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
[Yesterday evening and this morning, I was waylaid by the unnecessarily complex ordeal of getting my booster shot for the coronavirus – most of it paperwork and confusion at the pharmacy. My students are also nipping at my heels for results of their recent contributions. Having run close to zero time remaining, I am offering up a homily from this Sunday in 2015, which may evoke memories of a distant past (Pope Francis had just spoken, largely on global climate change and immigration, at the United Nations and to a joint session of Congress) but seems oddly current, as well. What is it the French say, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’?]
With Pope Francis’ visit still with us, I found it interesting that in some dark corners of the US news world, he is being called a “false prophet” and even the “antichrist” because of his statements on the environment, immigration, and poverty. More disturbing, some of these remarks are coming from prominent Catholics such as the retired judge Andrew Napolitano, now a regular commentator on Fox News, whose political orientation seems to outweigh his sense of religious identity. The same might be said for the three Catholic Supreme Court justices who refused to attend the pope’s address to Congress.
While these fortunately rare instances are more sad than scary, they are not unrelated to today’s scriptural lessons. People can be dangerously fond of branding views they dislike as being sinful or worse, sometimes beyond the pale of common sense. But that’s hardly news.
Today’s readings from scripture coincidentally focus on jealousy. Jealousy is another way of describing
possessiveness. Jealousy is not the same as envy — which is resentment at another’s good fortune, or delight at their misfortune. Traditionally, envy is reckoned one of the seven deadly sins. But jealousy is worse. It has led to all sorts of disasters, whether on grand international scales or in the personal sphere.
Even God is sometimes spoken of as jealous, as in the famous passage from the Book of Exodus— “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” [Ex. 20: 5 and 34:14].
But God’s jealousy is a very different matter. It is human jealousy that poses the problem. As we see in the story of Moses and the two elders, Eldad and Medad, good might come out of jealousy, but it is more likely to lead to disaster, as in the story of David and Bathsheba, or the adulterous relationship between Herod Antipas and his brother’s wife that led to the execution of John the Baptist.
In today’s Gospel we see it in the attitude of Jesus’ disciples, who seemed to bicker a lot about who was greater or who got to sit closest to Jesus, or in this case, who had exclusive rights to healing ministries. As usual, Jesus will have none of it. The rest of the reading is largely a list of things Mark added that Jesus opposed. The main point has to do with what might be called disciple rivalry. Eldad and Medad all over again.
But we also see jealousy every day: in gang wars on the streets of Chicago and in the offices of corporations and universities, in spats and fights among little children in the nursery, in the psychological warfare between spouses, in political factionalism, and ultimately in “ethnic cleansing.” Some call it “road rage.”
Jealousy is the desire to keep things only for oneself or someone’s group, not to share with others, and to resist any perceived threat to complete ownership or control, whether crude oil or a place in a line of traffic. Envy is a very small and pale monster compared to jealousy, which is “cruel as the grave,” as we read in the Song of Songs [8:6.]
Both in literature and in life, jealousy often leads to violence and death, and this is where respect for diversity and especially diverse forms of living enters the picture. The most important gift we have and have to share is life itself. And it is our refusal to share that gift that ultimately defines the root of jealousy.
Which brings us back to the Letter of James, who clearly saw that the self-destructive character of jealousy lies in our refusal to share. Pope Francis sees that as well. Money itself is not the problem, but the love of money is, a misplaced love that leads us to refuse to share our surplus with those in want. And not just wealth: it can be anything. The conflict between Arabs and Israelis over control of the Holy Land, the carnage in Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. Even the NFL, international soccer, and the Olympic Games themselves are contaminated by jealousy. Professional and amateur sports may have become what William James once called “the moral equivalent of war.” That’s better than shooting each other, but vicious competition, cheating, and lethal rivalry are not what the Olympics or high-school football are supposed to be about.
This is where respect for life enters the picture. The most important gift we have and have to share if life itself. And it is our refusal to share that gift that defines the ultimate root of jealousy. Pope Francis sees that, too.
The only remedy for jealousy, and that’s what today’s readings are really about, is generosity, and particularly in the form of love, justice, and compassion — not just for human beings everywhere, but for all life. In fact, all creation. It is in sharing the gift of life that we truly imitate the generosity of God, who is so jealous for all of us. Only in God, in whom all things are one, can fierce jealousy and absolute generosity be the same. The rest of us have to choose between them. So let us pray for the strength and wisdom to choose mercy, peace, and a generous spirit.
According to current calculations, there are fewer than one hundred shopping days left before Christmas – panic time! Acres of neon-bright decorations have filled the aisles and shelves at Costco and other big box stores for weeks. The message blares from all commercial channels: buy stuff before it’s too late! (Friendly advice: don’t buy anything made of plastic or microfibers — the planet is suffocating in that stuff. If something isn’t biodegradable or recyclable, don’t fall for it. Before it really is too late…)
In the meantime, summer is about to end and with the coming of autumn, the readings of the season begin to look toward finalities. It’s harvest time. Todays’
reading from the Letter of James provides one of the most memorable passages in that regard and sets the tone for much of what will be our food for reflection and action over the next two months:
“where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
And a harvest of justice is sown in peace for those who make peace” [James 3:16-18].
It’s opportune. The past week has been filled (again) with reports of violence, “tragic mistakes,” desperate refugees flocking to our borders, and shootings on our streets and in our homes. The pandemic continues to kill people by the thousands. Hurricanes and wildfires still ravage the earth around the world. Sectarian violence, oppression, and unequal justice still befall the defenseless. When, you wonder, will it all end?
I’m reminded of an old cartoon that portrayed a couple of space aliens looking down from their flying saucer on an Earth burning and covered with explosions. One says to the other, “They’re fighting over which religion is more peaceable.”
The readings from Mark’s gospel for the last couple of Sundays have focused on the Cross, and so does today’s. Passing over his account of the Transfiguration
and an exorcism, the reading takes up another prediction by Jesus of his coming passion and death, followed by the promise of his resurrection. But then Jesus chides the disciples for worrying about rank and precedence when they should be thinking about service. There’s a connection here.
Today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom, written a century before Jesus’ time, sets the stage for his dire prediction, reminding us that the just will be persecuted and hounded if for no other reason than people are so often suspicious, cynical, and resentful. Anyone or anything that seems too good to be true must be false. It’s all fake news…
In his letter, James, who would shortly be put to death to satisfy the mob, similarly argues that envy and discord arise out of an unhappy heart. We are dissatisfied with what we have and look on others with distrust and suspicion. Like the disciples vying over position, even religious leaders appeal at times to selfishness and greed, promising and pursuing success, wealth, and power as a reward not for faith and prayer, but for obliging membership in the acceptable sect. And if we fail to get what we want, we tend to become bitter toward those who do, or those who refuse to play that game. If nothing else, we can make life as miserable for them as we are able – even to the point of murder.
But innocence, James says, is the fruit of wisdom, along with peacefulness, docility, and kindness. Here too, Jesus warns us against ambition, greed, and the lure of power. He places a guileless child before us and tells us that in welcoming someone without status, without money, without powerful contacts in Washington, London, or Rome, we welcome the one who was rejected by the leaders of the people and the state, who was tortured and killed for no other reason than he spoke the truth and showed us the way to live.
Somber but hope-filled words as the year moves painfully ahead. Words to take to heart.
Mid-September brings the autumnal equinox, the end of summer, and usually occurs around the time of Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. For many Christians, the 14th marks the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, traditionally the beginning of the Great Fast before Easter. Fittingly, today’s first reading is the also that for Palm Sunday, which will be seven months from now.
This weekend also marks the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the crash of United Flight 93 near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, in which almost 3,000 people lost their lives, including the 19 attackers themselves. Hundreds more have died since, especially First Responders, from the effects of the attacks. Hundreds more still suffer debilitating illnesses caused by inhaling the smoke and dust from the destroyed buildings.
None of us who were old enough to be aware of what was happening on the 11th will ever forget that day The world changed. And as the nation and much of the world
recalls that awful day, we may well ask here – as people are all over the Christian world — what does the gospel say to us today? [The following includes some relevant citations from homilies I preached on this day 10 years and 5 years ago. Figures have been updated.]
After the attacks on 9/11, it was perhaps natural for people to want revenge, to seek retribution. Soon enough it became payback time. Arab Americans were shot on the streets of our cities for no reason other than being Arab. I recall an interview with a fire fighter who had been at Ground Zero and joined the army after war was declared on Iraq in October 2002. “I want to kick Arab butt,” was his explanation. Iraq had nothing whatever to do with 9/11. That didn’t matter. ‘We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you’… (G. W. Bush. Or was it B. Obama? D. Trump? OK, it was Liam Neeson in Taken, but it sums up American policy after 9/11 pretty well.)
In the following twenty years of war, the United States suffered 2461 military and civilian fatalities in Afghanistan alone, including 1,928 killed in action. There were also 1,720 U.S. civilian contractor fatalities, for a total of 4,096 Americans killed during the war. In all, over 47,000 Afghan civilians died and another 50,000 were wounded. Between 66,000 and 69,000 Afghan military and police and more than 51,000 Taliban fighters were killed. Over a thousand European civilians also died in retaliatory attacks and other terrorist acts in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin, Manchester, London, and Barcelona.
Since 2001, close to a million people have died in the wars we declared in our desire for vengeance, most of them innocent civilians. In 2018, Brown University’s Costs of War Project released an estimate of the total death toll from the U.S. wars in three countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. “The numbers, while conservatively estimated, are staggering. Brown’s researchers estimate that at least 480,000 people have been directly killed by violence over the course of these conflicts, more than 244,000 of them civilians. In addition to those killed by direct acts of violence, the number of indirect deaths — those resulting from disease, displacement, and the loss of critical infrastructure — is believed to be several times higher, running into the millions.” [https://theintercept.com/2018/11/19/civilian-casualties-us-war-on-terror]
In this country, the cost in national treasure has been enormous – more than $4.8 trillion for our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone. And yet we were cautioned well over a thousand years ago by Ben Sira, “The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance….” [Sirach 27:30-28:1].
This is not some odd snippet thrown into scripture. It is a recurrent theme. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” [See Deut. 32:35]. No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” [Rom 12: 19-20.] But do we really believe that? Are we likely to write it into our foreign policy?
Jesus said it very simply, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” [Matthew 5:43-45]. Or even more simply, “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” [Matthew 26:52].
One of the most enduring memories I have of the events of 9/11 is the image of hundreds of thousands, probably millions of people around the world, gathered that night and in the nights that followed, holding candles and praying for the victims who perished and the survivors. I distinctly remember a woman in France saying “Today we are all Americans!” — a cry that was echoed over and over around the entire planet. Until the desire for vengeance overrode the possibility of healing and we let slip the dogs of war.
Jesus’ message to us today and every day remains the same – we say it so frequently that it has probably ceased to have much meaning – forgive us our trespasses – our sins – as we forgive those who sin against us. Among his final words before his own death according to Luke, he prayed for his executioners: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” [Luke 23:34]. Will we ever?
“Never forget” has been a recurrent refrain over this commemorative weekend. But I do not recall a single mention of forgiveness. People in America and throughout the world turned to God in prayer on 9/11 and the days that followed. Let us also pray on this sad occasion for remembrance that we as a people may grow beyond the grief and anger that may have awakened within us as we ponder that awful day. Let us pray that we will remember that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for friends, and that we will find the mercy and forgiveness we seek only by giving it to others.
Today’s Gospel reminds us of the Cross – how Jesus, the man of sorrows, cautioned his followers that they, too, should take up their own cross in order to follow him rightly. That is, to embrace the rejection and likely persecution that inevitably seems to accompany authentic discipleship. Jesus put it more strongly, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” [Matthew 5:43-45].
So much has happened in the past week, it is difficult to keep up with events even as they arrest our attention and concern. Most seem disastrous, if one goes by news reports alone. Some clearly are disastrous, from the devastating damage wrought by Hurricane Ida to the wreckage of its aftermath in the northeastern US to the record-breaking wildfires in the west. You hardly hear anything about Kabul these days, although COVID is always in the news…somewhere.
One thing does not change. The human suffering in all these events, which is inescapable no matter how much the majority of our countrymen may enjoy their Labor Day holiday. Or want to.
In the readings for this Sunday in what we still call “Ordinary Time,” there is a shift from the compassion and care we owe to the least
fortunate among us, the widows, orphans, and refugees who were the focus of last week’s gospel, to those who suffer from more physical and economic and political calamities. Mark here looks to the blind, deaf, mute and those suffering from paralysis, to whom God’s love is extended
When I was a lot younger, the beginning of September wasn’t so bad, except for the start of school, and even that was a welcome change from the lazy last days of August. Things are different now. My father died on the 5th of September in 1986. And it was on the first Sunday of September in 1997 that I learned of the death of Princess Diana the night before. I was attending a conference in England at the time. Anguished, an entire nation came to a stop. Later that same week, we learned that Mother Teresa of Calcutta had died on September 5th. And then in 2001 came that terrible 11th day, which we are about to commemorate twenty short years later. For so many, the beginning of September brings a host of sorrowful memories to mind and there will now be many, many more. But it also reminds us that God is never far from us.
A memorable photo of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana taken several years earlier shows them walking hand-in-hand, the young princess being led, it seems, by the ancient nun through the halls and corridors of human illness and suffering. Both will be especially remembered for their efforts to alleviate poverty, sickness, and shame, just as the First Responders on 9/11 will always be recalled with honor because of their heroism and compassion. Despite the Christian faith these two women shared along with their commitment and compassion, they could hardly have been more different. But it is here especially that our lesson begins.
Like a city on a hillside, like a candle set on a stand, their good works were impossible to ignore. They illuminated our world. Of course, their ordinary human imperfections were also magnified by the public media in whose glaring light the two women spent so much of their lives. Both were hounded by the press, but both were also made world-renowned figures by the press. Such are the times we live in.
But in many ways, our times are not so much different from the world Jesus lived in. Then, too, people were sick, impoverished, suffered from what seemed to be incurable diseases, died in natural and military disasters, and languished under many kinds of oppression. In Mark’s gospel, how Jesus met these people and touched their lives pointed to his identity as the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the Savior.
In Jesus’ time, to be deaf, dumb, or blind was a personal and social catastrophe, far more than for us today. Not only did it deprive a person of a livelihood other than begging, and any role in the ordinary affairs of social life. Religiously, it meant that a man was not only disqualified from the priesthood, but even excluded from the inner court of the Temple, which was reserved for those without physical defect. Women were not allowed entry at all. It meant that a vast host of innocent believers could not hear the word of God, or speak it, and were thus distanced even further from the worshipping community. Such afflictions, like AIDS and other diseases and disfugrements today, were also thought by many to have been somehow deserved, a punishment for sin.
Like lepers, the blind, deaf, and mute found themselves at the mercy of others. Many still do, as Mother Teresa discovered, victims of a heartless economy and the numbing poverty it creates, as James reminds us in his letter. They were counted among the rejected, distant from God. Yet as Psalm 146 reminds us today, and Jesus showed us, God does not blight people with disease, injury, and want, but gives sight to the blind, speech to the mute, and hearing to the deaf, whether by some healing touch of a miracle worker or through the wonders of the medical arts and sciences and sheer human generosity.
Jesus also tells us that spiritual blindness, silence, and the refusal to hear are far more disastrous than physical disability. It is those who will not listen or see who are really deaf and blind to the wonders of life and unable to give praise. But sometimes it takes a shock to open our eyes and ears and mouths.
One way or the other it is the Lord who raises those crushed to the earth, the oppressed, the starving, refugees, orphans and widows victims of natural disasters and human greed. But God does it with human hands. Hands like those of Mother Teresa, Diana Spencer, and the First Responders in 2001 and this past week. Hands like yours and mine.
It is in human ways, sometimes extraordinary ones, but more often common acts of care and compassion that God works among us to end human suffering, to promote justice and peace, to increase love and care for all. This is the lesson we can take away from the commemorations of early September, one given us in the short life of the troubled young aristocrat who was deeply unsure of herself, and the little old woman who knew she was only a pencil in the hand of God, and the brave, fearful firemen and policemen and other First Responders who reentered the Twin Towers to save as many lives as they could only to lose their own. All their lives and deaths remind us how important it is to give voice to our love and compassion while there is still light and time and possibility. And surely this, too, is to hear the word of God, to see God all around us, and to announce the good news to those who desperately need it. May the example and achievements of all these great women and men draw us all ever closer into the healing circle of God’s love.
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” [Is 35:5-6].
Living in the midst of turmoil is trying in normal times, but somehow it has recently become a habit. Last week was burden enough, but just seven days later we see Hurricane Ida bearing down on New Orleans, the airport at Kabul under perilous siege, the Covid pandemic gaining strength, global temperatures soaring, and wildfires still roasting the western United States, northern Siberia, north Africa, and southern Europe.
Like the ancient Hebrews, contemporary Americans are prone to forget that there is a proviso attached to the frequent pledges that God will be near and will strengthen and protect the promised Kingdom. The proviso is the same, for the Hebrews, for the early Christians, and for us now, as we heard today in the reading from James, who in today’s second reading echoes Isaiah [1:17] as well as Deuteronomy [27:19] and especially
“Only if you thoroughly reform your ways and your deeds; if each of you deals justly with his neighbor; if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow; if you no longer shed innocent blood in this place, or follow strange gods to your own harm, will I remain with you in this place, in the land which I gave your fathers long ago and forever. But here you are, putting your trust in deceitful words to your own loss!” [See Jeremiah 7:5-8].
As tens of thousands of Afghan refugees crowd into makeshift shelters in Germany, the US, and other countries opening their borders, we would well in days to come to recall what Scripture reminds us so forcefully about compassion for widows, orphans, and the resident aliens in the land, because now and always God does play favorites – those same desperate people. The measure of the justice of Israel and, if St. James is our guide, of Christian faith, is how we care for those who are poor, wretched, unfortunate, displaced, and hurting. Since the Second Vatican Council, that has been known as God’s preferential option for the poor. And should be ours as well.
There will be pushback, of course. There always is. But it is not conscience that makes cowards of us all, it is self-interest.
Mark’s gospel takes up these themes by focusing on the false promise of religiosity, the smokescreen thrown up by those who promote what we now call “the virtue of selfishness” with the slogan made famous by Gordon Gecko in the film Wall Street: “Greed is good.” It is the kind of religion that elevates customs and traditions over human compassion and justice: observing the unimportant, neglecting the important. Jesus here cites Isaiah, but any number of passages in the Hebrew scriptures would suffice.
The greatest danger to Christian life, to all spirituality, is false religion, the tendency to idolize the elements of creed, code, and cult, forgetting what these verbal and behavioral metaphors stand for. Dogmatism, Moralism, and Ritualism are the enemies of the gospel from within. And yes, they do defile.
Toward the ends of the fourth century, the patriarch of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom, recognized the tendency at work in the imperial church when he said,
“Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs? What profit is there in that? Tell me: If you were to see him lacking the necessary food but were to leave him in that state and merely surround his table with gold, would he be grateful to you or rather would he not be angry? What if you were to see him clad in worn out rags and stiff from the cold, and were to forget about clothing him and instead were to set up golden columns for him, saying that you were do¬ing it in his honor? Would he not think he was being mocked and greatly insulted? [Homily 50, on the Gospel of Matthew].”
As someone who has devoted his life to the profession of religion, as we call it, I find these words scary. What they tell us is that to minister is not merely to serve, not even essentially to serve. Diakonia, ministry, means to represent, to make the presence of Christ visibly and tangibly real in the world. And the greatest danger to Christian ministry is reversion, bending spiritual energies away from the world back onto the religious institution itself. It is in this way that ministers become functionaries.
As emissaries of Christ, we are often ambassadors without portfolio, even if we have managed to survive the formal gauntlet of professional accreditation. Our message is ultimately our life, as his message was himself. In that sense, what we do is what we are, and our main task is simply to become that.
One thing is indelibly clear: the first place where Christian ministry should focus, as Jesus himself did, is on the poor, the oppressed, the infirm, the vulnerable, all the wretched of the earth. The rest will largely take care of itself.
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” [Luke 12: 29-34].
Much can happen in a week, especially if you are trying to follow it all at a great distance on the radio, TV, or all the avenues of social media. The world is in fact “mediated” to us through many channels other than our own experience, but we are affected even so, whether by the fall of Kabul, the disaster in Haiti, political infighting, or Storm Fred. And there’s little we can do about any of it short of prayer and that check to UNICEF.
One thing seems clear: the world is sorely lacking in that wonderful gift that goes back to Eden garden: harmony– social harmony and harmony with the natural order.
Today’s readings point us in a different direction. The word scripture uses for it, so widely misunderstood, is
“subjection.” The lesson begins with the story of Joshua shortly after the Hebrews cross the Jordan River into the Land of Promise.
Here, the most fundamental value of all was being endorsed by all the tribes of Israel after Moses had died — faithfulness to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and especially Moses was at stake. It would have been easy and even profitable for the Hebrews to settle in among their pagan neighbors and adopt their way of life, including their religious practices. And in fact, for hundreds of years, the judges and prophets had to steer Israel away from the temptations of idolatry to serve the one true God, even at the risk of prosperity and peace. These same prophets demanded that in the name of God the rights and welfare of the poor and oppressed were to be held sacred. Neither money nor power were to be deciding factors. Being subject to God’s Law was the first and greatest obligation. “As for me and my household,” Joshua says, “we will serve the Lord.”
The same kind of decision must have faced the early Christians. Echoes of the dilemma confronted by the community that was associated with the Apostle John are found in today’s gospel, which finishes the lengthy discourse on the eucharist that we began reading weeks ago. Will the followers of Jesus remain faithful to his teaching and promises or fall away when faced with the difficult consequences of that choice?
The dilemma surrounding values is especially sharp in the second reading, taken from the Letter written by Paul or one of his disciples to the Christians at Ephesus. Many people today, especially women, tend to cringe at the language of submission and the value system that it implies. It certainly bothers me. On one hand, it is Scripture and, we believe, inspired by God. On the other, it seems to endorse values that women and men today find repellent — subjection, submission, and deferment.
I looked a little further in the Christian scriptures to see where else such injunctions occur, and I found a number of them — almost all of them in the writings of St. Paul. And I also found a clue as to what was going on in his mind.
In his letter to the Ephesians, the writer advises them to defer [‘hypotasso’ = be subject] to one another in everything. The author, and it may have been St. Paul himself, goes on to say that wives should be “submissive [‘hypotasso’] to their husbands in everything” [Eph. 5:22].
The word he uses, hypotasso in Greek, means to subordinate something or someone, to obey or be under obedience, to place someone or even oneself in subjection. It also means to arrange something in an orderly manner. We find Paul using the same word in all sorts of ways — in regard to creation itself, which is subject to futility [Rom 8:20]. The spirits of prophets, he says, are subject to prophets themselves [1 Cor 14: 32]. In the name of good order, he tells the Corinthian Christians that “women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate [‘hypotasso’], as even the law says” [1 Cor 14: 34], which is a strange thing for Paul to say — which law? But in the Pastoral epistles, the author, almost surely one of Paul’s disciples, likewise says that children should be subject to their father [1 Tim 3:4], wives to their husbands [Tit 2:5], and slaves to their masters [Tit 2:9]. In the Epistle to Titus, he also says that “everyone should be subject to those in authority,” including the Emperor [Tit 3:1 = Rom 13:1]. The First Epistle of Peter similarly maintains that servants should be subject to their masters and wives to their husbands [1 Pet 2:18, 32:5].
We also find the notion of subjection in the Gospel of Luke, where we read that after his adventure in the Temple as a young boy, Jesus returned to Nazareth and “was subject [‘hypotasso’ again!] to Mary and Joseph” [Luke 2:51]. In a word, he obeyed them. In all these instances, the same tricky word is used.
What lies behind all these references is a notion of harmony, of peaceful order. Or the opposite: the chaos that results when people or creation itself is no longer subject to God’s rule. But it’s important to recognize that social structures change, and with that new values emerge that might well conflict with former expressions. Exactly the same word is used of relations between servants and masters, slaves and masters, and imperial subjects and the emperor and his appointed rulers. But no one today would defend slavery because of these passages in St. Paul, or argue that the best form of government is an empire governed by an absolute dictator. Just the opposite, in fact. But it took Christianity, especially the Catholic Church, a long time to reject the institution of slavery. Bishops and priests and sisters had slaves in this country right up to the Civil War.
So when it comes to the relationships of wives and husbands, it is very important that we do not read first-century values into today’s situation. The author of Ephesians goes on to say, on the other hand, “husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” [Eph 5:28].
The first lines of today’s second reading are the most important: Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ, be at peace with each other and Creation itself. The word here for “reverence,” by the way, is ‘phobos’ — fear, a much stronger statement. What the writer is reminding us is not that we should be afraid of Jesus, but we should be very much afraid of falling away from his teaching and example. In the gospel passage, Peter says it all: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” [John 6:69].