by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” Matthew 11: 2-11
In 2013, Pope Francis wrote a document encouraging all Christians to proclaim, by the way they live, the joy to be found in the Gospel. The title of that document is Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), and its opening sentences read: “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and the lives of all who encounter Jesus…With Christ, joy is constantly born anew.”
The enthusiasm of Pope Francis about the joy of the Gospel filling our hearts does not match my experience. That’s not a criticism of him but, rather, a comment on my own inadequacy to allow myself to be captivated by the Person and the Gospel of Jesus. Living in accord with the Gospel is, in my experience, a challenge. I suspect that one of the reasons for that is that there is a lot happening in the world that dampens my hope. I am committed to the call of Jesus to work for justice for those who are not getting it, for people who are victims of exploitation, for the countless refugees in search of security, shelter and sustenance to sustain them and their families. However, I find some comfort in the fact that one as great as John the Baptist also had questions and doubts. His sending some of his disciples to check on the credentials and track-record of Jesus indicates to me that he was wondering if his confidence that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah had been misplaced. Admittedly, his own imprisonment must have brought him face-to-face with human depravity and despair. It has to be difficult for prisoners in any age or place to believe in a future full of hope. But John’s limited view from his prison cell meant that he had no appreciation of what Jesus had been doing. As a result, he sent his disciples to put to Jesus on his behalf the question with which he was struggling: “Are you ‘He who is to come’ or do we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3)
If there is one thing that gives me hope in the content of today’s gospel-reading, it is the fact that Jesus did not only resist being critical of John for doubting him but went on to praise John for all he had said, done and modelled to prepare his world for the advent of the Messiah, Jesus himself. The Baptist, however, did not have the satisfaction of seeing Jesus in action. His imprisonment deprived him of that. However, the hope that Jesus brought into the world is to be seen in the answer he gave to the delegation who had come from John: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, cripples walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, dead people are raised to life, and the poor have the good news preached to them. Blest is the one who finds no stumbling block in me.” (Matthew 11: 4-6). Jesus did not go on the defensive, he merely asked the messengers to open their eyes and judge for themselves whether or not what they saw demonstrated God’s active presence in a broken world.
Let’s not forget that Jesus had come to establish the reign of God in the world. But the way in which he did that was different from the way in which John, John’s disciples and most of the Jewish people imagined it would happen. For the most part, they were expecting the Messiah to forcefully drive out the Roman occupiers of their country. In contrast, Jesus chose the way of non-violence. The message which Jesus suggested John’s disciples take back to their leader was all about the restoration to health and dignity of the poor and needy. What Jesus had done for them was a clear sign that the reign of God was being initiated in a non-violent way.
Jesus’ directive to John’s disciples is equally relevant to us. Are we ready and open to look at our world for signs of God’s presence? What signs of hope can we see? Or do we see a future full of doom and gloom, especially when we believe our political leaders are doing precious little to stem the consequences of climate change? And what spoken and unspoken thoughts do we entertain about Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro recently ousted President of Brazil, Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria and the Military Junta in Myanmar? We hear of the atrocities over which they are alleged to have presided and conclude that their people and our world would be better without them. Would we be satisfied if they were removed by forces more violent than those at their command? Yet we know that violence is totally foreign to Jesus and his Gospel. Just a few weeks ago on the Thirty-Third Sunday of the year, the gospel-reading from Luke recorded Jesus as saying that there will be wars, brutality and insurrections so long as human beings misuse power and freedom. But such happenings are not a signal that the end of the world is near (Luke 21: 5-19 and Matthew 24: 6). When such things happen, we hear some people asking why God does not intervene. But Jesus did not subscribe to belief in a God who would come and intervene whenever people with power and military might misused their freedom. But violence, terrorism and armed conflict can distract us from seeing God’s presence made visible in the goodness and generosity of people reaching out with compassion and care to their sisters and brothers in need.
So, we have to stop and ask ourselves if we really do want to closely encounter Jesus and have our hearts and lives filled with the joy of the Gospel. We also need to look into our own hearts to see whether or not we would want the conflicts in our world addressed by strategies based on the use of force and violence.
Instead of allowing our attention to be turned to all in our world that is destructive, disrespectful of people’s freedom and dignity, neglectful of our common home, let’s discipline ourselves to hear and see how good and generous people are bringing to reality God’s reign of justice, mercy, compassion and forgiveness.
In this context, I am reminded of a story written in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof, a sometime critic of the Catholic Church. Kristof told of the extraordinary contribution of Dr Tom Catena to the well-being of more than half a million people living in the Nuba mountains of South Sudan. Tom Catena is a medical practitioner and lay missionary, the only doctor working in the Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba mountains. In fact, he’s the only doctor living and working in that part of South Sudan. And the hospital in which he spends most of his time has been the target of bombing by the Sudanese air-force. Dr Tom does everything from removing pieces of shrapnel from victims of the bombing, to amputating mutilated limbs of children, to delivering babies and run-of-the mill appendix and hernia operations. He attends to children and adults suffering from malnutrition and leprosy.
Aware of the initiatives undertaken by Pope Francis, Kristof admitted that he has a dream that Pope Francis will one day make a visit to the Catholic hospital in the Nuba mountains as a way of galvanising opposition to the evil of the bombings taking place there. That dream might just come true next year when Francis visits Sudan. Perhaps the greatest tribute given to Dr Tom came from a Muslim chieftain who said: “That doctor is Jesus Christ. Jesus healed the sick, made the blind see and helped the lame walk. That’s what Dr Tom does every day.” If we care to open our eyes, we’ll see people like Tom Catena making God’s kingdom real.