Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings: Is 35: 4-7a; Jam 2: 1-5; Mk 7: 31-37

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that our culture and society are driven by the values of efficiency, speed, and productivity.  We want it faster and smoother and are unconcerned with the processes involved.  No one goes to a slow food restaurant. We prefer foods already processed and ready to go. Technology and digital prowess have already eliminated the slower human intermediaries in our daily functioning.  Our impatience with slow-footed executors of our desires spills over into the liturgy.  Physical movements and gestures are only significant as bearers of the more important verbal communications.  Of themselves, they don’t say anything to us.  We are deaf to what they might mean.

Mark’s Gospel transports us into another world.  That Jesus went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee meant that he was taking a very indirect route.  Like going from Dubuque to Chicago by way of Las Vegas.   Getting to his destination was not an obsessive concern.  The journey, the way, seems to have a meaning in itself. Even a GPS might not have made a difference.  The excursion into foreign and Gentile territory seems deliberate, although without an explicit purpose.  The open-ended quality of the scene creates a sensitivity and alertness to the unexpected.

The manner in which Jesus heals the deaf and mute man is surprising.  He really has to work at it.  He makes multiple efforts in a slow, very physical process.  The process seems to be important.  It includes some actions which seem repulsive to us, though they were not uncommon among healers of that time.  Was this magic, i.e., using human efforts to achieve supernatural results?  In so many miracles, Jesus would simply pronounce a word of authority or even heal at a distance.  His transcendent superiority and origin were made apparent.

Perhaps Mark is trying to ground us in the human terrain through which Jesus labored in his mission.  Mark confronts us with the pervasive scandal of a limited, misunderstood, and even vanquished Messiah.  It is not that Jesus’ status as the Son of God that is at stake.  There is the one inclusion from the beginning of the Gospel (This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God) to its ending on Calvary (Truly, this man was the Son of God).  It is that we will not see in the suffering, the poverty, the incomprehension, the victimization of the innocent the working of God.  Mark is saying, Look at this unsuccessful man.  Here is your God.

 We are forced to acknowledge our own image of God: Here is our God.  Is it the same? How do we experience the vindication, the recompense, the liberation, the salvation he has brought?  Do we have our own ideas of how the Kingdom will appear among us?  That it will bring the resolution of all conflicts, inequities, disabilities?  Obsessed and devoted to a salvation which will release us from suffering, we are deaf to the words of healing, reconciliation, equality that are spoken where discrimination, hostility, and fear still rule.  Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not.  Enslaved by fear, we cannot speak clearly of the Gospel.  Have we misplaced our faith? 

Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom that he promised to those who love him?  This is a hard word to hear.  Those who experience the liberation and recompense that comes from God can venture into this land so foreign to our images of security and well-being.  By way of (divine?) serendipity, I just read an account of a man named Mark Redmond who gave up a lucrative business career to work at Covenant House for $12 a week.  He was himself goaded by the example of Edward Fischer, a man who had also given up a career to work for the victims of earthquakes in Guatemala.  In an address he gave to a class he said: But I am telling you, I could not be happier.  I feel joy even when I am physically miserable.  I would not trade the life I have now and what I am doing for anything else.

 These are men poor in the world, but rich in joy and meaning.  It is a testimony that all of us who hear and experience the call of our baptism might be able to give from our hearts.



Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings: Wis 9:13-18b;  Phlm 9-10, 12-17;  Lk 14:25-33

Last week we noted that a fundamental feature of the Christian faith is the radical commitment that it requires. Today that is highlighted and underscored. Specifically, it again requires that we give God first place on the scale of values to which we aspire.

Quo vadis? Where are you going? That is the question Jesus is posing to us today. Being lukewarm will not do. If we are not clear about and committed to our destination, we will have no idea how to deal with the obstacles, the detours we will encounter in getting there. We may encounter them in events but it is in the interior evaluation of them in the heart that we will find obstacles. And so, to avoid lukewarmness, we take vows.

The first aim of the heart is to unite with what it loves and so, as the first step of humility, we are mindful of the destination. But Jesus addresses today the second aim of the heart: to avoid the upsetting, what breaks it. We need to know. We need to stop fixing the heart and let it speak.

The urge to avoid the upsetting is what concerns St. Benedict, so he advises that one not be granted easy entrance into a community. The new member goes through trials so as to give time for her and the formators to asses if her desire to unite with the One she loves is stronger than her desire to avoid the upsetting. Half-heartedness will not work.  

No one, by their own admission, has ever adequately anticipated all of the unexpected difficulties encountered when they took the vows of marital or monastic life. We may encounter betrayal, tragedy, disillusionment, and boredom. So Jesus advises us to assess what each of us brings to the endeavor that will help us cope with the unexpected. Each of us has doubtless encountered the unexpected in life before the vows. We can asses our strengths and weaknesses that we bring to the communal and spousal relationships and we can deploy them…only to find they are not enough. In the two examples Jesus gives of the tower and the battle, clever planning and fierce determination are important…but not adequate. Sooner or later we must rely on a power greater than ourselves. That means we must consent to being upset. We find we must rely on grace. And to rely on something as non-material as grace is to rely on faith. That is ego-deflating!

St. Augustine, in his Confessions, notes that God permits evil in our lives (whether we do it or it is done to us) in order to convert us. It forces us to decide what matters most. Perhaps the two most upsetting evils of the marital & monastic ways of life are the experiences of injustice and of loneliness.

Thomas Merton tells us that loneliness is common in monastic life and not to be avoided. We reframe it as “solitude.” If one seeks nothing but God, that is what she gets: first, nothing, then God.

God also allows the evils of injustice not only to preserve our free will, but to show His power to overcome it. As the old saying goes, “God writes straight with crooked lines.” We often see His work in hindsight, like when Moses the murderer was only allowed to see God’s back; to see where He’d been. Yet we are to go forward as Abraham did when he left the familiar for the unfamiliar in an act of pure faith. 

What we “know” to be good for us does not always happen. Our best efforts, even for something as worthy as conversion, do not always succeed as quickly as we wish. This is because whatever occurs in time takes time. God is giving us what we most deeply want, not necessarily what we consciously want. It takes faith to see that.

Jesus’ parting requirement for discipleship today is to renounce all of our possessions. This includes our most cherished ideas about how life should be. His first requirement for discipleship is to take up our cross. First and foremost we must remember that we were saved by what shouldn’t happen.