We begin our reflection this Sunday with a passage from the First Book of Kings. A severe drought had struck the Middle East and many were in peril of starvation. In this account the prophet Elijah was about to enter the city of Zarephath. He was tired and hungry from traveling. He saw a widow gathering sticks and asked her for a cup of water which she readily went off to get for him. But he shouted after her to bring a piece of bread, too. She confessed that she only had a handful of flour and a bit of oil. She had intended to make a small bread cake that she would share with her son. After that there was no more food.
Elijah pressed her to feed him first; she and her son could eat later. He promised her that her jar of flour wouldn’t go empty, and that her jug of oil wouldn’t go dry if she extended this gesture of hospitality. She trusted the prophet and shared her bit of bread with him. Elijah’s promise came true. Her flour and oil lasted until the end of the drought.
Mark’s Gospel mirrors this account in the scene we’ve read today. He tells of an impoverished widow who came to the treasury of the temple to offer a donation. Jesus pointed the widow out as a model of selfless giving and noted that she had given all she had to live on.
We have two powerful images of generosity and trust to think about this week. But we also have two powerful images of spiritual bankruptcy.
Mark introduced the account of the poor widow with a scathing condemnation of the religious leadership. “Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very serious condemnation.” He then ends the account with a disturbing proclamation. “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”
Sometimes the Gospel message brings us peace of mind or hope or a joy in realizing God’s loving relationship with us. Sometimes it makes us uncomfortable. Both are important. Today’s Gospel makes all of us, clerics and laity, quite uncomfortable.
Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes is a warning to religious leaders about the temptations posed by privilege. The scribes basked in their privilege and entitlement. Some of them even used their celebrity status to extort payment from widows for advice they’d give them. They who considered themselves examples of holiness were, in reality, the spiritually bankrupt.
Though we can identify elements of this same dynamic within the ranks of Christian leadership, we must take care not to be complicit by buying into the dynamic. Pope Francis has often condemned this element in the Church by pointing to the presence of clericalism and triumphalism among the clergy. The Church, lay and clerical, needs to take heed. Jesus called for a servant Church. We all need to be on our knees washing each other’s feet.
The poor widow’s model of generosity is a meant to disturb every one of us, rich and poor alike. By offering all the money she had to live on, she was placing herself totally in God’s hands. This was a pure act of righteousness. Some of the wealthy people in the temple with her that day were ostentatiously placing their money into the large golden trumpets used to collect donations for the temple Their donations, too, were representations of their self-giving. But they offered to God only what was unessential to their lives – “their surplus wealth.” Their reward was a caressed ego and the admiration of the adoring crowd.
We conclude this reflection with a phrase that Jesus would often use after a teaching, “Whoever has ears, ought to hear.”
In today’s Gospel passage Jesus answers a question posed to him by a scribe: “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Now, the scribes were the lawyers in Jesus’ day. They wrote up the legal documents for mortgages, loans, divorces and marriages as well as being editors, teachers and experts in the interpretation of the law. Often enough ultraconservative scribes and Pharisees challenged Jesus with questions concerning the law hoping to catch him in an unorthodox interpretation. But on this occasion the scribe seemed to be sincere in his question.
Jesus answered him by quoting Deuteronomy: 6:5, our first reading in today’s liturgy. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” He then added a second commandment to it. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 19:18.
It’s interesting that just a few weeks ago we read the account of a man who ran up to Jesus, threw himself at his feet, and asked the question, “What must I do to attain eternal life?” Jesus’ answer was direct and simple. Follow the commandments! “You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.” Exodus 20:12-17.
Jesus’ two answers come from the law but are quite different. The reference from Exodus is a legal, civil law: don’t, don’t and don’t. His referencing verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus are a call to act, to love God and neighbor.
I see two different approaches to the commandments here. One approach is related to the rule of law necessary to maintain a civilized society. It’s against the law to steal, or defraud, and if we do, we’ll be punished for breaking these basic laws. The other approach is spiritual in nature. Love of God and neighbor is essential for each of us and society to enjoy life in a deeper way, a way that mirrors the harmony of God’s creation. Both approaches are important for creating and maintaining a civilized society and for the individual to grow in holiness – God-like virtues. However, Jesus took a tremendous step and added a “new commandment.”
At the Last Supper Jesus told his disciples as they sat at table with him, “This is my commandment. Love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:12-13.
This is a totally new commandment. It isn’t modeled on civil law. It goes beyond a general call to love God and neighbor. It’s modeled on the very life of Jesus. It’s a commandment to love radically as he loved radically. Every day, Jesus opened his heart to anyone and everyone who needed the healing power of love. He reached out to the adulterous woman, the lepers rejected and isolated by society, the deaf, the crippled, the mentally ill, and political and religious enemies like the Samaritans. His commitment to love put him in dangerous opposition to the religious leadership of his day. His commitment to love put him on the road to the cross, and from that cross he showed us the meaning of his new commandment. “Love one another as I love you.”
This commandment is more than the call to love God and neighbor. It’s the call to love as Christ loved, sacrificially. There’s no more perfect love than sacrificial love. It’s, as Dante wrote, “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
JEREMIAH 31:7-9 HEBREWS 5:1-6 MARK 10:46-52
We are graced with the wonderful story of Timaeus, a blind beggar. He was sitting along the road just outside the city of Jericho. It was a noisy road because many people came to vacation there. Many traders also came and went through this oasis city as it was on the trade route that ran from the northern countries of Iraq and Iran down to Egypt. Suddenly there was a great deal more noise than usual. Asking what was going on, Timaeus was told that Jesus of Nazareth was leaving the city and that a crowd was following him.
Timaeus knew of this Jesus, and he became so excited that he began to cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.” This was no ordinary cry for help. Timaeus was shouting a Messianic exclamation, “Son of David!” He wasn’t just trying to get Jesus’ attention he was declaring him the Messiah. But even the second part of his cry had a powerful, implied meaning. We use the phrase in the liturgy, “eleison.” It means to have pity or compassion. It was a cry shouted out by crowds as military heroes or emperors entered a city in triumph: Kyrie eleison! Lord, be merciful to us! Timaeus was calling Jesus the Messianic King.
People tried to quiet him but he kept shouting. He caught Jesus’ attention. Jesus called him. He was so excited that he threw off the tunic he had been wrapped in and ran up to him. A simple verbal exchange followed. “What do you want me to do for you?” The answer came, “Master, I want to see.” Ironically, the blind man saw what the people didn’t, that Jesus was the Messiah.
The short conclusion to this account is worthy of our attention because it contains an important lesson for us. “Jesus told him, ‘Go on your way; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.”
The word “way” is very important here. Christians were called, at the time of the writing of the gospels, “Followers of the Way.” Jesus is telling Timaeus that his strong faith has delivered him from the world of darkness. He’s free to enjoy life in the world that he was never able to see.
But that was only the beginning of his new life. He always sat at the side of the road listening to the world go by. Now he’s free to walk the road he sat beside – the world is open to him. Timaeus decided to take a very special road, though. He followed Jesus on the way. He became a disciple.
I’ve always interpreted Timaeus’ request, “I want to see,” as the Christian’s special prayer. Here’s a thought for your personal reflection. If you told Jesus, “I want to see,” what would you want him to do for you?
WISDOM 53:10-11 HEBREWS 4:14-16 MARK 10:35-45
Today’s gospel passage reports the well-known incident when James and John asked Jesus to promise them a favor. “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your left and the other at your right.” They asked this question immediately after Jesus had revealed to them, for the third time, that his passion and death were imminent. They hadn’t been listening to him. They were remembering the glory they had seen just a short time ago when they witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration. They wanted that a piece of that power and that glory.
I think that most of us give a little nod to this passage. “James and John, you should have known better, tut, tut. Shame on you.” And we move on. Well, at the time of the writing of the Gospels, this incident was a scandal. So much so, that when the account was later repeated in the Gospel of Matthew, the mother of James and John was reported asking for that special favor, not James and John. It was too scandalous for two revered Apostles to have stooped so low. So, Matthew put the blame on mom.
Why isn’t this incident scandalous to us? I believe it’s because we make this all about Jesus, not us. He told them that day, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as the ransom for many.” We listen to that and reflect on Jesus’ self-sacrifice, but we shy away from his second teaching, “Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”
Jesus was teaching that giving up one’s life doesn’t always mean martyrdom. It means making the gift of self, offering oneself to God, diminishing one’s ego and committing one’s self to the service of others, especially the poor. This is the way of the cross, the path the disciple is called to follow. This is the glory road.
Lord Jesus. I want to be your disciple.
I want to offer to you the gift of my self.
In my work and in my daily life, I want to redirect my energy towards others.
I want to diminish so that you may increase within me.
Strengthen me as I work to follow in your way, and following your example,
may I wash the feet of my brothers and sisters.
WISDOM 7:7-11 HEBREWS 4:12-13 MARK 10:17-40
In the Gospel passage today, Jesus and his closest disciples were about to set out on a missionary journey. Suddenly, a man ran straight up to him, threw himself on his knees and blurted out, “Good teacher, what must I do to attain eternal life?” No Hello Rabbi. No excuse me. Just right to what was on his mind. This man was overly-exuberant, even verging on the rudeness that sometimes clings to people of privilege. Was he expecting a quick and easy answer to a question as deep as the meaning of life?
Jesus, taken aback by the man, immediately clipped his enthusiasm. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” He then gave the man a quick answer to his question: “Follow the commandments.” He even went on to enumerate some of them. Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t bear false witness. Don’t defraud. Honor your father and your mother. All but one of these were simple don’ts. The man proudly announced that he had “kept” those commandments from his youth. Then something interesting happened. We’re told that Jesus “looked at him.”
The verb, “to look at,” is used a number of times in the New Testament. This particular Greek word doesn’t refer to seeing. It has to do with perceiving – looking into the soul of a person. Looking at him, Jesus understood him, his motivations, his desires.
So far, life had been easy for this man but he wanted something more. He wanted eternal life. He thought Jesus could give him a simple formula to possess it.
Looking at him, Jesus perceived the roadblock that this man had come up against in his quest. It was his wealth and privilege. This man’s path to eternal life would be painful and challenging.
Lovingly, Jesus gave him the answer to his question. “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven: then come, follow me.”
The man heard what Jesus told him, but sadly wasn’t able to take that step. “He had many possessions.” He turned away from Jesus and returned, crestfallen, to his familiar life.
Jesus used this incident to teach his disciples an important lesson. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” This statement is as shocking to us as it was to those disciples. They threw their hands up in the air. “Then who can be saved?” The answer was simple – those who trust enough to offer themselves completely to God. “For human beings it is impossible but not for God.”
There’s nothing wrong with wealth. But, many times, wealth is marred by an attitude of privilege and self-absorption. Jesus’ parable of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man addressed the spiritual danger that can come with wealth. The rich man was so consumed with his own self-gratification that he never noticed the starving beggar languishing just outside his dining room window. Wealth and privilege can isolate a person from the totality of God’s world – a world of comfort and power and struggle and suffering and powerlessness.
Jesus showed the rich man the path to eternal life but it wasn’t the glory road the man expected. It was the road shared by the poor and suffering. It was the road of painful awareness of the world. It was the world where sacrificial love was the highway to eternal life.
GENESIS 2:18-24 HEBREWS 2:9-11 MARK 10:2-16
Divorce is a problem. It was a problem in Jesus’ day, and it’s a problem today. When the Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful for a husband to divorce his wife he answered their question with another question. “What did Moses command you?” In other words, what does the law say? They answered by referring to a law in the book of Deuteronomy. “When a man, after marrying a woman and having relations with her, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent,” he may write out a bill of divorce and hand it to her.
There are a number of things we need to look at before we look at Jesus’ response to them. First, a woman had no say in the bill of divorce because she had no legal rights. The only case when a woman could divorce her husband was if she could prove that he had committed adultery. Second, if a man was displeased with something that was “indecent” about his wife he could simply write out a bill of divorce, hand it to her, and dismiss her from his home. She was left penniless and abandoned.
At the time, there were two schools of thought about the definition of the word “indecent.” One said that it was to be interpreted solely as adultery. The other left the definition of “indecent” to the discretion of the husband. It could be chronic illness. It could be poor housekeeping. It could be the loss of physical beauty. It could be anything.
Jesus trumped their reference to Deuteronomy by quoting a more ancient text from the Book of Genesis. “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined no human must divide.” He went on to say, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
In a way, things are in the same state as they were in Jesus’ day. We still have two schools of thought. The Roman Church, focusing on “what God has joined no human must divide,” doesn’t allow divorce. Even adultery isn’t automatic grounds for divorce. But…highly influenced by Roman law, it sidesteps allowing divorce by applying a different approach; it permits the annulment of the marriage covenant.
People requesting an annulment must prove that there was a fatal flaw in one or both of the parties that existed before the marriage. This flaw would eventually surface causing the breakdown of the relationship. One example would be if one of the parties, for some reason, felt forced into the marriage the validity of the covenant would be in question. Premarital pregnancy would certainly question the couple’s freedom to marry. Immaturity at the time of the marriage could be another reason to annul the covenant.
The Eastern Orthodox Churches, on the other hand, didn’t take the legal path the Western Church did. They allow divorce. They, too, quote Genesis, but interpret it differently. They chose a spiritual approach to marriage. Should a marriage not work out, it means that God had not “joined” the couple.
This brings me back to the first sentence in this reflection. Divorce was a problem and is still a problem. One out of two American marriages will succeed. About two out of three Catholic marriages will succeed. We’re doing better than the national average. In addition to the pain of a relational break-up, there’s additional suffering felt when Catholics the community divorce.
Men and women who are divorced and remarried without an annulment are barred from receiving the Eucharist. They may attend the Eucharistic celebration but are not permitted to partake in the Communion. (Please take note that Catholics who are divorced but NOT remarried are free to receive Communion.)
Where do we go will all of this? Jesus’ altercation with the Pharisees only goes so far, I think. His answer stayed within their legal milieu. If we look at his interactions with ordinary individuals, however, we see that he took a heartfelt approach, not a legal one. I immediately think of the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the town well.
In the course of their conversation he told her to go home, and to bring her husband back with her. She told him that she had no husband. He told her that that was true; she had had five husbands and the man she was with now wasn’t her husband. He didn’t preach to her. He certainly didn’t condemn her. He simply recognized her life. She had already been ostracized by the townsfolk because of her history. He gently acknowledged her present situation without any judgment. This changed her life. She ran back to the town and announced to everyone that she had met the Messiah. She converted the entire town to Jesus!
I’ve been a pastor for thirty-one years. I’ve witnessed hundreds of marriages. Many are still intact and life-giving. Many have broken apart. I know many divorced and remarried couples, as, I’m sure, you do also. I know many people who have gotten annulments and feel fully engaged in the Church. Sadly, I also know many men and women who are divorced and remarried and don’t join me at the communion table. This breaks my heart. I feel that, somehow, our Eucharist is incomplete without them.
I want so much to conclude this reflection with words of hope that the situation with divorced Catholics will change. Some change has been taking place in the annulment process making the process faster and less painful. Some couples have told me that they experienced a degree of healing by going through the process. That’s good. I’m happy for them. In general, though, divorced Catholics whose marriages haven’t been annulled bear the cross of judgment and separation. At the Last Supper Jesus prayed “That they all may be one.” Please pray that prayer with me today. May the Lord, heal our community. May we all, married, divorced, single, truly be one in faith and love. May we all accept each other with the love that Jesus modeled for us. May we join together as one body at the table of the Lord.
NUMBERS 11:25-29 JAMES 5:1-6 MARK 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
In the first part of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus addresses an incident that involved the apostle John castigating an exorcist who was using the name of Jesus to dispel a demon. John told him that he had to be a part of Jesus’ company in order to use his name. What was going on here?
In Jesus’ day, people believed that malevolent spirits were everywhere. Note Psalm 91:7. “You shall not fear the terror of the night nor the arrows that fly by day, nor the pestilence that roams in darkness, nor the plague that ravages at noon. Though a thousand fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, near you it shall not come.” The thousands and ten thousand refer to demonic spirits wandering throughout the night in search of vulnerable people upon whom they could inflict pestilence and plague.
Illness, especially mental illness and epilepsy, was perceived as demonic possession. Part of the work of the exorcist was to align himself with a spirit more powerful than the spirit possessing the person. He would invoke the stronger spirit by name using its superior power to free the person from the grip of that particular demon.
Recall the incident from Matthew 12:22. “They brought him a demonic who was blind and mute. He cured the mute person so that he could speak and see. All the crowd was astounded and said, ‘Could this perhaps be the Son of David?’ But when the Pharisees heard this they said, ‘This man drives out demons by the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons.’” Jesus must have exhibited tremendous power for the Pharisees to accuse him of aligning himself with the most powerful of all demons, Beelzebul.
As Christianity evolved, this “practice” of invoking a superior power to liberate a person from possession by a demon took the form of invoking the name of Jesus to cure a person from “illness” or possession. This incident from the Acts 3:26 is a good example. “A man crippled from birth was carried and placed at the gate of the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms. But Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘I have neither silver nor gold, but what I have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise and walk.’ Then Peter took him by the hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles became strong.”
Let’s get back to today’s gospel passage. Jesus listened to John’s report of the confrontation he had with the exorcist who was using Jesus’ name to perform the exorcism. His response was simple. “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can, at the same time, speak ill of me.” But his response reached beyond this particular incident. There are other “mighty deeds” that people can, and will, perform in the name of Christ. “Anyone who gives you a cup of water because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.”
This response is so very interesting. The “mighty deeds” that can be performed in the name of Christ are exorcism, curing illnesses and…..charity. Jesus is teaching two things here, and both are important. Reaching out to people who are suffering in any way – even simply giving a cup a water to someone who is thirsty – can become a powerful event when connected to Christ because Christ can, and will, work through us. So, we call on the power of Christ to heal. We call on the power of Christ to liberate a person’s spirit. We can also call on the power of Christ to address the needs of suffering humanity. This is a challenge for us.
We might believe in faith healing. We might believe in exorcism. But it’s often difficult for us to believe that Christ’s power, working through you and me, can heal a society, or end starvation, or eradicate poverty? We tend to invoke the power of Christ to heal individuals of illness but shy away from calling on that same power to heal toxic governments or oppressive societal systems.
It’s something for us to think about. It’s something we can integrate into our personal prayer.
WISDOM 2:12,17-20 JAMES 3:16-4:3 MARK 9:30-37
In today’s short passage from Mark’s Gospel we see Jesus introducing the Paschal Mystery to his disciples by prophesying his death and resurrection. We’re told “they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.” Were they really afraid of questioning Jesus? Or were they afraid of what this saying might mean for them? They weren’t touching this. It was best to remain silent.
So, unwilling to let this important moment go by unaddressed, Jesus asked them a seemingly unrelated question. “What were you arguing about on the way?” Again, the disciples remained silent. They were like children caught doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing. This was very revealing.
At the beginning of this chapter Jesus was transfigured in the presence of Peter, James and John. They saw his glory in a blaze of light, and in the light, they saw him conversing with Moses and Elijah. Luke’s Gospel tells us that they were discussing Jesus’ coming departure, his death, his Passover. The disciples focused on the glory they saw. They ignored the road to that glory that Jesus was discussing with Moses and Elijah. And they weren’t even focusing on his glory, but on the glory that could be
theirs as his special disciples. They were looking for golden crowns, not crowns of thorns. They needed another teaching. “Then he sat down and called the Twelve.”
He showed them the road to glory. It would take them a long time to digest the power of the simple statement he shared with them.
Take off the polished shoes of privilege. Barefoot, like a slave, become “the servant of all.” Don’t work for a place with the powerful. Embrace the powerless, the childlike. Follow the example of the children. Let them guide you to the glory road. Once on that road don’t falter. Keep walking, even when you see a cross.
Lord, your teaching seemed clear enough to me.
“Unless you turn and become like little children,
you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
I only understood part of your teaching.
I never thought it involved the cross.
Lord, increase my faith.
ISAIAH 50:5-9A JAMES 2:14-18 MARK 8:27-35
We witness quite a scene as we observe Jesus and his disciples journeying to Caesarea Philippi. As the group walks along Jesus throws out a question to them: “Who do people say that I am?”
The answers that came back were quite interesting. Someone said that people thought that Jesus might be John the Baptist returned from the dead. Another reported that Jesus might be the prophet Elijah returning to give witness to the arrival of the Messianic time. These comments attested to the fact that Jesus was well-respected. People felt he was sent by God but weren’t yet convinced that he was the Messiah.
In the course of the interchange Peter chimed in with a clear and strong proclamation: “You are the Christ!” But almost immediately it became clear that Peter’s understanding of the role of the Christ was very different from Jesus’. Peter held the Jewish understanding that the Messiah would be a strong, charismatic figure who would conquer Israel’s enemies and inaugurate a golden age for Israel.
Jesus, impressed by Peter’s response, went on to reveal to the group what fate awaited the Christ. “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise in three days.”
Peter didn’t take this bit of information very well. He pulled Jesus aside to reprimand him for saying such things. Jesus wouldn’t let Pe-
ter’s comment go unaddressed. He called the attention of everyone around him. He must have left the group in a state of shock when he formally announced, “Whoever wishes to follow me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”
Well, so much for the advent of the Golden Age! Jesus even called Peter a tempter, a satan, for bucking God’s plan for the Christ, and asked him to get back in step with him and his mission. “Get behind me, satan!”
So, we observe this pivotal moment in Jesus’ life, the life of his disciples and all who will come after them. The Messianic time arrived with the appearance of Jesus but it exists in a way that no one could have imagined. It isn’t a time of power and glory for the chosen few. Rather, it’s an on-going radical invitation to every human being to commit themselves to a life of dedication to others. Jesus’ life will forever stand as the example of this new way of living. It’s living the paschal mystery, the mystery of personal death and resurrection. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”
We can end this reflection by asking ourselves some very serious questions. How do I live a life focused on others, not myself? Do I recognize in my self-giving the spark of the Messianic time? Finally, what do I mean when I pray, “Thy Kingdome come?”
ISAIAH 35:4-7A JAMES 2:1-5 MARK 7:31-37
We begin our reflection with the prophet Isaiah’s description of the messianic time. He makes this prophecy in the form of a poetic canticle, directing it to “those whose hearts are frightened.” He assures them that God’s divine recompense will save them. He then paints a verbal picture of the new world God will create for them – the Messianic time. “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.”
This poetic style, the canticle, is used several times in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. It jumps from a particularly powerful moment in the present to an even greater vision of the new world to come. In Luke’s Gospel, Mary breaks into similar poetry. When she visits Elizabeth, she proclaims to her that the Almighty “has shown the strength of his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.” She’s describing the time when justice for the poor will triumph – the Messianic time.
In today’s Gospel passage from Mark, the poetic language of the canticle is replaced by a real moment in the Messianic time. Jesus is asked to cure a deaf man with a speech impediment. This cure more than mirrors Isaiah’s prophecy: “the ears of the deaf (will) be cleared…then the tongue of the mute will sing.” It’s a proclamation of the the arrival of the Messianic time in the person of Jesus. Mark notes the reaction of the people. “They were exceedingly astonished and they said, ‘He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the
mute speak.’” This comment reminds us of the story of the creation when, after each day of creating, God said, “And it was good.” In this short passage, Mark is announcing that Jesus is the Messiah, and that the first moments of a new world have dawned.
These Messianic passages often leave us somewhat frustrated. It almost seems that the sacred writers are teasing us. They get us to look to a perfect and beautiful world. And sometimes, as Mark does to us today, tell us that the new world, the Messianic time, has already begun!
This passage reveals a tension that we Christians live with. Week after week, we reflect on Jesus’ healing, miracles and teachings. Each week, in one way or another, we hear Jesus say, “The kingdom of God is here.” Yet, each week we witness just the opposite: violence, injustice, greed, persecution, intolerance in our country and throughout the world. This tension between hope and a suffering human family is an important component of our vocation as Christians. We live with the pain we feel for others while never giving up hope.
Those who are suffering may give up hope, so it’s imperative that we carry it for them. We keep our eyes fixed on the new world, the kingdom of God. But as we do so, we feel their pain all the more. We mustn’t be surprised by this. When we carry the burden of hope for those who are hopeless, their suffering comes to life within us. This is our vocation, to carry the burden of hope. We look at Jesus, crucified and powerless. We listen to him promise paradise to the man crucified with him, and we believe, with the deepest conviction, that the kingdom of God is at hand.