23rd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle B)

Readings:
Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146:7-10
James 2:1-5
Mark 7:31-37

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

God's divine plan for mankind is revealed in the two Testaments and that is why we reread and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of the Readings: Love in Action
The love of God does not discriminate between rich or poor, the physically whole or the physically impaired, the spiritually strong or the spiritually weak.  This is this same kind of unlimited love in action that Jesus asks His disciples of every generation to demonstrate.  In our
First Reading, the prophet Isaiah speaks about God's acts of love that will be manifested in the era of the promised Messiah.  The works of love and mercy that are demonstrated by the Messiah will be the signs of His divine authority in bringing about the restoration and salvation of the covenant people. 

In the Second Reading, St. James, Bishop of Jerusalem, admonishes Christians to show the impartial love of God to their brothers and sisters within the faith community.  St. James affirms that social justice is necessary for those who put their faith in the Resurrected Jesus Christ, just as social justice and the showing of no partiality within the covenant family was part of the Old Covenant prior to the coming of the Christ.  His message is in demonstrating our love in this way that we will love as Jesus loved us.

In our Gospel Reading, the Jewish crowd is astonished as they witnesses Jesus healing a deaf-mute and exclaim: "He has done all things well.  He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak."
The people made the connection between Jesus' act of mercy for the man He healed and the messianic blessings prophesied by the prophets which foretold that when the Messiah comes the deaf will hear, the lame will walk, and the dead will arise as God pours out His blessings upon His people.  Being grateful for God's love and mercy to a fallen mankind, and the love of Christ demonstrated by those who are the bearers of Jesus' love within the faith community and beyond into the world, makes us want to cry out as we do in today's psalms response: "Praise the Lord, my soul!" and to declare: "for Christ is the stream of living water that flows from God to quench the thirst of my soul with the salvation of Jesus my Savior!"

The First Reading Isaiah 35:4-7a ~ Promises in the Messianic Age
Thus says the LORD: 4 Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not!  Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you. 5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; 6 then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the dumb will sing. Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe.  7a The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsting ground, springs of water.

Isaiah 35 is a hymn celebrating God's promise of the restoration of Jerusalem in the era of the Messiah.  The Church uses Isaiah 35:1-10 in the Advent liturgy of the 3rd Sunday, Cycle A to encourage the faithful in the joyous hope that God will come again to complete His mission in bringing salvation to His people. 

The miracles that will be the signs of the Messiah's salvation in verses 4-6 were all miracles worked by Jesus in His three year ministry.  His works of healing and raising the dead were signs of His divine authority, as He told the disciples of St. John the Baptist (Mt 11:2-6).  His declaration on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles to the faithful assembled in the Temple in John 7:37b-38: "Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as Scripture says: 'rivers of living water will flow from within him'" (an allusion to verses in Is 35:7a; 55:1; Ez 47:1; Zec 14:8 and the promise of Christian baptism) was proof to the people of the Sinai Covenant that the time of redemption foreseen by the prophets had come to pass. 

In His testimony to a Jewish man named Tryphon that the works of the Christ fulfilled the words of the prophets, St. Justin Martyr wrote: "Christ is the stream of living water that flows from God; he sprang up in the desert wastes of ignorance of God: that is, in the parched earth of all the nations.  He, who was born among your people, cured those who were blind from birth, and the deaf and the lame: by his word alone, they leapt and heard and saws once more.  He raised the dead and gave them new life, and by all his good works prompted men to see him for who he is.  [...]  He did all these things to convince those who were to believe in him, whatever bodily defects they might have, that if they obeyed the teachings that he gave them, he would raise them up again at his Second Coming and make them whole and perfect and immortal as he is" (Dialogus cum Tryphone, 69.6).

Responsorial Psalm 146:7-10 ~ The Lord's Acts of Love
The response is: "Praise the Lord, my soul!" Or: "Alleluia."
7 The God of Jacob keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry.  The LORD sets captives free.
Response:
8 The LORD gives sight to the blind; the LORD raises up those that were bowed down.  The LORD loves the just; the LORD protects strangers.
Response:
9 The fatherless and the widow the LORD sustains, but the way of the wicked he thwarts.  10 The LORD shall reign forever; you God, O Zion, through all generations.  Alleluia.

Psalms 146-50 are known as the "Final Hallel" (hallel means "praise God") psalms of the Book of the Psalms.  Each of the five concluding psalms opens and closes with "Hallel-u-yah" (Hallelujah), which in Hebrew, which means "praise-God Yahweh" ("Alleluia" in Latin).  The first of the "Final Hallel" psalms is a hymn of thanksgiving in which the psalmist praises God and lists His acts of justice, ending in verse 10 with a declaration of Yahweh's sovereignty for all time over all generations.  God is the eternal sovereign over the world; He will care and provide for the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the blind, those who labor under the burden of life, the strangers, and the orphans and widows who are among the most vulnerable.  He cares for them with the hands and minds, the wills and compassionate hearts of those who love God and who believe love of God is demonstrated in love of one's fellow man/woman.  All these acts of godly love were fulfilled in the mission and ministry of Jesus the Messiah who commanded His disciples to continue His works of mercy and love.

The Second Reading James 2:1-5 ~ Living the Law of Justice
1 My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.  2 For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in, 3 and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Sit here, please," while you say to the poor one, "Stand there," or "sit at my feet," 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs?  5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.  Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? 

In his letter to Christians outside the Holy Land, St. James, the first Christian Bishop of the Church in Jerusalem, admonishes the Christian communities not to let class distinction enter into their assemblies when worshipping Jesus Christ, "our glorious Lord." This passage can also be translated "do not let partiality enter into your faith..." or "do not let favoritism enter your faith." 

Treating each person in their community with dignity and justice was a familiar teaching for Jewish Christians of the first century AD who had been raised under Mosaic Law.  A system of justice that protected the poor and disadvantaged was built into the Sinai Covenant.  According to the Old Covenant law of Leviticus 19:9-18, the poor must be protected.  Landowners were forbidden to reap the harvest to the edges of their fields.  They were also not allowed to gather the gleanings of the harvest, to strip the vineyards, or to pick up grapes that had already fallen.  These portions of the crop were to be left to the widows and orphans. 

In addition to these laws, every seven years was a Sabbatical year in which the land was allowed to lay fallow and all debts incurred during that seven year period were forgiven.  Every 50th year the sabbatical year mercies were repeated along with the freeing of all Israelite slaves and their children and the return of the land to its original tribal owner.  Every 50th year was a year of liberation and mercy where the domination of the wealthy and powerful was checked and society was restructured so that the poor were not at the mercy of the rich.  This year of favor and liberation was called the "Jubilee" year.  In the days of the kings of Israel, only the king as God's anointed could proclaim a Jubilee year (see Ex 23:10-11; Lev 25:1-55; Dt 15:1-11). 

The prophet Isaiah prophesized a divine jubilee with the coming of the Messiah in Isaiah 61:1-2a, The spirit of Lord Yahweh is on me for Yahweh has anointed me.  He has sent me to bring the news to the afflicted, to soothe the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, to release to those in prison, to proclaim a year of favor from Yahweh....(NJB)In Jesus' homily given at His hometown synagogue in Nazareth, He quoted this passage and proclaimed He had come to fulfill it—inaugurating a divine jubilee of liberation!

In this passage, St. James is affirming that social justice is necessary for those who put their faith in their Savior and King, the Resurrected Jesus Christ, just as social justice and the showing of no partiality within the covenant family was part of the Old Covenant.  James' teaching recalls the wisdom of Ecclesiasticus 35:12-13 ~ ... for the Lord is a judge who is utterly impartial.  He never shows partiality to the detriment of the poor, he listens to the plea of the injured party.  He does not ignore the orphan's supplication, nor the widow's, as she pours out her complaint (NJB).  James was probably thinking of this passage when he identified the mercy shown to widows and orphans as a sign of one's true practice of religion (also see Ex 23:10-13; Dt 24:17-22; 26:12-13; and Ruth 2:2).

In James 2:2, St. James uses the Greek word sunagoge, "synagogue," to identify the assembly of worship of his brothers and sisters in faith.  Is he discussing a Jewish-Christian place of assembly and worship or is he talking about a Jewish non-Christian assembly?  Some scholars suggest the words "your synagogue" (translated in our passage as "your assembly") seems to indicate an assembly controlled by Messianic Jews, while others suggest that James is speaking to a mixed assembly of Jews and Jewish Christians.  In the early Church, even Jewish-Christians used the term for their Christian gatherings, but later the Jews adopted the Greek word sunagoge to identify their assemblies and Christians adopted the Greek word ekklesia.   At the time James' letter was written, there does not seem to be this distinction, which may point to the early dating of this epistle. 

In the earliest years of the Church, there is evidence to suggest that the Jerusalem Jewish-Christians were attending the Sabbath worship at the Temple in Jerusalem or were attending services in the local synagogues in their home towns.  They were also studying what we call the Old Testament in the light of the teaching of Jesus' Gospel of salvation and were receiving the Eucharist in their assemblies on Sundays, what they called "the Lord's Day"  (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2; Rev 1:10). James may be addressing both Jews and Jewish Christians since in James 2:7 James mentions these same wealthy men who insult the name of Jesus which certainly wouldn't be the case in a strictly early Christian assembly where most of the people were poor.

In verse 4, St. James says that such an attitude of preferring one man over another man based upon his wealth sets a corrupt standard.  There is no spiritual value in material wealth—the value is in what material good the wealth can provide.  The rich man is not being valued for who or what he is morally and spiritually but simply for what he has obtained materially, while the poor man is being judged of less worth as a person simply because of his poverty.  The corruption is in the man or woman who judges the worth of a person this way because that person's motives are corrupt.  He/she is either coveting the wealth of the rich and how that person can be used to advantage, or he/she is dismissing the value of the poor man based only on outward appearances and not taking into consideration of richness of his soul.

Jewish Christians would be familiar with James' teaching.  Compare James' statement of non-partiality in James 2:1-4 with the Old Covenant Law teaching found in Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17 and Job 34:3, 19 and the wisdom teaching of Proverbs:

The Old Covenant's concept of social justice is illuminated and perfected in the law of the Gospel of salvation.  Human righteousness and justice, like God's justice from which our justice is derived, must exceed the perceived value of civic or social conduct.  Perfect justice calls for complete conformity to the will of God and total non-partiality as far as the individual is concerned.

5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.  Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? 
James says that God choose the materially poor to be rich in faith.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blesses the "poor in spirit," who are not self-sufficient but recognize that they need God.  James' statement also recalls Jesus' homily in which He blesses the poor in Luke chapter 6:20-23, known as The Sermon on the Plain.  Material wealth, which provides a sense of self-sufficiency, distracts the wealthy from the blessings of spiritual wealth, while the poor fully embrace the richness of faith because they have nothing else to cling to.  The poor fully understand their limitations—they need God in their lives.  The simple truth is that spiritual poverty is far more deadly that material poverty.  The Old Testament prophet Zephaniah warns the poor, Seek Yahweh all you humble of the earth who obey his commands.  Seek uprightness, seek humility: you may perhaps find shelter on the Day of Yahweh's anger (NJB).

The poor and afflicted are called the anawim in Hebrew.  There is a sacrifice set aside for them among the 5 animals acceptable for the Old Covenant blood sacrifice; turtle doves and pigeons are called the sacrifice of the anawim (Lev 5:7; 12:8).  We know that Joseph and Mary were of humble station because this is the sacrifice they brought to the Temple when Jesus was dedicated to Yahweh 40 days after His birth in Luke 2:22-24.

The question of justice on behalf of the poor is continually a concern in sacred Scripture.   The wisdom literature of the Old Testament does, however, distinguish between poverty as a result of idleness (i.e. Prov 10:4), and poverty that exists in an unjust and unmerciful society, but prophets express the knowledge of Yahweh that the poor are those who are the oppressed of society. Yahweh's prophets demand justice for the weak and poverty stricken in Isaiah 10:2; Amos 2:6ff; Job 34:28ff; and Ecclesiasticus 4:1ff.  St. James, as one of Yahweh's New Testament prophets, demands the same justice for the poor and defines such justice as the true practice of religion as defined by Jesus in His summing up of the Law in Matthew 22:40 as love in action through love of God and love of neighbor. 

The Gospel of Mark 7:31-37 ~ Jesus Heals a Deaf Man
31 Again he left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis.  32 And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hands on him.  33 He took him off by himself away from the crowd.  He put his finger into the man's ears and spitting, touched his tongue; 34 then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, "Ephphatha!" (that is "Be opened!").  35 And immediately the man's ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly.  36 He ordered them not to tell anyone.  But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it.  37 They were exceedingly astonished and they said, "He has done all things well.  He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak."

This story is told only in St. Mark's Gospel.  Jesus traveled into Gentile territory a third time.  He journeyed to the east, returning to the region of the ten Greek culture cities called the Decapolis (see Mk 5:1-20).  A man who was deaf and incapable of intelligible speech was brought to Jesus for healing.  In this healing, many details in the healing of the deaf man are included.  There are 7 stages that are associated with the man's healing:

  1. Jesus took the man aside by himself and away from the crowd.
  2. He put his finger into the man's ears.
  3. He used His own spit to touch the man's tongue.
  4. He looked to heaven.
  5. He groaned.
  6. He commanded "Be opened!"
  7. He ordered the man and his friends not to tell anyone.

 Notice that Jesus takes the man aside for a private healing.  Perhaps this is because of the man's deafness.  When he suddenly hears for the first time the loud noise of the crowd might have been unsettling, and Jesus is making the first experience of hearing enjoyable.  The other unusual occurrence is that Jesus groans as He prays for the man.  The Gospel of John records that Jesus groaned twice before raising Lazarus from the dead using the word embarimaomai, meaning "to sign or groan"  (Jn 11:33, 38).  But Mark uses the Greek word stenazo, which also means "to sign or groan."  It is the same word St. Paul uses when he writes that we long to be free of our earthly bodies and to be in glory in our resurrected bodies (Rom 8:22-23; 1 Cor 5:2-4), and perhaps this is the reason Jesus groaned:

Also notice that for the first time in Mark's Gospel that Jesus uses matter (spit) in the healing of the man (also see Jn 9:6-7).  This action prefigures the gift of the Sacraments in which matter will play a role in each Sacrament:

  1. Eucharist: the bread and wine
  2. Baptism: water and anointing with sacred chrism (oil that represents the gift of the Holy Spirit)
  3. Confirmation: anointing with sacred chrism that represents consecration by the Holy Spirit
  4. Matrimony: the woman and man
  5. Anointing the sick: oil of anointing and laying on of hands
  6. Reconciliation: laying on of hands
  7. Holy Orders: oil of consecration and laying on of hands

Mark uses the Aramaic word "Ephphatha!" and explains its meaning: "Be opened!" for those in the Christian congregations reading or hearing his Gospel who are non-Aramaic speaking Gentile-Christians.  Jesus tells this man and his friends not to tell about this healing experience.  Jesus needs more time for His ministry to continue to call the "lost sheep of the House of Israel" before the animosity of the religious authorities climaxes in His Passion.  But again, in the enthusiasm for the healing, the word of His miracle spreads.

37 They were exceedingly astonished and they said, "He has done all things well.  He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak."
The people made the connection between Jesus' act of mercy for the man He healed and the messianic blessings prophesied by the prophets that foretold when the Messiah comes the deaf will hear, the lame will walk, and the dead will arise as God pours out His blessings upon His people like life-giving streams in a desert (Is 26:19; 29:18-19 and 35:4-6 from our First Reading).  The Lord God promised the people: "Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not!  Here is your God; he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.  Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the dumb will sing.  Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe.  7a The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsting ground, springs of water" (Is 35:4-7a).  In His three-year ministry, Jesus fulfilled all the works of love and mercy prophesied by the prophets as signs of the divine authority of the promised Messiah. 

Catechism References:
Isaiah 35:4-7a (CCC 549)
Mark 7:32-36 (CCC 1504); 7:33-35 (CCC 1151)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2015