Letting Jesus Heal Us of the Leprosy of a Half-Hardened Heart, First Thursday (I), January 15, 2015

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Thursday of the First Week in Ordinary Time, Year I
January 15, 2015
Heb 3:7-14, Ps 95, 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: 

  • Throughout this first week in Ordinary Time, the Church has been having us focus on who Jesus Christ is as the Definitive Word of God the Father, what he communicates to us and what our respond needs to be to him. Over the last few days in the readings from the Letter to the Hebrew, the sacred author has been stressing that Jesus came down to communicate to us and lead us through suffering and death to perfection and to glory. He came not to take away the Cross of suffering and death but to show us how both are medicine in order to heal what ails us and make it possible for us to be fully restored to communion with God.
  • At the beginning of today’s reading, based on those challenging words we’ve heard up until now, the Letter of the Hebrews, challenges us to hear and not to reject or ignore this message that the Son speaks to us in words and body language: “The Holy Spirit says: ‘Oh, that today you would hear his voice, “Harden not your hearts as at the rebellion in the day of testing in the desert, where your ancestors tested and tried me.”‘” Those words, taken from today’s Responsorial Psalm, refer to the time in the desert that the Israelites hardened their hearts against God. Their rebellion took place, we remember, after God had worked all of the mighty plagues, after he had freed the Israelites from Pharaoh, after he had parted the sea to let them pass on dry ground with walls of water on both sides, after God had worked various miracles for them in the desert like raining down manna and quail, making water come from a rock, helping them miraculously defeat the Amalekites, giving them the ten commandments. They had sent scouts into the Holy Land as they drew near and the scouts returned to say that, just as God had promised, it was a land flowing abundantly with milk and honey and fruit. But, they said, the inhabitants there were huge and fierce and the towns were fortified. They said that they couldn’t go forward because the inhabitants “are too strong for us,” that it would be like grasshoppers fighting against giants.” The Israelites as a whole then were discouraged and began to grumble against God and Moses, longing for the fleshpots of Egypt, longing even to have died there instead of in the desert or at the hands of those in Canaan, and wishing to stone Moses (Numbers 13-14). They had forgotten that the Egyptians were much stronger than the Canaanites and God had delivered them. They had forgotten how God had been caring for them. They hardened their hearts to God’s continued guidance, providence and protection. God said as a result that they wouldn’t enter into his rest in the promised land because “they have always been of erring heart and they do not know my ways.”
  • The Letter to the Hebrews uses that Psalm and the episode of the erring, ignorant, hardened hearts of the Israelites as a reminder for the Christians not to let the same thing happen to them. “Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil and unfaithful heart, so as to forsake the living God.” After telling them what not to do, he tells them what to do: “Encourage yourselves daily while it is still ‘today,’ — the today when they’re hearing God’s voice —  so that none of you may grow hardened by the deceit of sin.” He reminds them of their source of strength and courage and then restates the promised reward: “We have become partners of Christ if only we hold the beginning of the reality firm until the end.” The essential message of the Letter is that Jesus by his taking on our humanity and even our suffering and death has led us on an even greater exodus than Moses led the Israelites and that while we’re in the “desert” of our own suffering and death, we shouldn’t lose heart, but continue to open our hearts to the Word Christ is communicating to us and hold firm to his words and to the Word-made-flesh so that we can become sharers in the eternal promised land. The question for us is: When we hear the word of God today, do we harden our hearts to it or do we love it? Do we receive it on the pressed down, impenetrable soil along the path or on the good soil that produces abundant fruit? To harden our heart to the word of God doesn’t necessarily mean we reject it in full with clenched fists. It may mean that we just ignore it and fail to let our live develop in accordance with it. For most of us daily Mass goers, it would be very rare for us to reject the voice of the Lord outright; the question for us is whether we accept only part of it and harden ourselves to the rest.
  • That’s why the scene in today’s Gospel is so helpful to us on this point. The leper who runs up to Jesus, kneels at feet and begs him, “If you wish, you can make me clean,” had real faith. He heart in that regard was certainly open to the Lord, that the Lord would be able to do a stupendous miracle and cure him. And Jesus clearly rewarded his faith. But afterward, Jesus “warning him sternly,” said, “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. What was the former leper’s response to Jesus’ stern warning not to tell anyone anything? He totally ignored it. 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 a hardened heart.
  • For us believers, the leprosy of a partially hardened heart 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, but harden our hearts to Jesus’ word about welcoming immigrants as we would welcome him. 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. 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 spiritual EKG we need is to determine 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? Or do we make excuses, fail to do it, or even begin to complain like the Israelites in the desert?
  • Today as we come forward at this Mass, conscious of the fact that the Lord Jesus has spoken to us as he speaks to us every day and wants us to respond, we know we need his help to overcome the spiritual leprosy of our partially hardened heart. That’s why today’s Gospel scene can inspire us. The Lord wants each of us to go to him to say, with faith, “If you wish, you can make me clean!” “If you wish, you can take out my heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh!” “If you wish, you can make my heart like unto yours!” Jesus does will this. Jesus wants this. Receiving Holy Communion each day is like a heart transplant in which Jesus gives himself to us so that our heart can beat with his love. It’s like an infusion of divine stem cells that can rehabilitate parts of our heart and body that are necrotic. This is a far greater gift than what Jesus gave the leper. It’s the means by which he encourages us “daily while it is still ‘today'” so that we can “become partners of Christ” and “hold the beginning of the reality firm until the end.” Today the Lord has spoken. May our hearts not be hardened to this message as the Word made Flesh says to us, “This is my Body given for you” and “Do this in memory of me.”

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 HEB 3:7-14

The Holy Spirit says:
Oh, that today you would hear his voice,
“Harden not your hearts as at the rebellion
in the day of testing in the desert,
where your ancestors tested and tried me
and saw my works for forty years.
Because of this I was provoked with that generation
and I said, ‘They have always been of erring heart,
and they do not know my ways.’
As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter into my rest.’”

Take care, brothers and sisters,
that none of you may have an evil and unfaithful heart,
so as to forsake the living God.
Encourage yourselves daily while it is still “today,”
so that none of you may grow hardened by the deceit of sin.
We have become partners of Christ
if only we hold the beginning of the reality firm until the end.

Responsorial Psalm PS 95:6-7C, 8-9, 10-11

R. (8) If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us bow down in worship;
let us kneel before the LORD who made us.
For he is our God,
and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides.
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Oh, that today you would hear his voice:
“Harden not your hearts as at Meribah,
as in the day of Massah in the desert,
Where your fathers tempted me;
they tested me though they had seen my works.”
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Forty years I was wearied of that generation;
I said: “This people’s heart goes astray,
they do not know my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my anger:
“They shall never enter my rest.”
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

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.