Jesus, Master, Have Mercy on Us

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As Jesus came into a certain village ten men who were lepers met him. They stood a long way off and shouted, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 

Luke 17: 11-12

According to the Book of Numbers, those afflicted with leprosy must stay outside the encampment, town, or village and must shout when people approach in order to warn those approaching to stay away. They are, in short, those who are legally marginalized. However, as Luke Timothy Johnson points out in his commentary on Luke’s gospel regarding these lepers, “Here they shout, but for help.” (The Gospel of Luke, p. 260) These lepers, instead of warning Jesus away, plead with him to come close to them and so heal them; they cry for help in their suffering.

According to the gospels and the revelation of Jesus’ life that it offers us, real life exists not at “the center” but rather on what we take to be “the margins.” This is true in the public and political realm and also in the personal sphere. In the United States we are experiencing increasingly from one election cycle to another that the quest of political power has become diversion and entertainment, something far removed from the actual day to day life of the people. At the level of finance and business, we experience those who are at the centers of power as being more and more removed, socially and financially, from the lives of the great majority of the population. At this point, the center is very small and the margins are very wide. It appears to be the “project” of the powerful to create the illusion among the majority who are marginalized that they, in fact, occupy the center. The way to maintain this illusion among the majority is to create groups who represent even more extreme marginalization, who are the lepers to the lepers. This is possible because of every human person’s longing to be accepted, respected, and “at the center” of social life. Those who are not acceptable, who do not meet the norm (in the case of the United States the primary norm is that of success and affluence), must hide their suffering, lest they be reminders to those at the center of their own deeper impoverishment.

In our own personal lives a similar dynamic is at play. In the psychological and spiritual equivalent of shouting at others to stay away from us, we develop defenses to hide those things which we suffer and which make us fearful and ashamed. From very early on we learn to hide our deficiencies from a world that we fear would marginalize us if it knew them. In the course of a lifetime, we become so good at this that our deepest hungers and sufferings become hidden even from ourselves. The lepers in today’s gospel must counter the social norms in which they have been formed in order to receive Jesus’ help. So too ourselves. Instead of disguising for others and hiding from ourselves that of which we are most ashamed, we must allow it to come to light and to shout to Jesus for help and healing.

In the gospel story, it is only the Samaritan who, once healed by Jesus, returns to give thanks and to glorify God. We spend so much time trying to make ourselves acceptable so that we can be “at the center” of things that we fail to recognize the gift of love and healing when it is given. It is our life, as it has been given to us in both those things which are socially approved and in those which are not, that is the gift. We deny the gift in favor of a self-creation built on the sand of the illusion of power and respectability. Our only way back to the gift we have been given is to recognize that we ourselves are among the marginalized and that our real and true life lies, not at the center of power, comfort, and attention, but in the hidden margins and recesses of our memories, imaginations, and anticipations. We are always being given all we need, but to recognize and be thankful for the gift we must first dare to shout aloud our need for help.

When generosity is a fundamental disposition of a person’s being, then all the other virtues are increased and all the powers of the soul adorned, for a generous person is always joyful in spirit and carefree of heart, filled to overflowing with desires and dedication to all persons without distinction in the practice of virtue. However poor a person might be, if that person is generous and not enamored of the things of this world, that person is like God. All that lies within that person and all that the person feels flows forth as a gift, and in this way such a person drives away the fourth capital sin, which is avarice or miserliness. Of such a person Christ says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5:7), namely on that day when they hear the words: “Come, you blessed of my Father, take possession of the kingdom which, because of your mercy, has been prepared for you from the creation of the world” (cf. Mt 25:34).

Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, III, A

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