by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Jesus 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!” Mark 7, 31-37
“God, your God, is the God of all gods, the Master of all masters, a God immense and powerful and awesome. God doesn’t play favourites, doesn’t take bribes, makes sure orphans and widows are treated fairly, and takes loving care of aliens and foreigners by seeing that they get food and clothing. You must, therefore, treat aliens and foreigners with the same loving care – remember, you, too, were once foreigners in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10, 17-19)
I begin today’s reflection with this extract from the Book of Deuteronomy because the sentiments it expresses reverberate throughout all three of today’s readings. The text I have quoted is part of a long exhortation by Moses to the people of Israel, following their failure to live up to the commitment they had made to abide by the commandments that Moses had received from God. In short, Moses was urging his people to imitate the concern, care, impartiality and love that God shows to all people, but especially to the poor, the disadvantaged and all who have been alienated, pushed aside and forgotten.
At its core, today’s first reading from Isaiah is an appeal to break out of the paralysis of fear and begin trusting in the God who cares for all, who will right wrongs and overturn injustice, who will even restore sight and hearing to the blind and the deaf. Implicit is the message that, if we can set aside our fears and come to trust in God, we, too, will find the courage needed to step out and start righting the wrongs we see around us and reaching out to the needy and disadvantaged.
In today’s second reading from James, we are reminded again that God, seemingly, does not play favourites. James takes his community to task through a bit of play-acting. He invites his community to imagine two visitors turning up in their church. One is opulently dressed (the equivalent of Goldfinger), while the second is an unwashed vagrant. James then proceeds to describe how, in all likelihood, his community would dance attendance on “Goldfinger” and consign the smelly vagrant to the back seat, or even ignore him. “But”, James asks, “are not both visitors equal in God’s sight? Don’t they both deserve to be welcomed with equal respect and dignity?” But then he goes an extra step, contradicting his earlier remark that God does not play favourites, and points out that God offers the down-and-outs first place in the kingdom (cf James 2, 5). Deep down, I suspect, many of us have difficulty with that.
Now, in order to appreciate the deeper meaning of today’s readings, we have to dig a little deeper. I suggest we look at a section of Chapter 7 of Mark that has been omitted by those who put together today’s readings. Mark7, 24-30 is the story of the Canaanite woman who approached Jesus, in hostile, foreign territory, begging him to cure her very young daughter who was possessed by an unclean spirit. I sometimes think that the writer of Mark’s Gospel had a “wicked sense of humour”, for the way in which Jesus responded initially to that mother and child hardly reflected Moses’ direction to the people of Israel: “You must treat aliens and foreigners with the same loving care as God has treated you” (Deuteronomy 10, 19). There’s a further irony here for all of us, for, like the woman in this story who was of Greek origin, we, too, are all gentiles. Now that surely offers us some scope for reflection! There’s yet more irony in the fact that the leaders of modern Israel, who continue to claim that they and their people are God’s chosen ones, continue to mistreat the Palestinians, all of whom are descendants of Abraham – one who is hailed by the Jewish people as their father in faith. And when did we last protest at the Israeli Embassy, calling for justice to the people of Palestine?
Furthermore, I am fascinated by the fact that Jesus, who was initially deaf to the Syro-Phoenician woman (of Greek citizenship) who was pleading for her daughter, immediately afterwards reached out to the deaf-mute man who was brought to him by friends. This sequence of events demonstrates that Jesus was a man of his culture and was influenced by those around him, who lived in fear and suspicion of foreigners. It also shows that he was open to learn and change as he went, and able, even, to listen to the logic of a woman, and a foreigner, to boot.
In dealing with the deaf-mute, Jesus did not shrink from the very basics – he not only touched the man who was regarded as being contaminated because of his disability, but inserted his fingers into the man’s ears and spat on his own fingers before reaching out and touching the man’s tongue. There’s something really earthy, even messy, about that. That makes me ask myself how I rate in my dealings with people who have a disability or who are afflicted with illness. Am I inclined to keep them at a distance? (I’m not alluding here to the precautionary measures we are bound to take in dealing with the Covid virus.)
A further implication of today’s gospel-reading is that it raises for me questions of my own deafness to the action and invitation of God’s Spirit calling to me from the people in the world around me and indeed from those with whom I live and work. How am I being prompted by God’s Spirit to open my ears, mind and heart to the cries of the forgotten, the displaced, the alienated, the refugees struggling in my small part of the world?
In concluding this reflection, I hearken back to today’s reading from James and share a story I read recently of a female, Mennonite pastor who set out to measure how the congregation she led had taken to heart James’ challenge to reach out to down-and-outs. This particular pastor went to great pains to disguise herself as a street-person. She purchased some second-hand clothes from a thrift shop, donned a soiled hat, put dirtied, worn shoes on her feet and ruffled her hair. When she entered the church through the back door, people, who normally would have greeted her cheerily, turned away and would not make eye contact. When she wasn’t being ignored, she was glared at. As she got near the front of the church, she could sense the ushers getting ready for a confrontation, but they relented and seated her as far away as possible from the regular attendees. The air became electric when she stood up and started to walk towards the pulpit. When she uncovered her face and revealed her identity, there was astonishment on most faces. That was followed by embarrassment and, after the service, a succession of apologies. Over the years, I have seen priests dressed as clowns deliver their homilies to effect, church ushers make clowns of themselves in their efforts to manage vagrants, but I’ve not seen a priest come disguised as a vagrant. We might need to ask ourselves if we have domesticated the Gospel and forgotten the God who looks closer to a clown in turning into guests of honour those for whom we and our world are inclined to have little regard.