Be not afraid

  • August 29, 2012
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Sept. 9 (Isaiah 35:4-7; Psalm 146; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37)

Fear is probably the most destructive of all human emotions. When fear reigns, faith, hope and love are the first victims. Fear separates us from God, clouds our understanding and leads us into a riot of compensatory behaviours, most of them negative. The world in which we live today is in the grip of fear and we see the unhappy results all around us.

Time and time again in the Bible, heavenly messengers — angels, voices, prophets and Jesus Himself — exhorted human beings to put aside their fear. The messenger always reassured people of God’s continual presence and unfailing love. The passage from Isaiah was addressed to the people of Israel in the tumultuous and violent period of the sixth and seventh centuries BC. They were threatened and attacked by a succession of Assyrians and Babylonians, as well as surrounding nations like the Edomites who took advantage of the situation. Who can blame them for being afraid? It is very difficult to go on day after day with the threat of destruction continually present, and this destruction sometimes came to pass.

The rulers of Israel often dealt with the threat by resorting to international power politics and military alliances. The prophets exhorted Israel unceasingly to look upon God as their protector instead. If the nation was right with God all would be well. Being right with God meant more than what we would think of as religion — it included the application of God’s laws of justice, truth and honesty to society. The poor, weak and marginalized had to be protected and cared for. The nation had no cause to fear if this were the case — tragically, it often was not. The prophecy makes it clear that God is about life, healing, abundance and human flourishing — not punishment and destruction. Those things we bring on ourselves by poor choices and infidelity to the one who gave us life.

Before God there are no distinctions based on class, wealth, gender, ethnicity or religion. All are treated with the same compassion and care and Jesus made it clear that we are to do likewise. Because we are human this is often violated — people judge others based on appearance, influence and wealth. Christians have not been immune, for the wealthy and powerful have often wielded an excessive influence in the Church. James insists that this is not the Christian faith and we make a mockery of it when we behave in this manner. All of these signs of wealth and power can be stripped away in an instant — and often they are. In order for the Church to be an effective sign of contradiction in our world this example of equality and love without distinction must be recovered. We are who we are before God and nothing more.

The miracles performed by Jesus were always more than mere acts of compassion — they made a statement about God. There must have been many deaf and mute people in the land, so we might wonder why this man was singled out. Each miracle was a proclamation to all who witnessed the act that God’s reign had come very near. If that is the case, this miraculous healing was a bit out of the ordinary. Jesus took the man away from the others, in private, and the healing involved touching, saliva and an actual command to the afflicted part of the man. Consistent with Mark’s account, Jesus commanded the man to keep the whole matter under wraps (perhaps some reverse psychology!), which of course the man failed to do. Word quickly spread, and the astounded crowd was amazed at Jesus and the powers that He displayed, but His actions were also charged with meaning.

The prophetic tradition, especially Isaiah, portrayed the visitation of God as a time when the blind, deaf, mute and crippled would be restored by the compassionate mercy of God. The healing of this man, and so many others in the Gospel, were irrefutable signs that God had come very near indeed in the person of Jesus. God approaches an open and loving heart as well as an environment that reflects this, and when God visits wonderful things happen — new life, hope and joy. Preparing an opening for God is one of the most important things we can do to extend God’s Kingdom.