ordinary time The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

Enabling the Disabled

Isaiah 35:4-7
James 2:15
Mark 7:31-37

Society’s attitudes regarding its physically and/or mentally impaired members have evolved considerably through the centuries. Each generation, motivated by an ever-growing sensitivity and respect for another’s differences, has coined new words for referencing these special people among us. Mental retardation, for example, has been replaced by the term, mentally-challenged. Those with physical limitations, such as deafness or blindness are now described as hearing or visually challenged. Children with learning disabilities are no longer called dumb, slow or stupid; they are appreciated as having special needs. At times, and in the interest of what has come to be known as “political correctness”, some of this newly devised vocabulary appears to be extreme, as for instance, when diminutive people are referred to as vertically challenged and those with receding hairlines are described as follicly challenged!

For the most part however, (although discrimination still exists and must be dealt with whenever it arises), contemporary society is learning to value people for who they are and what they can do rather than devalue them for what they are not and what they cannot do. In large measure, this lesson has been taught to us by those who have struggled against the worst obstacles. Helen Keller (1880-1968), who overcame blindness, deafness, and muteness once wrote: “They took away what should have been my eyes, but I remembered Milton’s Paradise. They took away what should have been my ears; Beethoven came and wiped away my tears. They took away what should have been my tongue; but I had talked with God when I was young. He would not let them take away my soul; possessing that I still possess the whole!”

A mother of a brain-injured child offers a similar lesson: “We would have called our daughter’s handicap the greatest tragedy of our lives, if it were not for the fact that through it we came to know God much better. Words cannot express our initial disappointment when our daughter failed to develop normally. However, she enriched our lives and we found strength in God. As we struggled, our faith deepened and we knew a peace that we had never before experienced.” The insightful testimony of those two women invites us to consider our own attitudes toward the handicapped, impaired, or otherwise challenged members of the human family. The readings for today’s liturgy do likewise.

In the ancient world, physical and/or mental maladies were generally misunderstood. Some attributed certain conditions to demons; others believed that human sin was responsible and therefore the illness was regarded as God’s just punishment of the sinner. In either case, those so stricken were doubly burdened. Not only did they have to contend with their handicap, but they also had to struggle against a society that ostracized them as being unwhole or sinful and therefore unclean. Those who could have been helpful and supportive to the needy disassociated themselves so as not to be rendered similarly unclean.

Through the authors of the sacred scriptures, God invited believers to probe more deeply into the mystery of human need, limitations and imperfections. Those who suffered from poverty (second reading) were identified as the predilect of God (Psalm 12:5, Ezekiel 16:49); those who struggled with illness became the special locus of God’s saving power. Their being restored to health became a sign and symbol of the messianic era (first reading). It is through the perspective of these insights that the ministry of Jesus and the subsequent ministry of the church are to be understood.

Jesus has set the example. As one who sought out the poor and disenfranchised, Jesus incarnated the divine predilection for the needy (Luke 6:20,7:22). As one who gave sight to the blind, made the lame walk, healed the deaf (gospel), and gave voice to the mute, Jesus proclaimed that the era of messianic salvation had indeed arrived. By continuing Jesus’ ministry of enabling, the church keeps the human community in touch with the reality of God’s saving power.

In addition to assessing its attitude toward those less fortunate, perhaps today’s liturgy also prompts the congregation to evaluate its physical environment. Is the place where we gather to celebrate God’s gift of salvation readily accessible to the poor, blind, deaf, lame and otherwise challenged members of the community. If not, why not? What can be done?

Isaiah 35:4-7

During a recent interview, American basketball star, Michael Jordan was asked to explain the reasons for his undaunting optimism and perseverance. He replied candidly, “Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it or work around it. I visualize where I want to be, what kind of player I want to become. I know exactly where I want to go and I focus on getting there.” The prophet and author of today’s first reading wished to impart to his contemporaries a similar Jordan-like optimism and willingness to persevere. They had run into a wall, as it were, and Isaiah was offering advice on how to scale it.

Because of their distinctly different tone and inferred background situation, it would appear that Isaiah 34 and 35 are literarily and chronologically out of context. Therefore, many scholars suggest that their author was not the eighth century, Isaiah of Jerusalem (ch 1-39) but the sixth century prophet known as Deutero-Isaiah (ch 40-55). So also, the locus of these chapters was not Judah but Babylon.

Companion to his people during their exile, Deutero-Isaiah offered the encouragement that the “wall” that separated the exiles from their homeland would soon crumble and God would come to vindicate those who had been so long oppressed (v.4). In order to illustrate the profundity of God’s power to reverse the fortunes of humankind, the prophet assured his contemporaries that their experience would be reflected in the world around them. Rivers would pour forth in the desert and what had formerly been barren and waste would become an Eden-like oasis (vv.6-7).

By way of added encouragement, the prophet portrayed his people’s redemption by God in terms of health, healing and well-being for the disabled. Those who suffered from blindness and deafness would become whole; the lame would be miraculously rehabilitated. Even the tongue of the mute (mogilalos, v.6) would be freed to offer a song of praise to the saving power of God. Later generations of believers would remember this vision and others similar to it (Isaiah 62:1-2) and identify such healing as signs of the era of the messiah.

In today’s gospel, Mark made certain that his readers would recognize that Jesus’ healing of the deaf man was such a sign. The term mogilalos, (person with a speech impediment) appears only twice in scripture, once in Isaiah 35:6 (first reading) and once in Mark 7:32 (gospel). Mark would have us understand that with Jesus, the vision of Isaiah was finally realized. Because of Jesus, the “wall” (of sin) that had separated people from God was forever removed.

James 2:1-5

Recently, history was made in a small town (Mendenhall, MS) in the rural American south. For the first time, black students and white students attending the local high school participated in integrated graduation ceremonies. Until now, there had been separate ceremonies for blacks and for whites; this year, however, the students themselves decided that such segregation should end. As surprising as this may seem, given the fact that civil rights are guaranteed in this country, it must be admitted that discrimination and partiality continue to plague the human community. In subtle and in not so subtle ways, the differences among us, that should delight us, continue to divide us. Aware of the threat which divisiveness poses to the Christian community, the author of today’s second reading exhorted his readers accordingly.

However, there remains a certain irony in the fact that James stands accused today of the very attitude against which he counseled the early believers. Partiality or discrimination, for any reason whatsoever, should not exist within the church, James advised. But it probably did not occur to this first century author that his greeting, “my brothers” (v.1), and his several references to men (vv. 2,3,4), would cause him to be cited, some twenty centuries later, for discrimination against women.

Anyone, familiar with the scriptures, will admit that many of its authors reflect the cultures in which they lived, cultures characterized by male dominance and in which women had little or no voice and limited status. However, it should also be recognized that the work of other authors (eg. Luke, Paul) revealed an awareness of the personal worth and unique value of every person, regardless of gender, race, wealth, or lack thereof, etc. Each person’s worth and value were attributed to the fact that all had been blessed and redeemed by Christ. All were therefore members of the one covenant in his blood and sharers in the one bread of his body.

However, as indicated in today’s second reading, this ideal is not always readily realized in the day-to-day challenge which is Christian living. Evidently, some people among James’ readers were being favored over others on the basis of their financial ability to dress well and comport themselves in style. Others whose economic means offered them none of life’s amenities were given short shrift by the gathered assembly.

As William Barclay (“James” The Daily Study Bible, St. Andrew Press, Edinburgh: 1976) has noted, the Greek term for undue partiality or respect of persons, viz., prosopolempsia had a curions history. Originally it meant to accept a person or to regard them favorably. Gradually it took on a pejorative tone and began to refer to favoritism and to describe those who were unduly influenced by a person’s prestige or wealth. Both testaments unite in condemning prosopolempsia as a fault (see Leviticus 19:15, Proverbs 22:2, Sirach 10:23, James 2:1, Acts 10:25,47).

The fact that James’ readers were not the only believers inclined to kowtow to the wealthy and to overlook the poor is attested elsewhere in the early Christian writings. An Ethiopian document, entitled Statutes of the Apostles, reads as follows: “If any man or woman enters in fine clothes... thou, presbyter, shalt not respect persons nor leave thy ministering to command places for them, but remain quiet, for the brethren shall receive them and if they have no place for them, the lover of brothers and sisters will rise and leave a place for them... and if a poor man or woman should come in and find no place, thou presbyter, make place for such with all thy heart, even if thou wilt sit on the ground, that there should not be the respecting of the person but of God.”

At times, the church was the only place in the ancient world where social distinctions did not exist. Master sat next to slave, poor beside rich. All were called to remember and emulate the example of Jesus, who manifested God’s magnanimous love for all and for whom the poor remained predilect. Readers of James are challenged today, to put their own attitudes and behavior to the test.

Mark 7:31-37

Reflecting on today’s gospel, Mark Link (Mission 2000, Tabor Publishing, Allen TX: 1992) once observed that many awake each day, not to the sound of an alarm on the table but to the whir of a vibrator under a pillow. Like the deaf-mute in the gospel, these people live in a silent world. For them, the radio is useless. Watching T.V. is often a bland experience. Conversation is difficult. But the plight of a physical deaf-mute is nothing compared to that of the spiritual deaf-mute, someone who can’t or won’t hear God and respond to God in prayer. All of us fall into this category, at some time in our lives. Spiritually we live in a silent world, cut off from the voice which calls us to life and speaks the words of mercy and forgiveness. Jesus’ healing of the deaf-mute reminds us of the necessity of being daily attuned to that voice.

Jesus’ actions also served as a signal that the long awaited era of salvation was being established in his person and through his ministry. Healings, such as this one, were associated with the advent of the messiah (see first reading and Isaiah 42:6-7; 61:1-2) whose reign would bring about physical health and well-being as well as spiritual renewal.

As was his custom, Mark, in describing Jesus’ actions offered his readers a literary signal that something significant was about to occur. The act of taking the deaf-mute (mogilalos v.32) off by himself, away from the crowd (v.33, kat’idian) was an indication that there was to be a special epiphany or manifestation of divine power. In this instance, Jesus’ healing of the deaf-mute was tantamount to revelation; through this action, Jesus was identified as messiah and the age of salvation was proclaimed.

Readers of Mark, familiar with the Hebrew scriptures, would have recognized another signal in Jesus’ command Ephphatha! Be opened! Six centuries earlier, Ezekiel had prophesied, “that day your mouth shall be opened and you shall be dumb no longer. Thus you shall be a sign to them and they shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 24:27). Healed from his disabilities, the deaf-mute became yet another witness to Jesus; his wholeness was a living proclamation of the good news.

In describing the location of this revelatory event, Mark has detailed an itinerary that is at best confusing (v.31). Wilfrid Harrington (Mark, Michael Glazier, Inc., Wilmington: 1984) suggests, that in Irish terms, it would be like traveling from Killarney to Cork via Galway and Waterford or, in American terms, like going from Providence, RI, to Fall, River, MA, via Boston and New Bedford! John P. Meier (A Marginal Jew, Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. II, Doubleday, New York: 1994) understands that the itinerary is more important for its theological significance than for its geographical accuracy. Having declared all foods clean (and therefore having bulldozed the “wall” that separated Jews from Gentiles in 7:19), the Marcan Jesus then passed through various gentile regions, bringing food (8:1-10) and healing (7:24-30; 31-37; 8:22-26) to pagans. Abundant food and miraculous healing were symbols of the salvation which the gospel proclaimed and which Jesus, and the church after him, were to extend to all the peoples of the earth!

Meier also suggests that readers of Mark should identify a correlation between the healing of the deaf-mute and the blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26) and the continuing struggle of Jesus to bring spiritual insight and attentiveness to his often obtuse disciples. With each physical healing, Jesus challenged his followers to further surrender their doubts and cast aside their confusion in order to move toward a deeper insight and understanding of his words and works. Peter’s confession (you are the Messiah!) at Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27-35) attests to the fact that Jesus’ efforts did not go unanswered. Slowly, but surely, the disciples did begin to see and to hear with clarity and faith. Like the deaf-mute they would begin to speak and to proclaim the good news of salvation.

For contemporary disciples, the experience of the deaf-mute serves both as a reminder and a challenge. We are reminded that Jesus has the power to heal the spiritual deafness caused by habitual sin. Hearts that have become hardened by a refusal to hear and listen and live according to his words are once again challenged: Ephphatha! Be opened!

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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