Monday, September 7, 2015

Get Behind Me, Satan

                                    24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

In this Sunday’s first reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah, the speaker is the famous suffering servant who has always been identified with Jesus.

I gave my back to those who beat me,
My cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
My face I did not shield
From buffets and spitting.

Isaiah’s account of the suffering servant serves as an introduction to today’s gospel. It has always been believed that the evangelist Mark was a protégé of St. Peter who plays a prominent role in today’s account. Mark was not present and it is possible that his account is based on Peter’s remembrance. Walking along to the villages of the area of Caesarea Philippi, our Lord engages in conversation and asks his disciples for some feedback. “Who do people say that I am?”, he asks. They mention some names they have heard but then Jesus asks what they think?

It is Peter who replies, “You are the Christ.” They must have been shocked when Jesus then explains that his mission is to suffer and be killed, and then rise after three days. Peter can’t believe it and rebukes Jesus. Rebuke was a very strong word in those days. It’s like a Marine sergeant dressing down a new recruit. But Jesus rebukes Peter. “Get behind me Satan,” meaning, get out of my way.

Today people like to think of Jesus as a wise and good man who performed many good works. Even non-Christians regard him as one of the greatest men in history. However, he made it clear that that is not what he is. He is the Christ who has come to give his life for the world. Not only that, Jesus insisted that our mission was like his.

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
Take up his cross, and follow me.”

What does it mean to take up one’s cross? A few ago, I attended a funeral service in a local Baptist church. The small church was packed for the deceased woman had made many friends in her 58 years. There were traditional hymns and beautiful scripture readings and then the pastor gave a very fine sermon. He noted the woman’s extraordinary life of service to others, and even wondered if her own life had been shortened by her lack of concern for her own well-being.

The pastor then reminded the congregation that despite all of the woman’s good works, it was not those works that had merited her salvation. It is Jesus who saves and it was the woman’s belief in Jesus that saved her. I thought to myself that I am in a Catholic church for the pastor was preaching traditional Catholic doctrine although religious propaganda wars have tended to exaggerate the differences between Catholics and Protestants on the importance of faith and good works.

But who is a believer? At one point in the gospels Jesus said that not everyone who says, Lord, Lord, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. At another point, he told the story of the man who asked his two sons to work in the family vineyard. One said “yes” but never showed up. The other initially said “no”, but then changed his mind and did the work. Which one was the believer? Isn’t it obvious that it was the one who did the work.

That is the message of today’s second reading from the letter of St. James. No one knew Jesus better than the Apostle James. Scholars identify him with the James who was present at the Lord’s Transfiguration, who became the first Bishop of Jerusalem, and then died a martyr’s death. Here is the wisdom of James.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters,
If someone says he has faith but does not have works?
Can that faith save him?...
Indeed someone might say,
“You have faith and I have works.”
Demonstrate your faith to me without works,
And I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.

The woman commemorated in the Baptist church dedicated her life to the service of others. She demonstrated her faith through her works. How is it possible for billions of people in China to be saved if they have never even heard the name of Jesus? Isn’t it possible today that many people who think they have rejected Jesus are even doing his work and bearing his cross in their daily lives? So, there really is no separation between faith and good works. They are not opposed. Taking up your cross and bearing it is the work of faith. ###

Reading 1.  Isaiah 50: 4c-9a
Reading II. James 2: 14-18
Gospel. Mark 8: 27-35 (Get behind me, Satan)

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Ephphatha--Be Opened

                                    23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

The passage in today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah has naturally been taken to point to the work of Jesus. Isaiah foresees the signs of the coming of the Lord.

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.

Of course, we know that Jesus did all of these things. He gave sight to the blind man. He told the paralytic to take up his mat and walk. And, in today’s gospel, we see that he cleared the ears of the deaf man, and enabled him to speak for the first time. In this passage we see Jesus in his role of healer.

What was the occupation of Jesus? We know that people referred to him as the carpenter’s son, and we assume that he learned and practiced the trade of Joseph as a young man. We know that his disciples called him a rabbi or teacher, and no matter what your belief, you would have to admit that Jesus was one of the greatest teachers of all time. Yet, in today’s reading we see him as a healer or physician.

Mark relates that some people approached Jesus and asked him to heal a man who can neither hear nor speak. Actually, they asked him to lay his hands upon the man, a traditional method used at the time to cure the sick. It might be instructive to pay close attention to what Jesus did.

First, he put his fingers into the man’s ears, and then then apparently spit on the man’s tongue. To us, spitting might seem distasteful, but scholars tell us that it was not unusual for Greek and Hebrew physicians to employ spittle in their attempts to heal. Then, Jesus looked up to heaven and groaned, and uttered the command, “ephphatha” which Mark tells us means “be opened.” The result was miraculous. The man immediately began to hear and speak plainly.

We can only guess at why Jesus went through this procedure. You would think that he just could have done it with a word or a thought. Maybe, there is a lesson for us all in his way of healing. He seems to act as a conduit or connector between God and the deaf man. He puts his fingers in his ears as if he was putting cables on a dead car battery. Then, he looks to heaven as if to turn on the engine that will charge the battery. The power surges through Him into the man and he comes to life.

I am not offering this as a scientific or theological explanation of the healing. No one can really explain a cure like this one. Nevertheless, there is a good analogy here. We are all asked to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We are all asked to be healers. We are all asked to be involved or “hands on’ healers, and not just distant well wishers. We are all asked to be the conduit through which divine grace or power can flow through to those in need of healing.

Sometimes those in need around us seem like hard cases beyond repair. But in today’s second reading St. James tells us not to just take the easy cases but to be a means by which God’s grace can reach those in most need. The rich with gold rings and fine clothes do not need our care and attention. We must be just as attentive to the poor in both body and soul. Just as Jesus cured the poor deaf and dumb man, James tells us not to make distinctions of persons.

I love the animal stories of James Herriot, the famous British veterinarian, who spent his life caring for thousands of farm and domestic animals in rural Yorkshire. Herriot must have had plenty of ordinary cases but the stories he tells in his books are about those animals most in need of care. He treated them all, the healthy and the weak, with equal care and compassion. He came to realize that each animal had a value no matter the wealth or status of the owner. In his books Herriot used this little poem that obviously meant a lot to him.

All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all.

It would be great if we could follow Herriot’s example in dealing with those we encounter every day in our ordinary lives.


Reading 1.  Isaiah 35: 4-7a
Reading II. James 2: 1-5
Gospel. Mark 7: 31-37 (Ephphatha—Be Opened)