Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

By Father Donald Dilger

Sunday Scripture

First Reading: Isaiah 35:4-7a; Response: Psalm 146:7, 8-9, 9-10; Second Reading: James 2:1-5; Gospel: Mark 7:1-37

Isaiah was God’s prophet in Jerusalem in the Kingdom of Judah. Approximate dates of his ministry: 742-701 B.C., though he may have lived on into the reign of King Manasseh, 687-642 B.C. In a 2nd century document, ‘The Ascension of Isaiah’ there is a legend of Isaiah’s martyrdom. It seems to be commentary on 2 Kings 21:16 — a summary of the evil deeds of Manasseh. The legend. In his old age King Hezekiah, father of Manasseh, summoned Manasseh and Isaiah into his presence, so that Manasseh could receive his dying father’s commands about his future duties as King of Judah. Isaiah assures Hezekiah that his deathbed wishes would be ignored because Manasseh would fall into idolatry, and that Isaiah himself would be sawed in half by order of Manasseh. Just as Isaiah had warned, Manasseh fell into evil ways after his father’s death. Isaiah fled to Bethlehem and went into hiding. A false prophet discovered his hiding place. He reported to Manasseh that Isaiah had foretold the destruction of Jerusalem, had claimed to see God, and had insulted the city and people of Jerusalem by comparing them to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. All this can be found in some form in Isaiah’s oracles. King Manasseh heard enough. He ordered Isaiah to be sawed in half, just as predicted. 

The first reading is from a set of Isaiah’s oracles called ‘The Flowering of the Southern Desert.’ This was the wilderness South and East of the Dead Sea. It was also the land of the Edomites, tribal enemies of the Israelites. Some of the prophets had spoken doom against Edom. Most of Isaiah 34 is such an oracle of doom. Chapter 35, part of which is our first reading, follows the oracle of doom but turns the bad news into good news. While chapter 34 spoke of terrible destruction God would bring upon Edom, chapter 35 speaks of a new Spring, the flowering of the desert. In poetic form (rapping) the prophet promises God’s positive intervention after a negative cleansing through divine wrath. “Streams will burst forth in the desert, rivers in the steppe. Burning sands will become pools of water.” It would be not only the renewal of nature, but also of the people. “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened. The deaf will hear. The lame will leap. The mute will sing.” (A blueprint for parish renewal?) These metaphors for renewal determined the selection of this reading because in today’s gospel Jesus works a double miracle — giving hearing to a deaf man and curing his speech impediment. 

Psalm 147 was selected to respond to the promised renewal of the first reading because of one sentence in the second set of verses,” The Lord gives sight to the blind,” thus connecting with both the first reading and Jesus’ miracle-working in today’s gospel. The other selected verses do not have an obvious relation to the readings but express the Lord’s goodness — feeding the hungry, freeing captives, strengthening the oppressed, loving the just, protecting strangers, supporting widows. The good deeds elicit praise from the people, “Praise the Lord, my soul!) 

The second reading continues the series of homiletic advice from a pastor to his people. Todays’ theme: “Show no partiality.” What was the problem in this Christian congregation and probably in most Christian communities? The rich, “people with gold rings and fine clothes,” were invited to the best seats in the congregation. The poor, “with shabby clothes,” are relegated to standing or sitting on the floor. Who makes these decisions? Leaders of the congregation. James calls them “judges with evil designs.” Matthew 18:10 implies the same problem in another congregation. James warns that God chooses the poor, who have the real wealth — rich in faith.

In last Sunday’s gospel Mark depicted Jesus abolishing the ancient taboo of ritually clean and unclean foods. Today’s catechesis abolishes the distinction between ritually clean and ritually unclean land and people. Mark does this by narrating a story which begins with theological geography in the form of a journey of Jesus. He goes into unclean land — Gentile territory. He comes into the area of the city-state of Tyre on the shore of Palestine facing the Mediterranean  Sea. Jesus destination in this story is the Decapolis, a confederation of Greek-settled cities east and southeast of the Sea of Galilee. But before he goes south to the Decapolis he heads north twenty-two miles to another Gentile city-state Sidon. From there he walks thirty to forty miles southeast to the Decapolis. Mark depicts contact between Jesus and three unclean lands. Therefore, these lands are now clean, just as Jesus made all foods clean in last Sunday’s gospel. The next catechesis will abolish the taboo relating to unclean people — Gentiles.

In the Decapolis they bring to Jesus a deaf man barely able to speak. The cure of this man reflects our first reading, “The ears of the deaf will be cleared. The tongue of the mute will sing.” To fit into Mark’s catechesis the man must be thought of as a Gentile. Jesus is about to reach across socially set boundaries and touch a Gentile. This is one of other ways in which Mark proclaims equality between Christian Jew and Christian Gentile — a problem of racial prejudice in New Testament times. Jesus’ ‘medical practice’ seems strange. He poked his fingers into the man’s ears and put his saliva on the man’s tongue. He looked up at the sky, and said, “Ephphathah!” Mark translates this Aramaic into Greek for his Greek-speaking readers. English: “Be opened!” The cure was instant. There is evidence of the use of saliva in ancient healing practices. Jesus also used his own saliva in giving sight to the blind. See Mark 8:23 and John 9:6. Looking up to the sky was a symbol of his dependence on his Father. There is evidence of groaning in ancient magical practices, but here it may be understood as an expression of compassion for suffering humanity. See Jesus’ reaction to the death of Lazarus in John 11:33, 38. Mark notes the astonishment of the bystanders, and their praises of Jesus, “He has done all things well.” The closing verse reflects our first reading, “He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”