Charity Amid Controversy- Luke 5:12-6:5

6 Jun

Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” (Luke 5:10)

Our Lord’s call to discipleship from a boat on Lake Gennesaret is an appropriate passage on which to reflect as we have passed from the Easter season through Pentecost and into Ordinary Time again. My previous post was written on Holy Saturday, more than a month and a half ago. Again, I make no excuses for my recent inactivity on this blog, though in the meantime I did squeeze in a little pilgrimage to the Holy See Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations in New York. This was followed by a visit to Frassati House, a residence for seminarians of the Congregation of St. Basil (Basilians), the order I hope to join soon, in Toronto. The house is named after Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, an athletic and handsome man from a rich family who gave himself to serve the poor of Turin before he died of poliomyelitis on July 4, 1925, aged 24.

Pier Giorgio Frassati was beatified on May 20, 1990, by Pope John Paul II. He is recognized as Blessed, with Our Lady, whom all generations will call “Blessed”. (cf. Luke 1:48 ) The Church has thus beatified the lively Italian layman who lived the Gospel message without fear, often times amid controversy. All the saints, but particularly those like Pier Giorgio Frassati and Thérèse de Lisieux, mentioned in my last post on Luke’s Gospel, who lived brief but complete lives, model for young people how to live as ambassadors for Christ. The Lord summons us now to continue the mission of the great Saints. Today, the Church needs people who are willing to learn Christ’s message in schools, universities, and seminaries, and to proclaim it fearlessly throughout the world. The United Nations, if it is to be truly united with the dignity of the whole of humankind, is a great place for young Christians to carry out the essential work of spreading the Good News to every nation.

Christ provides us with several examples of how to live out His mission despite the opposition of even learned people. The Gospel of Luke tells of Jesus leaving the lakeshore where He had called Simon, James, and John, known as the “Sons of Thunder” for their outspokenness, to His service. (cf. Mark 3:17) Jesus proceeds from Lake Gennesaret into a city where He heals a leper. While He is teaching in another instance, He heals a paralytic. The Lord also calls Levi, a tax collector, to follow Him. Questions arise from some Pharisees and scribes about Jesus’ acceptance of such outcasts, as well as about His apparent disregard for the traditions of fasting and of the Sabbath.

In all these stories, St. Luke cites examples of people who choose to follow Jesus, but the Gospel writer also contrasts the acceptance of the Lord by some with His denial by others. The controversy narratives in Luke’s Gospel show that, given God’s gift of free will, some people will accept Christ’s way that embraces and heals the whole human person, whereas others will reject “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Often times we can be counted as part of the first group, but each of us is tempted at some point to give in to our pride- we are led to believe, like some well-read Pharisees were, that we know the letter of the law well enough to get along without the law’s author Himself.

When we succumb to pride and develop a false sense of self-sufficiency, we are as sick as the leper in Luke’s Gospel. But in our sickness, Jesus is always prepared to stretch out a healing hand. He touches us and says, “I do choose. Be made clean.” (Luke 5:13) Just as we have free will, so does Our Lord, who always chooses the best for us…In Italian, there are two phrases that convey “I love you”. The first is the more generic “ti amo”, whereas the second is a more intimate “ti volio bene”, which literally translates into English as “I wish the good for you”. Christ’s love is of the second kind, but is even deeper than the love between spouses or that of a parent for a child. “Ti volio bene”: With this love, Christ always chooses to humble Himself because He loves us so deeply. He wants what is good for us. Therefore, He became one like us so that we could become like Him.

Love is behind Christ’s healing of the leper, as indeed it is the force behind everything that Christ says and does. Thus, the Lord’s love for the leper is more important than the act of healing itself. As I read the passage about the cleansing of the leper, a footnote pointed out that the words ‘leper’ and ‘leprosy’ often referred to different skin diseases in Jesus’ time. In accordance with Jewish scripture, those afflicted by disfiguring conditions were often sent to live apart from other people:

“The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease…he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:45-46)

St. Luke doesn’t specify which disease the ‘leper’ carried, but whatever the man’s disease, it was no match for the love of Christ. The leper came to Jesus begging to be made clean. Jesus chose to touch and to cleanse the man. Christ’s physical contact with that man would have been scandalous for many religious leaders, but for Jesus it was no more and no less remarkable than any other healing. The Gospel of Luke states that Jesus had been passing through “one of the cities”. This could have been any city at any time, the man Christ healed could have been anybody, and the disease of which he was cured could have been any ailment, either physical or spiritual.

More recently, we draw upon the example of Blessed Mother Teresa of service to society’s outcasts. No poor person in the gutters of Calcutta was so unclean that Mother Teresa, acting in Christ’s name, would not have taken them in and cared for them. Yet Mother Teresa bore suffering from people who questioned why she was seeking close contact with the inhabitants of filthy slums. Meanwhile, she repeatedly questioned herself as to whether she was doing enough to fulfill her vocation.

We approach the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance with our souls crying out “Unclean”. As Mother Teresa cared for those with physical as well as spiritual ills, so the priest, in persona Christi- in the person of Christ, frees us from a deeper affliction yet with the words of absolution. We are made clean, and then we are exhorted to respond by more closely observing the law of righteousness which is written on our hearts. (cf. Romans 2:14) Likewise, Jesus tells the former leper to follow the Mosaic law by making “an offering for (his) cleansing” before a priest. (Luke 5:14) Jesus shows respect for Jewish tradition, more so than the scribes and Pharisees who knew the tradition so well that they thought themselves to be above it. The man is ordered not to tell anyone else about the cure, presumably because Jesus didn’t want His miraculous works to detract from His deeper message of universal charity, or because He, like us, needed time to retreat into solitude and to pray. (cf. Luke 5:16, 4:42)

Jesus moved from this scene to another, where “some men” arrive carrying a paralyzed man. This happened “one day, while (Jesus) was teaching”. (Luke 5:17-18 ) Again, Luke writes about these events as if they could have occurred anywhere and at anytime. The details of the setting are unimportant, though the “Pharisees and teachers of the law” had arrived “from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem” (Luke 5:17) to scrutinize every detail of Christ’s actions so that they might be able to build a case against Him. Meanwhile, the paralytic was lowered on his bed through a roof into a room where Jesus was. The Lord immediately noticed the great faith of the paralytic’s friends, and addressed the paralyzed man as “Friend”. (Luke 5:20)

Following His greeting, Jesus told the paralytic, “your sins are forgiven you”. (Luke 5:20) The mob accused Jesus of blasphemy. After all, only God has the power to forgive sins. (cf. Luke 5:21) Jesus perceived that hatred was deep within His accusers. Therefore, He asked them: “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’?” On the surface, the healing of the paralytic appears to be two-fold: Jesus healed the man’s paralysis (cf. Luke 5:24) and removed his sin. But this narrative has a deeper meaning: The man was healed in his entirety. Language tends to oversimplify concepts. For example, we speak of receiving the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. In fact, we are receiving the entire Christ, which is a greater gift than simply the sum of many parts. God escapes intelligibility. We are “filled with awe” in His presence. We might well say “(we) have seen strange things”, (Luke 5:26) because the Lord constantly shows us that which is great beyond human knowledge. (cf. Jeremiah 33:3)

Christ’s charity toward humankind, which is beyond all telling, urges us on- “Caritas Christi urget nos.” (2 Corinthians 5:14) We are impelled by this charity to respond with love of God and love of neighbour. (cf. Mark 12:29-31) This becomes “no mere command…but the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 1) The tax collector Levi is shown by St. Luke to be better disposed to respond to Jesus’ request to follow Him than many of the scribes and Pharisees. Levi left everything behind to follow Our Lord. St. Luke, uniquely among the synoptic Gospel writers, mentions repentance as a necessary part of our response to God’s love in the story of Jesus’ encounter with the publican. Jesus comes down to a human level, accommodating our level of understanding. He “became man” (Nicene Creed), He lived, ate, died, and rose again among us sinners, and He perpetually shares Himself with us in the Eucharist and by sending us the gift of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Divine Physician, of whom “those who are well have no need”, comes “to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance”. (Luke 5:31-32)

Still, there are those who will refuse to visit their Physician when they are ill. Some will refuse to eat and drink at the Lord’s table, asking, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30) It is not for us to ask such questions, if our questioning becomes a self-righteous focus on the wrongdoing or lack of strict observance of tradition by others while we forget to prepare ourselves to host God within us. The hypocrites’ line of questioning continues; it is no longer an issue of whether Jesus welcomes sinners to share a meal with Him, but of why the Lord does not obey the laws of when to fast and when to feast when His Law includes but also transcends the customs of people. Jesus responds thus to the inquiry about fasting:

“‘You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.’ He also told them a parable: ‘No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it onto an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘the old is good.’’” (Luke 5:34-39)

This passage reminds me of the motto of World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany: Gott ist mit uns- God is with us. Therefore, Jesus commissions us to replace the old with the new. God is with us on our journey of life; it is truly a co-mission. As the leper was made clean, the paralytic was made able to walk, and Levi cast away his belongings, so we must contritely come before Our Lord to ask for forgiveness. God, in His infinite mercy, will absolve us of our sins unconditionally. We will then put on the new garment of purity instead of merely patching over our shortcomings. The wine that becomes for us the blood of Christ will be poured into fresh wineskins, and the desire for our old ways will diminish.

Finally, ritual observances such as the Sabbath are important in religious practice, but they cannot be allowed to obscure our main focus. Jesus reminded the Pharisees who attacked Him for allowing His disciples to eat the grain of the fields: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Luke 6:5) It is He who gives sustenance to us, His companions, “to the end of the age”. (Matthew 28:8, cf. Luke 6:4)

You are Lord of the Sabbath, O Jesus. You are Lord over our rest and our activity, over our sleeping and our waking, over night and day. You, our all in all, have given us a great commission to spread your Good News over all the earth. You are with us forever as our help, having led the exemplars of the Beatitudes who now see you face to face, especially Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati*, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux, co-patron of missionaries**. We ask your blessing upon those young and old who do your will throughout the world. From when you were a child you were “destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel”. (Luke 2:34) We pray therefore as we go forth that you might “guide our feet in the path of peace”. (Luke 1:79) Amen.

WRS

 

*I’m referring here to a biography of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati that I received as a gift from the Basilians at Frassati House in Toronto and have begun to read. The book, written by Pier Giorgio’s sister Luciana Frassati, is entitled “A Man of the Beatitudes: Pier Giorgio Frassati”. Its revised edition, with an introduction by the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner and a foreword by Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, was published by Novalis in 2000. Pier Giorgio Frassati, a beacon of love and justice in the world, didn’t come from a particularly religious background. According to Fr. Rosica (cf. p.5), Pier Giorgio’s father was an agnostic…

**Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux was proclaimed universal co-patron of missionairies and of missions, along with St. Francis Xavier, by Pope Pius XI on December 14, 1927.

 

 

 

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