6th Sunday of the Year Leviticus 13:1–2, 44–46; 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1; Mark 1:40–45
Be Healed! For those who believe, no tragedy is so great that Jesus can’t make of it something better.
In 1981 Peter Cropper, the British violinist, was invited to Finland to play a special concert. As a personal favor to Peter, the Royal Academy of Music lent him their priceless 285-year-old Stradivarius for use in the concert.
This rare instrument takes its name from the Italian violin maker, Antonio Stradivari. It was made of 80 pieces of special wood and covered with 30 coats of special varnish. Its beautiful sound has never been duplicated.
When Peter Cropper got to Finland, an incredible nightmare took place. Going on stage, Peter tripped and fell. The violin broke into several pieces. Peter flew back to London in a state of shock.
A master craftsman named Charles Beare agreed to try to repair the violin. He worked endless hours on it. Finally he got it back together again. Then came the dreaded moment of truth. What would the violin sound like?
Beare handed the violin to Peter Cropper. Peter’s heart was pounding inside him as he picked up the bow and began to play. Those present could hardly believe their ears. Not only was the violin’s sound excellent, but it actually seemed better than before. In the months ahead Cropper took the violin on a worldwide tour. Night after night the violin everyone thought was ruined forever drew standing ovations from concert audiences.
That violin story is a beautiful illustration of what happens to the leper in today’s gospel. In ancient society no figure was more pathetic than a leper. People were deathly afraid they would catch the disease from him.
The leper’s life was a living hell. People hated the sight of him, and he, in turn, hated the sight of himself. Psalm 31 describes his wretched situation.
“Those who know me are afraid of me; when they see me in the street, they run away. . . .I am like something thrown away.” Psalm 31:11–12
To such a tragic leper Jesus reached out his hand lovingly, touched the man, and healed him.
The story of the leper and the story of the violin contain an important message for all of us. They illustrate something that happens over and over in life.
Some big tragedy strikes our life. A loved one dies. A friend betrays us. An accident leaves a child an invalid. A father loses his job. A mother becomes an alcoholic.
When a misfortune like this strikes our life, we are overwhelmed with grief and anguish. We are crushed, as the leper was when he contracted his disease. We are plunged into a state of shock, as Peter was when he broke the violin.
How do these two stories speak to tragedies like this?
They tell us that no tragedy is so terrible that we can’t survive it. They tell us that no calamity is so crushing that we can’t recover from it. They tell us that no disaster is so destructive that we can’t pick up the pieces and start over again—in one form or another.
Whenever we think our life is ruined forever, we need only turn to Jesus.
Like the master craftsman who fixed the violin, Jesus can repair our broken life.
Jesus can do more. He can even make from a broken life something better and more beautiful than it was before.
Years ago an explosion burned the legs of a seven-year-old boy so badly that the doctors considered amputation. A friend told the boy’s mother, “You might as well face it. Glenn’s going to be an invalid for life.”
Two years later Glenn was off his crutches. Not only was Glenn walking; he was running. He wasn’t running fast, but he was running.
Eventually Glenn went to college. His extracurricular activity was track. Now, he wasn’t running to prove people wrong. He was running because he was good at it.
Intercollegiate records soon crumbled under the boy’s driving legs.
Then came the Berlin Olympics. Glenn not only qualified for the 1,500 meter run but also broke the Olympic record for it.
The following year Glenn Cunningham broke the world’s record for the indoor mile. The boy who was supposed to be an invalid became the world’s fastest runner.
The boy whose life was broken by a tragic explosion came back stronger than he was before the accident occurred.
Paul sums up the message of today’s readings this way in a letter to the Corinthians:
“We are often troubled, but not crushed; sometimes in doubt, but never in despair . . .and though badly hurt at times, we are not destroyed. . . .
“For this reason we never become discouraged.” 2 Corinthians 4:8–9, 16
And in his Letter to the Romans Paul says:
“We know that in all things God works for good with those who love him.” Romans 8:28
This is the good news contained in today’s Scripture readings.
These readings tell us that no accident is so disastrous that we can’t be repaired, as was the violin. They tell us that no illness is so destructive that we can’t be cured, as with the leper. They tell us that no tragedy is so devastating that we can’t rise up from it, as Glenn did.
They do more.
They tell us that even though Jesus may choose not to repair our lives totally, he can use our broken condition to make of us something more beautiful and more precious than we were before.
Let’s close with a prayer. It was found in the pocket of a dead soldier:
“I asked for health, that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity, that I might do better things. . . . I asked for riches, that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise. . . .
“I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men; I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God. . . .
“I got nothing I asked for, but everything I hoped for. Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered. I am among all men most richly blessed.”
Series II 6th Sunday of the Year Leviticus 13:1–2, 44–46; 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1; Mark 1:40–45
Compassionate Marine If we’re to be compassionate as Jesus was, we must be willing to pay the price that compassion sometimes demands.
Some years ago an old man collapsed on a busy street corner in downtown Brooklyn. Within minutes an ambulance rushed him to Kings County Hospital. There he kept calling for his son.
A nurse found a dog-eared letter in the man’s wallet. From it she learned that his son was a marine stationed in North Carolina.
That night an anxious marine showed up at the hospital. Immediately, the nurse took him to the old man’s bedside.
The man was heavily sedated. And so the nurse had to tell him several times, “Your son is here! Your son is here!’’
Finally, the old man opened his eyes. He could barely make out his son, but he recognized his marine uniform. At that point, the son took his father’s hand and held it lovingly.
For the rest of that night, the marine sat at the old man’s bedside. Occasionally, he patted the man’s hand and spoke to him tenderly.
Several times the nurse urged the marine to take a break and get something to eat or drink. But he refused.
Toward dawn, the old man died.
When the nurse extended her sympathy to the young man, the marine said, “Who was that man?’’
“Wasn’t he your father?’’ the nurse asked. “No, he wasn’t,’’ said the marine. “I never saw him before in my life.’’ “Why didn’t you say something?’’ said the nurse.
“I would have,’’ said the marine. “But I could see that he was too sick to realize I wasn’t his son. I could also see that he was slipping fast and needed a son. So I decided to become that son.’’
I like that story for two reasons.
First, it illustrates the kind of compassion that Jesus showed the leper in today’s gospel. Mark says that when Jesus saw the leper, he was moved with pity, stretched out his hand, and healed him.
That’s exactly what the marine did. When he saw the man, he was moved with pity, stretched out his hand, and took the man’s hand in his own.
And so, first of all, the story shows the marine treating the old man with the same compassion that Jesus showed to the leper.
This leads to the second reason why that story is so beautiful. It’s because it shows the marine gladly paying the high personal price that his compassion demanded.
Although he was bitterly tired from his long day and lack of sleep, he stayed and held the old man’s hand throughout the night.
He did what Jesus did so often in the Gospel. For example, Mark says that on one occasion Jesus was so besieged by people that it was impossible for him to eat. (Mark 3:20)
Yet Jesus never let that interfere with his ministry of compassion to those who needed him. He gladly paid the personal price that it cost him.
This brings us to the practical question of how the story of the marine and how the story of Jesus in today’s gospel apply to us.
First, the two stories invite us to reflect on the quality of our compassion toward those around us. How compassionate are we toward others? Do we put ourselves in their shoes, as the marine did?
In October 1987 the popular young singer Michael Jackson wrote a remarkable letter to People magazine. Referring to the media’s widespread gossip about his personal life, Michael said, and I quote exactly: “I cry very, very, very often because it hurts, but have mercy. . . .
Like the old Indian proverb says, do not judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins.”
What Michael was asking for was compassion. He was asking the media to put themselves in his shoes and understand how he felt about having his private life gossiped about in every newspaper in the nation.
And so the first practical application of the story of the marine and the story of Jesus is this: We should imitate their compassion in dealing with people around us.
Second, the two stories invite us to reflect upon our willingness to pay the price that compassion sometimes demands. It does not always come cheap. Often it exacts a high personal price.
Years ago the United Press carried a story about a seven-year-old boy from Massachusetts. While playing on a school bus, he swallowed a crayon which became lodged in his windpipe.
The bus driver stopped the bus immediately, jumped out, and tried to flag down a motorist to speed the boy to a hospital. But no motorist responded.
Finally, the bus driver jumped in front of a car, forcing the motorist to stop. But the motorist begged off, saying he was already late for work.
When the boy finally reached the hospital, the doctors said the loss of time was critical. The boy was too far gone for treatment.
The motorist who protested that he was late for work was unwilling to pay the price that compassion sometimes demands.
As a result, the boy’s family paid an infinitely greater price.
And so the story of the marine and the story of Jesus invite us to do two things: to examine the quality of our own compassion, and to examine our readiness to pay the price that compassion sometimes demands.
They do more. They invite us not just to examine ourselves on these points, but also to do something about them if this seems to be in order.
Let’s close with a prayer:
Lord, give us a love modeled on the love of Jesus—the kind of practical love that the marine showed in today’s story, and the kind of practical love that Jesus showed throughout his lifetime.
Give us the grace to be generous: to be compassionate with one another and not to count the cost; to sacrifice for one another and not to ask for reward; to reach out to one another and not to seek for rest, except to know that we are doing what you did before us. Series III 6th Sunday of the Year Leviticus 13:1–2, 44–46; 1 Corinthians 1:18–22; Mark 1:40–45
Modern lepers We tend to treat addicts today the way ancients treated lepers.
Aleper said to Jesus, “If you want to, you can make me clean.” Mark 1:40 (adapted)
Joseph Califano Jr. was a top assistant of President Lyndon Johnson. One day the two were driving around in Johnson City, Texas, in Lyndon’s big white convertible. The top was down.
They came upon a man by the roadside. Unshaven and red-faced, he was clutching a bottle in his hand. Steering with his left hand, Johnson held his right thumb and forefinger slightly apart and said:
“Joe, as long as you work for me, don’t ever forget that the difference between that man and you and that man and me is about this much.”
After Califano had finished his term on Johnson’s staff, he accepted the position of president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
In a recent article in America magazine, he compared the addicts of modern times to the lepers of biblical times. Lepers were isolated from ancient society and forced to live in caves. Similarly, we are trying to isolate addicts from modern society by imprisoning them.
But this solution isn’t working any better for us than it did in ancient times. Califano goes on to say:
I often ask parish priests, “What’s the biggest problem among parishioners?” The response is usually family breakup, often traceable to substance abuse or other drug-related problems.
Then I ask the priests, “How many sermons have you preached on addiction and substance abuse?” The answer is usually, “None.”
Califano continues, saying:
A year before he died, Cardinal O’Connor said with regret, “[Substance abuse] is so common a sickness that I should have been writing and preaching about it for years.”
Following up on Cardinal O’Connor’s observation, let’s say a few words about addiction and substance abuse.
To understand how difficult addiction is to overcome, Califano uses this example. He says:
Think about the will power it takes . . . to give up candy or ice cream for Lent. Multiply that by a million [and you get some idea of the control addiction holds over a person].
Moreover, control over addiction must be maintained not just for six short weeks of Lent, but as long as one lives.
Having made this observation, let’s take a closer look at the problem of addiction in our country today.
In the year 2000, almost $100 billion was being spent by the 50 states of the union on addiction and substance abuse.
Incredibly, a whopping 96 cents out of every one of those dollars was spent on trying to deal with the wreckage caused by addiction and substance abuse. This means that only four cents of every dollar went for prevention and treatment.
This situation has to be dramatically reversed if we are ever to get control of the drug problem in our country.
A second problem that we must address more aggressively is stopping the flow of drugs into our country.
In a recent White House speech, President Bush admitted point blank that drugs flow into the United States, not by invasion, but by invitation.
In other words, drugs flow across our borders because Americans want them and are willing to pay for them. Califano says:
Americans are about 5 percent of the world’s population, but they consume 50 percent of the world’s cocaine. As concerned Catholics, this brings us to the bottom-line question: Where do we begin to tackle the drug problem?
Califano answers, “In our own homes!” Nine years of research make it perfectly clear why this is where we must begin.
First of all, it reveals that young people who get to age 21 without smoking or without using illegal drugs are virtually certain to remain drug-free the rest of their lives.
This means that if we can help our children remain drug-free in their adolescent years, they are virtually certain to remain drug-free the rest of their lives.
What an incredible gift we can give to our kids—and to our nation—if we can motivate them to do this.
That leads us to a second important point that research reveals. It is this: Parents are the most powerful but least used resource in our war against drugs. Califano says:
For children, it is particularly important to focus on all substances including alcohol and nicotine—not just illegal drugs. Prevention efforts that target only illegal drugs [miss the point].
Beer and other forms of alcohol are implicated in far more teen violence, suicide, and deadly accidents than are all illegal drugs.
Teens who have drunk alcohol and smoked nicotine cigarettes in the last month are thirty times likelier to smoke pot.
If we can help our kids keep free of alcohol and cigarettes, we will have won a major battle in the war against drugs.
This brings us to a final point that Califano makes in his article. He reminds us of what the Holy Father has said about drugs and substance abuse:
Exerting all efforts to rehabilitate drug addicts falls within the Christian obligation to help individuals fulfill the potential with which God endowed them.
Putting that papal pronouncement into practice requires us to use all the carrots and sticks we can . . . to induce those who are addicted to seek treatment, stay the course, and continue in aftercare.
This applies in a special way to parents. They need to exert every effort and use every motive they can to help their children remain drug-free.
Their children’s future—and the future of our nation—depends on their success or failure in doing this.
Their children’s future—and the future of our nation—depends on their success or failure in doing this.
It is for this effort that we pray as we return to the altar to continue our celebration of this Eucharist. All quotes from “Carrots, Sticks and Children: A Revolution in Drug Policy,” America magazine (June 4–11, 2001)