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Reflections for the XXIII Sunday of the year

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the twenty third Sunday in ordinary time. He says that the readings offer us an invitation to become humble instruments of healing in Jesus’ hands by giving voice to the voiceless, the needy and the marginalized in our society.

Isiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-5;   Mk 7:31-37

Homily starter anecdote:  The “little monk” who opened blind eyes:  At the Annual National Prayer Breakfast on February 2, 1984, Ronald Reagan, the former president of the United States, told the old story of "the little monk," Telemachus, a martyr whose self-sacrificial commitment to Christian ideals opened the blind eyes and deaf ears of the Romans and their fifth century Christian Emperor Honorius. According to the story, this Turkish monk was led by an inner voice to go to Rome in order to stop the cruel and inhuman gladiatorial fights between slaves. He followed the crowds to the Coliseum where two gladiators were fighting.  He jumped into the arena and tried to stop them, shouting, "In the name of Christ, hold back!"   The gladiators stopped, but the spectators became indignant.   A group of them rushed into the arena and beat Telemachus to death.  When the crowd saw the brave little monk lying dead in a pool of blood, they fell silent, leaving the stadium, one by one. Three days later, because of Telemachus' heroic sacrifice of his own life, the Emperor decreed an end to the games. In today's Gospel, which describes the miraculous healing of a deaf mute, we are invited to open our ears and eyes, loosen our tongues and pray for the courage of our Christian convictions to become the voice of the voiceless. There is a little ritual in the rite of Baptism, called the “Ephphatha prayer,” taken from today’s gospel. The celebrant touches the ears and then the lips of the one to be baptized saying: “The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May He soon touch your ear to receive His word and your mouth to proclaim His Faith.” ( http://frtonyshomilies.com/)

Introduction: Today’s Scripture readings offer us an invitation to become humble instruments of healing in Jesus’ hands by giving voice to the voiceless, the needy and the marginalized in our society.   Today’s Scripture also invites us to open our ears to hear the word of God and to allow the Holy Spirit to loosen our tongues to praise and worship Him and to convey the Good News of God’s love and salvation to others.   

Scripture lessons summarized:  The first reading (Is 35:4-7), reminds us that God's eyes are constantly focused on the helpless.   God especially cares for "the frightened, the blind, the deaf, the lame, the mute," and He encourages the powerless to "be strong and fearless." Today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps 146), sings of a God who gives sight to the blind, raises up those who are bowed down and welcomes strangers. The psalmist thanks God and asks us to rejoice because “the God of Jacob keeps Faith forever,” by keeping His promise of peace and fullness of life for His people. That is why, in today’s second reading (James 2:1-5), the apostle gives us some basic and challenging principles of social justice. He exhorts Christians to show no partiality based on external appearance and to practice God’s "preferential option for the poor." He warns the faithful against scorning or shaming the poor while showing special consideration to the rich.   Today’s Gospel describes how Jesus, by healing a deaf man with a speech impediment, fulfills Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy, "The eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped."  The ailments listed by Isaiah are symbolic of our interior illnesses: blindness to the needs of our neighbor, unwillingness to hear God’s voice and the inability to speak words of praise and gratitude. Through this miracle story, Mark also reminds us that no one can be a follower of the Lord without reaching out to the helpless (“preferential option for the poor”).

First reading, Isaiah 35:4-7, explained: The Jews are returning to their homeland after decades of exile in Babylon. Their arrival causes great friction with the other tribes already there, especially the Edomites. Hence, Isaiah reminds Israelites that when God leads his people home, He will work miracles on behalf of those who need it most: blind, deaf, lame and mute persons.  The Lord God’s message expresses the promised redemption in terms of health, healing and well-being for the disabled. Through Isaiah, He assures them that He blesses their return, and that they should be confident and not fearful. The prophetic admonition opens with one of the most frequent Biblical commands, “Fear not.” The life-giving streams of water bursting forth in the desert symbolize whatever is needed to achieve peace and fullness of life. The prophecy gives the Israelites the assurance that God will continue to save them from their enemies, will open their eyes to the reality of what He is providing for them and will open their ears to what He has to tell them through His priests and prophets. This reading from Isaiah echoes the words of compliment given to Jesus by the people in today’s healing story, "He has done all things well; he makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak."

Second Reading: James 2:1-5, explained:  In this very practical pastoral letter, James points out to the members of the Church that they should treat others, whether they are rich or poor with equal honor and courtesy. James is not writing speculative theology, but reacting to real hurts inflicted on real people, and calling real Christians to a higher level of charity and responsibility. He exposes the sad irony of a Christian's giving special consideration to someone who is fashionably dressed and wearing gold rings, while shaming the poor man in his shabby dress.  The poor man, James says, is poor in the eyes of the world but rich in Faith because he recognizes his dependence on God for everything and acknowledges that dependence in the way he lives and acts. James insists that Christians “should show no partiality.” In a society like ours, which values people who have much money, great power or celebrity status, James' admonition turns our cultural assumptions upside-down and inside-out. That's what makes our showing respect to everyone we encounter, despite social and/or economic status, and our treating all people as children of God, our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, a most valuable, living witness to Jesus who died to save us all. At times, the Church was the only place in the ancient world where social distinctions did not exist. Master sat next to slave, poor beside rich.

Gospel Exegesis:  The human touch and the symbolism of Baptism: Today’s section from Mark’s Gospel begins with the healing of a deaf man with a speech impediment and ends with the healing of a blind man in the non-Jewish area of the Decapolis. (Mark 7:31-10:52). In a culture where physical disabilities and sickness were commonly interpreted as signs of a person’s sinfulness (as a “curse” from God), many Jews would have considered this man to be stricken by God -- a sinner. Hence, Jesus shows his tender consideration for the weak by leading the man away from the crowd so as not to embarrass him. The miracle is described in seven ritual-like steps: (1) Jesus leads the man away from the crowd   (2) puts his fingers into the man's ears  (3)  spits on his own fingers  (4)  touches the man's tongue  with the spittle (5) looks up to heaven  (6)  sighs  (7)  and speaks  the healing command: "Ephphatha"  ("be opened.")  Jesus’ listener, who were familiar with Hebrew Scriptures, would have recognized another signal in Jesus’ command, “Ephphatha! Be opened!” Six centuries earlier, Ezekiel had prophesied, “that day your mouth shall be opened, and you shall be dumb no longer” (Ez 3:27). Why does Jesus carry out this elaborate ritual, while in other miracles he simply speaks a word or touches the individual?   It is probably because the man cannot hear Jesus' voice or express his needs.   People of that day also believed that the spittle of holy men had curative properties.  The early Church Fathers saw an indirect reference to Baptism in the way Jesus healed the man. In Baptism, the priest or deacon who baptized us touched our ears and mouths that we might hear the word of God and speak about Christ to others, sharing the “Good News” with the poor, the imprisoned, the fearful, and the broken-hearted.

God’s love in action: What we see is not simply the healing of a physical defect, but a concrete sign of the transforming power of God's Love. The power of God's Love is working in our lives to transform sorrow into joy, sickness into health, death into new life. The dumb man who is unable to communicate also symbolizes our own communication problem vis-à-vis God. In order to perceive and proclaim God's message, we need to be transformed. The miracle is not only about the physical healing of a person who was deaf and dumb. It also points to the opening of a person’s ears so that he may hear the word of God and loosening of his tongue so that he may speak his profession of Faith in Jesus. The miracle has great relevance to us, because a person can have perfect hearing, and yet not hear the word of God, have perfect speech, and yet be unable to make an act of faith.

A challenge for the Church: All three readings speak of a God who is partial to the voiceless and the afflicted.  Today, however, many of us have lost the ability to recognize the voice of God calling us for action in our modern society.  We are asked to give hearing and voice to the deaf and the mute.   The person healed became a witness to the power of God. A Church that is to bear witness to the example of Jesus' love must not neglect “those who are bowed down.”   Through its healing presence the Church must give voice to the voiceless.

Instruction to Keep Silence:   Why did Jesus ask the man to keep silence? Jesus knew that he still had more to accomplish before his final showdown with the religious leaders in Jerusalem.   If the crowds were to attempt to make him the leader of a revolt, a probable result of spreading the story of this healing around, it would spoil his Heavenly Father’s holy plan. Also, it seems likely that Jesus realized that people could easily misunderstand his healings and could see him simply as a human Messiah figure, a great miracle-worker and healer. In doing so, they would fail to grasp the larger message he had come to preach and live, which included humility and the necessity of suffering and the Cross before Resurrection (Dr. Watson).

Life messages:  1) We need to help Jesus to heal the deaf and the mute today.  Jesus desires to give us his healing touch in order to loosen our tongues so that he may speak to the spiritually hungry through us.   He invites us to give him our hearts so that he may touch the lives of people in our day through us, just as he touched the lives of millions through saintly souls like Francis of Assisi, Damien of Molokai, Vincent de Paul and Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa).  Like them, we are also invited to become the voice of the “poorest of the poor,” the helpless, the downtrodden and the unwanted who are set aside by the “new economy,” or who cannot even “speak plainly and fearlessly” about their concerns. Jesus’ touch will reveal to us how we neglect, scorn or shame some people while showing favor to others.  His compassionate touch will help us to hear the cries of the poor and the sick.  It will teach us to show kindness, mercy and consideration to others. His healing touch will also help us convey peace and hope to those around us.

2) We need to allow Jesus to heal our spiritual deafness and muteness.  In times of grief, despair and failure, we can be “deaf” to the presence of God in the love and compassion of others; or we can become so preoccupied with the noise and clamor of the marketplace that we are unable to hear the voices of those we love and who love us. We may find it hard to speak to God in prayer and harder still to hear Him speaking to us through the Bible and through the Church.  This may be because many of us are satisfied with what we have learned in catechism class about the Seven Sacraments, the Ten Commandments of God, the Six Commandments of the Church and the seven deadly sins. We don’t want to hear more about our Faith through further study of the Bible or the teachings of the Church.  It is not infrequent to meet Catholics who are highly qualified in their secular professions but are basically illiterate in their Faith. Hence, let us imitate the dumb man in the Gospel by seeking out Jesus, following him away from the crowd and spending more of our time in coming to know him intimately as we study Holy Scripture and to experience him directly in our lives in personal prayer.   Our growing awareness of the healing presence of Jesus in our lives will open our ears and loosen our tongues.  

3) Let us bring Jesus’ holy word “Ephphatha” to a generation blighted by the materialistic cultural aggression of our times:   We are reminded that Jesus has the power to heal the spiritual deafness caused by habitual sin. Hearts that have become hardened by a refusal to hear, be changed by, and then live out his words are once again challenged: “Ephphatha! Be opened!” In their day, the Romans imposed their language and culture on Palestine.  Modern secular culture, in fact, is no better. Religion and God are being evicted from schools, colleges, courtrooms, politics and public life. One cannot speak of virginity or marital fidelity without a contemptuous laugh from others.   The unborn child with a precious soul is often considered a “mere nuisance," a “product of conception,” a “fetus,” “a blob of tissue,” or a “tumor that can be gotten rid of,” with no human rights. In today's motion pictures, all religious gestures are either forbidden or relegated to the ignorant or superstitious.   We are told that sixty-five percent of our Catholic youth have no formal religious education beyond the eighth grade. They are exposed to the culture of free sex, loose relationships, liquor, drugs and violence.   No wonder, then, if they become deaf and blind to Christian ideals of morality, holiness in life and social justice! May our Lord touch us through this Gospel so that we also can say “Ephphatha” (“Be thou opened!”) to everything and everyone shut in from or closed to God and His loving Providence. (Prepared by Fr. Anthony Kadavil).

06 September 2018, 09:59