Our prayers for others can in fact transform us

Here is my homily for our community Mass today. You can find the readings here. The audience is my Jesuit community, but I think it preaches to anyone bogged down in the middle of Lent, the middle of the semester, or the middle of life. Replace "studying Latin" and "working on your thesis" with whatever seemingly lifeless task threatens to suck away all of your daily energy.

As I prayed, I felt myself getting more and more emotional. God, I just wanted to be his friend. Where did I go wrong? The setting was about eight years ago in the Jesuit community at Our Lady of Guadalupe in San Diego. I was on my novitiate long experiment at la Casa de los Pobres in Tijuana, and I had come to San Diego that weekend to get some R&R. Through my work at the Casa, I had gotten to know Lalo, a teenage boy who helped out there. Lalo had been born in the US but was deported with his Guatemelan parents to Mexico. Even though he could speak Spanish, he felt as out of place there as we novices did. He would often watch Frasier or Family Guy with us at the end of the day after we were done mopping to get his American cultural fix.

Recently, though, Lalo had started to run with the wrong crowd, another older kid whom I didn’t have a good feeling about. One Friday he showed up at the Casa and gave notice to the nuns, to take a job with the other guy. We soon found out what kind of job it was: Lalo and four other boys were arrested in the middle of night in an attempted armed robbery of an electronics store. He was imprisoned in a Tijuana jail, and let me tell you, Mexican jail is not like US jail—your family has to bring you meals and clothes, because the system does not provide anything at all. Lalo’s family asked the nuns to post bail, but the nuns were fed up, having given his family money several times to get his passport, only to see it used for other purposes.

So there he sat, suffering in jail, and there I was in that community, crying over this kid whom I cared about whom I was powerless to help. God, I just wanted to be his friend, I said. Where did I go wrong? A voice came to me: you are his friend. This is what friends do. They pray for each other.

Our gospel passage today tells the story of one person offering intercession for another. “There was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum.” Capernaum was a border town, Raymond Brown reminds us, and there are many theories about the identity of the royal official. I prefer to think of him as a mid-level bureaucrat in this region between Syria and Judea, where a variety of people passed through—Roman army, Roman citizens, traders, Jewish non-citizens. He himself was probably a Gentile, perhaps not even from Palestine at all but another part of the Empire. The word son implies a certain intimacy, but not necessarily a biological relationship. If the royal official had a large household, the son could have been his biological son or the son of one of his servants. The son could have been of a different ethnicity than the royal official. Placing it in a more familiar border context, we could imagine the royal official as a border patrol agent on the US-Mexico border, maybe a supervisor, perhaps someone from another part of the US who doesn’t fit any of the categories. Our border patrol agent, in turn, could have a Mexican woman who comes and cleans his home, whose son falls ill to a fatal disease.

The illness of the son affects the royal official. Something stirs in him. We don’t know whether he tried to take care of the illness himself, called for the best doctors, consulted near and far. Somewhere along the way one of his fellow Galileans mentioned this Jesus fellow that he had seen at the Passover festival in Jerusalem. I doubt that was the royal official’s first choice. As his options ran out, however, he sees no other choice. What does he feel at this moment? Some mix of love and fear, anxiety and desperation? He sets out himself, on foot. The timeline in the story is unclear, but from Capernaum to Cana is at least a half-day’s journey. This busy man could have sent servants, but instead he goes himself.

What part of the world do we feel an intimate connection to, the way that this royal official felt an intimate connection to a little boy who may not have even been related to him by blood? How does this part of our world enter into our prayer? Do we avoid it at first, try to push it down, or perhaps control it and fix it ourselves, until it will not be silent, and we have no choice but to give ourselves over to the rawness of it, wherever it takes us?

In this situation, when in Brown’s words, “a person of rank asks about Jesus,” I think the man was still in a transactional mindset when he arrived. I imagine him with a bag of silver in his pocket, to arrange for Jesus to come visit him, to pay him for his time, to take him out for a nice dinner afterward. You know, Jesus, there are opportunities in the Roman bureaucracy, if you are ever interested, to settle down. He could probably be very charming, as he implored Jesus to come down and heal his son. Jesus’ response, on the other hand, must have shocked him: unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe. What did this response draw out in him?

“Sir, please come down before my little boy dies.” The relationship has changed. Jesus is not just a professional colleague. The man must acknowledge, to himself and to Jesus, how much he cares. He must acknowledge this depth of feeling that erupts from his inner being and let it begin to transform him. The “royal official” of vs 46 and vs 49 gets a new name. He is just a man here. Somehow this relationship with the son touches him in a deeper place than his professional identity. In this chapel, we are all professionals – there are probably ten master’s degrees among eight people in this room. What touches us in a deeper place than all of these degrees? Can we dare to show this deep place to the Lord?

“Go, your son will live.” Go, your son is living. The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way.” The man doesn’t get a sign. He gets something deeper—the word, the very logos that John is always talking about. In his begging for the physical life of his son, he receives spiritual life for himself. Brown puts it very well: “the pedagogy is not to take the man away from signs but to move him from the wonder of the sign to what the sign will tell him about Jesus.” Another commentator puts it this way: “Jesus tests the man’s faith, his willingness to accept him on his own terms.”

What spiritual life do we need at this point in the semester, at this point in Lent, at this point in Jesuit formation? I think the text invites us to connect with what truly affects us and to share that with the Lord, so that the Lord in turn may give us the spiritual life to support us in our studies. As you can see, I’ve been praying about the child migrants this week. It helped me study for my microeconomics exam. What is it for you, that supports you as you write your thesis, study your Latin, read about obscure topics in church history or systematic theology? The Third Week of the Exercises, as we all know, invites us to a depth in relationship with Jesus—how much can we share with him? How much can we let him share with us?

The relationship with this little boy transforms the royal official. It defines his life, for the story's last mention of him calls him “father.” Along with many other things that semester in Tijuana, my relationship with Lalo transformed me, in ways I am still coming to grips with. How can we let God draw us deeper in a way that transforms us as we continue on this Lenten journey?