Friday, June 25, 2010

Lord, If You Wish, You Can Make Me Clean.

Friday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
2 Kings 25:1-12
In the tenth month of the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign,
on the tenth day of the month,
Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and his whole army
advanced against Jerusalem, encamped around it,
and built siege walls on every side.
The siege of the city continued
until the eleventh year of Zedekiah.
On the ninth day of the fourth month,
when famine had gripped the city,
and the people had no more bread,
the city walls were breached.
Then the king and all the soldiers left the city by night
through the gate between the two walls
that was near the king’s garden.
Since the Chaldeans had the city surrounded,
they went in the direction of the Arabah.
But the Chaldean army pursued the king
and overtook him in the desert near Jericho,
abandoned by his whole army.

The king was therefore arrested and brought to Riblah
to the king of Babylon, who pronounced sentence on him.
He had Zedekiah’s sons slain before his eyes.
Then he blinded Zedekiah, bound him with fetters,
and had him brought to Babylon.

On the seventh day of the fifth month
(this was in the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar,
king of Babylon),
Nebuzaradan, captain of the bodyguard,
came to Jerusalem as the representative
of the king of Babylon.
He burned the house of the LORD,
the palace of the king, and all the houses of Jerusalem;
every large building was destroyed by fire.
Then the Chaldean troops
who were with the captain of the guard
tore down the walls that surrounded Jerusalem.

Then Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard,
led into exile the last of the people remaining in the city,
and those who had deserted to the king of Babylon,
and the last of the artisans.
But some of the country’s poor,
Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard,
left behind as vinedressers and farmers.
We come to the end of the sad story of Israel’s degradation and humiliation.

Yesterday we saw how Mattaniah, renamed Zedekiah, had been made a puppet or vassal king of Judah, the southern kingdom, by Nebuchadnezzar. He was no improvement on his predecessors. The passage which comes between yesterday’s and today’s readings is as follows: “Zedekiah was 21 years old when he became king, and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem… And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to all that Jehoiakim had done. For because of the anger of the Lord it came to the point in Jerusalem and Judah that he cast them [the two kings] out from his presence. And Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon” - a bad mistake on his part (2 Kings 24:18-20).

It was in the ninth year of his reign that Nebuchadnezzar came to Jerusalem with his army and, for the second time, laid it under siege. Earlier, he had subdued all the fortified cities in Judah except Lachish and Azekah (see Jeremiah 37:7)  A number of inscriptions on potsherds were found at Lachish in 1935 and 1938. The Lachish ostraca describe conditions at Lachish and Azekah during the Babylonian siege.

Jerusalem, built as it was on an outcrop of high rock with steep sides, was not an easy city to capture and was able to resist for more than one year into the 11th year of Zedekiah’s reign. But eventually, with the people starving, the walls were finally breached. (Did some desperate citizens deliberately bring this about to bring the siege - and their starvation - to an end?)

However, the king and his soldiers escaped from the city by night. Because of the surrounding armies, they had no option but to head for the Arabah, a desolate area in the Jordan valley. But there was no escape and the hapless king was caught, near Jericho and abandoned by his troops.

He was brought into Nebuchadnezzar’s presence where sentence was passed on him, as a rebellious vassal. His two sons (his potential successors as king) were killed before his eyes while Zedekiah himself then had his eyes put out and was brought to Babylon. Ezekiel (12:13) had prophesied that the king would be brought to Babylon but would not see the city. Jeremiah had advised Zedekiah what to do to avoid his own punishment and the destruction of the city but the king had not listened (see Jeremiah 38:14-28).

Finally, Nabuzaradan, the captain of the Nebuchadnezzar’s bodyguard, took control over Jerusalem. He proceeded to wipe out every vestige of its past by burning the Temple, the king’s palace and every large building in the city. In the previous siege, the vessels of the Temple had been taken away but the building had remained. Lastly, the formidable walls which had protected the town were torn down.

The remainder of the population, those who had gone over to Babylon’s side and the last of the artisans were all carried off into bitter exile. Only the very poor were left behind to take care of the vineyards and the farms. They would form the remnant which would maintain the continuity of the city of David with the future.

Otherwise, it was an ignominious end of the kingdom originally established by Saul. With the outstanding exception of David - and even he had done some pretty bad things - the dynasty had a pretty dismal record as viceregents of Yahweh.

The lesson of the reading is very similar to that of previous days. God does not take vengeance as we humans do but, on the other hand, we do reap the natural consequences of immoral behaviour.

At the same time, even the most negative experiences can be turned round. A good example of this is to be found in Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, where he shows that those who survived best in the Nazi concentration camps were those who found positive meaning and something to live for even in the utter degradation of their surroundings. Frankl himself was a clear example of one such person. And out of all this corruption and immorality will come David’s descendant, Jesus the Christ. God certainly does write straight with crooked lines.*
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Psalm 137
Let my tongue be silenced, if I ever forget you!
By the streams of Babylon
we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the aspens of that land
we hung up our harps.
Let my tongue be silenced, if I ever forget you!
Though there our captors asked of us
the lyrics of our songs,
And our despoilers urged us to be joyous:
“Sing for us the songs of Zion!”
Let my tongue be silenced, if I ever forget you!
How could we sing a song of the LORD
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand be forgotten!
Let my tongue be silenced, if I ever forget you!
May my tongue cleave to my palate
if I remember you not,
If I place not Jerusalem
ahead of my joy.
Let my tongue be silenced, if I ever forget you!
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Matthew 8:1-4
When Jesus came down from the mountain,
great crowds followed him.
And then a leper approached,
did him homage, and said,
“Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.”
He stretched out his hand, touched him, and said,
“I will do it. Be made clean.”
His leprosy was cleansed immediately.
Then Jesus said to him, “See that you tell no one,
but go show yourself to the priest,
and offer the gift that Moses prescribed;
that will be proof for them.”
The two chapters (8 and 9) following the Sermon on the Mount include a long list, ten altogether, of miracles performed by Jesus. They are seen as a confirmation of his authority to teach because they are so obviously the work of God himself. The man who can do these things also has the right to be heard and followed.

The first story is the cure of a leper. It is told with the usual brevity and lack of detail characteristic of Matthew (compare Mark’s version, 1:40-45). A leper begs to be healed. His faith and trust in Jesus is revealed by his saying, “If you want to you can heal me.” Jesus replies, “I do want to.” And he cures him instantly. We may note the simplicity of Jesus’ act. In this, the healing miracles of Jesus contrast with the fantastic stories from the Hellenistic world and those sometimes attributed to Jewish rabbis.

But Jesus’ miracles also differ because of the spiritual and symbolic meaning attached to them. They often have the quality of a parable and frequently the words that accompany the miracle are of greater significance. As in this case, where the healing of the leper has wider ramifications as indicated below.

While compassion is often the motive behind a miracle, most often they are seen as strengthening a person’s faith. Jesus, too, is very selective in the miracles he performs and often demands secrecy from the beneficiary. Jesus does not want to be the centre of any sensational wonder-working. It will be the miracle of his resurrection that will be the really determining factor of Who he is.

Soon, we will see Jesus sending out his disciples to proclaim the Kingdom and giving them his own powers of healing. Their mandate will be to do the same work that Jesus has been doing. The 10 miracles recounted in chapters 8 and 9 will be the kind of thing that the missionary successors of Jesus will also do.

After the healing, Jesus then he instructs the man, in accordance with the requirements of the law, to go to the temple to get a certificate from the priests as proof of his return to health. Only with this official documentation will he be allowed to re-enter society.

The leper was a particularly unfortunate person in ancient society. It was known that through contact with a leprous person one could contract the disease, so they were kept isolated from the rest of society. There was, of course, no known cure and the person’s body just gradually rotted away.

What was probably more tragic was the fact that many people with other kinds of similar-looking skin diseases which were not at all infectious could be branded as lepers and condemned to the same policy of isolation.

The healing of the leper by Jesus was then much more than a physical healing. It meant that the man could be fully re-integrated into normal society.

In our time, the leper can be a symbol for all those who are marginalised by our societies for one reason or another - foreigners, people of a different colour or culture or religion, drug addicts, alcoholics, AIDS/HIV victims, gays and lesbians.

We Christians have a special responsibility to be agents of healing to re-integrate such people and accept them fully as brothers and sisters.*

The Irish Jesuits

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

According to Jeremiah (who had repeatedly been proved a true prophet) all Zedekiah had to do to save himself, his family and the city was to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar. It was very simple. He just had to trust in Yahweh's word. The healing of the leper also shows the power of simply trusting in God's word.

Jeremiah seems to have resorted to verse in his attempts to persuade people. Today is, apparently, the feast of St Prosper of Aquitaine, a lay theologian who worked at the court of Pope Leo the Great in the fifth century. He too was a great versifier, setting the Augustinian doctrine of grace to verse in 1002 hexameters. Most charmingly, he also facilitated his happy marriage by corresponding with his wife in verse! Something to try, perhaps!