Readings: 2 Kings 25:1-12; Psalm 136 (137); Matthew 8:1-4
The destruction of Israel recounted in the first reading is comprehensive - everything is lost, destroyed or exiled: the leadership, the temple, the palace, the walls, the population, the army. The people of God, for whom these things were signs confirming God's presence and protection, God's special choice of them, is completely abandoned by God (so it seems) and is utterly powerless. The catastrophe is total and complete.
What are the implications for how they are to think now about God? Is God also impotent in this situation? Is God testing their faith in a way more severe than the way in which he tested the faith of Abraham? At least with Abraham God pulled back at the last minute. Is it because the people have sinned and God is angry that this disaster has come upon them? What depth of sin, what depth of anger, could have led to this?
The psalm is one of the most beautiful in the Bible, plaintive and poignant - sing to us, they said, one of Zion's songs. How could we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil, ask the people, when here we are sitting and weeping by the rivers of Babylon.
'The Holy Spirit has spoken through the prophets' we say in the creed every Sunday, and the Spirit speaks more powerfully than anywhere else in what he inspires in the prophets of the Exile. Obliged to think things out again from the very beginning, the prophets of that time (Second Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel ...) saw that the faith of Israel obliged them to believe that God alone suffices . There is only one God, creator and lord of all. There is nowhere else to go. They have had human kings but it is the Lord who is their real king, the real guide and custodian of their lives. The loss of everything is a concrete way in which they were faced with the reality of their faith, its truth: do you really believe that God alone suffices?
Over and over again those of us who say 'Lord, Lord', and who go on saying 'Lord, Lord', nevertheless continue to invest our hope and to find our security in things that are less than God. Again and again, therefore, we need to be weaned from our idols and learn to attach ourselves to God alone. Sometimes the experience is not so painful. Sometimes the experience is very painful indeed. Sometimes it dismantles us completely and is a kind of death.
The comprehensive disaster experienced by the people at the time of the Exile was experienced by individuals who contracted leprosy. The devastation of their personal, family and social life was as complete as the devastation of Jerusalem at the hands of the Assyrians. The very same questions arise in relation to that illness: Is God impotent? Is God angry? Is it a punishment for sin? For whose sin, my own, my family's, my ancestors? What is the state of my relationship with God now in this condition of leprosy? Is there any basis for hope? What sense would it have to hope in a God whose laws oblige me to be cast out in the way that I am? How can I learn what I need to learn about this, how am I to understand?
The leper in today's gospel gives us a lesson in humble prayer, coming straight from the heart of a needy person, piercing the clouds, and reaching directly to the throne of God's grace - 'if you want to, you can heal me'. To which Jesus reaches out and touches him - think of the power there is in that touch, reaching across the boundaries of loss, separation and exile, to restore the person not just to health but to family and to society. 'Of course I want to, be clean', is how the words of Jesus are sometimes translated. God alone suffices, the prayer of the humble person cannot fail to reach him, God is all tenderness and compassion so how could he not respond to the need of the person?
So we can make the leper's prayer our own, in whatever situations or circumstances we may find ourselves - 'if you want to, you can ...'. And the voice of Jesus will respond as quickly and as surely as he did to the leper - 'of course I want to, let it be ...' It is a revolutionary moment, an anticipation of the new dispensation being introduced by Jesus and of the new creation being inaugurated by him.
It does not mean that there will not be moments of loss, exile and death. It does not mean that there will not be moments in which we feel abandoned and cast aside. But even from the heart of such experiences - when we sit weeping by the rivers of whatever Babylon is our place of exile - even from there (especially from there) we must go on saying 'if you want to, you can ...'