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Jesus is the master of object lessons, the one who teaches with actions as much as words, and he demonstrates that in the Gospel for Sunday, the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.
The Gospel encapsulates in a single story who Jesus is and how the Church is supposed to act.
Jesus does three things in Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 7:31-37) which are only made possible by what the Church does for him.
First, Jesus comes out of nowhere to a place he wasn’t expected. The Gospel begins, “Jesus left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee.” Look at a New Testament map and you’ll see how odd that is. The distances are shorter, but it’s as if it said, “He went from New York to Washington, D.C., by way of Boston.”
Jesus headed north to go south, then looped into the district of the Decapolis, a Greek and therefore Gentile district. There, “people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hands on him.” This is how the Church is supposed to act, attentive for opportunities to bring people like that deaf man to Jesus Christ.
That makes it possible for Jesus to do a second significant thing: “He took him off by himself away from the crowd.” The Church brings us to Jesus, but then Jesus wants us to spend time with him alone in private prayer, heart to heart. In the intimacy of our personal encounter with Jesus Christ, he will change us.
Third, Jesus “put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue. Then he looked up to heaven and groaned and said ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened!’ – And immediately, the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly.” Thus the Lord uses physical things — his own body and his saliva — to touch and heal the man.
The Church does this too. Jesus “makes use of signs to heal: spittle and the laying on of hands,” says the Catechism, “and so in the sacraments Christ continues to heal us.”
Think of everything these “object lessons” teach us.
Jesus taking a roundabout journey to meet the deaf man is like salvation history and the incarnation, in which God took a roundabout way to meet us.
In the First Reading, God builds anticipation in his people by telling them through the prophet (Isaiah 35:4-7a), God himself “comes to save you. Then, will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf will be cleared, then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.”
It teaches us something very important about God: He is coming, and the first ones to meet him will be the weak, broken, and forgotten.
This should be the Church’s priority today — but often isn’t. The deaf man would never have met Jesus and been touched by him if others had not brought him to God, and in fact many people today don’t meet Jesus because nobody ever bothers to brings them to him.
The Second Reading, from St. James, says to “show no partiality.” Don’t treat rich people one way and poor people another, he says; be willing to accept the shabby in the same way you greet the stylish.
We are each personally guilty of failing in this way, choosing who we speak to based on their outward appearance. But the hierarchical Church is often guilty of it too.
Bishops’ fundraising methods mean that they have inner circles and fancy dinners with big donors. This often backfires and makes bishops careful not to offend the moneyed interests in their dioceses, watering down their witness and silencing the voice of Christ in the world. Pastors of parishes often have the same problem. The great challenge in the Church remains a lack of transparency, where secrecy cloaks pastors’ decision-making.
Then there is the churchwide problem in America today where there are great and needed efforts at outreach to college students, but far less outreach to working people. In fact, most parishes schedule daily Masses during working hours, excluding all but a few retirees from sacramental communion with Jesus, the opposite of the people in the Gospel passage today.
Consider how Jesus reached out to both the poor and the rich alike.
On the one hand:
But on the other hand:
The fact is, Jesus came for everybody, the poor and rich alike. And he wants us to reach out to everybody, the poor and rich alike. But he warned, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” If money or prestige or power owns our hearts, our partiality will make it impossible for us to bring the people we ought to into Jesus’s presence to “be opened” to his grace.
This Sunday, we are all like the deaf mute in the Gospel, coming forward to be touched and healed by Jesus.
Jesus healed the deaf man by putting his finger on his tongue. At Mass, the body of Christ is placed on our tongue.
Jesus’s prayer for us today is the same as it is in the Gospel: Ephphetha, “be opened.” He opens our ears to hear his challenge and the needs of those around us, and takes away our inability to speak his message, if we let him.
All around us are people just like that deaf man in the Decapolis, stuck in a silent, Christless, world, unable to hear the voice of God, far from the thoroughfares where the Church is reaching out.
In the Gospel, the people “were exceedingly astonished.” They said, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” If we let him, he will “exceedingly astonish” us, too.