In today’s gospel, we hear about the encounter between Jesus and a leper: “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” [Jesus] stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I will do it. Be made clean.” Clearly about a physical cleansing. But all week has been about “cleansing” of different varieties.
The first readings all week (except Wednesday’s Nativity of John the Baptist) have been about God making clean the people of God. Monday the Kingdom of Israel (the 10 northern tribes who broke away from the throne of King David) was conquered by Assyria (722 BCE) as either the kings nor the people remembered or cared about the Covenant with God. And it wasn’t for lack of prophets being sent to let them know, repent or God will “clean house.”
Tuesday and Wednesday gave us hope that under the leadership of Kings Hezekiah and Josiah the Kingdom of Judah (the 2 southern tribes with capital in Jerusalem) would repent and return to the Covenant. But Kings Jehoiachin and Zedekiah who followed were not concerned with such things. Jerusalem was conquered by Babylon (537 BCE). And the “house cleaning” was done. The faithful remnant had 40 years in Babylon to think about “how did we get here. Why didn’t we listen to the prophet Jeremiah?” They each got to do a little personal house keeping (so to speak).
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a great way to do some personal “house keeping,” reflection and ask the Lord to make you clean in the Sacrament’s grace and absolution. I once had priest confessor tell me at the end of my confession, “There you are, made clean, good as new.” It was great to hear.
I think people are generally mindful about the category of personal sin. They might join St. Paul in not knowing why they do the things they know the should do, don’t want to do, but do anyway… and they understand it to be personal sin. But it is often the things about which we are not so mindful that also need cleansing.
Sin can also occur on a social or structural level. Corporate or structural sin is more insidious but also attacks our very ability to love and to fail in being a reflection of God’s image into the world. We often are unaware that we participate in structural sin. For example, a person may not harbor overtly racist attitudes or actions but still cooperate with the sin of structural racism. One may say the right things and form healthy interracial relationships while remaining complicit (“in what I have failed to do”) in the complex webs in which black lives are devalued. The same can be true for our webs of relationships that affect women, the poor, the unborn, the disabled, and those whose sexual orientation is not heterosexual, to name a few.
The prophets always challenged the kings and the people personally, but also on the manner in which they treated the poor, the widow, the orphans, and the strangers in the land – all people on the margins. But as some asked me today, “Father, where are all the prophets like Malachi? Are they no more?”
The prophets role was to “prick the conscience” of the king and people to be Godly people and to live the Covenant. While we have no obvious Jeremiah, Isaiah, Habakkuk, Amos or Hosea – that does not mean we are not surrounded by prophets whose words and example challenges what we think or thought we knew.
It was week of the call to be clean and for God to cleanse when necessary – at the personal and structural level. Where are the prophets in your life? Can’t think of any? Just think about when your conscience felt that twinge, that nudge or that pause… it just be that call for each of us to be made clean. Because this we know for sure: “I will do it. Be made clean.” It is there for the asking…. or praying!