God’s Cleansing Us from the Desire to Manipulate Him, 1st Thursday (II), January 11, 2018

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Thursday of the First Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
January 11, 2018
1 Sam 4:1-11, Ps 44, Mk 1:40-45

 

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • One of the great dangers in living the faith is the temptation to manipulate God for our own ends. This temptation obviously can affect those with no or very little faith: “If you really exist, then show it by working this miracle I ask of you.” But it can also affect those who have faith, who are very familiar with God. Egocentrism invades our relationship and rather than truly worshipping God, seeking his will, his kingdom, his glory — and seeking them as our great priorities — we seek our own will, kingdom and glory, and seek God’s really only to the extent that it doesn’t get in the way of our own. It’s important for us always to examine the rectitude of our intention when it comes to God and, as a litmus test, to examine whether we’re actually seeking his will in action with a pure heart. Today’s readings help us to examine this reality in depth.
  • In today’s first reading, the Israelites, who were not being faithful to God, were fighting against the Philistines. The Israelites had suffered a defeat but then immediately said, “Let us fetch the ark of the Lord from Shiloh, that it may go into battle among us and save us from the grasp of our enemies.” They wanted to use the Ark of Covenant as a magical object to bring them earthly victory. They essentially wanted to use God for their ends, rather than stopping with reverence to ask what were God’s ends. And when they came to the Temple to “fetch” the Ark, Phinehas and Hophni, the two sons of Eli, just let them take it. They were supposed to be guardians of the Ark, but we know that their presence in the Temple of Shiloh, their proximity to this great reminder and instantiation of God’s saving power in the history of the people of Israel, didn’t really sink deeply into them. They were corrupt: sexually abusing women who had come to adore at the temple and seeking to profit financially from people’s desire to serve God. And so priests and people — in short, almost everyone — were just trying to use God for their own purposes rather than seeking and doing his will. God allowed the Philistines to triumph, we can say at his own expense, out of a just mercy meant to bring the Israelites to conversion, rather than allow them to persevere in such manipulation. Since the Israelites had brought the Ark into battle, “God” himself was being defeated as 30,000 Israelites were slain and the ark was stolen. But just like on Good Friday, God permitted it in order ultimately to convert and save.
  • In the Responsorial Psalm we see the first step of their Redemption, but it still oozes with their spiritual subjectivism, their focus on themselves rather than God. Rather than being crestfallen at how they have dishonored God and sullied his name among the peoples, they were concerned principally about their own: “Now you have cast us off and put us in disgrace, and you go not forth with our armies. You have let us be driven back by our foes; those who hated us plundered us at will. You made us the reproach of our neighbors, the mockery and the scorn of those around us. You made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples. Why do you hide your face, forgetting our woe and our oppression?” They’re trying to guilt trip God to act, when it was their own sins that divided them from the Lord. They wanted him to do their will without their doing his. God permitted their disgrace, their being plundered, their reproach, scorn and mockery, precisely to bring them to conversion, precisely out of a strong mercy. And he accepted their “imperfect contrition” — their sorrow not out of love for him, but out of hatred for the punishment their sins had brought upon them — and repeatedly mercifully redeemed them.
  • We can see another instance of manipulation of God in the Gospel. The most physically disgusting and repulsive human being imaginable came up to Jesus, knelt down and begged Jesus to cure him. Lepers, as you know, have a bacterial infection that eats away at their flesh and gives them a sickening odor. At the time of Jesus, leprosy was considered so contagious that those with it were quarantined for life apart from the rest of the community. They had no one with whom to associate or to care for them — except other lepers. They were cut off from their family, from their jobs, from the synagogue and from the temple, from love and mercy. They were outcasts, ostracized from all things human. They had to wear ripped clothes and keep their hair messy so that others would be able to spot them more easily. Whenever they needed to travel to obtain something, they were mandated by Mosaic law, as we see in the first reading, to shout out “Unclean!” “Unclean!” They were forbidden to come within a certain distance of others. Anyone who touched a leper became, in Jewish mentality, unclean. That the man in today’s Gospel broke all convention to come close to Jesus was already a sign of his desperation. What was Jesus’ reaction to this miserable, nauseating creature on his knees before him? Most of those around Jesus likely ran away from him lest they catch the contagion. Jesus moved in the opposite direction. He stretched out his hand and touched the leper. We can almost hear the shrieks of onlookers two thousand years later. It was probably the first time a non-leper had touched him in years. Then Jesus said the words that were the answer to the man’s prolonged prayers: “Be made clean!” After the leprosy miraculously left him, Jesus gave him instructions to go see the priest and go through the rites of the Mosaic law for testimony of a cure of leprosy so that he, so long an outcast, could return to the human community. This is a classic expression of the Lord’s soft and tender mercy, something the leper was desperately grateful to receive.
  • But that’s where the leper’s faith that had brought him to Jesus in the first place ended. Once he got what he wanted, he started to do his own thing, rather than what God was calling him to do. St. Mark tells us that Jesus “warning him sternly,” instructed him, “See that you tell no one anything.” Jesus well knew that if news of the miracle became widespread, everyone would be coming to him first as a free medical doctor and secondly as the long-awaited Messiah whom they would interpret in political terms, as someone who would boot the Romans and reinstitute a Davidic temporal kingdom. Jesus wanted to avoid those misconceptions because he had come not as a new political candidate or primarily as a new Hippocrates but as a Savior. The former leper’s response to Jesus’ stern warning not to tell anyone anything, was however, to ignore it totally. St. Mark says, “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,” exactly validating Jesus’ concerns that underlined his warning and command. While the man was cured of the leprosy of his skin and body parts, he wasn’t cured of the leprosy of a partially hardened heart. When he heard the voice of the Lord telling him not to do something, he simply ignored it and did what he wanted to do. He likely thought he had justification for doing so: after all, Jesus had given him the greatest gift of his life and what would it hurt, he probably asked himself, publicly to praise him for it? But the simple fact of the matter is that he responded to the Lord’s command with disobedience. He had gotten what he wanted from the Lord and then he was just going to do what he wanted from that point forward, instead of what the Lord had sternly commanded. To a degree like the Israelites, he had been in the presence of the Lord, he had heard the Lord’s words, he had received his liberating actions, but none of that had transformed him to want what God wants. He had used the Lord for his own advantage, but then he went off as if he were in charge, rather than a grateful follower of the one he called, “Lord.”
  • For us, the leprosy of a partially hardened heart — a heart that hears the Lord’s voice but responds selectively, according to our own desires, needs, and categories — is often our condition as well. We may listen attentively and put into practice Jesus’ words about praying always, but harden our heart to his words about confessing our sins to those whom he has sent with the power to forgive and retain sins in his name. We may seek to enflesh his words about crossing the road to help someone in need when we feel like it, but harden our hearts to Jesus’ word about welcoming strangers as we would welcome him when we don’t feel like it. We may faithfully keep the commandment to honor our parents but violate his command to forgive our siblings who have wronged us. We may faithfully heed his word about the Mass, to eat his flesh and drink his blood, but totally ignore his commission to go to every creature we know and proclaim the Gospel. We may follow him with a good heart when he asks us to love one person but then harden it totally toward loving someone whom we don’t like. Part of our heart is open and docile and part of it is full of stone. Part of us listens to the Lord and part of us ignores him and does our own thing: whether our heart is opened to the Lord or hardened depends on what the voice of the Lord says to us. If God speaks to us a word we want to hear, then often we’ll do it; but if the Lord challenges us to do something we don’t want to do, often we’ll ignore God’s voice and listen to our own. And many times, just like the leper in the Gospel, we’ll feel justified in doing so because we think we’re doing something good with a good motivation, but in fact we’re hardening our hearts to the Lord’s voice. The real test is  how we respond when God asks us to do something that goes against the grain for us. Do we hear his voice and do it? Do we receive his commands as the merciful imperatives they are, or do we only receive the mercy we think we need and close ourselves off to the other expressions of that divine love?
  • The temptation to manipulate God — like the Israelites before the Philistines, like Eli and his sons, like the leper in the Gospel — is perennial. We, too, can seek to establish our relationship with God on our own terms and not on his. This can impact even the holiest activities if we’re not careful. One of the things we should be attentive to is our prayer. There are five basic forms of prayer: praise of God for who and how lovable he is in himself, thanking him for what he’s done for us, expressing sorrow for our sins and those of others, interceding for the needs of others and of the Church, and petitioning for our own needs and desires. If our prayer is full of praise for God, if that’s the dominant tendency, closely following by thanking God for everything (including the crosses!) and expressing sorrow for the many ways that we’re not yet the persons he created us to be, with his divine life more and more transforming our humanity, then we’re probably on very solid ground. If our prayer is principally one of intercession, there is a potential danger for us to be using God, because God is far more than a problem solver, and so as we ask we should be particularly open to his saying no out of love for us and for those for whom we’re interceding. But if our prayer is principally about petitions for ourselves, there is a great danger that we might be seeking to use God for our own ends. Asking God for what we need is something Jesus explicitly tells us to do, and is by no means necessarily selfish, but it can done selfishly and egocentrically. The way to ensure we don’t give into the danger is to strive to focus far more on the Giver himself than on the gifts we’re asking.
  • To the extent that we have been guilty of manipulating God, or to the extent that we’re aware of the temptation to do so, today we come to the Lord to ask him to make us clean. And we know that here at Mass we have something far greater here than the Israelites had in the Temple of Shiloh. We have God in his real presence and not just various symbols of his presence. God wants to make us his Temple and come and abide with us. He wants to make us clean and keep us clean. He wants to fill us with his mercy according to his omniscient determination as to how we need it. Today we ask him for the grace to hear his voice and do it, to say and mean, “Thy will be done!” and then act on his command to us at the end of today’s Mass. He won’t tell us, like he told the former leper, not to tell anyone anything. He’ll tell us, rather, “Go to the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature!” He’ll tell us, “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord!” May we, having been healed by God, and having receive Himwithin during Holy Communion, not spend the rest of our day doing our own thing, but rather telling everybody about the miracles God continues to do for us out of merciful love.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 1 SM 4:1-11

The Philistines gathered for an attack on Israel.
Israel went out to engage them in battle and camped at Ebenezer,
while the Philistines camped at Aphek.
The Philistines then drew up in battle formation against Israel.
After a fierce struggle Israel was defeated by the Philistines,
who slew about four thousand men on the battlefield.
When the troops retired to the camp, the elders of Israel said,
“Why has the LORD permitted us to be defeated today
by the Philistines?
Let us fetch the ark of the LORD from Shiloh
that it may go into battle among us
and save us from the grasp of our enemies.”So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there
the ark of the LORD of hosts, who is enthroned upon the cherubim.
The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were with the ark of God.
When the ark of the LORD arrived in the camp,
all Israel shouted so loudly that the earth resounded.
The Philistines, hearing the noise of shouting, asked,
“What can this loud shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?”
On learning that the ark of the LORD had come into the camp,
the Philistines were frightened.
They said, “Gods have come to their camp.”
They said also, “Woe to us! This has never happened before. Woe to us!
Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods?
These are the gods that struck the Egyptians
with various plagues and with pestilence.
Take courage and be manly, Philistines;
otherwise you will become slaves to the Hebrews,
as they were your slaves.
So fight manfully!”
The Philistines fought and Israel was defeated;
every man fled to his own tent.
It was a disastrous defeat,
in which Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers.
The ark of God was captured,
and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were among the dead.

Responsorial Psalm PS 44:10-11, 14-15, 24-25

R. (27b) Redeem us, Lord, because of your mercy.
Yet now you have cast us off and put us in disgrace,
and you go not forth with our armies.
You have let us be driven back by our foes;
those who hated us plundered us at will.
R. Redeem us, Lord, because of your mercy.
You made us the reproach of our neighbors,
the mockery and the scorn of those around us.
You made us a byword among the nations,
a laughingstock among the peoples.
R. Redeem us, Lord, because of your mercy.
Why do you hide your face,
forgetting our woe and our oppression?
For our souls are bowed down to the dust,
our bodies are pressed to the earth.
R. Redeem us, Lord, because of your mercy.

Alleluia SEE MT 4:23

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Jesus preached the Gospel of the Kingdom
and cured every disease among the people.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel MK 1:40-45

A leper came to him and kneeling down begged him and said,
“If you wish, you can make me clean.”
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand,
touched the leper, and said to him,
“I do will it. Be made clean.”
The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.
Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once.
Then 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.