Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory
In dramatic contrast to his later admonitions to his disciples to “go to all nations” with his Good News of salvation, our Lord tells the now-cured leper: “See that you tell no one [about your healing]…” We might think that given the physical condition of some of those following Christ and the condition of the spiritual lives of others and the condition of the religious leadership that Jesus would leap at the chance to demonstrate his healing power as a testimony to his sonship in the Father. Instead, he chooses silence over proclamation, stealth over transparency. Perhaps looking out over the masses of pitiful people following him that day and considering the incendiary message he embodied, he thought it better to be cautious with his power until his moment had arrived. Or, perhaps he fully intended to heal all those present in one gesture of divine mercy but decided—for whatever reason—that just one cured leper sent to the temple priest might make a better witness. His exact motives are a mystery. However, we might remember that just before this scene Matthew reports that the crowd was astonished at Jesus’ teaching, remarking, “…he taught as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” In effect, Jesus has just claimed the mantle of the Father and in so doing he has broken the Law. Now he insists that the cured leper follow the Law exactly by reporting to the priest and offering the required sacrifice. Jesus breaks the Law but requires the now-cured leper to follow it. Is Jesus being hypocritical—one Law for me, another for the rest of you?
The Law is the Law, and Jesus is most certainly violating that Law by laying claiming to his Sonship; however, he has been steadfast to this point in teaching a message of prophetic authenticity, that is, he has been very careful to warn against false prophets, phony messiahs, and philosophies destructive to the spiritual lives of those who follow him. He says of these wolves in sheep’s clothing, “By their fruits you will know them…A good tree cannot bear bad fruit…So by their fruits you will know [my true prophets].” Jesus cures the leper to demonstrate to the crowd—by his good fruits of healing—that he is their true shepherd and not a wolf set loose among them. The witness given by the physical healing of leprosy is secondary to the witness that the leper himself will give in the temple. Not only is the leper healed of a deadly disease, he is also obedient to the Law fulfilled in Christ Jesus, giving thanks and praise to God in the manner ordained by God Himself.
But why the secrecy? Why not embrace the new-found virtue of transparency? This is not the first time that we have read that Jesus insisted on keeping his healing works a secret. Nor is it the last. Though of his motivations for ordering the leper to silence are ultimately a mystery, we can begin to understand the need for secrecy if we think in terms of humility rather than conspiracy. Remember the poor widow quietly giving her last few coins in the temple. Remember Jesus’ admonition to fast and pray in a way that refuses public attention. Remember Jesus’ frequent need for solitude and quiet in order to be with his Father. If the primary witness to the Good News in this case is the quiet gratitude of the healed leper at the temple, then the very thing that will destroy that witness is a triumphant parade and proclamation of Christ’s healing power. In other words, the message that Jesus wants to send—humble faith in the name of the shepherd heals all wounds—this message would be lost in spectacle, and his opponents would accuse him of self-aggrandizement. We have here a clear case of Jesus witnessing to the fact that he is the fulfillment of the Law by pointing up the need for basic humility when dealing with God in the Law. Many will say, “Lord, Lord, we followed the Law,” and he will say, “I never knew you.”
Christ’s teaching for us is simple: if we do not possess a humble spirit, that is, a relationship with God deeply planted in our full understanding of how absolutely dependent we are on His mercy, we cannot be healed. The leper does not demand healing as his right. He says, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” That naked faith and his plea for mercy buys the leper his health. To our humility and faith Jesus says to us even now, “Be made clean.” And we are.