It is an auspicious moment. Today, the meeting of the “G20” concludes in Rome and COP 26 begins in Glasgow, where the rich and powerful nations of the earth will once again have a fleeting chance to forestall the ecological catastrophe that will first and most severely impact those Franz Fanon so aptly named “the wretched of the Earth.”
It is the 31st Sunday of the year, coincidentally Oct. 31, not only Hallowe’en, All Hallows E’en or Evening, but also Reformation Sunday, named to commemorate the day in 1517, according to Philip Melanchthon, on which an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of All Saints church in Wittenberg. It was the “eve” of All Saints Day, a major feast and titular one precisely there. Luther knew that crowds of mass-goers would see his notice. It was common then to tack notices on church doors, a kind of community information center, so this was not an especially defiant gesture, but one surely to be seen. It was radical enough to launch the Reformation.
“Hallow” is the old English word for “saint,” which has stuck to the “eve,” not the actual feast day but the night before (think of Christmas Eve and New Years Eve). There are still All Saints churches to be found in the United States and other English-speaking areas such as Ireland and England, but few have anything nailed to their doors. All Hallows Day itself was celebrated to remember all the saints in heaven, especially those without their own special feast day. The jack-o’-lanterns and the custom of “trick-or-treat” stem from ancient Ireland, however, where the Day of the Dead, Samhain, was the beginning of the winter season. The night before was not a time to be outside, for the spirits of the dead and other scary creatures were believed to roam around seeking mischief. Today, things that go bump in the night are likely to be the neighbor’s kids looking for candy, which might be dangerous to tooth enamel, but not to life and limb. God bless the kids… and protect them from real dangers tonight, especially drive-by-shootings and related thuggery. Ghosts and goblins are not the creatures we need to be wary of these days.
The readings for today are innocent of all that, being a regular Sunday for the most part, although it is certainly
worth noting the responsorial psalm sung after the first reading, which echoes Psalm 46, the basis of Luther’s great hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God”:
‘I love you, O Lord, my strength
O Lord, my rock, my fortress. My deliverer’ [Ps 18].
This choice of text underscores the superb passage in Mark’s gospel in which Jesus counters a challenge from a passing Scribe by citing the great commandment from the Torah that climaxes in today’s first reading, the great ‘Shema Yisrael,’ the heart of Jewish morning and evening prayer which all pious Jews hope will also be on their dying lips .
‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your might’ [Deut 6:4-5].
To this mighty command a passage was commonly added. It is found in the Book of Leviticus in the most important section known as the Holiness Code, the rules or commandments that set Israel distinctively apart as God’s chosen people: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ [Lev 19:18b].
Jesus was a faithful Jew, a reformer, and he knew scripture by heart, having learned it from his childhood like all Jewish boys. His encounter with the Scribe is found in all three synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It was well known. In Mark’s account, the Scribe happens to be passing by as a fierce row is going on among Jesus, some Pharisees, King Herod’s supporters, and Sadducees over the question of the resurrection of the dead. It was a major confrontation and something to bear in mind as we approach November, traditionally the month during which we especially remember the dead.
The Scribes or Sopherim were experts in scripture who had devoted their lives to its study and practical application. This man, seeing that Jesus was answering his opponents well, as Mark puts it, simply cut to the chase. What’s the most basic commandment of all? And Jesus replies first by quoting the Shema’ and then cites the verse from Leviticus. Perhaps surprised, the Scribe praises Jesus and acknowledges that such love is greater even than the Temple sacrifices. Jesus returns the compliment: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God,” a Jewish way of saying that he’s right in the midst of it.
This is the kindest and most positive remark attributed to Jesus regarding the learned scriptural experts and doctors of the Law. Here at least Jesus and the Scribe were in complete accord. The heart of all true religion, of the Jewish faith and the Christian faith, is total, undivided love for God. And one’s neighbor.
What is it, then, to love God with your whole heart, and your whole soul, and all your mind, and your whole strength? And your neighbor as yourself? This is the challenge Jesus puts before us, then, now, and always.
Meister Eckhart once complained that many people love God the way they love a cow — for her milk and butter and cheese, and maybe even her tenderloins. But that’s not love, it’s self-centeredness. We love anything that makes us happy, even for an hour or two. What we are really loving is ourselves. Jesus calls us to look beyond our need for personal fulfillment or the satisfaction of felt needs, and in this he is simply completing or perfecting the Law and the Prophets.
In John’s gospel and epistles how we love God, how we love Jesus above all else, becomes the central focus. ‘If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. …This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends’ [John 15:10-13].
In these difficult times as self-centeredness, violence, and civil discord seem to be in the ascendant, we would do well to remember the encounter between Jesus and the Scribe. We should never lose sight of the heroism of first-responders who risk their lives to save people from fire and flood and the health-care workers who struggle tirelessly to save those who refuse to be vaccinated against the Covid virus until it is too late. We even have something to learn from the children who share their Hallowe’en candy with those less fortunate than themselves. For it is in loving one another in practice that we love God and show that we love God. COP 26, please take note.
Today’s readings mingle themes of blindness and joy. The “Entrance Antiphon,” that psalm fragment that traditionally sets the tone of the
readings for the day, makes it clear, literally: “Let hearts rejoice who search for the Lord. Seek the Lord… [Ps 105:3]. The first reading, from the prophet Jeremiah, underscores the connection. Unlike the second reading and the gospel, it does not follow the weekly continuation for this time of year. So we have reason to pay attention when it begins, “Shout with joy for Jacob, exult at the head of the nations.” But Jeremiah quickly goes on to the second theme, citing God’s promise to bring the people back from captivity “with the blind and the lame in their midst” together with pregnant women and young mothers. They departed in tears, he says, “but I will console them and bring them back.”
The responsory psalm evokes the same images of the return of the people of Israel from captivity in Babylon: “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with rejoicing. Those who sowed in tears will reap in joy.”
It’s worth noting that when the Babylonians stormed Jerusalem in 587 BC, 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 least at first. 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.
Under the ancient Law, to be born blind or lose one’s vision was a terrible misfortune. It was often considered a divine punishment. The blind and lame were 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 in the Temple. [Deut.15:21. See Malachi 1:8].
So extending the promise of return to the blind and lame was far more important than it might at first seem. Here, the compassion of God is revealed with particular concern for the most unfortunate and despised members of society. It was a favorite theme of the prophets, who were filled with a sense of God’s inclusive love as well as justice. [See Micah 4:6-7 and Zephaniah 3:19].
This is all part of the background of the story of the healing of the blind man in today’s gospel, which appears in Luke and Matthew’s gospels as well. Jesus understood that healing the blind was an important sign of his mission. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus takes this passage from the Book of Isaiah as the text of his first preaching:
“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.]
In Matthew’s gospel, he tells the messengers from John the Baptist, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” [Matthew 11:4-5. See also Luke 7:22.]. And so, “great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the dumb, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them, so that the throng wondered, when they saw the dumb speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they glorified the God of Israel” [Matthew 15:30-31].
There is no question about the blind man in Mark’s Gospel, he was a beggar. But he, or his father, was well enough known in the early Christian community to have his name, a curious blend of Hebrew and Greek, come down to us: Bar Timaios, the son of Timaios. He was remembered. But unlike the man born blind in John’s gospel, the son of Timaios wants to see again – a nuance easily overlooked, but that is what the word used, anablepso, actually means. He had lost his sight, perhaps because of the common infections of 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 liked to torment you. Worst of all, you couldn’t even enter the Temple.
The request made of Jesus is so simple and yet so touching. “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!” Son of David – a messianic title that appears only here in Mark’s gospel as a title of Jesus himself. Son of Timaios. His petition been taken as the basis of one of the most famous of all Christian prayers, repeated like the rosary among Eastern Christians and many in the West. It is called the Jesus Prayer: Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
When bystanders tell Bar Timaios that Jesus is near, he throws away his cloak, probably his sole possession, comes to Jesus and repeats his entreaty. And Jesus heals him – according to Mark’s gospel the last of his healings on his way to Jerusalem.
The son of Timaios only wanted to see again. In some respect, that is true of all of who have grown to a certain age. It’s not just a question of cataracts or what the doctors call presbyopia, that weakening of sight that starts around middle age and seems to arise from a certain shortening of the arms in dimly lit restaurants. No, this lack of vision is caused more by weariness. As we get older, we no longer see things the way children do – bright, clear, wonderful. After being buffeted around for a few dozen years, the color and vividness of life become diminished. We suffer increasingly from a tendency to tunnel vision, seeing only what is of immediate urgency or trouble. Or profit. The poet William Wordsworth must have had something like this in mind when he wrote,
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;–
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
That kind of blindness is a loss of spiritual vision, which is far more serious than losing your physical sight. Presbyopia is a reminder not so much that we need bifocals, but that it is time to start looking within and far, far ahead. It’s interesting that in English “farsighted” also means “having foresight” and “providential.”
And what could be wiser than, like Bar Timaios, to turn to Jesus in order that we might see again? That our eyes might be opened to the presence of God all around us, in every blade of grass, and bird song, and in those moments of human truth and suffering and joy that so easily escape our attention because we neglect to look. For revelation is everywhere, if we only know how to see.
“Look!” Jesus said. “Look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field! See how God feeds and clothes them.” “Look at the fig tree!” “Look at the signs of the times!” And learn to see in the poor, the oppressed, the blind, and the lame, the true presence of Jesus himself. When and how do we learn to see like that? “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’” [Matt. 25:40]. In St. Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells us, simply enough, “…when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind… [Luke 14:13].
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. And let us pray that God will increase our faith in the wisdom and power of Christ, so that we, too, may see things newly, not just new things. Let us pray to see things through the eyes of God, especially the presence of Christ in the poor, the oppressed, and all those who need our assistance. Then our mouths will be truly filled with laughter, and our tears will turn into dancing.
[It has been another of “those” weeks – too much to do and too little time. So I’m offering this homily from 2018 as a reminder of how some things change but many do not. Although the treatment of desperate refugees gathering at our southern border is now less draconian, the press for asylum is far from over. And now, over five and a half million people have died of the Covid-19 pandemic worldwide – the greatest number in the United States – over 700 thousand and still increasing. With the retaking of Afghanistan by the Taliban, another ethnic group must also be added to the victims of attempted “cleansing,” in this instance by the resurgent Islamic State, – the Hazaras. In today’s readings, the word of God concerns suffering.]
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, poverty, and even climate change, and then risking their lives in many ways, they are met at the border by armed guards, hostile militias, and even soldiers. Many are quickly returned to the squalor and danger of the counties from which they fled. Other face months if not years of ‘processing.’
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 is found in Asia, and recently but hardly only 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.
The fact is that in this life, there is no escape from suffering and the thought that we could somehow eliminate it 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.” But we can alleviate it and hopefully end it. That’s the point.
Once again in today’s readings, we are reminded that to follow Jesus involves a willingness if not an actual 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 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.
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. 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, “…whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be the 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 here (‘lutron’) means the price paid to gain someone’s freedom. 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 thus 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. [I can’t help thinking here of the doctors, nurses, police, and emergency workers who have succumbed to Covid-19 trying to save others.]
It always costs to free people from suffering. And the price is also suffering. Every true doctor, and nurse, fire-fighter, police officer, first-responder, or soldier learns that one way or another. Each puts her or his 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. To follow Jesus we must confront suffering and strive to end it. 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 ministry, 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.
Today’s readings focus on the most precious of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit — wisdom, beginning with the famous passage from
the Book of that name, a late work of Jewish spirituality composed not long before the time of Christ. The second reading turns to God’s wisdom, so far above what passes for wisdom among us today as well as in the late second century BCE.
In the last year and a half, especially last January 6th, but not by any means confined to the attack on the Capitol building by a frenzied partisan mob, it would be easy to fall back on Marc Antony’s tearful cry in Julius Caesar —
‘O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.”
Personally, I can’t remember any time during the last 60 years and more when there was such folly being promoted in the halls of government and in, God help us, the “social media.” Not even during the McCarthy era was there such vituperation, political chicanery. and demagoguery. And I’m old enough to remember! That’s one of the hazards, I suppose of what the Bard called the “calamity of so long life.”
It’s not all bad, of course. There are voices of reason and even wisdom that give us room to hope that calmer seas may lie ahead. Paramount among them is that of Pope Francis, who is waging a vigorous campaign to keep the world’s eyes on the environmental calamity facing the planet because of centuries during which the lack of wisdom and foresight led to the disaster gathering on our collective doorstep. He and his advisors are presently preparing a position paper for the United Nations Climate Conference that will begin on October 31st in Glasgow.
Only yesterday, the pope addressed the parliamentarians gathered in Rome for a preparatory meeting in which he called on global lawmakers to rise above self-defeating partisan politics to achieve consensus on fighting climate change. “This demanding change of direction will require great wisdom, foresight and concern for the common good,” he told them, “in a word, the fundamental virtues of good politics.” https://www.ncronline.org/news/earthbeat/pope-lawmakers-climate-change-requires-quick-consensus
Whether the pope’s call for wisdom will penetrate the foggy morass in Washington remains to be seen. But political leadership is not the only route toward avoiding a climate catastrophe. It takes far more than a village. But it surely requires concerted action by ordinary citizens, rich and poor alike, to change our way of living, especially in the consumerist counties like our own.
Hundreds of thousands of huge containers on gargantuan freighters are lined up outside of port cities such as Los Angeles and New York awaiting disgorgement into trucks that will transport many millions of consumer goods to every part of the country. What I have not heard mentioned is why are they bringing all that stuff to the United States in these gigantic cargo ships? Because they are coming from Asia, where most of stuff we avidly want for Christmas is manufactured more cheaply than possible in the US. Nor is anyone really asking why do we want all this stuff? The world is choking with plastic offscourings from such stuff, which somehow needs replacing year and after year.
The word “consumption” was once used to refer politely to the scourge of tuberculosis, for which at the time there was no cure. Today, “consumption” points to a different but no less deadly scourge, consumerism.
The message Jesus preached that we heard again in the gospel reading is the antidote to this illness, even if not taken to the extreme of total self-dispossession. But by reducing our addiction to surplus stuff we will not only free ourselves from the chains of materialism, but can alleviate the burden of poverty afflicting so many people throughout the world as Jesus demands, and also help save the planet. What have we got to lose?
“…there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many that are first will be last, and the last first” [Mark 10:29-31].
Today’s readings largely focus on the union of men and women, commonly known as marriage, beginning with the charming but
profound parable from Genesis and culminating with Jesus’ obstinate objection to divorce. But this is not his last word in this chapter of Mark’s gospel, which turns his gaze on children— who are not mentioned in the Genesis account.
The author of this section of Genesis cleverly explains the equality of the sexes in his tale of the creation of Eve from one of Adam’s ribs, surgically removed while he was under mercifully divine sedation. Unlike the animals he has just named, Eve is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” part of a whole on an entirely different plane from the rest of creation. (I remember well how an earnest friend once explained to me that this is the reason why women have one more rib than do men, a curious and badly mistaken bit of literalism. Normally, every human being has 24 ribs, although there are rare congenital exceptions which are not gender specific. That bit of information should amuse your friends and confuse your enemies should the occasion arise, but let that pass.)
The addition of the incident of the children swarming Jesus is considered by many scholars to be merely adventitious. Liturgically, in keeping with the sad tenor of our attitude toward children (not that of Jesus, for sure), this passage may be omitted from today’s reading. Let me suggest why it should not.
Matthew and Luke report the same incident [See Matt 19:13-15, Luke 18:15-17, and for good measure Mark 9:36 -37]. Jesus had a particular affection for children. Significantly, some of his more astonishing miracles involve boys and, even more significantly for his time and our own, little girls (recall the story of Jairus’ daughter, the son of the widow of Nain, and the centurion’s boy). As we have seen in readings from past weeks, Jesus also explained the reign of God by pointing to children. Here he does again, but with a difference. The children insert themselves into the scene, insistent on touching Jesus. When his disciples try to shoo them away, Jesus stops them 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. Child abuse was rampant in the Roman Empire, if less so among the Jews. Jesus clearly had other ideas.
Today, the plight of children worldwide is even more appalling than in first-century Palestine. Of the nearly 900 million people in the world today who suffer acute hunger daily, 14 million are children under the age of 5. One out of 6 children in the United States goes to bed hungry every night. Malnutrition is the underlying cause of 3.1 million child deaths each year and leads to lasting damage for millions of other children, as they become more vulnerable to severe diseases. [https://www.savethechildren.org/content/dam/global/reports/2018-end-of-childhood-report.pdf]
But severe malnutrition is only one of the threats to children’s health and safety. The world’s children also face sexual and physical abuse, trafficking, forced child marriage, and harrowing labor. In 2016, according to the International Labour Organization , “152 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 were in child labour, almost half them, 73 million, in hazardous child labour. …Such hazardous labour was most prevalent among children aged 15 to 17. Nevertheless, up to a fourth of all hazardous child labour (19 million), was carried out by children under the age of 12. Almost half (48 per cent) of the victims of child labour were aged 5-11 years; 28 per cent were 12-14 years old; and 24 per cent were 15-17 years old.
“Child labour is concentrated primarily in agriculture (71 per cent) – this includes fishing, forestry, livestock herding and aquaculture – 17 per cent in services; and 12 per cent in the Industrial sector, including mining.”
Despite this bleak overview, there is reason to hope. The UN General Assembly has urged the international community to step up efforts to eradicate forced labour and child labour, and declared 2021 as the Year for the Elimination of Child Labour. This year has also been declared The Year of Childhood, “a year-long celebration of childhood running throughout 2021… hosted by Children’s Parliament. During the year we are exploring childhood through the lens of children’s human rights, creating opportunities to share rights-based practice in an atmosphere of optimism and confidence.”
Far from adding the account of Jesus and the children of Palestine as an afterthought, the author of Mark’s gospel had cause to include the passage in his recounting of Jesus’ teaching about the sanctity of human life and the importance of a true family. From all appearances, however, we still have a long way to go in fulfilling his command: “”Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” [Mark 10:14].
2021 declared International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour