Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) | Deacon Samuel Burke considers the risky business of compassion and encountering the Lord Jesus.
Getting out of bed in the morning is a risky business. I mean, there’s just no telling what will happen. It’s probably why several people I know postpone it for as long as possible!
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is faced with a risk. It is the risk that when he heals the deaf and dumb man, people will tell of his miracle cure and this will play into the hands of his enemies. That’s why he acts in private out of public view and charges the disciples to tell no-one.
It’s not just the mere act of curing the man like some wandering witch doctor but what it signified. The clue to the significance of what he performed lies in the first reading from the prophet, Isaiah. He foretells of a coming Messiah who will make the deaf hear, the blind see, the silent given voice and the lame leap like a deer. All of this, his Galilean onlookers would have known well. In this way, Jesus’ mighty deeds fulfil what was promised in a way that cannot be contained. So he ushers in the Kingdom of God and reveals his true identity.
Why does Jesus apparently put caution to the wind and continue to heal the deaf and dumb man? Out of compassion; out of love. Charity comes before his own interests. It trumps everything. He knows the risks of playing in to the hands of his enemies and does it anyway!
We too should look to act out of compassion and not worry too much about the consequences. We should acknowledge the risks and do it anyway. Love carries a certain abandon, which is why we talk about “Abandonment to Divine Providence”. We love first and entrust the rest to God. In this sense, joining the Dominican Order is one of the most reckless things that I’ve done! I knew the risks of failure and humiliation but I trusted God and did it anyway!
There’s another subtle risk in the Gospel: touch. St. Mark retells the physicality of how the miracle is performed: a certain tactile quality emerges. Even if using spittle on another and putting fingers in the ears of another might strike us a irksome today, we must read what is going on in these gestures. Compassion is felt, not spoken. But it carries a risk of rebuke, dismissal perhaps. He knows the risk and does if anyway.
Touch is important for those who are poor according to the world about whom we heard in the Second Reading. Anyone who has ever been to a L’Arche community or Lourdes, anyone who has comforted a baby or visited a friend in hospital will know something of the importance of human contact, of touch. It might be the holding of a hand, an embrace, of just a reassuring pat. These actions help to convey that which words only signal; our compassion, our love. These physical gestures are certainly risky – they might be misunderstood and might make us feel uncomfortable but, in the appropriate context, we do it anyway.
Compassion and human contact make us God’s instruments if we act in his service. But that requires something beforehand, the biggest risk of all: discipleship.
To encounter Jesus is to be transformed. This transformation can be in the form of an exterior miracle, as in today’s Gospel, or much more commonly a change of heart, a conversion. This is not a one-off event but a constant process of sanctification.
Ephphatha – be opened. Jesus opens ears of the deaf, the mouth of the dumb. And he opens the hearts of the wicked. Open wide the doors to Christ! In what respects are we too deaf to hear the Word of the Lord, too tongue tied to tell the Good News? When was the last time our hearts of stone were prised open by an encounter with Jesus in his Word, through his Sacraments, in his Spirit?
How do we react to such an encounter? As with the disciples, we respond with unbounded admiration: thanksgiving and worship. We are not told what first words were uttered by the cured man. I’d like to think that he responded similarly with gratitude and praise. This is what we do at Mass, and that’s certainly worth getting out of bed for!
When we feel like lying in, when we’re uncertain about what to do, when we feel distant from God, don’t let that voice of risk put you off from loving Jesus and neighbour. Of course it’s risky. Each day let’s pick up our cross and follow His path of love. This is the human experience, life’s adventure, and one that by his grace will take us to heaven.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a stained glass window in the Episcopal National Cathedral in Washington DC.