23rd SUNDAY (B) SEPTEMBER 5, 2021

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

Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

Could there be a more hope-filled and encouraging reading in the Hebrew Scriptures than today’s selection from Isaiah? In the eighth century BCE the people of Israel were in fear and trembling: the northern kingdom had been conquered by the Assyrians and the people taken into exile. Those in Judah, the southern kingdom, were enslaved. Then, the Babylonians conquered the Assyrians and things went from bad to worse.

It is to these decimated people that the prophet Isaiah speaks, encouraging them to stand firm and continue to believe and trust God. "Then will the eyes of the blind be opened… The ears of the deaf be cleared." The blind will look and see signs of God coming to help them. God will lead the exiles from Babylon in a second exodus. As the debilitated exiles travel, the desert will be transformed to ease their journey home. In the previous verse people are promised that the desert will bloom with trees and flowers (v. 1-2). God will lead the exiles from Babylon on a second exodus.

Now, the second movement in the reading – the present. In many ways we have been made exiles, desert travelers, by the long months of the pandemic. We are not the same people we used to be, nor is the world around us the same. Isaiah encourages us not to be fainthearted, or doubt what God can do to make our deserts bloom. "Here is your God… Who comes to save you." As promised, we are given new sight and hearing. In our new, pandemic redesigned-reality, what hints of God do we see and hear around us? While it has been a testing time, have we experienced any healings during this time of exile?...Become more patient and understanding with those around us? Have we been blind and now see the needs of others we missed? One of the gifts the prophet promised the restored people, as they return from exile, was the blooming and beauty of nature. "Streams will burst forth in the desert and rivers in the steppe." Maybe during the pandemic our ears have been opened to the prophetic voices who speak out to protect and restore the natural world. How can we respond to that gift of hearing we have received? (Cf "Justice Bulletin Board" below)

We might spend time and sit with this living Word of God from the prophet. Let it do for us what it promises: give us strength for present hardships; sight for what we have refused to see; open us to the voices and pleas of others; loosen our tongues to speak on behalf of the voiceless; mobilize us to visit those we have been ignoring. Sit and listen to the promise Isaiah places before us, "Streams will burst forth in the desert…." The desert is a harsh and dangerous place, unless we have a guide and provisions there. Our God will not desert us, but promises restoration and the refreshments we need each day of our journey.

Did you notice something unique in today’s gospel? A deaf man is healed. What’s so different about that, Jesus heals many people in the Gospels? It is not that he healed the man, but how the healing happened. The man is healed because people cared for him and brought him to Jesus. They "begged him to lay his hand on him." Of course the man’s speech impediment prevented him from asking for the cure himself. But still, it is the faith of the people that moved Jesus to heal him.

Some physical ailments were looked upon as a punishment for sin, and limited the person’s access to the Temple and synagogues. Thus, the man’s healing allowed him to be a full member of the community in its religious and social life.

When we pray at Mass, or with others, for the needs of community members and people beyond, we are doing what the people in the gospel did – bringing people to Jesus and speaking on their behalf. We trust Jesus to hear us and help in some way. Certainly Jesus does not need to be informed about people’s and the world’s needs. But when we intercede for others, among other things, we speak our priorities and in doing that we remind and reinforce those priorities in ourselves. Our prayers express who and what have claim on us and remind us we are not merely onlookers, but stand with those in need.

The gospel is not just about one man’s ears being opened, is it? It is our story too, because Ephphatha was a prayer said in our baptism. After the baptism takes place this "opening prayer" is said. The presiding priest, or deacon, touches the ears and then the mouth of the one baptized and prays:

"The Lord has made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May He soon touch your ears to receive the word and your mouth to proclaim His faith to the praises and glory of God the Father. Amen"

We can pray at today’s liturgy for the full effects of the Ephphatha prayer: that we have open ears to God’s voice and speak that Word plainly when we are asked about our faith; when someone needs to hear a good word from us; and when we need to speak up on another person, or people’s, behalf.

We want to be people who hear the Word of God. We disciples also need to help others hear that word and help people speak to one another in ways that bring about reconciliation between conflicting parties and among those who have refused to listen to one another.

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: