Not so long ago one family asked me to baptise their child. I hadn’t met them before. While we were preparing the event, the reason behind it was revealed. The child had been uneasy and noisy every night, forcing the parents to get up in the middle of the night. They had become so desperate they asked to baptise the child. I wasn’t sure that this was the right reason to perform the sacrament. It seemed to me like they regarded baptism as a kind of magic or witchcraft. Has the baptism helped to solve the problem? I don’t know, because I haven’t seen them since then. But I really doubt it.
Several chats with people newly converted to Catholicism revealed something worrying to me; those people were afraid they would not be practicing their faith properly if they missed out on these practices. They were focused mainly on fulfilling the rules rather than the spiritual side of things. It seemed to me that to these people being a Catholic simply meant scrupulously following religious practises. But such an attitude is close to magic when you should stick to the words of a spell or baking a cake when you should stick to the recipe.
Today’s gospel shows us something similar. To help us understand the situation we need to refer back to the Law of Moses. Chapter 13 of the Book of Leviticus contains rules for treating leprosy, as the Semites called all skin illnesses. Among those very detailed rules there is one common element: a Jewish priest made the final decision on whether the symptoms meant a dangerous illness. If the priest decided the symptoms were serious he pronounced a sick person impure and hence the person wouldn’t live within a community. In fact it was a continuing death sentence spread out over the years.
When the group of lepers in today’s passage cried out to Jesus to help them, his response was clear to them: “Go and show yourselves to the priests”. They had to fulfil their religious duty. So they went away. But one of them had a problem – because he wasn’t a Jew, no priest would look at him. Maybe the other nine wondered how they could present themselves to the priests to be acknowledged pure and healthy. Maybe they were wondering about this so much that they didn’t notice they had become clean. The only one, the Samaritan, clearly realised that his leprosy had gone. And when his companions continued on their way to the priests, he returned to Jesus. He didn’t waste his time on a pointless journey.
I’m afraid that we Catholics are so concerned with fulfilling our religious practices that sometimes we lose their real sense and meaning. That’s more obvious when you meet lapsed Catholics, but we might not be free of it. All the rituals and practices we perform have no power to convince God to do something for us. Actually God doesn’t need all these things. All these symbols, signs, rituals and practices help us to understand spiritual realities beyond our comprehension. They are like a train taking us to a place beyond our reach. But not every train goes to the place we want to get to. Our goal is to reach the destination, not just to travel. Similarly we shouldn’t simply be focused on the practices, but on God himself.