Sep 9, 2018: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

did god not choose the poor

1st Reading – Isaiah 35:4-7a

Thus says the LORD:
Say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
with divine recompense
he comes to save you.
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.
Streams will burst forth in the desert,
and rivers in the steppe.
The burning sands will become pools,
and the thirsty ground, springs of water.

Isaiah is one of the most important of the prophets. He was born around 760 B.C. and lived in Jerusalem.

Today’s reading from Isaiah is an oracle of salvation, in which God promises renewal and restoration.

Thus says the LORD: Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not!

“Fear not” is a common expression in accounts of divine revelation, intended to alleviate the apprehension that accompanies a supernatural experience (Genesis 15:1, Joshua 8:1, Isaiah 41:10).

Here it is meant to encourage the faint of heart, in anticipation of the announcement of God as vindicator, which immediately follows.

Here is your God, he comes with vindication; With divine recompense he comes to save you.

God’s vindication can be terrifying; here, it is a message of salvation.

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 dumb will sing.

In Isaiah’s time, it was believed that God created everything in proper order. Imperfection of any kind, especially physical infirmity, was seen as a consequence of sin or some other form of transgression.  The person with the disorder may be innocent of any serious offense, but someone or something was assumed to be responsible for the condition.

In that context, Isaiah vividly describes the healing of four different infirmities, restoring the proper order of creation.  They are probably intended to represent all cures, whether physical or spiritual.

Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe. The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water.

The promised restoration is not limited to humans: all creation will be renewed.  The familiar imagery of life-giving water is used to characterize this amazing restoration.

Just as infirmity was considered a sign of evil in the world, this restoration was perceived as a sign of transformation that only God can accomplish.  In him, both people and nature will enjoy abundant life.

2nd Reading – James 2:1-5

My brothers and sisters, show no partiality
as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.
For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes
comes into your assembly,
and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in,
and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes
and say, “Sit here, please,”
while you say to the poor one, “Stand there,” or “Sit at my feet,”
have you not made distinctions among yourselves
and become judges with evil designs?

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.
Did not God choose those who are poor in the world
to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom
that he promised to those who love him?

This week we continue our series of readings from the letter of James.  In today’s reading, he urges his fellow Christians to act lovingly toward one another.  He does so in diatribe format, a very popular Greek style of argumentation in which the author or speaker confronts an imaginary addressee in order to inform his audience.

My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.

The reading opens with a clear and stern admonition: show no partiality.  The overwhelming glory of the Lord should nullify all such impressions of worldly rank or status.

For if a man with gold rings on his fingers and in fine clothes comes into your assembly,

Jewelry and fine clothing suggest wealth and prominence.

The hypothetical setting is the assembly of believers (synagōgē), which was primarily a gathering of free adult men for the purpose of teaching and study.  The assembly also had authority to set up court and pass judgment on community offenses.

and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in,

Both parties are envisioned as strangers to the community so that their social status is known only by their appearances.

and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here, please,” while you say to the poor one, “Stand there,” or “Sit at my feet,”

The richly clothed man is offered a seat of honor while the one who appears in shabby clothing is told to stand or sit at the feet of those in authority.

have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs?

In addition to being an example of social snobbery, their partiality jeopardizes their religious credibility.  Why would we judge the rich man as deserving of better treatment than the poor man?  Is it because we want something from that person, perhaps wealth or status by close association?  Such behavior is not worthy of a Christian.

Listen, my beloved brothers. Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith

Partiality to the rich is also in direct opposition to God, because he himself chose the poor. If we are to have a preference, it should be for the poor.

The poor do not have worldly status, but by reason of their faith, they are rich.

and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?

This is a covenant promise, echoed in the first Beatitude (Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20).

It is not their poverty that entitles them to this promise, but their love of God.  Those who love what the world values seem to prefer lives of privilege to lives of faith.

Gospel – Mark 7:31-37

Again Jesus left the district of Tyre
and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee,
into the district of the Decapolis.
And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment
and begged him to lay his hand on him.
He took him off by himself away from the crowd.
He put his finger into the man’s ears
and, spitting, touched his tongue;
then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him,
“Ephphatha!”— that is, “Be opened!” —
And immediately the man’s ears were opened,
his speech impediment was removed,
and he spoke plainly.
He ordered them not to tell anyone.
But the more he ordered them not to,
the more they proclaimed it.
They were exceedingly astonished and they said,
“He has done all things well.

He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

As is very common in Mark’s gospel, we move from a story about Jesus confronting the Pharisees (last week’s reading) to a story about Jesus performing a mighty sign.

With this particular miracle, Jesus heals a man who is both deaf and mute: a virtual fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy from our first reading.

Again Jesus left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis.

This circuitous route links this episode with a previous one.  It also provides a Gentile setting for the feeding of the four thousand, which follows immediately after this reading.

And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment

In an oral culture such as this one, the deaf were at a huge disadvantage and were marginalized in ways that others were not.  Recall the Shema, the Hebrew exhortation to hear, from last week’s reading (Deuteronomy 6:4); wherein hearing symbolizes openness to God.

Mark uses the term mogilalos for the man with a speech impediment, precisely the same word Isaiah uses in the salvation oracle of the first reading.  In all of scripture, these are the only two times this word appears; Mark seems to intentionally be making the point that with Jesus, Isaiah’s vision has been finally realized.

and begged him to lay his hand on him.

The imposition of hands on the sick was a common feature in exorcisms and healing rituals of that time, and is mentioned several times in the New Testament (Mark 5:23; Mark 8:23-25; Luke 4:40; Luke 13:13, to name a few).

He took him off by himself away from the crowd.

The privacy of the cure echoes 1 Kings 17:19, where Elijah raises a boy from the dead, and 2 Kings 4:33 where Elisha also raises a boy from the dead.  This privacy is also in keeping with the secrecy Jesus sought (Mark 7:24).

He put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue;

It was a common belief that the saliva of a miracle worker contained some of their personal power.

These gestures by Jesus are sacramental: there is an outward and visible sign of internal grace being conferred.  It may be that such details were remembered in the gospel as a guide to Christian healers in the early Church.

then he looked up to heaven and groaned,

A form of prayer.  The groan is not a sign of the difficulty of the task, but rather an expression of pity and compassion for the miseries of human life.

and said to him, “Ephphatha!” (that is, “Be opened!”)

The miracle itself is accomplished by Jesus’ authoritative command.

As usual, Mark translates the Aramaic term (ephphatha) for the benefit of his Greek-speaking audience.

And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly.

The cure was immediate and complete.  This is underscored by the fact that it would normally take a period of time for a deaf person to master spoken language.

“So open your ears and enjoy the good odor of eternal life which has been breathed upon you by the grace of the sacraments. This we pointed out to you as we celebrated the mystery of the opening and said: ‘ephphatha,’ that is, ‘be opened,’ so that everyone about to come to the table of grace might know what he was asked and remember the way he once responded. Christ celebrated this mystery in the Gospel, as we read, when He healed the one who was deaf and dumb” [Saint Ambrose of Milan (A.D. 390), The Mysteries, 1,3-4].

He ordered them not to tell anyone.

The revelation of Jesus as the Messiah had to begin discreetly and proceed by stages so that God’s plan for his death would not be jeopardized by popular enthusiasm.  Jesus is more than a healer; his full identity only becomes known in the cross and resurrection.

But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it.

The verb “proclaimed” is ordinarily reserved by Mark for the preaching of Jesus and
of the disciples; here it is used for the crowd. It is a characteristically Christian term,
strongly connected with the proclamation of the gospel.

They were exceedingly astonished

The term for “exceedingly” is hyperperissos, which translates to “beyond measure.” Nowhere else does Mark emphasize so strongly the reaction of the crowd – an indication that the crowd’s proclamation of the event is more an act of indiscretion than disobedience.

and they said, “He has done all things well.

Not only has Jesus done no evil (despite accusations by the Jewish leaders to the contrary), he has done a great deal of good.  Most people proclaim their own good works — or at least desire that others should proclaim them — but Christ sets an example of humility for us. We should take pleasure in doing good, but not in its being known.

Jesus has performed his works modestly, humbly, and devoutly, without pay or reward in any form.  That is what is being acknowledged here by the crowd.

He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

Today’s first reading was a vision of Israel’s glorious future. The crowd proclaims that the age of Messianic salvation, announced by Isaiah, has arrived with Jesus.

By juxtaposing Isaiah’s prophecy of hope with this miracle story from Mark, the Church is professing our faith that in the person of Jesus Christ, God came to save us.

Connections and Themes

  • The readings for this week all concern the poor and the afflicted:
    • Isaiah’s prophecy includes a list of physical ailments from which God will deliver us, along with one of the most frequent biblical commands: Fear not.
    • Mark’s gospel offers a fulfillment of that prophecy in Jesus’ healing of the deaf man who is unable to speak.
    • While both Isaiah and the gospel speak of physical healing, the ailments are also symbolic of interior sufferings.  The reading from James highlights this, showing that we are essentially blind to the suffering of our neighbor.
  • These readings pose a significant challenge to us in modern times, when prosperity for the fortunate seems to grow by the day.  Like those whom James addressed, we have a tendency to ignore or deny those who are left behind by the new economy, or the information age, or whatever direction the market takes.
  • In contrast, the readings demonstrate God’s partiality to the poor.  The fact that this concept is as old as Isaiah shows that this isn’t a fabrication of left-wing ideologues or liberation theologians.  The readings from Mark and James reinforce this notion: God is concerned with the fate of those who are visibly wounded and at marginalized by society.
  • There is no doubt that Jesus welcomed healthy and rich people, especially those who were wise and humble enough to acknowledge their shortcomings.  However, he always had time for the poor and the sick, those on the fringes of the community, those on the verge of destruction.  If the disproportionate amount of space in the Gospels dedicated to the poor and suffering are any indication, then the sick and needy are clearly the most important issue in our earthly realm.  If we are imitators of Christ, this concern must also become our own.
  • That being said, our care for each other, and especially the poor, is not a game we play, hoping to win a ticket to heaven.  Instead, it is a grateful response to God’s grace, and an acknowledgement of our own relative poverty and shortcomings.

 

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