Twenty-third Sunday (Year B)
(Isaiah 35:4-7; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37)
In our reading from the prophet Isaiah we heard:
Say to those whose hearts are frightened, "Be strong, fear not! Behold, here is your God, He comes with vindication; with divine recompense He comes to save you."
For a small nation, conscious of being God’s Chosen People and having, nevertheless, a long history of suffering as a pawn in the conflicting endeavours at empire building by the surrounding powers in the Fertile Crescent, such a prophecy of salvation tended to become, as the years passed by and the suffering and humiliation piled up, more and more commonly regarded as fighting talk; and that, certainly, was how many Jews in the days of Jesus, understood them. Currently experiencing occupation by alien forces of the Roman State they longed for God to help them overthrow -- through the promised Messiah -- the military might of their hated and despised oppressors. With such expectations, of course, they were pre-disposed to see Jesus’ miracles, such as His most recent feeding the five thousand in the desert, as evidence that He was surely the one they were looking for:
Here is your God, He comes with vindication; with divine recompense He comes to save you.
However, the reaction of the religious authorities to Jesus, especially that of the Pharisees who were most influential with the people generally, was different. The Pharisees thought themselves well prepared for God’s coming judgment -- and the possible appearance of a popularly-expected political Messiah -- thanks to their meticulous observance not only of God’s Law as laid down in the Torah, but also of their own oral traditions from the elders. Consequently they regarded Jesus with suspicion, despite His miracles, because He was not one of them and quite evidently did not consider Himself or His disciples to be bound by Pharisaic traditions. What was much worse, however, was that He did not regard the Pharisees themselves as being purified and justified by their meticulous practices, nor was He afraid to publicly rebuke them for their failings:
You nullify the word of God in favour of your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many such things. (Mark 7:13)
And so the prophecy from Isaiah with which we began our readings today is suited to both people and Pharisees … people who looked for a warrior Messiah and Pharisees who did not appreciate that they themselves needed a Messiah to heal them of a spiritual sickness they did not recognize. It was, indeed, a prophecy proclaiming Messianic help for both the frightened and the blind:
Say to those whose hearts are frightened, "Be strong, fear not! Behold, 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.”
Jesus’ journeying beyond the confines of Israel, alone in today’s Gospel reading but surely accompanied by His disciples as Matthew tells us would have been, in the course of things, a novel and intimately informal group learning-experience for His disciples. Avoiding the militant enthusiasm of those awaiting the promised Messiah in the Jewish homeland Jesus intended to take them to territory -- the Decapolis -- quite recently freed from Jewish rule by the Romans under Pompey and in that His actions were louder, clearer, and more easily appreciated and assimilated than even most carefully chosen words. On the way His teaching would be of the type best suited to free His disciples from the legalistic formalism of the Scribes and Pharisees: with His unfailing Filial awareness of and attentiveness to His Father’s abiding presence and guiding will confirming His unique wisdom and holiness in their eyes, while His sympathetic attitude to and dealings with people they encountered on their way -- the many foreigners (a word Jesus Himself used), and the relatively few and fragile, perhaps even alienated, Jews who approached them -- proved surprisingly and fascinatingly beautiful, delighting them not least because it demanded nothing so much as human awareness and sympathy together with the spiritual joy of a humble and admiring disciple.
And people brought to Him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged Him to lay His hand on him.
Why did ‘people bring the man’ to Jesus? Were they perhaps Jewish people living elsewhere and bringing either one of their own to Jesus or perhaps even a friendly pagan? Did they bring him because he was not able, or perhaps had not wanted, to come to Jesus himself? Maybe he had become bitter over the years with his trials and only came ‘under pressure’, so to speak, from good friends? Perhaps we may have someone here in a situation not unlike like that of the man St. James spoke of in today’s second reading, someone ‘poor and shabby’, someone not immediately likeable.
Jesus took him off by himself away from the crowd.
The man was being given the opportunity to experience personal closeness with Jesus to overcome his original apprehensions.
Jesus put His finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue.
Jesus was doing things not unexpected by the man, thus calming him down and hopefully stirring up embers of confidence and trust.
Then Jesus looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him “Ephphatha! -- that is, ‘Be opened!”
Here, with that glance up to heaven and the audible groaning of Jesus are we perhaps privileged to glimpse the man’s introduction to faith in the goodness of God and the saving suffering of Our Lord? Anyhow,
The man’s ears were immediately opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly;
thus he was enabled to join with all in their heart-felt acclamation:
He has done all things well!
Now, let us look at Jesus as we see Him more broadly portrayed in the Gospel. He had, quite recently, performed the miracle of feeding the five thousand and then -- in an open confrontation -- discomfited both the Pharisees and Scribes who had sought to accuse Him and His disciples for failing to observe the traditions of the elders. Jesus had, at that time, been close to being hailed by the common people as the expected Messiah, their longed-for, victorious, leader, and that experience would seem to have been in the forefront of His thinking, for He went, straightway, out of Israelite territory and set out, ultimately for the Greek-speaking Decapolis, where Jewish expectations and practices were smothered in what could be regarded as a heavy pagan smog.
On the way, Jesus and (according to St. Matthew) His disciples, walking the coastal region near Tyre and Sidon unnoticed and free, had been discovered by a woman who pestered Him and His disciples to heal her daughter and we then learned of that most memorable conversation:
Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs.
Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs under the table eat from the children's crumbs. (Mark 7:27-28)
Jesus immediately recognized that such an answer was far above the woman’s natural capabilities:
He said to her, "For this saying, go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter."
“For this saying” …. Jesus was indeed struck by what the woman said and He continued walking in this pagan district, going, we are told, towards the Sea of Galilee, but not directly, choosing rather to take a long, round-about, route leading, ultimately, to the Decapolis region. He had not wanted to be lionized by over-enthusiastic Israelites dreaming of the Lion of Judah crushing Israel’s oppressors, and for that reason had entered this non-Jewish region; and now, having encountered the Syro-Phoenecian woman so beautifully gifted by His Father, He decided to continue on this journey through to the Decapolis …. perhaps His Father still had some further purpose for Him there?
Such was indeed the case, because, in our Gospel passage today, Jesus was invited by His Father, to perform yet another miracle: this time upon a deaf-mute man, a miracle fulfilling what the prophet Isaiah had long foretold:
Then will the eyes of the blind shall 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.
Jesus always walked before His Father, looked for His Father’s presence, listened for His Father’s voice, and after this relatively short journey outside Israel He had brought back His immediate disciples to Israel and God’s Chosen People with greater confidence in, and admiration for, Him Whom they had heard the lips of both suspect Jews and foreign Greeks unite in praise saying:
He has done all things well!
Moreover, when the time would come for them to be sent out to baptize all nations they would be able to recall with deep love and inspired confidence what they had originally so lovingly experienced and deeply assimilated in the presence of Him Who had so convincingly shown Himself to be both Perfect God and Perfect man.
Let us now take part in the Holy Sacrifice with like appreciation: rejoicing in the presence of Our Lord and Saviour, while confidently reviewing and renewing our own personal calling before the Father, for the glory of His Name, the exaltation of Mother Church and for the true well-being of our world.