God will show us the way

  • September 8, 2009
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Sept. 6 (Isaiah 35:4-7; Psalm 146; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37)

To those who have been uprooted and driven from their homes the world seems to have ended. In the past century more people were displaced than at any other time in history. That century also gave birth to wars, genocides and persecutions on an unprecedented scale. What words of comfort can we possibly have for the victims? What can we do to ease their inner suffering?

In the sixth century B.C. the people of Israel experienced the destruction of their nation and exile in Babylon. Having endured the agony of defeat and expulsion, they now dwelt in a strange and distant land far from the land of Israel and the Temple of God. But their greatest suffering was the fear that gnawed constantly at their hearts and souls — fear for their lives, fear of the unknown future and fear for their besieged religion and way of life. The message given to the prophet and to a group of his followers is that they have a holy mission: strengthen and encourage the weak and fearful. They are to reassure the people that God has not forgotten or abandoned them — in fact, God is on His way to their rescue.

Metaphors are used to describe their experience: they are blind, deaf, mute, lame and dried up. But God’s presence is going to bring them to life again — they will know hope and joy and they will be able to envision a future for themselves and their nation. The true object of God’s healing is Israel’s collective sacred imagination. Violence, economic disintegration, injustice and the loss of familiar landmarks have all contributed to the toxic levels of fear and hopelessness in our time. People need to hear very clearly that they are not adrift and alone in the cosmos. God is with us — not to bail us out but to lead us out, showing us the way. We do have a future, but God’s future rather than the one we imagined. 

Giving preferential treatment to the rich and powerful has a very long history in the church and is sadly still part of our collective darkness. Jesus taught that all were of equal worth in the eyes of God and the rest of the New Testament continued that teaching by insisting that God is impartial and not a "respecter of persons." No one is of greater or lesser value in the community. But in some churches and cultures believers have at times been separated or discriminated against on the basis of race, caste and social standing. In many churches it was understood that certain pews were for those of higher importance and station. And the rich and powerful have always been able to pull a few more strings and exert more persuasion, whether in a parish, congregation or any other religious community. But the author of James is relentless: when we show partiality and favouritism, we demonstrate a profound lack of faith in Jesus Christ. God has elevated all people — especially the poor and marginalized — to a level of equality. When we reassert old patterns of preference, privilege or exclusion we are undoing the work of God.

Of all those many who suffered from deafness and muteness, why was this man and a couple of others gifted with healing at the hands of Jesus? And what makes this healing so different from the many wrought at the hands of the army of professional healers who crisscrossed the ancient Mediterranean? When Jesus performed at miracle such as a healing or exorcism it was far more than an act of compassion towards the suffering individual. It was a declaration and a ringing statement that God’s Kingdom or Reign had arrived. God’s presence results in life, wholeness, healing and freedom rather than misery or destruction.

The man in the Gospel story was freed from the conditions that bound and limited him. In a similar fashion, God means freedom and healing for us — not always in the literal and physical sense, but certainly always in the depths of our heart and soul. Making God present for others is a sacred mission and it must not be mixed with ego and selfishness. When we claim to preach God’s word and do God’s work, we should always look around and ask ourselves honestly if people are more free, happy and hopeful than before.