23rd Sunday of the Year
I remember facilitating a gathering of religious where we had invited a young many to share with us. He was deaf. He spoke of his work in the church and how often deaf people are not noticed or listened to. He said that if a pill was available to cure his deafness, he would refuse it. He had always been deaf and lived in a community and culture where he was at home. As I remember this young man, I wonder what people who are living with deafness feel when today’s gospel proclaimed. Do they feel they may be damaged or abnormal in need of repair? I wonder if the call is for us to be open and listen to the thoughts and feelings of people who are deaf.
Might this be the case when Jesus and the deaf man walk away from the crowd? As will happen more than once in Mark's Gospel, Jesus goes apart with the person who needs help. While such gestures were not unusual healing practices, more than anything they portray an intimacy of encounter. It is also noteworthy that this event occurred in the Gentile region of Palestine. It is a recurring theme in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus encounters and connects with people outside the Jewish community and that Mark keeps the person anonymous, means he is able to represent everyone.
By going away in conversation Jesus was primarily acting, as always like ‘God with us’, as being concerned to be with rather than be for. Mark is inviting us to walk not only with Jesus but with those whom he encounters – often people we may wish to avoid. Was it by encountering this man that Jesus had his ears opened and learned that there was nothing wrong with the man? We often focus on the person’s condition and forget the person himself or herself. We want to fix things that may not always need to be ‘fixed’ without an encounter and relationship of respect being developed first. As Jesus learned from the Syro-Phoenician woman that God is the God of all, did he learn by walking away with the deaf man that what people see and consider as abnormal, damaged, deformed, defective and in need of repair is not the case. This can also apply to attitudes towards people who belong to the LGBTIQ+ community. By walking away with the man, we see that he was no longer a spectacle or object of derision; no longer an object of charity or ridicule or avoidance. We do that when we meet such people on the street and we look away.
Remembering what the young man said at the religious gathering, we learn that is is not the deaf person who needs to be opened up but we who need to listen and attend to what they share what has often been denied them because of negative understandings where deafness was judged as a deformity or defect in need of cure or repair rather than a diverse way of life.
Jesus’ action expressed real sensitivity in taking the man away from the crowd. He did act as if he knew what the man needed. We have seen great injustices perpetrated on people whom society and leaders see as broken, backward, sick and impose help that they did ask for or want. Over the last 220 years, the colonised people of this land have had decisions made for them without consultation or even asked. When they do ask for something they need, such as a Voice in Parliament, it is denied. Jesus is setting a bar for all who minister in his name. His being with rather than being for ensured an awareness of people’s dignity as sisters and brothers rather than treated as clients, service recipients or customers. The church reminds us that the ‘poor are sacraments’ of encounter. We see in the narrative today, a deaf man who cannot speak is a sacrament of encounter with Jesus. It is when his story is heard that makes a difference to both him and Jesus.
James was addressing a community that separated people as ‘them’ and ‘us’ by using an example of two people at a religious gathering. One was dripping in gold and other reduced to excrement. He accuses the people for making distinctions among members of the congregation. He envisions a social space where all people mingle without favouritism where some are squeezed to the corners or confined to the margins. For James, the reaction of his community betrayed God’s priorities: that God does not make distinctions and consistently chose the poor for their faith. The bishops of Latin America have reminded us that the church must recognise and acknowledge the unique role of the poor in our lives and faith, ie., where the poor are sacrament. We meet Christ particularly in the poor and the poor have a special claim on our commitment. They went on to say that the church’s faithfulness to Christ is at stake in our recognition of Christ in the poor: ‘Our very adherence to Jesus Christ ... makes us friends of the poor and unites us to their fate.’ (Aparecida Document #257). Samuel Wells, (in A Nazareth Manifesto) writes: ‘God has no ambitions and seeks no final goal beyond restored relationship. That relationship is the telos of creation.’ He addes, ‘There is not gospel other than one that requires and makes possible restored relationships with God, one another, and the creation.’
What Jesus shows in the gospel is outlined in James’ Letter when it calls on us to examine our relationships with one another. The insistence on the important role of the poor in James connects with the Gospel and the reading from Isaiah that proclaims that God’s activity among us gives sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf and leads the lame to dance.
We need to ask ourselves where we fit in the story of the gospel today. It is not just about healing a deaf person but leading us into a space where we can hear more, see more and be more. Unless we can look upon and listen to those who are not like us, it is difficult to see how we can live the gospel of Jesus. This may be what Pope Francis is trying to tell us. It is about mercy, the loving kindness of God, expressed as tenderness towards others, that God’s reign, God’s presence, is affected. Francis lives the art of listening. We see how it brings him closer to people of all walks of life and makes God’s presence visible. It is the poor and those who work for justice that make God’s reign visible. As we begin the Season of Creation this Sunday and throughout September to the feast of St Francis on October 4, are we listening to the cry of the earth, which is our other poor neighbour? By tending the poor and tending to the needs of our Earth, we are tending to the Body of Christ.
We are invited to become instruments of healing in Jesus’ hands by making a space for those to be heard whose voices are not being heard by the powerful whether it is voices of the poor or those who are crying out to protect their countries due to climate change. We are invited to open our ears to hear God’s word and let our tongues be loosened.
Jesus’ healing of the man in the Gospel along with Isaiah’s promise to the people in exile and James’ words about what we call God’s preferential option for the poor point to the social meaning of today’s gospel narrative and what curing blindness, deafness and impediments to speech might mean for us today. Clearly, we are called to be open to the invisible poor among us and even cross forbidden boundaries to meet them. We are not meant to merely see them but hear what they are saying something made very difficult when competing on fixes on mobile phones. It means that if we truly listen we can learn much about the world from people with what we call disabilities or people who are homeless or people who seek our protection.
Today in response to our biblical readings let our prayer be ‘Ephphatha!, open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts. Loosen our tongues’ not only to speak the truth about poverty, but to act on that truth ourselves.