Once again this week, even twice now, our nation has been engulfed in scenes of potential and very real violence, terror, and bloodshed. We have grown so weary of it, here and elsewhere in the world! The ancient Greeks had a word for our unease, “Whence come these evils?” Job and the Psalmists pondered “why do the innocent suffer?” The mystery of evil sadly remains largely unanswered, except for the stark judgment of a later writer of scripture, faced with the challenge of belief in a God of love and mercy and the reality of unmerited suffering. In the passage that follows immediately on today’s second reading, we hear:
“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…” [Hebrews 5:7-9].
Redemptive suffering and non-violent resistance provide the subtext of the whole Letter, and it is clear to the ancient writer that such suffering is inscrutable except in the light
of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It has to do with faith and hope moved by immense love, which alone can quell the darker angels of our nature.
The passage from Hebrews is couched between the prophetic promise of Jeremiah concerning the return of the exiles from Babylon and the healing of the blind beggar, Bartimaios by Jesus. These are not unconnected snippets of scripture, but linked deeply and mysteriously. The beggar’s name itself is significant – “Son of Timaios.” A Greek name. But more importantly, when Mark supplies a name, it points to someone remembered. The early community knew who he was. And recalled his blindness.
In the ancient Law, to be born blind or to lose one’s vision was a terrible misfortune. It was often considered a divine punishment. The blind and lame were considered ceremonially unclean, and could not enter the sanctuary. According to Leviticus 21:18, “no one who has a blemish shall draw near, nor a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long….” Even blind or lame animals were considered accursed under the Law and could not be offered as a sacrifice.
And here lies a subtle link to the first reading. When the Babylonians stormed Jerusalem in 587 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar had King Zedekiah blinded after making him witness the execution of his sons. Then the blind king and the entire royal court were deported to Babylon where the Jews stayed captive for almost seventy years.
From what we know, not many came back at first when they were allowed to do so by Cyrus the Great. But out of that stock the city of Jerusalem grew up again. What’s more, the blind, the lame, and those with impaired speech and hearing were not left behind. They too were children of the Covenant, and were to be included as being of special concern. And so placing Psalm 126 here, the Song of Return, is of special note. “When the Lord brought back the captives of Zion, it was like a dream…Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with rejoicing.”
Here, the compassion of God is revealed with particular concern for the most unfortunate and despised members of society – not all that unlike the thousands of poor and oppressed people struggling along the difficult route from Honduras to what they hope is “the Promised Land.” The return of the exiles was a favorite theme of the prophets, who were filled with a sense of God’s inclusive love as well as justice. In the book of the prophet Micah, God says, “I will assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away, and those whom I have afflicted; and the lame I will make the remnant; and those who were cast off, a strong nation; and the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and for evermore” [Micah 4:6-7].
This returns us to the story of noisy Bar Timaios, who would not take no for an answer, and Jesus, who understood that, as St. Paul wrote to his Corinthians years later: “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not ‘Yes and No’; but in him it is always ‘Yes.’ For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’” [2 Cor. 1:19-20].
Unlike the man born blind in John’s gospel, the son of Timaios wants to see again. He had lost his sight, perhaps because of the infections that were common in those days or an accident of some kind. Unless your family was wealthy enough to support you, to lose your sight at that time meant becoming a beggar, depending on the charity of passers-by to supply your needs. It meant to be at the mercy of others, including thieves and bullies. To be both blind and lame was a double catastrophe. You couldn’t even get away from those who enjoyed tormenting you.
This is at least part of the reason God’s concern for the blind and the lame was so pronounced in the teaching of the prophets. Their welfare was often taken as an index of the spiritual health of the people as a whole. And Jesus knew that restoring sight to the blind was a sign of the coming of the Kingdom of God. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus cites Isaiah in his first sermon: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” [Isaiah 61:1, Luke 7:22.]
The son of Timaios recognized Jesus before he saw him. The blind beggar’s faith opened his eyes before Jesus gave him back his sight. Let us pray that God will open our eyes widely so that we, too, may see things as God sees them. Perhaps then, we will turn away from the spectacle of sectarian division, violence, and bloodshed and so liberate the better angels of our nature in a truly acceptable year of the Lord..
For those watching news reports this week, we have been greeted again by the heart-breaking spectacle of many thousands of poor people trying to make their way across thousands of difficult miles though Central America and Mexico to reach haven in the United States, the hoped-for Promised Land. After immense suffering, having been uprooted from their homeland because of oppression, violence, and poverty, and risking their lives in so many ways, they are met at the border by armed guards, hostile militias, and now soldiers. There, children are torn from their parents’ arms, families are ripped apart, and those few who manage to cross the border are consigned for months in concentration camp facilities.
It is a pattern found elsewhere, of course: in the Mediterranean where Africans risk everything, not least their lives, to find a land of hope and promise in the wealthy northern hemisphere. It us found in Asia, and most recently but hardly only (if especially) in Myanmar, where the Rohingya people have been oppressed, killed, burnt out of their villages, violated and driven from their homeland, only to find bleak refuge in Bangladesh… if they are lucky. In Iraq, it was the Yazidis. Before that, it was the people of South Sudan and East Timor. The list is very long.
We can continue to pluck people from the river, but as my teacher and friend Gerry Egan used to say, “There comes a time when we need to travel up the river and find out who’s pushing them in and make them stop.” But even then, we can never fully succeed.
In this life, there is no final escape from suffering and the thought that we could somehow eliminate suffering from the human condition is an illusion. In Ingmar Bergman’s great film Smiles of a Summer Night (later made into the wonderful if less thought-provoking musical “A Little Night Music”), the elderly doyenne Mrs. Armfeldt tells her daughter, “One can never protect a single human being from any kind of suffering. That is what makes one so tremendously weary.”
Once again in today’s readings, we are reminded that to follow Christ involves a willingness if not even a commitment to endure suffering. But
these readings do not see suffering the way we do, as something to be avoided at all cost or simply wished away. Jesus himself healed people because he was so deeply moved by their suffering. He saw the end of their suffering as a sign that the Kingdom of God was breaking in to the world. And wherever he went, he healed. But Jesus reminded his closest disciples, so obsessed with privilege and position, that they really hadn’t a clue about what it all meant.
The message is the same, so forgive me for repeating myself. Jesus simply asks them: can you suffer with me? “We can,” they say. “And you will,” Jesus promises. The moment passes as Jesus turns the conversation to the motive of ministry. But the real sticking point here is suffering. Why would Jesus ask them if they could suffer? The answer is found in the first and second reading.
First, the prophet Isaiah tells us that in God’s words, “Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear away.” Through his suffering. Through it. And then in the Letter to the Hebrews, the ancient Christian author reminds us that, “we see Jesus… crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons and daughters to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Heb 2:9-10).
Through suffering. Suffering is the key, not only to what we should be praying for, and how, but also to the way we relate to one another, through our ministry. For at the end of the gospel story, Jesus tells the disciples, now disgusted with the ambition of James and John, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10: 42-45).
To serve by giving his life as ransom — the word used means the price paid to gain someone’s release. And the word for service here is diakonia, the ordinary word for ministry. Christian ministry and suffering are inescapably connected.
The divine irony of the cross is that the only way to end suffering is by accepting it and defeating it. Not because suffering is a good thing, which it isn’t, but because that’s the price for saving the world. It cost Jesus his life. And it might even cost you yours.
It always costs to free people from suffering. And the price is also suffering. Every true doctor, or nurse, fire-fighter, police officer, or soldier learns that one way or another. Each puts his or her life on the line in order to save people.
What Jesus is telling us, then, what Isaiah and the author of Hebrews are telling us, what God is telling us, is that the more we try to avoid suffering, the farther we get from our goal. As Christians we must confront suffering and strive to end it. But ultimately, it is God alone who will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more [Rev. 21:3-4]. But for now, there is need for mercy, for service, for entering into the suffering of others and by sharing, to lighten it and hopefully end it. And that is the true glory, the glory of the cross of Christ. Let us pray that we will be able to drink the cup Jesus offers us, so that we may be fit to share in the glory that awaits.
First came the devastating Supreme Court decision called “Citizens United” in 2010 which opened the floodgates of vast fortunes and enabled billionaire oligarchs and corporations to influence, not to say determine, elections throughout the nation.
Next came the gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013 by a 5-4 decision, especially because of the advocacy of the late Justice, Antonin Scalia, but a special victory for Chief Justice John Roberts. Unsurprisingly the voter suppression that followed in many states especially targeted citizens of color, the poor, and the elderly. Instead of making it easier to vote and encouraging more people to exercise their rights and duties as citizens, within five years tens of thousands of voters were stricken from the registers, nearly a thousand polling places were closed, and because of Congressional resistance the US continues to hold national elections in particular on a regular work day rather than on weekends, as is the case throughout the free world, making it even more difficult for ordinary working people to vote.
Largely enabled if not encouraged by the woeful Citizens United decision, meddling in our elections by Russian and possibly other foreign nationals has become a major concern as well. In the meantime, the voting pattern of the United States remains in the lowest tier in the so-called free world. During the 2014-16 nationwide elections in 32 industrialized nations, the U.S. placed 26th, alarmingly close to the bottom of the pile. [http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/21/u-s-voter-turnout-trails-most-developed-countries/]
It could be argued that the United States of America was the founding nursery of modern democracy. If present trends continue, it may also be its cemetery.
Today when asked to think of someone wise many people may still come up with the name of Solomon, to whom the Book of Wisdom was once attributed. But Yoda and Gandalf are just as likely to come to mind. Albert Einstein, Jimmy Carter or Ruth Bader Ginsburg are possibly more serious contenders. Or perhaps even the Pope. None are young, not even the fictional characters. Traditionally, with age comes wisdom. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Oscar Wilde is reported to have quipped, wisely, “sometimes age comes alone.”
In any case, every people, time, and place needs its wisdom figures, guides who have learned from often grueling experience how to conduct life with dignity, compassion, honor, and even a dash of humor – qualities always in short supply. Today is no exception. (You may quote me.)
Wisdom doesn’t just mean just being smart or intelligent or clever or wily. The word conveys a sense of sound judgment, the ability to choose well in matters of practical consequence, being able to determine the best course of action and follow through to a satisfactory conclusion.
Wisdom isn’t something you learn in school, not even the university. It’s taught by life itself. And it takes a while. That’s why we tend to associate wisdom with age: we think of grandparents as wise, while parents are just smart. At least to their children. Until they’re teenagers, anyway, when parents somehow manage to get dumb and dumber. (They have a way of getting smart again, once the kids have left home and go to college or get a job, and get in debt, but that’s another story.)
It’s not far off the mark to call wisdom a gift, which is what the Christian tradition does. And God’s wisdom is so far beyond what the world values as smart that, as St. Paul says, it looks like foolishness to many. And what is too-often taken for human wisdom counts as folly in the eyes of God.
That’s what we’re considering today in the readings from the Word of God — knowing how to recognize what is of true
and lasting value and what isn’t. Something doesn’t have to permanent to be valuable, but we tend to prize things that neither fade nor tarnish, one of the reasons why gold, platinum and silver, gems, and monuments made of steel or stone are usually preferred to wood, paper (especially paper money), tin and iron. I suppose that plastic should be the most valuable of all, given its half-life in drawers, landfill and now the oceans. But even in this case, the more costly and dangerous your credit card, the more likely it will be called gold or platinum. But how does one measure the value of a sunset, a rose, or the smile of a new-born child?
In the Book of Wisdom, we first hear Wisdom being extolled as if it was a commodity like wealth, only far more precious. More precious even than health. And for several hundred years, it was considered so among the Jews of Palestine and the Diaspora, especially in Egypt.
The Wisdom tradition first developed in Persia, during the captivity of the Jews in the sixth century before Christ. We learn in the Book of Daniel how young Jewish men were groomed in the skills of court protocol and intrigue, if only to survive. But true wisdom as well as the touch of cynicism we find in the Book of Proverbs developed in that period and continued both in Palestine and the other cities were Jews wandered in the centuries just before the Christian era. The Book of Wisdom, one of the treasures of late Jewish literature, was written in the city of Alexandria, the capital of Egypt. In it, the ancient figure of King Solomon is recalled as the embodiment of true wisdom, the kind that knows how to value life rightly in relation to God. It is the most precious thing in the world.
The incident in Mark’s gospel identifies real wisdom when Jesus contrasts the lure of money and the demands of the Kingdom of God. In the plight of the rich young man (only Matthew provides that telling detail — twice), Jesus shows us that wealth is not to be amassed for its own sake, or it simply annexes us to itself. Rather than accumulating what is in fact all-too perishable, wealth is to be used for the good of all, especially the unfortunate. St. Thomas Aquinas, that cagey Dominican from the Middle Ages, taught that the purpose of money is spending, not hoarding, and especially to help others in need. Debt is admittedly a bad thing and savings are a good thing, but not for their own sake. Stinginess and hoarding are just the little sisters of Greed, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. But how often have we heard in recent times that those who really love God will prosper materially? that material wealth is the reward of Christian commitment? Whole churches have been founded on that premise, complete with the promise that God wants us to be really, really rich.
It’s an old story and as untrue today as it was when the rich young fellow approached Jesus for some advice on how to become even better. We find the story in the other gospels, but only Mark tells us that Jesus loved him. His heart went out to him. But the young man loved his fortune more than he loved Jesus — he had to choose, and he did not choose wisely. Not in God’s sight. But I’m sure his broker was relieved.
When Jesus says the Kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field or a pearl of great price for which a man sells all that he has in order to obtain, he is not advising anyone to set up tax-free accounts in the Cayman Islands. He is telling his followers to sell their surplus possessions, give the money to the poor and follow him. You can lose your shirt in the stock market or in a gambling casino, or by helping those in need — including those in need of an education, or medical care, or hurricane relief. You’re just as poor in the end, but real wisdom still means following Christ and the real reward is proportionate. That’s not worldly wisdom, but God’s wisdom.
Today especially, we are faced with difficult choices and hard decisions — but every choice and decision we make politically and economically has to be evaluated in the light of the Gospel of Christ. It’s wise to ask whether our choices and decisions promote the welfare of the whole human community and give glory to God. Or do they exalt selfishness at the expense of others, especially the poor and vulnerable, and disgrace any kind of real Christian understanding of God’s will?
Let us pray, then for the gift of true wisdom, that with God’s grace we will know how to choose well in the complex uncertainties of today’s world because we have made God’s rule the first and always the deciding factor in our lives.
“When the battle’s lost and won.
We’ll meet when the noise of the battle is over,
when one side has won and the other side has lost…”
Thankfully the high drama surrounding the nomination and appointment of Brett Kavanaugh might not sport all the trappings of Macbeth, but it came close. Figuratively, blood was spilled, but alliances were actually tested and broken, honor stained, and a troublesome future assured. Now the long process of healing a divided nation must resume… or at least begin. Hopefully, the citizens of the Republic will be up to the task.
(Our nation just endured a tumultuous, painful, troublesome week on Capitol Hill, one that involved, as the President often said, great struggle and no doubt suffering for all the families involved and others, too. The scars will surely remain for some time, but the Republic will survive and so will the families, by the grace of God and the commitment and hard work of lasting commitment.
Not entirely by accident, I came across a former homily for this Sunday of the year, but it seemed even more appropriate today, so permit me to share it again.)
Today’s readings focus on marriage and also on the integrity of the family, since in Mark’s gospel Jesus turns from
his discussion about marriage to the special place of children. There’s no particular connection, except perhaps the fierceness with Jesus insists on respecting the right of the children to come to him and touch him. It has a lot to do with trust. And in these troubled times, trust is very much what’s at stake.
In regard to marriage, Jesus first cites the passage from Genesis heard in the first reading. He uses it to challenge the practice of the day by which a man could divorce his wife for any number of reasons, some of them paltry but always to the great disadvantage of the wife. Jesus appeals to the tradition that the unbreakable bond of marriage rests on the profound union of husband and wife celebrated in the Genesis story. And in defending the sanctity of marriage, Jesus is particularly defending the rights and dignity of women.
We often miss the point of that old story by reading later notions back into it. In fact, what the creation story tells us is that because the woman was taken from the side of the man, bone of bone and flesh of flesh, it means that she is to stand beside him, sharing dominion and destiny — in short, to be his equal, his partner and helpmate. Unlike all the other creatures, the man is not placed over her, but beside her. And that, quite simply, is all that St. Paul later meant when he said that the man was the “head” or the source of the woman, since in fact every other man who ever walked the earth was born of woman [Eph. 5:23].
Unlike the names Adam gives the animals, when he later calls the woman “Eve,” he proclaims her much more than his own flesh and blood. The play on words is significant, even in Hebrew. Especially in Hebrew, in which the common word for “man” is ‘iysh. The word we translate as “woman” is simply the feminine form of ‘iysh, ‘ishshah. “Adam” is not a proper name either, but like ‘iysh, adamah simply means “a human being, a person.” Literally it means” a lump of red mud.” You probably don’t need to know that. But when the man calls the woman taken from his side “Eve,” that is more than a proper name for in Hebrew havvah means “life-giver.” This woman, he proclaims, is the mother of all the living.
But even in Eden, things didn’t work out as God wanted — the gift of human freedom gave rise to human arrogance, disobedience, and sin. The story is clear on that score and also about the trouble that would result in the struggle by men and women to realize the profound unity of love that first and most deeply unites them. It describes, simply, the mystery and occasionally the muddle of marriage, sometimes known as “the war between the sexes.” And not without cause, I can assure you, having worked as a marriage counselor for over 25 years.
It is not easy to create a successful marriage or a healthy family life. It requires patience, tolerance, respect, kindness, restraint, and fidelity. It often requires healing. And if the door to a successful marriage is effective communication, the key that unlocks it is generosity and the hinges on which it moves are love and trust. Communication is necessary, but not enough. One reason is that it is a given that even the best marriages, the finest families, will also experience some suffering. Being able to survive, even to grow and become stronger not because of suffering, but through it, is an essential part of what every family must face. Perhaps that is why our second reading today speaks of suffering the way it does. Not even the Holy Family escaped suffering and Jesus did not turn from it. God permits it not because suffering is a good thing, but because facing it tests us, proves us, and ultimately helps us grow. Running from it, hiding from it, giving up before it, weakens us and pulls us down.
A marriage planted on shallow ground will not survive suffering, especially severe suffering. A strong marriage and a strong family will — but that requires courage, resolve, and persistence. Here the second reading should be both a guide and a comfort. When marriage partners promise to be faithful and true in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, until death — they are embracing the likelihood of suffering. If they don’t understand that, they ought to think again. But they have God’s assurance that they can survive suffering and grow through it — fulfilling their hope and promise. That is what it means to be one body.
For whatever reason Mark appended a passage to Jesus’ remarks on the holiness and depth of marriage that has to do with children. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report the same incident in different places. [See Matt 19: 13-15, Mark 9: 36 -37, Luke 18: 15-17.] Perhaps the debate with Pharisees was interrupted at that point by a swarm of little kids wanting to get near him. It isn’t difficult to imagine Jesus as a kid-magnet. And as we have seen in readings from past weeks, Jesus sometimes explained the reign of God by pointing to children. Here he does so, but with a difference. Now, the children insert themselves into the scene, insistent on touching Jesus. And he is touched. When the disciples try to shush them and shoo them away, Jesus stops and defends the children. And Jesus’ advice about accepting the kingdom like a little child is not just a romantic aside. Children in Jesus’ day were without legal rights of any kind. They had no standing and, like women, were considered to be their father’s property.
To accept the Kingdom of God like a little child means to enter it humbly, without arrogance or presumption, without legal claims, conditions, or demands, gratefully. To accept the kingdom is to accept life. Just as truly, to accept life is to accept the kingdom, a kingdom in which the rights of children, women, and men are equally respected, especially the right of everyone to a full and fulfilling life. Let us pray for that, and just as importantly, work for it.