October 15, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news this glorious day from Luke 22:47-53.
While he was still speaking, a crowd approached and in front was one of the Twelve, a man named Judas. He went up to Jesus to kiss him. Jesus said to him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” His disciples realized what was about to happen, and they asked, “Lord, shall we strike with a sword?” And one of them struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said in reply, “Stop, no more of this!” Then he touched the servant’s ear and healed him. And Jesus said to the chief priests and temple guards and elders who had come for him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? Day after day I was with you in the temple area, and you did not seize me; but this is your hour, the time for the power of darkness.”
Luke is the only one of the gospel writers to report that Jesus healed the high priest’s servant, identified by John as Malchus. We don’t know if this servant was there of his own free will, one of those set on taking vengeance from Jesus for his rebukes of and challenges to the Jewish authorities, to the scribal laws, to tradition and the status quo. Or was he an innocent instructed by the high priest to accompany the crowd in order to report events back to him or to swell the numbers in the crowd? We don’t know because I don’t think it’s important what his intentions were. Luke used him as the object of Jesus’ pity and healing love and to emphasize Jesus’ absolute teaching of nonviolence even when his own life was in jeopardy. No matter what was in this man’s heart, Jesus forgave his for the part he may have played in this drama. Not only did he forgive him, he healed him by reaching out to him and touching him. I have to believe that if he weren’t already, he became a follower, a disciple, of Jesus in that moment, responding to his unearned love and forgiveness. None of us earn God’s love and forgiveness; it is pure grace.
I can’t help contrast this account with a report in today’s newspaper. Erich Priebke, a former Nazi SS captain who participated in the mass murder of 335 civilians outside Rome in 1944, died in Rome last Friday at age 100. After the war ended he fled to Argentina where was discovered and expatriated to Italy in 1995. After a series of trials he was convicted and sentenced to house arrest for life living in the home of his attorney Paolo Giachini. His funeral and burial have caused a furor. A several-page testament written by Priebke reveals no remorse or repentance for his actions. However, his attorney reported that Priebke regularly went to confession and received absolution. The Vicariate of Rome, headed by Archbishop Agostino Vallini, prohibited any priest to perform the funeral in any Catholic church. The traditionalist Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X, which has no canonical standing in the Church meaning that its ministries have no legitimacy in the Church, performed the ceremony this morning in spite of protests from all sides. A spokesperson for the order stated, “[The funeral] is a religious celebration that can’t be denied to a Christian.”
No one can know what was in this man’s heart as he lay dying. Just as we don’t know if the high priest’s servant was filled was hate or was merely following orders as Priebke claimed he did. We don’t know if Priebke was repentant or not on his death bed or before. Would Jesus have forgiven him and healed him? If I believe that God can only love, then I have to believe that Jesus would instinctively forgive and heal him. As much as I disagree with the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X about many things, I have to agree with it that funeral rites cannot be withheld from a Christian, from a person who professes belief in Jesus. The Church has to be above the fray as was Jesus in the tumult surrounding his arrest in the garden.
As The New Jerome Biblical Commentary states, “This is the only miracle in the passion and demonstrates that Jesus is not only the savior in his pre-Jerusalem ministry, but also during his passion. He even heals an enemy! Such is the nature of the compassionate God proclaimed by Jesus.” Johnson in The Gospel of Luke writes, “What Jesus was from the beginning he remains to the end: a bringer of healing.” It’s hard to be Christ-like, a bringer of healing, even for the Church! Sometimes I have to look to an unlikely source for a model of Jesus’ love and forgiveness. That requires me to let go of my judgments and biases. Maybe that’s the point for me today.