23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Some people heard about a healing river and about its famed healing properties. So they gathered to see it with their own eyes.
First, a lady with a sick child went into the water with the child in her arms and comes out on the shore at the other end, with the child smiling and completely healthy.
“Praise the Lord,” shouted the crowd!
Next, a blind man goes into the water at one shore and comes out across the river on the other shore being completely able to see for the first time in his life.
“Amazing,” everyone shouted! “Praise the Lord!”
Next, a guy in a wheelchair enters into the water just like the other two, and much to everyone’s surprise, he comes out of the water on the other shore, with completely new rims!
Yes, our God is a God of surprises! Sometimes, we just can’t predict what God will do, why God will do it, or how God may choose to interact with us in the process! We see this played out dramatically in today’s gospel story when Jesus heals a Gentile man in the region of the Decapolis by speaking the Aramaic word, ‘Ephphatha,’ to him. Mark translates this word for his Gentile audience as ‘Be Opened!” (Mk 7:34b)
Just before this healing, Mark records Jesus’ exorcism of a daughter of a Gentile woman of Syro-phonecian origin who begs Jesus for the spiritual scraps that fell from the master’s table. We see in both of these examples that, while Jesus may have originally seen his ministry as one of converting first the Jews to his Gospel message (and that’s why he uses the Aramaic word for ‘be opened’), he’s nevertheless willing, when he sees another’s faith, to break the social and religious conventions of the time and to risk his standing with the Jewish authorities, in order to be that healing presence in another’s life and to demonstrate the value of being a member of the Kingdom of God.
What’s more important for Jesus then, is not one’s past, one’s religion, or one’s ethnicity. What matters is one’s desire, that those who receive God’s grace, are willing to change their lives because of the faith they have in Jesus’ power to restore what is broken. That’s one of the explanations for why Jesus doesn’t want the healed man to tell anyone about his miraculous intervention and why he takes him aside in private to restore his speech and hearing. He doesn’t want anyone to come to him, —-then or now —-motivated primarily for what he can do, but rather, by having an open heart to hear his Gospel and to be utterly transformed by it!
What is our motivation for coming to Christ, when we’re in need of healing grace? Do we have the boldness and determination of the man in our gospel to beg for Jesus to remove whatever it is, in our lives, that’s causing us pain, distress, isolation, or alienation? Do we believe that Jesus won’t turn his back on us, but wants us to experience the freedom and grace that comes from being a child of God and a member of the Kingdom?
For Catholics, one of the miraculous ways the Lord intervenes in our lives is through the sacraments of healing, which are the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick. In both of these sacraments, we encounter the Lord in our woundedness and vulnerability and allow the Lord to take all that impedes his divine grace in our lives away, so that we can experience the fullness of light and peace and joy, that comes from having been set free and made whole, once more! It takes courage to come before the Lord in this way. It takes faith to open ourselves up when we’re most vulnerable. But once we do, we experience the spiritual presence of God seeping into our weaknesses and brokenness, healing us and restoring us to fullness of life and grace. And we’re never quite the same any more!
What’s more, we don’t have to wait until we’re ready to die to receive these sacraments!
Some of our older Catholics may remember the term, Extreme Unction, which was the final anointing given to a dying person on their deathbed, as close to the moment of death as possible. Because it was the last sacrament to be received, it became also known as the Last Rites. But with a re-looking at all the sacraments after Vatican 2, Extreme Unction fell into disfavor and was replaced by the more biblical sacramental encounter known as the Anointing of the Sick. So one need not be on one’s death bed to receive the anointing of the sick. Indeed, it’s hoped that those who receive this sacrament may make a full recovery from their illness, and if they don’t, it is the last rites that they’ve received. As sacraments of healing then, both Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick can be received as many times as needed, so long as the recipient is properly disposed to receive the grace, that the sacramental encounter has to offer!
For the deaf-mute man in our gospel, the restoration he experienced meant that he could hear and speak for the first time in his life! And though it wasn’t a sacramental encounter in the way the church defines sacraments today, it was a sacramental encounter in its own right, because Jesus uses his own spit to touch the man’s tongue and places his finger into the man’s ears as visible signs by which the grace of God would be made manifest in the man’s life.
The healing that results means that the man could make connections with other people in ways he had never been able to, before! It meant that he’d no longer be ostracized by the community-at-large for being different and that he wouldn’t be judged or blamed for having sinned so grievously, so as to have caused the muteness and deafness to fall upon him, in the first place, either. The man’s healing truly changed his life for the better and enabled him to experience what a life in the Kingdom of God would be like. And that’s why Jesus heals him!
Are we at all like that deaf-mute man? How do our ears and mouths need to be opened to hear, speak, and embrace God’s plan for our lives? –or, put another way— how are we deaf and mute to the Will of God made manifest in the persons, places and circumstances which make up our daily encounters, and what are we willing to do, in order to hear and speak with new ears and mouths? Do we fail to recognize the opportunities God places in our lives to be his healing presence, his sacred touch, his loving kindness, his forgiving heart, to persons who are skeptical of God’s care and concern for them or whom others have discarded as not worthy of their time and attention? Do we fail to speak up when an injustice is being done or when we see someone who is being bullied or discriminated against for being in the minority? Do we fail to hear criticisms levelled against us or against our church, for failures to love as Jesus loves or to live up to the values and priorities of the Kingdom? What are we willing to do to be the vehicle of change when such situations come to the fore? Have we become deaf to the work we still need to do, to live our vocations to the full, freely and generously without reservation?
These questions invite us to reflect, in a serious manner, on our own deafness and muteness, at times, to the mission we’ve been entrusted with at our baptism— to be the hands, feet, eyes, mouth and ears of a God who left the glories of heaven to live among us, just so that we would all know how much God desired to bring about our healing and wholeness.
Such a re-opening of our ears and mouths needs to start with a reopening and softening of our hearts — to hearing God’s Word and to letting it soak into us, so that it becomes a part of us. When it does, then we’ll be able to speak its message, in a relevant manner, to a world torn apart by sin. In this way, the Holy Spirit will be able to mold, shape, and direct our day-to-day engagements with others and give us the ears to listen and the words to speak a message that comes from God and which will ultimately bring peace, reconciliation, and healing to those who are ready to receive it. “Ephphatha! Be opened!”
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