SEPTEMBER 9TH, 2018: TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
Thus says the LORD:
Say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
with divine recompense
he comes to save you.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.
Streams will burst forth in the desert,
and rivers in the steppe.
The burning sands will become pools,
and the thirsty ground, springs of water.
My brothers and sisters, show no partiality
as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.
For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes
comes into your assembly,
and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in,
and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes
and say, “Sit here, please, ”
while you say to the poor one, “Stand there, ” or “Sit at my feet, ”
have you not made distinctions among yourselves
and become judges with evil designs?
Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.
Did not God choose those who are poor in the world
to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom
that he promised to those who love him?
Again Jesus left the district of Tyre
and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee,
into the district of the Decapolis.
And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment
and begged him to lay his hand on him.
He took him off by himself away from the crowd.
He put his finger into the man’s ears
and, spitting, touched his tongue;
then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him,
“Ephphatha!”— that is, “Be opened!” —
And immediately the man’s ears were opened,
his speech impediment was removed,
and he spoke plainly.
He ordered them not to tell anyone.
But the more he ordered them not to,
the more they proclaimed it.
They were exceedingly astonished and they said,
“He has done all things well.
He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
Counter to popular wisdom, gospel miracles aren’t supposed to prove Jesus is God; the evangelists provided them to us to convince us what kind of a God he is. If the communities for whom the gospels were originally written weren’t already convinced this unique Palestinian carpenter was God, they wouldn’t be reading the gospels in the first place. Just because someone believes in God, he or she might not believe in the kind of God the gospel Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed. There are all sorts of images of God.
For instance, during the movie Silver Linings Playbook the Bradley Cooper character throws his copy of Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms through his closed bedroom window, abruptly waking up his parents and the neighbors in the middle of the night. Like so many other people reaching the end of this famous book, Cooper doesn’t agree with the vengeful, destructive concept of God Hemmingway provides. He wasn’t expecting that kind of ending based on the God he’d heard preached in church.
This “God-imaging” thing goes beyond gospels. First-Isaiah engages in it in today’s first reading. Unlike Jeremiah, who at one point refers to Yahweh as a wadi – a dangerous, undependable stream of water – Isaiah has only good things to say about God in this passage. She/he vindicates our cause, offers salvation, gives sight to the blind, ears to the deaf, new legs to the lame and provides us with constant, life-giving water. Certainly a person you’d always like to have around.
Mark’s Jesus continues with part of that imagery in our gospel pericope by restoring sound and speech to the handicapped man he encounters “in the district of the Decapolis.” Notice how often all the evangelists paint a picture of Jesus curing a deaf or blind person. They seem to revel in reminding their readers that they follow a Jesus who helps us see and hear things which others never notice. For people of faith, seeing and hearing is now on a different level.
This is especially the case in our James passage. The author demands we look at the poor through the eyes of the person we’re trying to imitate. No longer do we notice just a person “in shabby clothes.” We now see someone “rich in faith and an heir of the kingdom.” Though we normally zero in on a rich person’s “gold rings and fine clothes,” and give him/her a place of honor at the community’s gatherings, people of faith no longer classify people based on those distinctions.
This reminds me of a well-known Thomas Merton quote I recently posted on my Facebook page: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” After reading it, one of my “friends” reminded me that Pope Francis has said something similar. “When we encounter a beggar, it’s our place to give generously; it’s their place to spend it wisely.”
Whether we like to admit it or not, in the gospels we encounter a God in Jesus of Nazareth who often reminded his followers that the God he follows causes it to rain on good people and bad people alike. If we had our druthers, we’d most probably reward the good and punish the bad. Why should we give bad people good things?
It takes Christians like Francis, Merton and James to remind us that we often find a different image of God in the book we employ during our liturgies. If we weren’t taught in our grade school catechism classes that “desecrating” holy objects is a sacrilege, I presume a lot of our homes would have battered bibles in their front yards, and broken windows in their upstairs bedrooms. Maybe Bradley Cooper wasn’t that far off.