23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 6, 2015

A few years ago I took a couple of friends of mine to a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. We had aisle seats, which seemed like a good idea at the time. In Act 2 there is a comedic interruption in the story of political intrigue and murder; the comedic interruption is provided by a character called simply “Porter.”

Porter was the castle’s porter (door-man). Late at night, immediately after the murder of King Duncan, Porter is awakened by someone knocking at the castle’s door. Porter stumbles from having had too much to drink. In the performance I attended, Porter stumbled into the audience seating area, and delivered his drunken, mocking lines in close proximity to the audience members.

The event was very memorable to me because of the director’s guidance to the actor playing Porter and the character’s costume. Porter was dressed in dirty, torn rags; he was shirtless and shoeless (and of an age at which neither looked good on him). At one point in his monologue he reached into his dirty-looking pants to retrieve a dirty-looking handkerchief which he used to blow his nose loudly and messily. He dropped the dirty, used handkerchief into the lap of one of my friends; she was no longer impressed with the seats I had acquired.

The director of the play used our modern sensibilities about cleanliness and hygiene to his advantage by having the character Porter act in a way that was, at once, comic, disgusting and clever. As I said, it made the performance very memorable. The social customs we have regarding personal hygiene are fairly recent developments in human history. Our contemporary concerns about communicable diseases have contributed to the overall health of people around the world, but they might also contribute to our understanding of the event described in this Sunday’s Gospel reading.

The Gospel author wrote, “Jesus took the deaf man off by himself away from the crowd. He put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’ which means: Be opened!” (Mark 7:33-34) Jesus’ actions might appear to us to be highly unsanitary and/or a practical joke, but this is an accurate description of the techniques used by healers during Jesus’ lifetime.

Faith healers abounded in the ancient world, and all of them used similar techniques. It was common for a faith healer to lay his hands on the person to be healed. Faith healers often spat on the ground as a ritual gesture of pushing away the influence of evil. It was also very common for faith healers to issue commands to the illness or affliction; although Mark’s Gospel was written in Greek, the author was very concerned to record the Aramaic word that Jesus used when he healed the man, because of the power ascribed to words. (Mark 7:34)

Mark took great care to portray this event as a typical, and genuine, act of healing. The Gospel wants us to know, beyond all doubt, that the man was restored to a normal life. The full restoration to normalcy is the key to understanding this story, because the central aspect of the story is Jesus’ compassionate response to the request made on behalf of the afflicted man.

When Porter dropped his dirty handkerchief on my friend’s lap she shrieked, and tried to get away from the handkerchief and Porter. Hers was the normal reaction to things and people judged to be dirty, and it was exactly what the director of the play wanted. We push away, or run away from, what we judge to be dirty, offensive or evil.

People in Jesus’ time had the same reaction to people and things they judged to be impure or touched by evil. You will recall that, in last Sunday’s Gospel reading, the Scribes and Pharisees were very quick to condemn Jesus because of the accommodations his disciples practiced with regard to the laws of ritual purity. (Mark 7:5)

The crowd and the deaf man serve the purpose of mirroring to us Jesus’ attitude toward sin. The man had been isolated from society by his disabilities, and he would have remained so if Jesus had not been compassionate enough to heal him. Rather than pushing away the man who was afflicted, Jesus touched and healed him. If we are to be faithful followers of Jesus we have to do more than admire Jesus’ compassion – we have to imitate it.

If we were to use this chapter of Mark’s Gospel as a mirror in which to see ourselves, I wonder what we would see. If we held the Gospel up as a mirror of our lives, would we see the reflection of the Pharisees who were eager to condemn? Would it show us to be as spiritually deaf and mute as the disciples were? Would there be enough evidence of faith in our lives that we would see ourselves reflected in the crowd who sought healing and the man who received it? Would there be enough evidence of compassion in our lives that we would be seen to be the ones reaching out to touch the ostracized, the alienated, and the ones who offend us?

Imitating Jesus’ compassion means not shrinking from the task of being reconciled with our neighbor; it means extending a hand of reconciliation and healing to those whom we might be tempted to push away. The crowd’s reaction to Jesus’ compassion was to exclaim, “He has done all things well.” (Mark 7:37) Imagine, for a moment, what the world would be like if the same could be said of all of Jesus’ followers.

A note on the Scriptures

Pope Francis made news headlines this week with his announcement that, during the Year of Mercy which begins on December 8, 2015, all priests will be granted permission to give Absolution to those who have procured an abortion but wish to repent and participate again in the Church’s sacramental life.

The media outlets have made more of this announcement than it actually means. In most dioceses in the United States priests already have permission to grant absolution to anyone who confesses involvement with an abortion. Additionally, many dioceses, including the Diocese of St. Petersburg, offer programs such as “Hope After Abortion”, that encourage those who have had an abortion to find healing and peace; the Sacrament of Reconciliation is always available at these events, and participants are encouraged to celebrate the Sacrament.

The truly encouraging aspect of the Pope’s announcement isn’t the availability of the Sacrament of Reconciliation for those who have sinned seriously, but the attitude that the Pope encourages on the part of Bishops, Priests and the Faithful. In his letter announcing this aspect of the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis acknowledged both the pain of women who have experienced abortion and the personal difficulties that led them to that decision. In doing so, he has put primary emphasis on the Church’s responsibility to minister to sinners rather than on the more common emphasis on the shamefulness of sin.

The pope’s desire to reconcile sinners is a good example of the lesson contained in this Sunday’s Gospel reading. Physical disabilities such as deafness were considered by Jesus’ culture to be divine punishment for sin. As such disabilities were assumed to be an indication of sin, the one who suffered the disability was considered to be ritually impure and, thereby, excluded from normal social activities, including Temple worship.

Today, people look at miraculous healing like the one in the Gospel reading, and either reject it as physically impossible or assume that it represented a suspension of the physical laws of nature. Neither of those ideas would have occurred to Jesus’ contemporaries. Rather, the primary cultural meaning of this miraculous healing (Mark 7:35), would have been a restoration to normal social relationships.

“Healing” in the Scriptures is a reference to restoration to, or granting of, healthy and normal relationships with family, friends and fellow believers. “Healing” represented a change in social condition rather than a change in medical condition. Jesus’ contemporaries would have considered this man to have been rescued from the consequences of sin. Therefore, for the witnesses, this was a miracle of forgiveness and reconciliation. For Jesus, it was also a teaching sign about the nature of discipleship: only a person able truly to hear Jesus is able also to proclaim Jesus’ message.

The healed man was an example of what the disciples should have been, but weren’t. The disciples should have been able to proclaim Jesus’ divine message of reconciliation, but they weren’t. The fact that they were, at this point, not effective proclaimers of the message was an indication that they had yet to hear and understand the message. This man’s freedom from sin was a sign that pointed to the burden of sin the disciples still carried.

It should be pointed out that the primary meaning of sin in the Scriptures is not a moral infraction but a lack of faith. Pope Francis’ recent announcement puts proper emphasis on the nature of sin and repentance. Sin is primarily a lack of faith, and repentance is a choice to turn back to the life of faith. It is appropriate, then, that the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation emphasize a necessary connection to Baptism.

In Baptism we are rescued from unbelief, and given the capacity to trust in God. The Sacrament of Reconciliation restores Baptismal innocence to those who have sinned seriously after Baptism. The Sacrament of Reconciliation intends to do precisely what its name implies: to reconcile. Specifically, the Sacrament of Reconciliation reconciles baptized sinners to God and the Church. Rather than creating moral road-blocks to reconciliation, this Sacrament exists in order to produce reconciliation in the hearts of those who have fallen from faith.

In its better moments, our culture tends to view sin and repentance as represented by the well known aphorism “to err is human and to forgive Divine.” Jesus took a slightly different perspective on sin: “to shame those who err is human, but to forgive is Divine.” Sacramental reconciliation has the same intention and effect as Jesus’ healing miracles, that is, to restore the penitent to normal relationships with God, family, friends and fellow believers. The truly encouraging aspect of Pope Francis’ concern for those who have had an abortion is that he prefers Divine wisdom to human wisdom.