The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Which Is Easier?
“If you wish you can make me clean”
“Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’
or to say, ‘Rise and walk.’”
Luke tells his readers that “many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha” (4:27) and in the time of Jesus they still were many. That lepers would be healed was among the original promise of the kingdom, along with freedom to captives and sight to the blind (Matthew 10:8, 11:5, Luke 7:22). It was one of a company of ten lepers whom Jesus healed who turned back to thank the healer (Luke 17:11–19). Jesus was in the house of Simon the Leper when the woman came to pour precious ointment on the Lord’s head (Matthew 26:6). Jesus had no fear of lepers, although their disease was fearsome, a wasting disease, caused as we now know, by bacteria that make the body visibly decay. Leviticus commanded that lepers cry out “unclean” as they walked among other men and women, and that they live apart (Leviticus 13:45). In the twelfth century there were two thousand hospitals for lepers in Europe, and lepers still carried a bell to warn of their approach.
Often finally fatal, it made those afflicted repugnant. When one sees a body horribly deformed from wounds or bearing the evidence of disease or born imperfect or with limbs falling away, although the second thought, the product of disciplined imagination, may acknowledge that the person must be treated with every respect, often the first thought is to distance oneself from the painful sight. In the worst case the person thus afflicted may be contagious; avoidance is intuitive. Leprosy was a particularly disgusting disease, common in Palestine when Jesus taught. Lepers were pariahs; that Jesus visited Simon’s house was a sign of His love for the unlovely.
It is a temptation natural to mankind since righteous Job, deprived of his vast possessions, sat scratching his sores, to see afflicting diseases as not only repugnant but as signs of God’s disfavor. But the Christian theology of ugliness and disfigurement is more than skin deep. We see the outside, God the inside; “The Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart” (I Samuel 16:7). And Jesus said, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgement” (John 7:24). When Jesus sees a suffering cancer patient, bald and burned, or a downs child He has no repugnance because He sees things as they are, the heart and soul of every person, so that He is not persuaded of our goodness or our worthiness of the kingdom by outward signs but by the divine knowledge of our wills and intellects. To look upon one afflicted in form may be to look upon one beloved and beautiful in the divine gaze, while it is at least possible that when Jesus looks upon the best-favored of us He may see the ravaging corruptions of sin and settled rebellion. Disease like death is a burden of the fall, and what and how that burden is distributed among men who with respect to that disobedience are joint tenants in common is a work of God’s providence. The man born blind suffered his blindness not because he had sinned or because his parents had sinned but that the glory of God might shine forth in the blind man’s healing (John 9:3). It is certain that the Lord judges souls not by the bodies they inform but by their intrinsic virtues and holiness. When God sees our hearts in our healthy and prosperous bodies, He may on a certain day see a soul sunk in death, whose only proper request is, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” For every righteous leper there may be a Dorian Gray, a handsome face behind which there is a lost soul.
Not only is the attempt to interpret one’s relation to God from his bodily circumstances impossible, but the rejection of the afflicted is the rejection of the cross in this world. Those suffering, the lepers, the children with birth defects, those beset with the plagues common to modernity, are deserving of our special respect. To look upon one afflicted in form may be to look upon one beloved of God, one who is an image of the cross. These afflicted ones bear the visible brunt of original sin. Death is the result of sin, but decay and disfigurement are death’s signs and disease is death’s herald. It is for this reason that hospitals are holy places. This is why we cherish the dying, even when we sometimes wish to flee from the signs and sights of the final disorder. They are bearing something now for us all, just as the un-lovely child is holy because he is bearing for us all the result of the great rebellion in something of the way Jesus bore its effects on the cross.
It is one of the Christian facts that in the midst of life we are in death; that while the outer man decays the inner man may by grace grow stronger (II Corinthians 4:16). The healing of the leper is the great metaphor for the healing of diseased souls, which is of an order far greater than the healing of the body. It is remarkable that during His incarnate time on earth, while He fed and healed the body, while He commanded nature through His signs and miracles, while He urged the fulfillment of the teaching of His sermon on the Mount, while He elevated and healed nature miraculously, and while He urged repentance and reform, while He had power over demons, having and displaying these powers, He rarely forgave sins. He had command over nature which had been made and existed through Him, so that His miracles, His healings and perfectings, are a vast synecdoche of His perfecting government of the cosmos toward its end beyond history, a command over nature that He could exercise without entering the terrain of human freedom. But the forgiveness of sins required the power of the Paraclete, who would not be sent into the world in Gospel fullness until His presence had been purchased by Christ’s cross; until then, the power to release and renew souls was restrained. “If I do not go away the Paraclete will not come to you, but if I go I will send Him to you” (John 14:7).
None of the seven signs of the Gospel of John or the miracles of the synoptics involved Jesus’ declarative forgiveness of sin. He told the woman at the well to sin no more (John 8:11) and the paralytic, as with the woman with the flow of blood, that through their faith their sins had been forgiven (Matthew 9:2, 20), but the reason for the miracle of the paralytic’s healing was so that the one healed, and with him those standing by, could know that Jesus had the power to forgive sins. In the same way when in Luke Jesus saw the faith of the paralyzed man and of those who had led him down through the roof and into His presence, the Lord asked, “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and go home” (5:17–46). That the world might know that the Son of Man had the power to forgive sins, Jesus cured diseases of the body.
This great power was claimed by Jesus in the Gospels by anticipation until as eternal priest he exercised this great power through the sacraments, after the Church was empowered by the sacrifice of the cross which brought the Holy Spirit into time as prophesied (Jeremiah 31:34). Until then, in the economy of God, Jesus was constrained or held back, waiting for the flames of Pentecost. His words were: “I came to cast fire upon the earth and would that it were already kindled. I have a baptism to be baptized with; and now I am constrained until it is accomplished” (Luke 12:49). It is then the resurrected Lord, alive beyond the cross, by breathing the Holy Spirit upon the twelve, gave peace by giving them the power to forgive as they judged (John 20:22).
To cleanse the body of the effects of the primordial sin that breaks out without immediate cause is great power. To cleanse the soul from its sins is greater, and that power is the lifeblood of the Church in baptism and sacramental absolution. Properly, it is Christians in a state of sin who should ring the leper’s bell before them, but the gift is greater than the necessity and God has willed that not everything done and said in this life will be written on our faces. Yet the hidden unloveliness of a soul in rebellion is a darkening of the world more repugnant to the Divine Majesty than the leper’s rotting body, and the power to forgive sins so that the pilgrim can take another step towards God is greater than the power to heal the body.