Reason tells us that some of what we read in Scripture simply cannot, in and of itself, be God’s word. Consider some glaring examples –
Exodus 35:2 unequivocally states that anyone who works on the Sabbath day should be put to death.
Leviticus 25:44 clearly endorses the purchasing of slaves, both male and female, from surrounding heathen nations.
Leviticus 11:10 forbids the eating of shellfish, like the shrimp I had this past week, on the grounds that it is an abomination.
In the Gospels we are cautioned that it is better to cut off our hands and pluck out our eyes rather than to sin with these body parts.
We are told that a star came to rest over the place where Jesus was born. The last time I looked, stars were fantastically large masses of gravitationally bound gases burning at millions of degrees Fahrenheit.
I’m sure you get the point – or at least the question. How can we say of these obvious falsehoods, these foolish, even immoral, instructions, that they are the word of God?? But then what does it mean that the Scriptures are inspired?
I am comfortable with this answer to the question: the wisdom of God finds even our human stupidity, our prejudices, our ignorance and lack of understanding useful in communicating fundamental truth to us – which is why we rarely stay on the surface of what we are reading or hearing, but rather dig down, sometimes way down, to encounter the message these words, these ideas – many of them false in themselves – carry for our benefit.
That’s why we can say that whether or not Jesus performed the miraculous cures the Gospel said he did outside the home of Peter’s mother-in-law isn’t important: the real intent of the narrative was to highlight for us the unconditional compassion of Jesus – and to invite us to act similarly in the circumstances of our life. The story, whether factual or fictional or both, is simply the vehicle that brought that overriding point to our attention.
So – the first reading today prescribes a social custom that we find cruel and inhumane: lepers are to live and be treated as total outcasts. We’ve moved beyond that attitude: courageous, compassionate persons among us care for lepers, build institutions to house them, honor them as fully human beings, and work toward their recovery. And that was Jesus’ attitude, as we discovered in the Gospel today.
Now don’t miss the impact of Jesus’ action: both the leper, who asked to be healed, and Jesus, who touched and spoke to him, were breaking the law. But they both knew that the limits that had been set by human authority could not have been endorsed by a merciful God, and so they dared publicly to defy those boundaries and move instead toward the horizon, where the love of God shone brightly and beckoned!
That’s what this clever arrangement of Scripture pieces has to do with today: choosing horizons over boundaries!
Think how many areas of our lives offer such choices. Let me suggest just a few:
Shall we protect the institution (church or state) at all costs, or shall we follow our consciences in the pursuit of what is right and just, allowing the chips to fall where they may?
Shall we, in the present world situation, be restricted by a narrow definition of patriotism and proceed obediently toward war, or shall we exercise our precious American freedom and resist what we believe to be wrong?
Shall we maintain a society of exclusiveness, keeping out those we don’t want in, or shall we, like Jesus, welcome all?
And so on…
It’s true: we do not find God’s word in some of the protective laws of a primitive people such as those who oppressed the innocent victims of leprosy; no, but we do find it by way of contrast with the example of Jesus – and in the change from one mindset to another, from darkness to light, the very change we are invited and empowered to undergo, if we are willing.