B: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

What the Deaf Can Hear

 September 6, 2003

 Mark 7: 31 – 37

Mark Twain has called kindness a language that the deaf can hear, and the blind can read. What is kindness? It is the ability to understand another person, sensing the burdens which that person must carry, and using our own resources and power to ease those burdens. When we first think of it, kindness might come across as a weak feeling, or a wimpy motivation. But kindness is in reality a forceful power than can save and heal. Jesus acts with kindness in today’s Gospel.

The clue to Jesus’ kindness is the particular way he chooses to heal the man who is brought to him. Normally Jesus heals with a word of command. But he adapts his method in today’s gospel because the person who comes before him cannot hear. Two thousand  years ago there were no cochlear implants, or hearing aids or artificial eardrums. There was not even an organized system of sign language. People who were deaf were isolated, totally isolated even from those who were closest to them. Therefore, we do not know whether those who brought the man to Jesus for healing were able to communicate to him where they were taking him or why. It is not clear whether the man knew of Jesus or his ministry. All that is clear was that the man was ripped out of his normal surroundings and suddenly found himself in the midst of a crowd of strangers. It is very likely that he was confused and fearful, uncertain of what was about to happen. Jesus knew this. Therefore, Jesus acted in a way to address the needs of the man who was before him. Jesus first took the man aside, in private, away from the crowd so the two of them could be alone together. At this point the man was perhaps already thinking, “Who is this person trying to put me at ease?” Then, because Jesus was aware that words were of no use in dealing with a person who could not hear, he employed the sense of touch. He gently placed his fingers in the man’s ear and touched his tongue. Jesus knew that this man required more than a powerful word of healing. He required privacy, sensitivity and a gentle touch. When Jesus sensed this and acted upon it, he was treating the man with kindness. He was appreciating what was going on inside of another person and adapting his own actions to meet that need.

We are talented responsible people. From day to day we live, doing the things which our lives require of us. How important is it for us not to undervalue the importance of kindness? When was the last time you were kind? You make decisions with your spouse, give advice to your spouse. But when was the last time you tried to understand what was going on inside of your spouse? When did you see what he or she needed from you and tried to meet that need? To do so would be an act of kindness. You provide for your children and give them guidance. When was the last time you tried to recognize their insecurities and take steps to assure them of their goodness, their value and their ability to succeed? To do so would be an act of kindness. You work every day with co-workers, hopefully being fair and honest with them. But when was the last time you saw a potential in another worker and took the time to bring that gift to the surface and encourage a co-worker to grow and develop that ability? To do so would not be unimportant; it would be an act of kindness.

Now of course, life is more than kindness. There are times when we need to challenge and confront others. There are many situations which require tough love. But as we live from day to day, we should not forget the power that comes from kindness. Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can read. Kindness can cut through hypocrisy and posturing. It can eliminate indifference and selfishness. How do we decide when to be challenging and when to be kind? A friend of mind is fond of saying, “Whenever in doubt, do the kind thing.”

This week, then, as we work and play, as we organize and create, as we advise and guide others, let us not forget to follow the example of Jesus in today’s gospel. Let us recognize the importance of understanding others, of sensing what they need, of hearing their cries for help. Let us not forget to do the kind thing.

Hearing with the Soul

September 10, 2006

Mark 7:31-37

A farmer from Salina, Kansas decided it was time to visit an old high school buddy who had lived for many years in New York City.  It was the farmer’s first visit to New York, and he was overwhelmed by the size of the buildings and the hectic lifestyle.  As the two friends were making their way down Fifth Avenue, wending their way through the crowded streets and busy traffic, suddenly the farmer stopped and said, “Hey!  I hear a cricket.”  “You’ve got to be kidding,” said his friend from New York.  “Even if there were a cricket around, and I doubt that that is the case, how could you possibly hear it over all this noise?”  But the farmer stood there for a few moments and then took a few steps to the corner, where there was a bush growing in a cement container.  He turned over a few leaves and there, sure enough, was a cricket.  “What amazing hearing you have,” said his friend from the city.  “That’s not the case,” said the farmer.  “Your hearing is as good as mine.  We all hear what we are conditioned to hear.”  Whereupon he pulled out of his pocket a handful of change and let it fall to the sidewalk.  When the coins hit the ground, as if on cue, about a dozen heads turned to hear what the sound was.  “You see,” said the farmer, “we hear the things that are important to us.  It’s all a matter of what you’re listening for.”

Hearing is more than a biological ability.  Our hearing is influenced by what we value and what we believe.

It is for this reason that Christians should have a deeper hearing, because of our faith, because we believe that God is real and active in our world.  We do, after all, believe that God created us and all creation, and saw it as good.  We do believe that God is active now in our world, saving it, bringing Good News to the poor and freedom to the oppressed.  We do believe that God is intent on establishing a kingdom, a kingdom of goodness, love and peace.  If we believe these things, should we not be able to hear the sounds of that kingdom coming? Now I know it is possible for believing people to at times be pessimistic and fearful.  I know that any one of us can be overcome with a feeling of worthlessness and hopelessness.  But there should always be a suspicion among believers that these negative attitudes, when they occur within us, are at least partly a result of our failure to hear the sounds of God’s activity around us.

Why, then, do we not hear God’s activity around us?  We are conditioned to hear something else.  We might have had failures in relationships.  We may have been hurt in love. Now our ears are conditioned to hear every rustle of rejection and negativity, but deaf to hear the voices of those who are rightly affirming us and inviting us to new possibilities.  We might be very successful, financially secure, confident in our own abilities. Thus our ears easily pick up things that affirm our goodness and our potential.  Yet, at the same time, we can be deaf to the pain of those who are weak and impatient with those who turn to us looking for compassion.  We can be conditioned by loss or grief, so that every noise of emptiness or hopelessness becomes amplified.  That grief can drown out the voices of those still loving us and the whisper of God’s spirit promising us that there will come a time when we laugh again.

It is easy in our country to be conditioned by fear, as we approach another anniversary of 9/11.  We can register the rumble of our vulnerability and recognize the likelihood that there will someday be another terrorist attack.  But can our ears hear the courage and the faith of our ancestors who established this country over overwhelming odds?  Can we believe that we have that same courage and faith to rise to the occasion and, even though vulnerable, still live as a free people without abandoning our basic principles?

What we believe, what we value, influences what we hear.  Therefore, if we are not hearing any good news, not only do we need to open our ears; we need also to open our hearts.  This is why Jesus in today’s gospel says to the deaf man, “Be opened.”  We are that deaf man, because there are good things that we are not hearing.  We need to believe that God will open us, that God can open us, that God can remove our deafness.  We must trust that God can remove our hurt, our pride, our grief, our fear.  We must believe that God is active, that God is in fact building the kingdom and making noise doing so.  If a farmer can hear a cricket in New York City, then certainly we should be able to hear the thunder of God’s spirit recreating the earth.

There Is No Need to Judge

September 6, 2009

James 2:1-5

You may remember how last April there was a dramatic and unusual episode on the English TV show “Briton’s Got Talent.” The show is the European version of “American Idol,” where ordinary people come before a live audience and panel of judges and demonstrate their abilities. On the particular episode I have in mind, a frumpy, overweight English woman was a contestant. Her name was Susan Boyle. From the time she stepped onto the stage, you could hear whispering and giggles from the audience.  For a show that was accustomed to the young and the glamorous, this old maid with a frumpy hairdo was clearly out of place. Everyone expected that her performance would be a disaster.  When she told the judges that her ideal was to become a musical star like her idol, Elaine Paige, the audience burst into derisive laughter.

But then, Susan Boyle began to sing.  And it was not long into her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” that the laughter stopped.  Her voice was amazing: clear, melodic, and deeply moving.  By the time she finished her performance, the entire audience and the judges as well were on their feet, cheering and applauding.  You see, they had determined that they knew what to expect.  But they were wrong. They judged this woman on her appearance, but her voice was a miracle.

Today’s second reading from the letter of James warns us about judging others on their appearance.  James tells his readers that, when we judge people according to the way that they dress or the money that they have, they are acting in a way that is contrary to the gospel.  James’ remark makes perfect sense.  We all understand that when we judge by appearance, we can often be wrong. Say for example, you were to meet a young person dressed in black, with spiked hair, wearing a dog collar and many tattoos.  The inclination would be to judge this person negatively.  But if you talked to this person, you could discover that he volunteers weekly, working for Habitat for Humanity, building houses for the poor.  Or say you’re introduced to an elderly woman who had become physically feeble.  It would be easy to judge her as feeble in other areas as well.  You could begin to speak to her in a demeaning way, speaking loudly and calling her “Sweetie.” You could presume that shoe was unable to follow the conversation.  But here again you could be wrong.  If you spoke to the woman, you could be surprised by her wisdom and wit.  So it’s certainly clear that, when we judge by appearances, we can often be wrong.

But the letter of James goes deeper than that.  James tells us that we should avoid judging, not because we could be wrong. We should avoid judging because there is no need to judge, because as people of faith we already know the value of every person.  That is why the author of James says, “Has not God made the poor of the world rich at faith and heirs of the kingdom?”  We are the poor of the world. James is telling us that all people are loved by God.  If we truly believed that, we would not need to judge, because we would already know that every person deserves our deference and respect—even if they can’t sing like Susan Boyle, even if they don’t work for Habitat for Humanity, even if they are old and feeble and cannot follow the conversation.

Who are the people in our lives that we are likely to judge?  Is it the dorky kid in our class at school?  Is it the guy at work who stutters?  Is it our in-law who is always the first to put her foot in her mouth?  We know that despite all outward appearances, each one of these people and everyone else has a value and a worth.  The message to us today is that we should put judgments aside. As believers there is no need to judge others by the color of their skin, the slant of their eyes, their accent, the neighborhood in which they live, the car that they drive, or the clothes that they wear.  We do not have to judge, because we already know their value.  We already know who they are.  They are beloved daughters and sons of God.

What to See and Say

September 9, 2012

Isaiah 35:4-7a; Mark 7:31-37

In today’s first reading, Isaiah tells us that God intends to open the eyes of the blind. In today’s gospel, Jesus loosens the tongue of a man who cannot speak. Now we could easily suppose that these great acts of healing have no relevance to us. Most of us can see. Most of us can speak. Yet even with these abilities, we still need God’s healing power. Because the truth is this: there is always more to see—there is always more to say.

The blindness which most often afflicts us is the blindness to our own blessedness. When we have troubles, we see them immediately. But the blessings we have can too often be taken for granted. When they are, we are the ones who lose, because the greatest joy in life is knowing that we are blessed and claiming it. This is the joy that lovers feel in one another’s presence. They say, “How fortunate I am to be loved by you.” This is the joy that parents feel as they look at a newborn son or daughter. They say, “What a blessing it is to have this life as a part of my own.”

These blessings and our awareness of them are what make life worth living. Yet it is so easy for them to become buried under our responsibilities and activities, causing us to lose wonder and joy. It is for this reason that God is always at work looking for ways to open our eyes, looking for ways to heal us.

The healing can happen in many ways. We might be sitting at a meal with close friends laughing and telling stories. Suddenly God touches us and we realize, “How fortunate I am to have these people in my life and how empty my life would be without them.”  It might happen when we accomplish something significant at work, finding the right way to solve a problem, feeling the satisfaction not simply of earning money but knowing that we have made an impact. God lets us see that we have used our talents in the way that has made a difference.  It might be when a song comes on the radio or iPod, a song we may have heard many times before. But this time the melody and the rhythm seizes us and we begin to reflect on where we first heard it, who we heard it with, and what it means to us. Caught up in that music, God allows us to realize how fortunate we are to be alive.

God uses moments such as these to open our eyes and ears so that we can recognize who we are and how we have been blessed. When that happens, our joy surges and our life deepens. When we recognize that blessedness, it is important for us to speak, to give thanks. It only takes few moments. We can speak in a whisper: “Thank you, Lord, for giving me life. Thank you for these blessings and for your love.”

When our tongue is loosed so that we can speak words of thanksgiving, that itself is a healing. After all, giving thanks to God is not for God’s benefit but for our own. When we say “thank you,” we claim the blessings that are ours and deepen and confirm our joy.

Every life is blessed. But blessing has no power until it is recognized and claimed as true. That is why God is always at work opening our eyes and ears to recognize how we have been blessed.

Let that healing in. When you recognize your own blessedness, speak out in thanksgiving: “Thank you, Lord, for giving me life. Thank you, Lord, for your love. And thank you for opening my eyes to see it.”

Beauty in Baghdad

September 6, 2015

Mark 7: 31-37

One afternoon this summer, a car bomb exploded in a commercial district of Baghdad. Ten people were killed and many more were injured. Unfortunately such destruction is not unusual in the Iraqi capital. But there was something unusual that happened that afternoon. As the police and medical personnel were cordoning off the area, a man appeared in a black suit, his long hair combed back. He unfolded a small chair and sat down. Then, in the midst of the smoke and the rubble, he began to play his cello.

The man was Karim Wasfi. He was the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. He was there that afternoon, because he had decided to introduce humanity and beauty into the scenes of violence in his city. He said, “There are many people in Iraq who would turn every facet of our lives into a war zone. But I choose to turn every corner that I can into a spot of civility, beauty, and compassion.” As Mr. Wasfi played his cello, people stopped and began to listen. Many cried, and some prayed. This image of beautiful music being performed in a scene of destruction captures at least in part the ministry of Jesus.

During his life Jesus walked the cities of Galilee looking for those who were suffering and in need. In today’s gospel he opens the ears of a man who is deaf. Jesus’ mission was to bring the presence of God’s love into the lives of people that were wounded by disease and hopelessness. Now unlike Jesus, you and I cannot open the ears of the deaf or make the blind to see. But, like Mr. Wasfi, we can choose to bring goodness and beauty into situations that are marked by loss and despair.

We are not always able to protect our children from the influence of peer pressure. We cannot assure that they will avoid being bullied in their relationships. But we can make sure that they know that they are people of great value and have a dignity that no one can take away. We cannot eradicate poverty or unemployment in our society. But we can choose to place ourselves in settings where we meet the poor and the unemployed, listen to their stories, and share stories of our own. We cannot protect the people we love from the pain of sickness or the fear of dying. But we can sit at their bedside, remembering the good times, and showing them our love.

Like a musician playing the cello in a scene of devastation, we can choose to bring beauty and goodness to situations of suffering and to people without hope. And every time we take a stand for dignity and love, we not only help others. We also take up Jesus’ mission to manifest God’s love to the world.

Show No Partiality

September 9, 2018

James 2:1-5

It is important for us to understand why the author of the letter of James is so adamant that we show no partiality in our treatment of one another. In the vivid scene that he presents, two men enter a Christian gathering. One is a rich man wearing rings of gold. The other is a poor man, shabbily dressed. James becomes upset because the community makes a big fuss over the wealthy man giving him a place of honor while they ignore the poor man, and tell him to stand off by the side by himself. What is the issue of treating these two people differently? It is not one of common courtesy. It is not even one of judging people by externals. What the issue is for James is a proper understanding of God. We are to show no partiality in our dealing with one another because God shows no partiality in dealing with us.

Sometimes people say that all religions are the same. This is not true. Different religions give us different descriptions of who God is. The Jewish Christian tradition has some very specific things to say about God. The book of Deuteronomy says that the God of Israel has no favorites and accepts no bribes. But rather God exercises justice for the orphan and the widow and welcomes the foreigner. This means that our God accepts the value of every human person—not only the rich but also the poor, not only the friend but also the stranger, not only the saint but also the sinner. Jesus embraced this impartial view of God and made it a cornerstone of his teaching.

The same truth is expanded in Catholic moral teaching that states that every human person has an inherent value that cannot be erased by failure or sin. God has given to every person an inherent worth that cannot be ignored. This is why the action of James’ community was so unchristian. They accepted the worth of the wealthy man but ignored the value of the poor man.

Now of course the challenge for you and me is that we are called to see others as God sees them. This can be very difficult because we tend to equate worth with worthiness. But the worth of every human being is a gift that cannot be earned or lost. It flows directly from the hand of God. It is easy for us to see the worth of an innocent child but much more difficult to see that a convicted murderer in prison also maintains a human dignity. It is simple for us to see the worth of our family members but much harder to see why we should respect immigrants who wish to live among us. We do not question the value of a lifelong friend but struggle to believe that there is worth in an enemy who has hurt us.

Yet the teaching of Jesus is clear. Sinners are forgiven. The poor are blessed. Strangers are welcome. This is not the way our society sees things. It is not always the way that we see. But it is the way that God sees. And that is the point.

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