This is the faith that we will return to in a bit.
Of course, what Jesus does next shows that the Lord does indeed very much “Will”. Jesus reaches out, and touches the man. Now no self-respecting Jewish rabbi would be caught dead touching a leper; but Jesus touches him, nonetheless. By doing this, Christ shows us that we should not be afraid of those whom society has cast aside. Indeed, we are commanded to reach out; to touch, all those who have been forsaken. By doing so, we not only provide healing to those in need, but we also show the same love and compassion of Christ; and we glorify God in the process.
And so, the man is healed. His leprosy disappears. But before this miracle can begin to cause a great stir, Jesus stops the man and gives him specific instructions (and this gives me an opportunity to make a plug for the Church, of course); He tells this former leper to go the local Jewish priest and follow the Law specified for those who are cleansed of leprosy.
The point of the Jewish law governing such a cleansing was twofold; to verify that the cleansing was real and authentic, and to give thanks to God for His goodness in healing a leper. This is an example for us today. How many of us take the time to give thanks to God for the blessings he has shown to us by coming to Church and testifying to His goodness? If a leper can do this for so great a miracle, how much more should we do so for even the smallest of blessings that we have received?
But, I digress. We now move on to the story of the centurion. As Jesus enters the city of Capernaum, he is approached by a man who is very troubled by the illness of one of his servants. We are told that this man is a centurion.
A centurion in the Roman army was akin to something like a Master Sergeant in modern times. Centurions were men who were not necessarily seeking higher positions, but were nonetheless considered to be the backbone of the Roman army. They were known for their leadership abilities, their fairness, and above all, their integrity. These were the finest men that Rome ever produced; and it’s worth noting that at every juncture the New Testament speaks well of the honor of various centurions.
That this centurion should show some concern about a servant is noteworthy as well. This servant was likely a slave; and slaves in those times were not regarded very highly by society. Indeed, slaves were thought of as being nothing more than “animated tools”; not necessarily higher in value than a plow or a hammer, just more “mobile” in the performance of their duties. Roman citizens would not have given much thought to the feelings of a slave, let alone their physical ailments. If a slave got sick or too old to work, they were discarded and replaced. So to show sympathy for the illness of a slave speaks volumes to the integrity of this particular centurion.
The illness suffered by this slave greatly troubled the centurion. And so, he seeks out the help of this traveling healer. But when Jesus tells him that he will come immediately, the centurion demurs; he is a Gentile, and he knows that Jews are forbidden to enter a Gentile house. He further recognizes that this particular Jew, this Jesus, is a Holy man; and he would not presume to show any disrespect by asking Our Lord to enter a Gentile household. But the way that he articulates this is interesting as well.
Now remember that, as a centurion, this man had accomplished much. He commanded upwards of a hundred men. He was part of the “backbone” of the Roman army. And Rome, at this time, controlled much of the known world. This man had much to be proud of. And yet, he comes to Our Lord seeking his help; not for himself, but for another. And when he hears Jesus say that he will come to the house of a Gentile, the centurion displays a humility that is worth emulating. Indeed, we emulate it at every Mass.
“Lord, I am not worthy, that thou shouldst come under my roof…”. What? This man, this commander of hundreds, this representative of all that is powerful in the known world, HE is not worthy? How could a man who has accomplished so much on earth say that he is not worthy to have this lowly healer even enter his house?
Of course, the answer is in his humility. The answer is in his recognition that he is in the presence of something greater than himself; something that exceeds all his accomplishments and all the glory of Rome. The answer is in his love and sympathy for another man. The answer is in Christ.
This love very much moves Our Lord. In fact, it causes him to exclaim that he has not found such a love, such a faith, in all of the “Chosen of God”, in all of Israel. He has, instead, found it in this Gentile.
Now Our Lord shows just how far-reaching is the hand of God. The centurion says, “just say the word, and my servant (my soul) shall be healed”. Jesus tells the centurion, “because you have believed, what you have asked will be done”. And at that very moment, the servant is healed.
Jesus physically touched the leper. He also touched that servant; mystically to be sure, though no less physically. And both healings were done because of faith; the faith of those who came to Christ in humility; the faith of those who were ready to accept that all was possible through the Will of God; the faith of those who acknowledged that the Will of God is always greater than the will of man.
The faith of the leper and the faith of the centurion were not so very different from one another. They both sensed that here was a Divine presence, capable of wondrous things. They both knew that this man, this Jesus, had the power to fulfill their wishes. They both knew that this Jesus was sent by God, to do the Will of God. They both knew that in the presence of such Divinity, that they could approach, that they should approach; but with all due humility and reverence. And they both knew that ultimately, even as they beseeched Christ for their benefit, that the Will of God would be done.
Let this faith be our example. Let us approach God with all reverence and humility. Let us ask first that His Will be done. Let us acknowledge that if He wills it, all things are possible. Let us thank and praise him for all the blessings that he has already bestowed upon us.
Let us love God, and let us love all of his creation. And let us always follow the example of the leper and the centurion; “LORD, IF THOU WILT”, “SPEAK THE WORD ONLY, AND MY SOUL SHALL BE HEALED”.
When Jesus heard it, he marveled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.