by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“My brothers and sisters, don’t try to combine faith in Jesus with the making of distinctions between classes of people.” James 2, 1-5
Then looking up to heaven Jesus sighed; and he said to the deaf man: “Ephphatha”, that is “Be opened.” Mark 7, 31-37
Have you ever been on a bus or train and noticed someone clearly under the influence of alcohol struggling to get on, and then caught yourself hoping that he’s not going to sit on the vacant seat beside you? Or have you ever spotted someone in the supermarket who you know will talk at you for at least the next thirty minutes if you can’t find a quick escape route? If we’re honest with ourselves, we know we have to admit that there are some people we want to avoid at all costs because they’ll embarrass us in public or want to take too much of our precious time. Instead of engaging with them, we would much prefer to invent an excuse and hurray away. And then there’s the local identity who, despite his cleft palate, is always ready for a long chat. We nod and say sweet nothings because we can’t understand a word he’s saying. While we try to smile, our body language betrays us, proclaiming our longing to escape. In contrast to us in our discomfort, the Jesus of today’s gospel welcomes, accepts and spends time with those whose lives are difficult, with those who struggle, who find themselves on the outside, who are lonely and overlooked.
Today’s second reading from James makes it very clear that the place where we make decisions about which people we accept and which we reject is our heart. And he demonstrates that with a real-life example: A very rich man (The Greek word James uses is something like “Goldfinger”.) on entering the synagogue is welcomed extravagantly. There is much bowing and scraping, and then he is offered the best seat in the synagogue. By contrast, a shabbily dressed, poor man, who came in at the same time, is almost totally ignored. In fact, he’s told he can find his own place on the floor. The prejudice meted out to the poor man is effectively written up in lights. But James makes no comment on the obvious. Instead, he points to the attitudes and motives born in the welcomers’ hearts. Of course, James’ comment is directed at us, too. What so often propels us to act the way we do are the strong feelings and prejudices towards others, that are buried deep in our heart.
Such attitudes are filed away inside us, at the ready. Just reflect for a moment on what rises in your consciousness when you encounter a very heavy person in the seat next to you on a plane, or a beggar in the street, or a bishop or a refugee or a person whose skin colour or ethnicity is different from yours. We have attitudes tagged away in our hearts long before we have to deal with particular people, events or issues. Experience tells us that different realities have a way of flashing our prejudices into our consciousness. Just think for a moment about the attitudes and prejudices you hold towards your various friends and relations, about your boss or community leader or parish priest. I wonder if we ever stop to realise that our prejudices are often a source of comfort for us. In fact, we sometimes catch ourselves saying that the devil we know is better than the one we don’t know. The devil we know with prejudice often seems better than the one we might meet in reality.
James confronts us with a truth we know from experience: poor people are very often the targets of our discrimination. We even know the litany of prejudices we can rattle off about them: “They’re dirty; they breed like rabbits; they are riddled with superstition; they’re lazy; they have no interest in getting a job; they are their own worst enemies.” If we can manage to get beyond our fantasies and prejudices and actually do a reality check, we might find that there is no real foundation for our prejudice. If we care to notice, we might discover that the Gospels are among the best reality checks we can find anywhere. They tell us that God has a preference for the poor, the weak and the broken. And today’s gospel reading teaches us that we could all do with a little of the vulnerability experienced by the deaf. If we can come to accept that God has a preference for the poor and afflicted, our prejudices might start to evaporate.
Now let’s turn our attention to today’s gospel. In doing so, let’s remember that any direction, question or comment attributed to Jesus in the Gospels is intended by the Gospel writers for us, too. While we may not be physically deaf, we have to admit that there are times when we can turn a deaf ear to God’s presence around us and to the voice of God’s Spirit in our hearts and in the words and actions of people we encounter. There have been times in my life when I have allowed fear, preoccupation with self, upset and loss to isolate me from the presence of God.
In praying for the deaf man’s ears to be opened and his tongue to be loosened, Jesus not only cures him of his physical disability, but opens the way for him to be fully accepted into the community from which fear and prejudice have excluded him. Can I allow the message and spirit of Jesus to open me sufficiently from my prejudices to recognise and feel God’s love alive in people for whom I have little time, alive in people I would rather avoid, alive in strangers and in people whose views and beliefs and practices are different from mine?
Maybe our prayer today might be that we ask God to help us to be opened from our fears, our self-certainty, our security and arrogance in thinking that we are right – all those attitudes that make us deaf to the voice of God in our midst, and speechless when it comes to supporting those with little or no voice in our society and responding to the cries of those calling for our help.
After all, reaching out to people who are struggling and in need is not simply something we do out of obligation. Nor is it an investment in a ticket to heaven. Surely, it is a response made in gratitude for the love and compassion extended by God to us in our need, fragility and disability.