A number of months ago, there was a particular person
whom I have known for years who came to me to receive some spiritual advice. This particular man was very down and discouraged in the personal battles he was encountering in his journey with the Lord. This person felt ashamed, embarrassed and totally worthless in his own estimation of himself and, what he assumed, was God’s estimation of him as well.
After our session, I invited him to Mass – since I happened to be celebrating that particular Sunday liturgy. During the Our Father we do what we usually do as a community of faith here at Saint Brigid’s – we hold hands and allow all in the Church to feel that they are part of a larger family. At that point, I looked toward this particular person and I could see his head lift up and a look of peace come over his troubled face as he was embraced and enveloped by our community. In this one simple gesture of the Our Father, this man now felt worthwhile, accepted and finally at peace with the Lord and with others.
Perhaps you may not realize what this unique tradition of Saint Brigid’s can mean to the stranger in our midst. Whether or not you feel comfortable with joining hands or whether or not you actually share in this particular ritual matters not. The point I wish to make is that the gesture is more than just doing something nice during the Mass (like the polite handshake or nod we offer each other at the sign of peace). Joining hands does have the power to heal someone – yes, even the stranger who happens to be visiting us that day.
What we do at the Our Father so reminds me of the great story we hear in today’s first reading. The Israelites come upon one of the many enemies with whom they were forced to do battle as they made their way through the Sinai desert into the promised land. In this battle against Amelek, as long as Moses was extending his hands over his army, his army was winning the battle. As soon as he dropped his hands, the enemy overtook the Israelites. Seeing that Moses was getting weary in keeping his arms extended, two of Moses’ assistants, Aaron and Hur, each take hold of one of Moses’ arms and hold them up for him. In that communal prayer, the enemy is defeated.
All of us are doing spiritual battle in our lives. So often, in our struggles, we feel defeated, overwhelmed, weary and tired. How beautiful it is when we know that there is someone at my side who is willing to hold my hand, hold up my arm in battle, allow me to know that I am not alone or defeated in my struggles. To join hands with a spouse, a child, a parent, a friend, and pray together makes real the promise that Jesus makes: “Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there in your midst.”
In last week’s gospel, Jesus gives a stern warning by way
of a parable to guard us against a sense of entitlement, that is, the attitude that assumes that I ought to receive privileges, rewards, or even status because of the life that I have lived. Jesus says to his disciples, “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.” Simply expressed, everything we have in life is a gift, and there is nothing that we can lay
claim to as properly our own. Even our virtuous deeds are responses to the grace-gifts that have been given to us. While we may want to take pride in the fact that we have diligently kept our nose to the grindstone, we take no
credit because it is God who has created both grindstone and nose.
In today’s gospel, we see ten people who have no sense of privilege or status. They are lepers, unclean, segregated from the rest of society. The gospel invites us to look at the lowest of the low – the one leper who is not even a Jew, a hated Samaritan. This Samaritan was an outcast among the
outcasts; yet, somehow he received the privilege of being accepted into this band of the “unclean.” Here the Samaritan must have felt a sense of gratitude already in being included in a group of people who, under normal circumstances, would have routinely rejected him as a half-pagan infidel.
Now this group approaches Jesus. His reputation for being a healer among the people of Galilee must have already reached this frontier of Samaria. The band cries out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us.” The gospel implies that all ten, standing at a distance, make this plea as a group. But, maybe the Samaritan didn’t participate in the outcry for pity with his fellow lepers. After all, who was he, the infidel, to approach a Jewish healer? He had no privilege to stand upon – he didn’t even belong to the same race.
Yet he, among the others, receives the same healing from Jesus who sends them off to show themselves to the priests in Jerusalem.
The real miracle of the gospel is that it is the outcast of the outcasts who realizes that a healing has taken place. It was the one who did not stand on any sense of privilege or merit or even entitlement. He know he was entitled to nothing – yet he received everything. This is what ignites the gratitude. This is what impels this outcast of outcasts to fall before the feet of Jesus to offer praise for what he has received.
Perhaps the lesson for me is simply this. If I want to cultivate a heart of gratitude, I have to start to shed that attitude of privilege, the spirit of entitlement that makes me think that for all the good I do I am owed this by God, by others, by the world. Maybe I need to let go of prestige enough to consider myself an outcast among the outcasts – and then wait in humility for the uplifting hand of God who heals and saves.
Imagine that you are a gifted writer. One day, in that special place in your imagination where you are most creative, you picture the plot of an entire novel. You see the hero, the challenges he must face, the woman with whom he falls in love, the tragic flaw in his character that eventually leads to his demise and the final outcome of it all which will make this work a noteworthy piece of fiction. You then set out to write the novel, spending countless hours at the computer, writing and rescripting pages until it is exactly what you want to say. All through this process, you are not thinking of Pulitzer prizes or even the royalties to be gained once it is published. This novel has such a grip upon you that if you do not write it, you feel your very soul will be crushed. It is as if this was what you were made to do with your life – as if you were following an inner voice that commanded you to fulfill this obligation.
Wouldn’t it be great if we saw each and every moment of our entire life in that manner - as if we were writing the novel of our own life and creating a piece of art in response to an interior call that could neither be put off nor deferred. I would like to see my priesthood in that way - not as if I was doing God some kind of favor by becoming a priest, but that in fact if I did not answer his call, my soul would be crushed. Priesthood is not just something I want to do out of some magnanimous act, as if my yes deserves some nice pat on the head by the God who owes me a few “atta-boys”! No, I would like to think of my priesthood as my response to a command I have long felt in my heart, a command which calls forth my enthusiastic “yes.”
In today’s gospel, Jesus gives the example of a worker who, coming in from the field after a hard day’s work, ought not to expect some kind of preferential treatment or even the gratitude of the employer; after all, he was just doing his job, fulfilling the tasks he was obliged to do. Wouldn’t it be great if every time I did a kind deed, I stopped looking for that reward of recognition and instead allowed myself to feel the compulsion of following a command that has been laid upon my heart? Wouldn’t it be great if the call to love was such a compelling call that I would experience it as something I just had to do no matter what? Just as my lungs would burst if I did not take in my next breath, so too my heart would burst if I did not respond faithfully to the next obligation to love.
Saint Paul once wrote to the Corinthias: “If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it!” How I wish I could live my entire life with that same inner zeal.