Ephphata: Jesus Challenges Our Culture’s Silence about Poverty

Readings for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 35:4-7a; Ps. 146:7-10; Jas. 2:1-5; Mk. 7:31-37

Poverty is an uncomfortable topic for Americans. So, we ignore it at home and abroad. When was the last time you heard a politician even refer to the poverty as a pressing problem in the United States or in the world at large?

Today’s liturgy of the word forces us to face God’s quite divergent attitude on the subject.

But before we get to that. Think about our culture’s attitude. For instance, rather than recognize poverty as human-caused, our politicians go in the opposite direction. They actually blame the world’s problems on the poor. They ask us to believe that impoverished immigrants and war refugees rather than the politicians themselves (and their rich sponsors) are responsible for our nation’s problems.

The reality, however, is that the refugees are the product of U.S. wars against the poor in our own hemisphere and beyond. Throughout the 1980s, we fought the poor in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. Besides those causes, refugees and immigrants are the direct result of trade policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement. They come from our current bombing campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

Take the case of Yemen. It’s the poorest country in the Middle East. And yet we’re cooperating with the Saudis, the richest people in the region, in their genocidal attack on Yemenis. Together we and the Saudis are starving to death people who were already barely hanging on to life. We’ve started a cholera epidemic among them that the World Health Organization says has already claimed 1.1 million lives.

And then there’s the poor among us here in the United States. The numbers of U.S. poor are actually growing by leaps and bounds. According to the federal government, a family of four making less than $28,800 is considered poor. The number of Americans at or below that level has reached more than 50 million. And yet, while reducing taxes on the super-rich, our current government is bent on cutting unemployment benefits, further restricting food stamps, eliminating Medicaid as we know it, and “reforming” Social Security to the point of cancelling its effectiveness.

And it’s worse than that as well. The poorest people in the world live on less than $1.90 per day. Incredibly (according to a recent report from the UN) there are 5.3 million such people in the United States. They’re living in poverty like that usually associated with Bangladesh!

Yet most of us remain completely unaware of such conditions. To repeat: our politicians ignore them at best and deny them at worst. So do our media. Consequently, we pay no attention to the poor and to U.S. aggression directed against them — customarialy masked as a “war on terror.”

Today’s liturgy of the word addresses the question of blindness to poverty, of deafness to the voices of the poor, and the inability to speak with or about them. Taken together, our readings implicitly and explicitly call us to open our eyes and ears and to be the voice of the voiceless. Jesus’ healing Aramaic word “Ephphata” (be opened) is central here. We’re called to open ourselves to the poor.

The first reading from 2nd Isaiah addresses the captives in Babylonia in the 6th century before the Common Era. Following their defeat in 581 the cream of Israel’s society were held captives by their Babylonian conquerors. Speaking as one of them, and acting as a prophet of hope, Isaiah promises that the “Babylonian Exile” will soon come to an end. Then everything will be wonderful, he assures his readers. The desert will bloom. The blind will see; the deaf will hear, and the mute will speak. The inclusion of this reading in today’s liturgy implies that Jesus and his works of healing on behalf of the poor is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.

Isaiah’s sentiments are reinforced by the responsorial psalm. To Isaiah’s insight it adds the specific identification of Yahweh as the God of the poor and oppressed. According to the psalm, Yahweh sets captives free, secures justice for the oppressed, feeds the hungry, and protects immigrants, widows and orphans. Yahweh is on the side of the poor, the psalmist says. Hard as the words might sound to us, God prefers the poor to the self-satisfied rich – to people like us.

Today’s second reading – from the Letter of James continues the theme of the responsorial psalm. James warns against showing partiality for the rich. “Don’t be judgmental about the poor,” he warns. They after all are the ones God is partial towards. “God chose the poor,” James says, “to be heirs of the kingdom.”

All of this celebration of the poor as the People of God reaches its zenith in today’s Gospel selection. There Jesus cures a poor man who is deaf and who cannot speak. There are at least three noteworthy elements to this cure. Considered as a whole, all three are connected with the topic of poverty and its absence from public perception and discourse.

The first thing to note is that this episode is almost certainly an accurate reflection of something Jesus actually did. The detail about Jesus’ curing ritual – his use of spit, his loud sigh, and the quasi-magical Aramaic word he used (ephphatha) to effect the cure indicate the account’s authenticity. In this passage, the healer Jesus is acting like what indigenous Mayans in Guatemala call a “curandero” – a traditional healer, or what unsympathetic outsiders might term a “witch doctor.”

The second noteworthy element of today’s story is where it occurred – in the Gentile region of Palestine. Here we have Jesus (and this is one of the recurring themes of Mark’s Gospel) treating non-believers – people outside the Jewish community – the same as those inside. Jesus constantly crossed such boundaries. And he usually got in trouble for doing so. But he continued those boundary-crossings because he found more receptivity among non-believers than among would-be people of faith.

The third noteworthy element of this story goes along with the previous one. It’s the response of the non-believers to the Jesus’ cure of the deaf-mute. Tremendous enthusiasm. Despite his best efforts, Jesus couldn’t keep quiet the people who witnessed the cure. Once again, this reaction stands in sharp contrast to Jesus’ own disciples who in Mark’s account never quite “get it.”

The rich liturgical context for the account of Jesus cure of the deaf-mute including Isaiah’s promise to the exiles and James’ words about God’s preferential option for the poor directs our attention towards the social meaning of Jesus healing action in chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel. It indicates what curing blindness, deafness and impediments to speech might mean for us today.

We are called, the liturgy suggests, to be opened to the invisible poor among us and to cross forbidden boundaries to meet them. We are summoned not only to see them, but to hear what they are saying. They, after all, possess what theologians call a “hermeneutical privilege,” i.e. the most reliable and accurate insight into what really ails our society, our culture, the world.

This means that if we truly listen, we can learn more about the world from the homeless person on the street than from all the learned tomes in our libraries or from the pop-sociology we find on the New York Times best-seller list – or for that matter from our politicians, bishops and popes. [Isn’t it ironic that Christians today should be the ones downgrading the poor implying (with atheist Ayn Rand, the hero of the religious right) that they are “lazy,” “moochers,” and “useless eaters?”]

On top of that, the suggestion today is that as followers of Jesus, we have to recognize poverty and God’s poor as specifically biblical categories. Following Jesus means putting our priorities aside so the poor may be served. This means trying to be the voice of the poor in the places from which they are excluded, but to which we have access. We are being directed to overcome our reluctance (inability?) to break the silence about poverty. Here I’m not just talking about letters to the editor, attending public meetings, phoning our President, senators and congressional representatives. I’m also speaking about conversations around our family dinner tables, at the water cooler, in the locker room, and in our schools.

Following Jesus, we can’t allow the enemies of the poor and those who are indifferent to them to twist the Gospel. We can’t allow them to carry the day as if Jesus and the Biblical tradition so well reflected in today’s liturgy shared our culture’s prejudice against the poor.

Today in response to our biblical readings let our prayer be “Ephphatha! Lord, 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 and stimulate our elected leaders to do their part.

Please consider these thoughts as you listen again to the beautiful prayer-song, “Ephphatha.”

Step One in the Five-Step Development of the Christian Tradition: The Human Jesus

(This is the sixth in a series of “mini-classes” on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

Through the application of the method described so far in this series, the story of Jesus takes on an intensely human character unfamiliar to most. Such unfamiliarity especially arises when the principle of analogy comes into play. As already indicated, that principle holds that: We must not ordinarily expect to have happened in the past what is assumed or proven to be impossible in the present. The application of this largely negative standard leads scholars to explain away the miraculous in the ancient world in general and in the Bible in particular. In the Christian Testament, the principle is applied to reported events from the virgin birth to the resurrection, with events like the feeding of the 5000 and raising of Lazarus in between.

But there’s also a positive side to the principle of analogy. This positive side is especially important for uncovering the often neglected political and economic dimensions of Jesus’ life.  In its positive formulation I would express the principle of analogy in the following words: We must ordinarily expect to have happened in the past what routinely happens to human beings in the present.  Put otherwise, at their most basic levels human beings are highly similar across time and place. This similarity includes the interaction between the rich and the poor, and between oppressors and the oppressed.

That is, apart from local collaborators, the colonized usually resent the presence of occupation forces in their country. Workers generally resent being underpaid and exploited. They are critical of the rich whose extravagant lifestyle peasants perceive as based on their underpayment. They find interesting and can easily relate to those who criticize the rich and foreign occupiers and to descriptions of a future where such oppression is absent. Meanwhile the rich and powerful find such criticism threatening and normally try to suppress it if it mobilizes the masses.

The application of the principle of analogy in this positive meaning allows (especially politically committed Third World) scholars to connect the alleged words and deeds of Jesus to circumstances of Roman imperialism and first century Palestinian poverty, and to draw conclusions about the historical Jesus that do not generally occur to those living outside circumstances of imperial oppression. Such conclusions based on the principle of analogy assume that Roman imperialism was the most significant element of life in first century Palestine. That imperialism must therefore be kept prominently in mind when analyzing texts within the Christian Testament.

It is at this point that something called the “hermeneutical privilege of the poor” comes to the fore. The adjective “hermeneutical” refers to interpretation – of texts or of life itself. “Hermeneutical privilege of the poor” means that people living in circumstances of poverty similar to those of Jesus and his friends – especially under the violent realities of imperialism or neo-imperialism – often have a better understanding of texts about those circumstances than do those living more comfortably. Today’s uneducated poor might even have a better understanding than contemporary intellectuals and scholars.

To be more concrete . . . . We know that Palestine was a province occupied by the Romans. The rich Sadducees, the temple’s establishment of priests, lawyers, and scribes, as well as the court of Herod in Galilee were collaborators with the Romans. Jesus came from the Galilee, a section of Palestine that was a hotbed of resistance to Rome and of resentment against Jews collaborating with the occupiers. Jesus was born around the year (4 BCE) when the Romans finally destroyed Sepphoris, the capital of the Galilee. Sepphoris was located just 3.7 miles from his home in Nazareth – less than an hour’s walk. In that year of uprising, rebellion, and slaughter, Jesus’ parents gave him a revolutionary name – Yesua (=Joshua) the general who conquered the land of Canaan now occupied by Rome. Jesus’ brothers also bore significant names in terms of Jewish nationalism and ownership claims to Palestine. James was named after Jacob, the last of Israel’s three great patriarchs. Joses bore the name of Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son.  Simon (= Simeon) and Jude (= Judah) both were named after fathers of one of Israel’s 12 tribes.

On top of that, Jesus’ Mother, Miryam, is remembered by the evangelist Luke as a woman of revolutionary conviction. In her “Magnificat” poem (1:46-55), she praises the God of Israel as one who “has scattered the proud . . . brought down the powerful from their thrones . . . lifted up the lowly . . . filled the hungry with good things . . . and sent the rich away empty.”

In the light of such circumstances, and given Jesus’ evident commitment to the poor, it becomes highly likely that Jesus not merely shared the anti-Roman and anti-Jewish establishment sentiments of his family and neighbors. It also becomes likely that Jesus’ family was involved in the Jewish resistance at the very time of Jesus’ birth. After all, circumstances like the siege of a nearby town by foreign occupiers generally find everyone local somehow involved. (In fact, occupiers routinely assume such involvement and retaliate accordingly, both then and now.)

And there’s more.  The fact that nearby Sepphoris was under siege in 4 BCE carries implications about Jesus own conception.  It means that the surrounding territory including Nazareth must have been crawling with Roman soldiers at that time. Under such circumstances, the principle of analogy tells us that many Jewish girls would have been raped by those soldiers. After all, rape is a standard strategy for occupiers in all wars from first-century Sepphoris to twenty-first century Kabul. This realization makes more interesting the tradition that surfaced in the 2nd century with the pagan author Celsus. He alleged that Jesus’ “virginal” conception was the result of Miryam being raped by a Roman soldier called Panthera. (By the way, according to scripture scholar Ignacio Lopez-Vigil, the term “virgin” was snidely applied in first century Palestine to unwed mothers and victims of rape.)

(Step one will be continued next Monday)