Twenty-third Sunday In Ordinary Time
The first reading is from Isaiah of Jerusalem. His prophetic ministry was exercised mostly in and around the city from 742 to 701 B.C. It is possible that Isaiah lived on into the early years of the reign of King Manasseh, 687-642. In a document called “The Ascension of Isaiah,” (1st century A.D.), the prophet is said to have been put to death by King Manasseh who ordered him to be sawed in half. Isaiah’s style and easy access to the royal palace indicate his membership in the Jerusalem nobility – perhaps related to the royal family. He is known for his interventions in foreign policy, though the kings did not always accept his interventions. Refusal from the king could lead to angry outbursts and oracles of doom from Isaiah. His oracles are assembled in chapters 1-39 in the Book of Isaiah. His activity and interests were not restricted to foreign policy. He had great interest in sincerity of worship of God and justice for the poor.
The oracle of Isaiah that constitutes this Sunday’s first reading is known as “The Flowering of the Southern Desert,” a wilderness area located to the SE of the Dead Sea. This was the home-land of the people of Edom, known throughout the Old Testament as Edomites. Not only Isaiah, but also Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, and Malachi spoke oracles of doom against the Edomites. Most of Isaiah 34 is such an oracle of doom. Chapter 35, part of which is the first reading of this Sunday, follows this oracle of doom as good news follows bad news. While chapter 34 spoke of the terrible destruction God would bring upon Edom in its southern desert,
Chapter 35 speaks of the flowering of the same desert. In poetic form, this is a promise of God’s saving intervention after a cleansing through divine wrath. “Streams will burst forth in the desert, rivers in the steppe. Burning sands will become pools, and thirsty ground, springs of water. Not only nature is said to be renewed. “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened. The deaf will hear, the lame leap, the mute sing.” These latter poetic expressions enabled Isaiah 35 to be coupled with this Sunday’s gospel. Jesus restores hearing and speech through the prayers of the people.
The Responsorial Psalm (146) is a song of praise of God. The Psalmist assures the faithful that God (the God of Jacob) is faithful to his promises, brings justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, sets captives free. Then the Psalm picks up a thought from the first reading, “The Lord gives sight to the blind….” He also loves the just and protects strangers. The next verses connect with the second reading, the Letter of James and its concern for the poor, “The fatherless and the widow the Lord sustains, but the way of the wicked he frustrates.” Widows and their children were especially vulnerable because they had little if any security after the loss of husband and father. They became prey to the scheming of the wicked, but the Lord is said to frustrate their schemes. The Psalm, since it is a song of praise, ends with a wish that “That Lord will reign forever…, through all generations, Alleluia.” The people respond, “Praise the Lord, my soul!”
The second reading is from the Letter of James. The theme of this reading is a condemnation of mistreatment of the poor in the assemblies of Christians. James is a tough love preacher. Else-where in his letter he is more severe toward exploiters of the poor than in today’s reading. He accuses the leaders of Christian assemblies of giving special attention to the wealthy and well-dressed, while ignoring or shaming the poor among them. The rich are led to the “front pews,” while the poor are told to stand or sit on the floor. James warns of reversal of fortune in the next life, because the poor are the ones who are rich in faith and will inherit the kingdom of God.
In last Sundays gospel, Mark’s catechesis centered on Jesus’ abolition of the Old Testament distinctions between clean and unclean foods. Today Mark extends the abolition to the Old Test-ament distinction between clean and unclean people. This must have been a burning issue in his Christian Community which was composed mainly of Christian Gentiles. At least some Jewish Christians brought with them the Old Testament baggage of prejudice against non-Jews. Some of the worst expressions of this prejudice are found in Deuteronomy 7 and 23. Mark begins with Jesus’ journey from the coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon toward the inland grouping of Greek-speaking cities called the Decapolis. Mark is doing theological or catechetical geography. All of these localities were chiefly Gentile localities but Jesus touches upon all of them. By Jesus’ presence there, these lands became “clean.”
Next Mark turns to Jesus’ implicit abolition of the Old Testament distinction between “clean” and “unclean” people. Jesus is in a Greek city south of the Sea of Galilee. Mark implies that the deaf and stuttering man brought to him for a cure is a Gentile. A sensitive Jesus takes him aside from the crowd. He thrusts his fingers into the man’s ears. He puts his saliva on the man’s tongue. Jesus looks into the sky, an implied prayer to his Father, and groans. Saliva, touching, sighing, groaning were often part of ancient healing techniques, but Mark is displaying the human compassion of Jesus. The use of foreign words in healing practices was common, so Mark preserve the Aramaic word that Jesus spoke on this occasion. The word is “Ephphatha.” Mark’s readers do not understand Aramaic. He translates, “Be opened!” The cure was instant. (The elders among us remember that the actions and the Aramaic word of Jesus were at one time a non-optional part of our baptismal rite.) Jesus tries to restrain the crowd from publicizing this deed, but the Good News cannot be concealed, not even in heathen lands. From his knowledge of the oracles of Isaiah, Mark incorporates part of the first reading into the people’s praise, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”