23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Isaiah 35:4-7a | James 2:1-5 | Mark 7:31-37
Oh, God, by whom we are redeemed and receive adoption, look graciously upon your beloved sons and daughters that those who believe in you may receive true freedom and an everlasting inheritance. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
NOTHING is more fascinating and more intriguing than the miracles of Jesus, and nothing excites me more than Jesus saying to his disciples, therefore saying to us, that “These things that I do, you can do the same thing. You can do miracles. You can do even greater miracles than I do.” So somehow we’re invited to imagine that this power that was in the man/God is also in us, and that the power in the man/God Jesus was clearly in Jesus’ mind, as a human, and that it was God’s gift, God’s grace, God’s power in him that enabled him to do those things.
I loved the stained glass at a parish where I was pastor, St. Bernard of Clairvaux in East Dallas. A wonderful German man made these stations of the cross, and every time there’s a station that represents an action of Jesus healing someone, he always has one finger up in the air, pointing to, “This isn’t me. This is God in me.” That means that you and I need to understand something that is not easy to grasp, and that is that we are vehicles, channels, vessels that carry a healing power. It’s not me that has that power in and of myself. It is God’s grace, God’s presence, God’s power in me, but what’s so interesting about the way God works in this world, what he invites us to understand about how he works, is that he needs you and me, our free will, our poverty to be able to do this. Nothing would be more dangerous for me, knowing myself as I do, than all of a sudden becoming this literal miracle worker. I just know my ego. I know that, if that happened to me, a couple of things would go wrong. Number one, I would begin to think, “It’s me, and I’m better than everybody else.” And then the other thing would be that I couldn’t do much other than hide because if I really displayed this kind of power at any moment that I needed it, I would be bombarded, as Jesus often was, because he was a miracle worker. In other words, whenever he tells people, “Please don’t tell anybody about this,” it wasn’t so much that he didn’t want them to know he had this power, it was just that, when they know he has this power, that’s all they can think of. “How can I come and get healing from this man?” There are statements on the part of Jesus saying, “I can’t even go into towns anymore because they rush against me and say, ‘Heal me. Heal me. Heal me. Heal me.’” And there’s something that Jesus is trying to teach us in this healing ministry that is so crucial, so important, that should be happening every single day in our life, but not in the literal way in which we sometimes see it depicted in Scripture, but just as real.
Let’s start with that image of poverty because St. James, in the second reading, is saying, “You know, human beings, we’re great. We’re wonderful, but one of the things we do often is, when we see somebody who has wealth, which is another word for power, we tend to elevate them above other people.” We tend to do this, for whatever reason — maybe we’re in awe of them. Maybe we think they can do something for us. Whatever it is, we base their value on this capacity they have to accomplish things, and that’s normal. There’s nothing really wrong with that, except what James is trying to point out is that there is something kind of crazy about it. If you’re thinking that because a person has wealth — literally, money — which could have been inherited or achieved in any kind of way. Maybe they even worked for it. It doesn’t matter, but just having money and power in the world is not something that should distinguish people in the minds of those who understand the world in the way that Jesus teaches us to see it.
The most powerful thing that human beings can have in this world is an awareness that they are not enough, that they are poor and that the way God plans this world to unfold for us, our experience of life to unfold for us is that the more we understand "I’m not capable of doing the things that I know my nature calls me to do," that I know my religion, my God calls me to do, that I can’t do those things at all, that’s not in me, but I have — the more I realize it’s not me and it flows through me and I give — think about it. I give the power over to the real power. It’s not our charm, our ability to act in a smooth, charismatic way that moves people. It’s not being attractive in that sense. It’s having something real inside us that we know isn’t us that is the most treasured thing that we have, this ability of God’s grace to come through us. And what is that grace? How does it work? How does it heal people?
The fascinating thing about the healings of Jesus is — even though we said in the earlier verse that Jesus healed all kinds of diseases — well, when I think of that, I think, “Well, then he must have healed all kinds of maladies.” There are infections and bad kidneys and bad whatever, but when you look at the miracles, they’re not that. Leprosy was one of the diseases that he did heal in people, but that was the symbol of sin. So if leprosy is the corruption that sin does, the disfiguring it does to us when we live a lie and do destructive things, we distort our very nature, and Jesus came to heal that. But basically the healings are always about eyes that are opened, ears that are opened, tongues that are able to speak, a body that’s paralyzed is able to move and the withered hand that is able to hold something. It’s always just this kind of natural thing that God is enabling to happen, to be able to see, to be able to hear and to be able to speak. That’s what we call life. That’s being alive. So it seems as if the healings he performed were for people. If you look at the goal, it’s for a human being to be fully alive, not so much free of a disease, like an infection, which is what we all struggle with, but something deeper, more important than the shape of our literal bodies because our bodies, they wear out. Let’s face it. That’s what they do. That’s natural, and then they give up eventually, but there’s something in our spirit, something in us that can grow stronger and stronger and stronger and younger and younger and younger and more potent and more potent. It’s the ability we have to be a vehicle of moving into people’s lives so that we open their eyes to really see reality, open their ears to really hear what’s truthful, a discernment, the ability to speak authentically, truthfully, to be able to move around and accomplish the tasks that we do: hold people, love people and touch people. That’s what it means to be fully alive.
So we look at the first reading, and it’s really beautiful the way Isaiah sets up our understanding of what this mystery of healing is all about. It’s this sequence that he wants you to pay attention to. So Isaiah is saying that there is going to be a God who comes into your life, and the most potent form in which God came into the lives of people was as a human, 100 percent human, 100 percent God. This is the best vision, the best understanding, the best insight we have as to who God is, this man Jesus. So he comes into the world, and what we hear is that God is going to come into the world. It’s not implied. Well, it’s implied, but in the form of a Messiah, and what he’s basically going to do is come to you with two things: divine recompense and vindication. And when you receive divine recompense and vindication, your eyes will be opened. Then you will be able to hear. Then you will be able to leap like a stag. Then your tongue will sing, and everything around you that looks empty and dry and vacant is going to become rich and full and moist and green. It’s a way — it’s an amazing image that, when you experience these two things, vindication and recompense, your whole world changes: how you perceive, what you take in, what you see, all that. What is recompense and what is vindication?
Recompense is another word for forgiveness in a sense. It means that when God enters your life, he’s going to do something for you. He’s going to open your eyes to see what you’ve done and haven’t done, as well as your faults and your weaknesses. Just think of it this way. You come into the world. We have an obligation to take care of one another. We have an obligation to take care of ourselves. Sometimes we don’t do that. Sometimes we don't give people what they need, although they deserve it, and we owe it to them. Many times I look back on what I wasn’t to the people around me. I look to the people around me whom I needed to be something (for me), and they weren’t really what I needed. They weren’t really there for me. They weren’t really there affirming me. In a sense, you can say they owe me something, and I owe the people whom I haven’t taken care of. And so this God comes into our lives and says, “Look, all that past stuff, let me just — I’m writing off the debt as recompense. I’ll take care of all your debts. I'll pay for everything. You are free of everything in the past.” Free of everything in the past? What does that feel like? All the attention that I spent on shame and guilt, I have that attention now to direct somewhere else. Where I can direct it is to my (current) way life, this moment right now that I’m in. I don’t owe anybody anything in the past. I’m just right here, and I can see things as they are, and actually they’re pretty wonderful.
Vindication. Vindication is probably more important than recompense to me because vindication means that, whether you were guilty or not, you were accused of something. If you’re accused and God enters your life and he wants to give you this gift of vindication, it means you are not guilty. You’re accused. The proof is that you’re not held responsible. You are vindicated. You are free. To be forgiven, to be free, all of that has so much to do with the past, to let go of all that, to receive those gifts from a loving God who’s looking at you and looking at me and saying, “Look, I know all the past has happened. I know what’s happened. I know where you failed. I know where other people failed you. You can resent them. You can feel shame about you. That all eats up something, causes a disease that keeps you from really seeing what I’ve created for you, hearing the beauty of the truth, that you’re free, that you’re loved, that you’re safe, that I’m not going to let anything harm you.” What happens to a human being when he or she hears all that? All of a sudden, what I think happens is you feel extremely valued — valued, loved. Is that the power of healing? Is that what it really is? Is that all it really is?
Look at Jesus now in this gospel passage because he’s had a really tough time. If you’ve followed carefully the passages that we’ve been listening to, last week we saw him working so hard, always trying to reach the scribes and Pharisees, trying to help them to open their eyes, open their ears, to listen to what he’s saying, to who he is. And so they’re watching him, and they’re not asking him a question about, “Why don’t your disciples fast? I mean, that’s so interesting.” They’re not asking a question. They’re making a statement. “You and your disciples are lawbreakers. Therefore you can have nothing to do with the role that you claim to have. You cannot be from God if you break these rules.” They’re not asking for information. They’re accusing him of a false accusation. “You’re not good. You’re wrong. You’re no good.” It’s a lie that the devil, or evil, constantly pours into our soul. It eats us. It destroys us. It’s like a cancer. There’s only one thing that heals it and transforms it into a nondestructive element, and that’s vindication, recompense. That’s the past. It’s over. Don’t worry about it.
So Jesus goes through that experience of “I’m not reaching the men who are running this temple of my father, who are so off track. I can’t reach them. They won’t listen.” And then a woman comes up who is not even part of the Israelite people and asks for a healing for her daughter, but she’s not even — she’s not a Jew. She’s not part of the Israelite community, and Jesus is so in a bad place. He just said, “Look, I’m not going to throw you to the dogs. I’m trying to reach these other people. I’m frustrated, and they won’t respond. Now you’re asking me.” And then she displays the very thing he hoped, wished, longed for in those who led the church at the time, some kind of openness to saying, “I need help.” And she just looks at him and says, “Look, I know you can do this. I know you are powerful. You can heal. You can transform. You are a source of life. I know you can do it. Just give me a scrap. Just give me anything.” Compared to those to whom he’s offering everything and they have refused, she’s saying, “Just give me a little bit. That’s all I need. I just need your love, your acceptance, your support of my daughter who’s got an evil spirit in her.” She’s wracked with anger, shame, fear. She’s whatever, and he said, “She’s healed.”
And then this miracle of a man who cannot hear. The disciples — excuse me, the Pharisees — refuse to listen. So they bring in this man, and he does two things that are interesting. He puts his finger into their ears, and then he spits and puts the spittle on the tongue, which is really kind of gross in a way, but what they understood about spittle is that a person’s spirit is their breath, and when that spirit takes solid form, it’s saliva. So all he’s doing is touching the man, gesturing to open this ear, but what he’s really giving him is the Spirit, his Spirit, and the Spirit is, “You are loved. You are saved. You are forgiven. I’ve created a world for you. I want you to feel it, see it. Can you hear it? Can you see, listen to what is? Because if you listen to what’s real and what’s true, you’ll speak differently about it.” Isn’t it interesting when someone can’t hear, their voice, even though they might learn to speak, it is never very distinct. So it’s a beautiful image of what we perceive out there. How we perceive it is what we’re going to be able to, in a way, resonate from inside us. If the world is harsh and cruel and nasty, we end up with a very negative energy in the world. When we see it for what it is, beautiful, we see each other as forgiven, beautiful human beings struggling to become all that we’re supposed to be. When we see that, hear that, we’re different. Our speech is different, not so much criticism, not so much negativity, not so much hate. All of a sudden, that kind of person is so sweet and so good to be around, and once you know that’s what you need, the others who don’t have it are very hard to be around.
Father, we are in awe of your plan to share with us your presence so that we truly can become a healing force in the world for those that we love, for those that you have called us to serve. Bless us with eyes that see this, ears that hear it, a voice that speaks it, a body that’s willing to serve, and we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.