“Ephphatha” Be Opened (Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s readings: Is. 35:4-7a; Ps. 146:7-10; Jas. 2:1-5; Mk. 7:31-37

Recently Bill Moyers wrote an insightful column picked up by the alternative news and commentary website AlterNet. The article highlighted the clip from President Obama’s 2008 campaign speech we just watched (see immediately above).

Moyers’ piece was about the invisibility of the poor in the United States. We can’t see them, he wrote, not because they’re not there; 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. This year the number of Americans at or below that level is expected to reach 66 million. And they’re facing the prospect of an incoming government bent on shipping jobs abroad, cutting unemployment benefits, further restricting food stamps, eliminating Medicare as we know it, and “reforming” Social Security to the point of its elimination.

In the light of such prospects, Moyers asks Candidate Obama’s question, how can we allow this to happen? How especially, Moyers asks, can someone like President Obama allow this to happen?  After all, he should know better. He was a community organizer in Roseland, one of the poorest most despair-driven neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side. In Dreams from My Father, Mr. Obama calls his work there “the best education I ever had.” The experience motivated him to attend Harvard to gain the knowledge and resources he needed to return to Roseland and make an even bigger difference than he did before. “I would learn power’s currency,” he wrote, “in all its intricacy and detail” and “bring it back like Promethean fire.”

Since writing those words, Mr. Obama, of course, has become President. However since his election he has not given a single speech about poverty. It’s difficult to do so, his staff says. If you talk about the poor, the middle class says, Hey, what about us?  And the 1% who lay out fat campaign contributions say So what?

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, the readings for today 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 God’s people 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 drop the “Hey what about us?” attitude Bill Moyers referenced and that keeps President Obama from addressing the issue of poverty. Poverty and God’s poor are 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, joining the “Occupy Movement,” or 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 (as President Obama did in 2007), but to act on that truth ourselves and stimulate our elected leaders to do their part.

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

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Don’t miss tomorrow’s third installment on Mary Magdalene: “The Magdalene Code”

Jesus Had a “Bleeding Heart” (Homily for 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s Readings: Jer. 23:1-6; Ps. 23: 1-3, 3-4, 5, 6; Eph. 2: 13-18; Mk. 6: 30-34

The theme for today’s Liturgy of the Word is leadership political and spiritual. The image uniting both is shepherding.  For me that pastoral metaphor brings to mind characteristics of presence, watchfulness, protection, and overriding concern for the sheep of the flock. I’m confident you’d agree that in both government and church those qualities are in extremely short supply.

Think about political “leaders” announcing (literally) the day after the election of our nation’s first African American President, “I want that man to fail.” (Didn’t that mean they want our country to fail?) Think about clergy from our own faith community (literally) preying on young boys, ruining them for life, and then presuming to speak authoritatively to women and the rest of us about sexuality. That’s failed leadership.

The first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah laments the absence of political and spiritual leaders who were watchful, protective and caring in his time too. Instead of uniting people, and drawing them together, the would-be leaders of Jeremiah’s day (all men) were dividing and scattering them as effectively as our own. Through Jeremiah God promises to appoint new leadership to reverse that syndrome.

Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark specifically addresses that promised reversal. It focuses on Jesus’ own practice of spiritual shepherding.  Jesus fulfills the promise of Jeremiah by drawing his apprentice shepherds from an entirely new class of people – not from the tribe of Levi and its inherited priesthood, not from the royal palace, but from the marginalized and decidedly unroyal and unpriestly in the traditional sense. Jesus chooses illiterate fishermen, day-laborers, and possibly real working shepherds. By all accounts women also prominently filled shepherding roles in the early church.

Finally, the responsorial psalm and Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Ephesus remind us of the reason for shepherds at all – not the preservation of tradition, much less of patriarchy. Rather, shepherds are there to embody compassion. They exist for the welfare of the sheep. Leaders are there to foster the emergence (in Paul’s words) of a new kind of person – not over-worked, but rested, living in pleasant surroundings, without fear, lacking nothing, with plenty to eat and drink.  In a word shepherds are there for the sake of righteousness, justice, and compassion.

No doubt Jesus had that kind of respite in mind for his tired apostles when he invited them to “rest a while.”After all they were his sheep, and he their shepherd. His invitation reflects compassion for his friends.

But there was to be no rest. The “sheep” in the wider sense were so starved for the compassionate guidance unavailable to them either in court or at the Temple. So in droves they stalked Jesus and his friends even to their desert retreat. All of that evoked Jesus’ own compassion. The text literally says “his guts churned” when he saw the directionless people; they were so forlorn. So that was the end of any thoughts of “R&R” for Jesus and the others. (Buddhists speak of “The Compassionate Buddha. Mark reminds us here of “The Compassionate Jesus.”)

All of this highlights the defining characteristic of the type of leadership, the type of “shepherding” Jesus prized and practiced. It was defined by putting the needs of others first, even when that meant he himself would be deprived of the rest he deserved.

What a practical criterion for judging the leadership of our politicians, popes, bishops and priests! What a powerful criterion for judging our own leadership in our families, communities and places of work.

Who are the best leaders you know (political and/or spiritual) in terms of putting the needs of others first? When have you or persons close to you exercised leadership in those terms? Do our daily lives, our political lives show evidence of following the Compassionate Jesus? Why does our culture consider having compassion (a “bleeding heart”) a negative quality?  (Discussion follows.)