You choose

Epiphany 6 2012

Mark 1:40-48

Marian Free

 In the name of God whose mind is not our mind and whose ways are not our ways. Amen.

When I was in my late teens I took part in a healing service. A member of our congregation was ill with cancer and a small group of us met to pray with her. She was in her forties I imagine and had three children, one of whom was my age. This woman had two goals in asking for healing prayer. One was the obvious one – to be cured of the cancer and the other – perhaps for her the more important – was that the miracle of her restoration to health would bring her son to faith. Sadly, our prayers failed to bring about the results she had hoped for and she died not long afterwards.

I may be confusing two memories, but I have a feeling that at the time we worked around the failure of the prayer in a number of ways. One that comes to mind is the belief that the prayer worked, but not in the way we expected – that is, that the woman, while not healed made peace with God and with her situation. In retrospect that is no sort of answer, what the woman really wanted was for her son to believe and at that time at least, he did not.

Why, when we are told that those who ask will receive and that those who have faith can move mountains do some people not receive what they ask for? Is it, as some suggest, something to do with the quantity of their faith? And what about the father of the epileptic child who says: “I believe, help my unbelief.” In that instance the amount of faith seems not to matter. Even if the amount of faith did matter, how does one measure it? Should we all be competing with each other, striving to prove that we have the most faith?

When I read this morning’s gospel, it seemed straight forward enough but then I began to ponder the conversation between the leper and Jesus. The leper says: “If you choose you can make me clean.” Jesus replies: “I do choose. Be made clean!” It seemed like a good place to begin a sermon. Jesus chooses and the leper is healed. However, the more I thought about it, the more fraught the conversation seemed. The leper’s approach demonstrates a mature understanding of the relationship between God and creation. He knows that he can’t make God heal him, that God/Jesus is not a puppet to be manipulated into doing what he, the leper wants. In fact, the leper’s request is not unlike Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. Jesus knowing the fate that awaits him asks that God spare him, then concludes the prayer: “Not my will but yours.”

The leper seems to have a grasp of prayer akin to that of Jesus. He comes to Jesus hoping, not expecting, to be made clean. He knows that Jesus can heal him, but he also knows that just because Jesus can it doesn’t mean that he will. Equally, Jesus praying to God at the moment of his greatest need, knows that God can save him from his fate, but he also knows that that does not mean that because God can save him, that God will. Both men pray. The leper is healed. Jesus is nailed to the cross.

How does one make sense of this? Why does God choose to answer some prayers and not others? When Jesus responds to the leper by saying: “I do choose”, does that mean that there are times when he doesn’t choose?

This apparently simple story of healing demands that we think deeply about prayer and about the way in which we relate to God. For many people, ourselves included, prayer is a one way street. We ask God to do something for us and expect to receive what we have asked for. This kind of prayer treats God as a creature that can be manipulated or worked on until we get what we want. It has no concern for the well being of others, but simply focuses on the self and asks: what can God do for me?

Prayer can also be a means of evading responsibility. When we pray for the end to war or poverty, we are often asking God to do what we are not prepared to do. We make God responsible for ending all the wrongs in the world thereby excusing ourselves from any role in challenging injustice, combating oppression, curing disease or alleviating suffering. Some tasks are just too great for us, so instead of trying to make a difference, we hand them over to God and believe that we have played our part.

Our attitude to prayer is, in part, determined by our understanding of God. The God of the Christian faith is constant and unchanging, unlike the volatile, inconsistent gods of Greek mythology. It is this that allows us to trust in God, that informs us that God is reliable and not capricious, that God does not act on a whim and will not be bought by the highest bidder or be forced into change by our persistence.

It is God’s unchangeable nature that makes it so hard for us to really understand how it is that prayer does or doesn’t work. God’s constancy assures us that God is trustworthy, but it also reminds us that God is not easily manipulated or swayed. The very characteristic that enables us to trust in God is the one trait that means that God may not be able to respond exactly when and how we would like God to respond.  When Jesus and the leper say to God: “You choose”, they are accepting that the unchangeable God is beyond their understanding. They are placing themselves and their future in God’s hands confident that whatever the outcome, God will be with them. For the leper that future was one without the skin disease that had separated him from the world and for Jesus it was the road to resurrection victory.

In his first encyclical Pope Benedict wrote: “The Christian who prays does not claim to be able to change God’s plans or correct what he has foreseen. Rather he seeks an encounter with the Father of Jesus Christ, asking God to be present with the consolation of the Spirit to himself and to his work.”[1]

When we do not have all the answers, the best we can do is to trust in God who never changes and say: “we know you love us, you choose”.

[1] Quoted in Leonard, Richard S.J. Where the Hell is God?  New Jersey: Hidden Spring, 2010, 24.


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