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Ordinary Time 23 (B)
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Readings for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B

1. Isaiah 35, 4-7

  • I hear words of encouragement and I will not rush them.  Be strong, fear not!  Here is your God.  I hear them whispered at first, among those whose hearts are frightened, then slowly leading to a strong conviction that it is all true.  He comes to save you.
  • I once chanted this reading to a pastoral theme from the third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  The melody is returning now and it will help me find the mood for the reading.
  • The prophet tells the people to expect wonders in their midst.  The eyes of the blind will be opened.  Can I imagine the heartfelt joy of someone who receives his sight, her hearing, or the unexpected gift of dancing?  I will practice leap like a stag until I form the picture of utter exuberance with my words.
  • God promises things the people thought were impossible: Streams will burst forth in the desert.  Like a cascade I hear four phrases: streams, rivers, pools, springs of water.  They enter and nourish the hardscrabble land, with its desert, steppe, burning sands, thirsty ground.  Four promises one after the other! 
  • This prophecy paves the way for today’s Gospel, in which a deaf man with a speech impediment receives his speech.  That tells me that Jesus does not do his good works in isolation, but in fulfillment of God’s promise.  In other words, the vision that I repeat today is already become reality.  Will I speak it as if it were the only reality worth jumping for joy about?
  • Climax: Here is your God.  The words are the reason for everything else that happens.  Because God is with us our fates are reversed.
  • Message for our assembly: The empires next door to Israel were established on mighty river banks, and that definitely impressed Israel.  But I live in a city that receives plenty of torrential downpours.  We are so accustomed to engineering wonders in our age that a vision of abundant water may not move us.  If we think our own influence in the world is independent of fresh water, then we should think again: water is even scarcer than ever before.
  • I will challenge myself: To find my pastoral voice for this joyful passage.

 

2. James 2, 1-5

  • The first sentence presents the theme for today.  Show no partiality.  All the apostolic letters warn the first Christians against respect for social position, and this letter gives the admonition a central place. 
  • The letter is full of examples such as this one.  I can tell the story of the man with gold rings and fine clothes, and contrast him with a poor person with shabby clothes.  It applies to our assembly, except for the fact that even the poorest people display their jewelry and dress well for church.
  • Now that I have set up these two members of the congregation, I come to the punch line: You pay attention.  I remember that the first gatherings of the church took place in people’s homes (probably in the homes of the affluent), and there were no folding chairs back then and certainly few benches.  So to tell someone, Sit here, please, sent the message.  So does the request to Stand there or sit at my feet.  It still does, whether the event is a political fundraiser, a memorial ceremony for the war dead, a Vatican audience or a public hearing.
  • The apostle does not compromise on this issue.  You have become judges with evil designs.  In other words, there is no just judgment going on.  He is referring to the first eucharistic gatherings.  We should judge our own in the same measure.
  • Central point: Jesus does not judge as we do.  If we profess faith in our glorious Lord, if we claim to be heirs of the kingdom, let us follow his example.
  • The message for our assembly: Christ has done away with social distinction.  To the extent that we restore exclusivity in our assemblies we dishonor the Lord.
  • I will challenge myself: To pay attention to the reversal of position that should characterize our churches.  God chose those who are poor in the world and promised the kingdom to those who love him.

 

Gospel. Mark 7, 31-37

  • Mark is the evangelist of the Messianic secret.  We have one example of this in today’s Gospel.  This was the only passage from Mark that was read on Sundays before 1969, one reason why our elders were unfamiliar with that Gospel. 
  • Jesus is returning from the coast, back inland to his home base in Galilee.  I don’t think it matters to my listeners where he is going, as long as I say the place names with authority.  But I will use greater authority on the words Sea of Galilee.
  • And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hand on him.  The details are very important, because of the way Jesus will cure the man.  I will put greater attention on ‘lay his hand.’
  • He took him off by himself.  A cure was meant to accompany the person’s faith and not to crown a popular movement.  Jesus seeks proof of that faith.
  • He put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue.  This is the human part, where we join our own sense of wholeness to the ailing person with whom we feel solidarity. 
  • He looked up to heaven and groaned.  Jesus joins himself to God in prayer.  He acknowledges, just as we do in our own healing rites, that God is the author of life and wholeness.
  • Then he speaks the Aramaic word Ephphata!  We repeat the word in Christian initiation.  Whether or not Jesus actually said it, the word takes us back to the earliest Christian liturgies.  However I say it I want it to sound explosive. 
  • The man’s ears were opened and he spoke plainly.  He ordered them not to tell anyone, but the more they proclaimed it.  The people’s reaction is just as important to the story as the details of the cure.  I think I would say it as someone equally astonished at what they did.  They disregarded the Lord’s command!  How disrespectful!  Or was it?  I will let my listeners connect the dots.
  • Climax: Ephphata! of course.
  • Message for our assembly: Would we keep silent in the presence of good?  What could be wrong with proclaiming, He has done all things well?
  • I will challenge myself: To tell the assembly something unforgettable about this cure that they will carry with them into their apparently non-miraculous lives.

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