Sunday, February 12, 2012

"Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean." (Reflections on the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mark 1:40-45)

In his book entitled Amadeus, Peter Shaeffer fashions an image of the composer Antonio Salieri as someone possessed of tremendous gifts, who as a youth comes to God one day and says:

"Signore, let me be a composer. I will honor you with much music all the days of my life. I will be your servant for life. All I ask in return is to be granted sufficient fame to enjoy my work".

Many years later, when despite his fame, Salieri finds himself eclipsed by the younger Mozart, he declares war with God, speaking to him in words dripping with sarcasm:

“Grazie, grazie, Signore. You know how hard I’ve worked. And all I asked for in return was for me to hear your voice in my work. And you have indeed made me hear it, yet it speaks only one name: Mozart. Grazie, Signore. From now on we are enemies”.

Few of my students who have studied Modern Philosophy with me, have ever liked the British empiricist, David Hume. They’ve often found his philosophy crass and a little too irreverent and critical, even destructive of religious belief. I do think though, that Hume’s criticisms—as well as those of other thinkers like him—can in fact be helpful, especially in terms of keeping us honest about our motives and intentions for professing belief in God or in his providence.

While Hume never denies outright the existence of God, he nonetheless argues that most of our beliefs are uncritically held and too often motivated by interests that are far from sincere—like Salieri’s. He even had a name for the kind of faith that we find in Mozart’s nemesis; he called it “transactional faith” or “transactional religiosity”. It’s the kind of faith that sees God as someone we strike deals and bargains with.

“Let me serve you, O Lord”, the prayer usually begins. But it continues: “All I ask for in return is this…” But as Hume would point out, this isn’t faith; it’s a “pious fraud”.

It’s the exact opposite of the faith displayed by the leper in today’s gospel reading. Here was a man whom the gospel describes as “full of leprosy”, who throws himself before Jesus and pleads with him, in total confidence and trust. And yet there was no trace of presumption in his words.

Instead, he leaves entirely to Jesus, the decision whether to grant his request or not. “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean”. This was no transactional faith, but one of total and absolute trust and surrender to whatever Jesus would decide.

It’s a lesson directed to every follower of Christ, but especially to those who seek to follow him more closely. Faith, trust, confidence and commitment to our vocation or calling in life must never be seen as bargaining chips, securing for us blessings, gifts, and favors from God. Genuine faith is not a “transactional” act, but an act of total and radical surrender to the will of God for us—whatever that might entail.

“Lord, if you wish it, you can make me clean”. “Lord, if you wish it, you can make me faithful to my calling. If you wish it, you can make me persevere. If you wish it, you can make me a good seminarian. If you wish, you can make me serve you one day as a priest. Yet not mine, but your will be done”.

The leper was healed, not just because he had faith that Jesus could heal him. He was healed because he left the final and ultimate decision to Jesus alone. His faith should also be our own: “Not my will, O Lord, but your will be done”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)