Step out in joy and freedom

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23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Sept. 6, 2015
Isa 35:4-7; Ps 146; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37

In about two weeks, our Holy Father Pope Francis is going to arrive here in the U.S.—indeed, here in the Washington, D.C., area—to visit us. We know that he has gained a great deal of attention by many people since he was elected as Pope, and that many people find him a fascinating and attractive person. One of the aspects for which Pope Francis is famous is his concern for the poor, and his readiness to reach out and embrace people who are poor or who live with difficult physical or life circumstances.

And surely we can imagine Pope Francis giving us the same admonition that we heard from St. James in our second reading today.Writing to the Christian faithful of the first century, St. James addressed a situation that could just as easily happen today. He knew that at times they had treated people differently, shown partiality, when different people had come to their gatherings: to a person who they could tell was rich because of his fine clothes they gave a seat of honor; while a person who was poor, dressed in shabby clothes, they had sit on the floor or stand on the side. And St. James says: don’t do that. Don’t treat them differently; don’t treat the poor person badly. And isn’t that what we could imagine Pope Francis saying to us as well?

But let’s think for a minute about why we might have decided to treat the rich man and the poor man differently—whether in the first century or now. What would motivate us? Of course, there can be many different possible motivations; but let’s consider what might be the best-case scenario. Such a person might have seen the rich man and thought: “You know, I have a family. I have to provide for them, protect them, make them secure, help them grow. This rich man is my boss! Or: this man is my customer, or someone I want to be my customer and buy my products. Or: this man has influence and he can give me approval and a good reputation. I definitely don’t want the opposite: I don’t want him or his friends to fire me, or refuse to shop at my store, or to marginalize me. That would hurt me and my family too much. I have to treat him with honor, the way he expects to be treated, so that he will help me with what I need and not hurt me.”

So, in the scenario we are imagining, it is this person’s need that pushes him into treating the rich man with special honor. And turning to the poor man, he might think: “Look, I have compassion on you. I see that you have needs like I do, but even greater. If I make the wrong choices, I could be in your situation. I wish I could help you. But I can’t; and I know you can’t help me. I’m sorry I can’t help you, and I feel bad about it. How about if I put you over on the side so that I don’t have to keep looking at you and feeling bad about how I can’t help you more.”

The situation of the person who makes these distinctions doesn’t sound very happy, does it? In his need, he isn’t very free; he feels pressured and constrained to act toward others in these two different ways.

But that isn’t how Pope Francis is, is he? He doesn’t seem pressured or constrained. Instead, we seem him full of joy, and very free, as he responds from the heart to those he meets, including the poor and needy.

Let’s keep that in mind as we turn to the Gospel reading. Here we have a story of Jesus healing miraculously. We find many such healings in the Gospels; and sometimes he heals from a distance, even from miles away, when someone tells him about another person who is sick or suffering, and he heals with a word, without even needing to see them. He can do that; but this time he does it completely differently.

In this passage, a crowd has brought to Jesus a man who is deaf with a speech impediment. This man is not fully mute, when we look at the original Greek word; he can speak but, like some deaf people today, he does so with difficulty and some imperfections. This is who the crowd brings to Jesus. And we see that he responds to him in a very personal way:

  • he takes him apart from the crowd by himself;
  • he looks into his eyes;
  • he puts his finger into his ears;
  • he places his own saliva on his tongue;
  • he sighs deeply;
  • and he heals him.

He didn’t have to do any of this! But he intentionally heals this man in a most personal, intimate, hands-on, compassionate way.

In so doing, Jesus was performing an act of new creation. Just as, in the original creation, God had very personally created the first man from dust, as if using his saliva to make the clay to shape the man personally, and then breathing into him the breath of life; just as God still creates every single human soul individually (Catechism of the Catholic Church 366); so now Jesus brought life and hope in an act of new creation. “Behold, I make all things new.” (Rev 21:5) And just as, when God created all things, it was all very good (Gen 1:31), so now the crowd exclaimed, “He has done all things well”!

And it was not just this man whose hearing and ability to speak Jesus healed: it was also the crowd, and us, that he made able to see and hear in a new way. For what was it that the man, and the crowd, and we also, came to see in this?

  • That God is with us;
  • that he knows us;
  • that he loves us;
  • that he is there to touch us personally;
  • that he understands our suffering and has compassion for us;
  • that he is with us to strengthen us and heal us.

And as they came to see and know this in a very direct and personal way, they were filled with a joy and boldness such that they couldn’t keep the news to themselves. Even when Jesus asked them to keep it quiet, they had to tell everyone this good news!

And isn’t that what we see in Pope Francis? That joy, that energy, that overflowing fullness that he wants to share with absolutely everyone?

So who do you identify with in these readings we have heard today?

  • With the rich man or the poor man who has entered the Christian gathering as a stranger, not quite sure what is going on or what response he will receive?
  • Like the deaf man, wrestling with his condition and hoping to be healed?
  • Like the man after he is healed or the crowd who saw it, bursting with good news that they have to share?
  • Or like those St. James wrote to, who perhaps needed to be reminded of what they had already experienced of Jesus’ power and love, to raise them from fear to loving freedom?

You know what Pope Francis would want to invite you to experience and to do, don’t you? And our diocese is encouraging us to make that response to him, as a sort of spiritual gift that we will give him when he arrives. They are asking us to make a pledge to “Walk with Francis.”

  • Maybe you need to experience Christ’s loving touch, or to remember that you have already; and so you might pledge to pray and learn.
  • Or maybe you are thinking of taking the next step of reaching out to others; and so you might pledge to serve others directly or to act on their behalf.

Either way, we know that Pope Francis invites us to walk with him, to leave behind fear and constraint, to live instead in joy and faith and the knowledge that we have good news to share with both the poor man and the rich man—who is poor and needy in his own way. “Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God… he comes to save you.”

When we choose to Walk with Francis, we also say yes to walking with Christ!


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