23rd. Sunday of the Year (B)
(Isaiah 35: 4-7; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37)
Jesus was in a region – the Decapolis, on the other side of the Sea of Galilee – where a sizeable Jewish population lived; they were, however, influenced by the alien culture prevalent in those 10 cities (‘Decapolis’ is a Greek word meaning ten towns or cities) whose citizens lived in a Greek-style society with Greco-Roman government, and whose laws and religious beliefs – especially when taken together with their moral standards and practices -- were regarded by devout Israelites as ‘heathen‘.
There was sufficiently close contact between Jews and Greeks to support business activities and also to enable the ‘Greeks’ to acquire some awareness of and acquaintance with Jewish customs and religious practices. Jesus had recently healed the daughter of a pagan Syro-Phoenician woman who, you will surely remember, had said that even the dogs were allowed to eat scraps from the children’s table. On that occasion Jesus had healed the daughter at a distance, her mother having come alone to beseech Jesus’ help.
Here, however, there was a crowd of expectant people, probably Jews who, we are told:
brought to Jesus one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech, and they begged Him to put His hand on him. (Mark 7:32)
Jesus, you will notice, did not seek out this man any more than He had sought out the young girl whom He had healed because of her mother’s importunity despite His own apparent unwillingness to do such a healing. On this occasion, however, it was a crowd, probably most of them members of the Chosen People to whom alone Jesus had been sent, who “begged” Him to lay His hand on this deaf and speech-impaired man.
People of God, recognize that this episode might well have brought a certain joy to the heart of Jesus. The pagan woman had come to Him for the sake of her natural daughter; here, there is a crowd of people united in the faith of Israel asking for the healing of a fellow believer. They did not, most probably, observe their faith with sufficient care -- living and working, as they did, side by side with pagans -- but for all that, they still kept firm hold of a most important characteristic of their Jewish background, care for each other.
That is something we should note, for it is very important for each and every one of us to have friends who know how to invoke Jesus’ blessing on our behalf! Surely none of us here are among those arrogant and puffed-up people who think they don’t need anyone’s help, who are quite confident that their lives are good enough to withstand even the gaze of God. Such people think that way, of course, because they have a low idea of God, being totally ignorant of His infinite holiness, imagining that they could look Him in the eye, so to speak, without even any embarrassment, let alone any fear and trembling. For us, however, who are aware of the sublime holiness of God and the sinfulness of humanity and of ourselves, we should notice how often in the Gospel people are blessed and healed through the intercession, help, of personal friends, and of those personally close to Jesus, such as the Apostles. Dear People of God, it is very, very important that your children understand the blessing of having good friends. Criminals have ‘friends’ who they call good friends because they won’t tell on their mates; drug addicts too have so called good ‘friends’ who won’t betray either their suppliers or their customers. Your children, dear People of God, need, should have and should appreciate, good friends who are good-living friends.
You will be aware, in this respect, of the difference between a Catholic funeral -- with the Church filled with friends beseeching, in the Name of Jesus, God’s mercy for their friend and loved one -- as compared with a funeral service replete, not with prayers to God in the name of Jesus but, with very human praise for the one departed, and with no little self-display by those singing such emotional praises.
It is faith alone which prepares for and can appreciate what is holy; and so, Jesus’ healing was not to be done openly before a somewhat motley crowd of observers made up of far-from-fervently-practicing Jews, with a sprinkling of others hoping to see, and ready to gawp at, some display of pagan magic. Moreover, Jesus would not only speak His word of healing, He would also use His human flesh to touch the man, and so we are told in our Gospel reading that it was only after having taken the deaf and speech-afflicted man aside from the crowd that Jesus then:
Put His finger in his ears, and spitting, touched his tongue, then He looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’!
People of God, we should clearly recognize and appreciate that Jesus uses human nature still: we Catholics do not pray to a God who is just “up there”: we pray to, we turn to, we love, a God Who is with us also here on earth, a God Who is with us in His own flesh and blood in the Eucharist; indeed, in so far as we are true disciples of Jesus, in so far as we live in His Body by His Spirit, we are all “flesh of His flesh, blood of His Blood”. Because Our Blessed Lord deliberately continues to use His Body for mankind’s salvation through the instrumentality of His Church -- His Mystical Body and His Chosen People -- He thus deigns to use us, His disciples, in His work of redemption even today. Our Christian vocation in Mother Church is therefore clear: as loving and obedient disciples of Jesus – the Son of God made flesh for men -- we are called to become, each in our degree, willing instruments for His continuing work of salvation: by our Catholic prayer and worship, by our Christian giving and loving, indeed, by the very way “we live and move and have our spiritual being” in Him.
Finally, notice those words:
He looked up to heaven and groaned.
We have the same mention of such a sigh or groan in the next episode of St. Mark’s Gospel when, after miraculously feeding the four thousand:
The Pharisees came out and began to dispute with Him, seeking from Him a sign from heaven, testing Him. But He sighed deeply in His spirit, and said, "Why does this generation seek a sign? Assuredly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation." (Mark 8:11-12)
That ‘groan’, that “sighing deeply”, expresses the deep compassion felt by Jesus all mankind suffering so much under the burden of sin, as St. Paul tells us:
We know that the whole creation groans and labours with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. Likewise, the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. (Romans 8:22-26)
However, His sighing deeply, His groan, is also the result of His immense indignation that His Father’s creation, originally so good and so beautiful, should have become so deformed and ugly, thanks to the Devil’s lies and our complicity. This is why, People of God, we should, indeed why we must, hate sin for dishonouring the Father of glory, for bringing such sorrow to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and for the degradation and grief, the pain and loss, it continues to bring about in the lives of all men and women, children, and even those still in their mother’s womb.
Make no mistake about it, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we are called to hate sin; but also, as Christians, we must still love the sinner; that is, we must convict sin (‘do good-ers’ cannot do that) yet without condemning the sinner. As ever, the devil seeks to be equal with God, he seeks to portray himself as holy and so he parodies Christian love in this matter. The world, at the devil’s instigation, says that in order to love the sinner we should forget about, pass over, the sin: for example, Christians should, they say, have such understanding for the pregnant girl or woman in difficulties of whatever sort that we should think only of helping them, not about the evil or the horror of abortion. Again, how many parents are persuaded to keep peace – and, of course, make things easier for themselves -- by saying nothing about their children’s faults, failings and sins?
And yet, People of God, only those who have never known anything of or about those sighs of Jesus could adopt such supine and self-serving attitudes; only those who have no awareness whatsoever of the honour due to the Father; and, indeed, only those who do not, in fact, care anything about the ever increasing sufferings of mankind, could possibly persuade themselves that such ‘love for the sinner’ is in any way Christian: Christian love is only for the sinner possibly turning toward Jesus, not for sinners deliberately turned away from Him.
Jesus is in our midst to heal the world because His loves us to the extent that He gives Himself entirely to us and for us. He wills that we, His People, have a like love for our neighbour, and that we share in His saving work for the whole world. That love and that work demand that we, with Jesus, hate sin, in all its forms: for what agreement can there be between the God of holiness and the father of lies, between Him Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and the one who, through sin, injected death into the life-blood of mankind. St. Paul tells us explicitly:
Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? (2 Corinthians 6:14-15)
That true love of neighbour which calls for our hatred of sin is the only way whereby the vision and prophecy of Isaiah, heard in the first reading, can be fulfilled; in Jesus and by His Spirit of Holiness working in and through His Church:
Be strong, do not fear! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God (which includes, hating and destroying sin); He will come and save you." Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing. For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. The parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water. A highway shall be there, and a road, and it shall be called the Highway of Holiness. The unclean shall not pass over it. (Isaiah 35:4-8)