Thursday, October 25, 2012

The New Exodus: 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Notice Bartimaeus and Baptism in this icon
The readings for this Sunday revolve around the theme of return from exile for God's people.  In the Old Testament, we read about God's people Israel being exiled from their land because of their violations of their covenant with God.  The great Isrealite prophets, however, predicted that God would bring his people back from the places they were exiled, just as he brought them out of Egypt by the hand of Moses long ago.  This is often called the "New Exodus" theme in the prophets.

1. Our First Reading is one such prophetic oracle, Jeremiah 31:7-9:
Thus says the LORD:
Shout with joy for Jacob,
exult at the head of the nations;
proclaim your praise and say:
The LORD has delivered his people,
the remnant of Israel.

Behold, I will bring them back
from the land of the north;
I will gather them from the ends of the world,
with the blind and the lame in their midst,
the mothers and those with child;
they shall return as an immense throng.
They departed in tears,
but I will console them and guide them;
I will lead them to brooks of water,
on a level road, so that none shall stumble.
For I am a father to Israel,
Ephraim is my first-born.
Jeremiah is speaking on behalf of God, addressing the northern Ten Tribes, who broke away from the Kingdom of David after the reign of Solomon, and ultimately were defeated, captured, and exiled by the nation of Assyria in 722 BC.  They were called "Ephraim" after their lead tribe, which provided almost all their kings and other leadership.

In this oracle, God promises to lead these tribes back from exile, to have compassion on them and restore them to himself some day.  However, this seems not to have happened historically.  Many people speak of the "Ten Lost Tribes," the Israelites who never returned, and theories abound as to what happened to them.  The Mormons identify the Polynesians as part of the Ten Lost Tribes, and that is one reason why there is so much Latter Day Saint mission work in Oceania.  Another influential idea has been "British Israelitism," which posits that the Anglo-Saxon race is descended from the Ten Tribes.

I would argue, however, that the Ten Tribes are not quite as lost as people think, and in different ways God did and does fulfill his promise to them, to bring them back to him.

First of all, many of the northern Ten Tribes, especially those who were worshipers of the LORD, fled to southern Judah when Assyria attacked around 722 BC, and found refuge there.  There is indication of this both in Scripture and in archeology.  These Ephraimites became assimilated with the Judeans, and shared with them the exile to Babylon (597-87 BC) and the return from Babylon beginning in 537 BC, described below in our Psalm.

Secondly, many of the northern Ten Tribes, especially the poorest laborers, were left behind by the Assyrians.  They intermarried with the Gentiles that Assyria brought in to repopulate the land (2 Kgs 17), and became the race of Samaritans, whom we see in the New Testament (esp. John 4).  God comes to call them back to himself in the person of Jesus (this is especially the message of John 4) and through the mission of the early Church (see Acts 1:8; 8:14; 9:31).

Thirdly, many of the northern Israelites became assimilated among Gentile peoples and forgot their heritage and their relationship with God.  But God did not forget them.  He sends out his Church to announce the Good News of reconciliation with God to all the nations, all peoples, tribes, and tongues.  Among the Gentiles are found those descended from Israel who have forgotten their heritage.  But when they hear and respond to the message of the Gospel, they experience the return to God that was prophesied so long ago.  This is the vision of the prophet Isaiah 66:18-21, where he predicts an ingathering of the nations to God, and among the nations (the Gentiles) will also come scattered Israelites in a New Exodus.  This vision is fulfilled in the mission of the Church.

 2.  The Responsorial Psalm concerns the return from exile: Ps 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6
 R. (3) The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.
When the LORD brought back the captives of Zion,
we were like men dreaming.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with rejoicing.
R. The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.
Then they said among the nations,
"The LORD has done great things for them."
The LORD has done great things for us;
we are glad indeed.
R. The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like the torrents in the southern desert.
Those that sow in tears
shall reap rejoicing.
R. The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.
Although they go forth weeping,
carrying the seed to be sown,
They shall come back rejoicing,
carrying their sheaves.
R. The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.
This Psalm was probably written during or shortly after the reign of Cyrus of Persia, who defeated the Babylonian empire c. 537 BC and then declared to the exiled Jewish population that they were free to return to their homeland and rebuild their Temple (2 Chr 36:22-23).  Many of the returnees, like the author of this psalm, were so overjoyed they could scarcely believe what they were experiencing.  In some ways we might liken it to the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the surreal effect (for those of us who grew up during the Cold War) of watching people dismantling the Berlin Wall with sledge hammers and pick axes on TV.  You live through something too good to be true, something you never thought you'd experience in your lifetime.

On a spiritual level, this Psalm speaks to us of reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ.  Sin is true exile from God. When our sins are forgiven, we return to a right relationship with God, something that ought to fill us with laughter and rejoicing, something "too good to be true."

3. Our Second Reading is Hebrews 5:1-6:
Brothers and sisters:
Every high priest is taken from among men
and made their representative before God,
to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.
He is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring,
for he himself is beset by weakness
and so, for this reason, must make sin offerings for himself
as well as for the people.
No one takes this honor upon himself
but only when called by God,
just as Aaron was.
In the same way,
it was not Christ who glorified himself in becoming high priest,
but rather the one who said to him:
You are my son:
this day I have begotten you;
just as he says in another place:
You are a priest forever
according to the order of Melchizedek.
The Second Reading at this time of year is working its way semi-continuously through Hebrews.  Although the passage is not chosen to match the First Reading, Psalm, and Gospel, there are always themes that connect.  Here, the author of Hebrews emphasizes Jesus' priestly ministry of taking away sin.  As mentioned above, sin is exile from God, and forgiveness and reconciliation are return from spiritual exile.  Jesus is likened here to Melchizedek, the ancient king of Jerusalem (see Genesis 14).  Melchizedek is linked to the idea of return from exile, because in the one historical narrative about him (Gen 14:18-20) he blesses Abram after Abram has just liberated and restored his exiled kinsman Lot, and all Lot's household.  

4.  The Gospel Reading is Mark 10:46-52:
As Jesus was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd,
Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus,
sat by the roadside begging.
On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth,
he began to cry out and say,
"Jesus, son of David, have pity on me."
And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent.
But he kept calling out all the more,
"Son of David, have pity on me."
Jesus stopped and said, "Call him."
So they called the blind man, saying to him,
"Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you."
He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.
Jesus said to him in reply, "What do you want me to do for you?"
The blind man replied to him, "Master, I want to see."
Jesus told him, "Go your way; your faith has saved you."
Immediately he received his sight
and followed him on the way.
By calling Jesus "Son of David," Bartimaeus ("bar"= "son of"; "Bartimaeus"="son of Timeaus") recognizes Jesus' claim to the throne of Jerusalem and kingship over all Twelve Tribes of Israel (see 2 Sam 7:8-16), a right that was given to David and his descendants by a divine covenant (Ps 89:3-4).

The blindness of Bartimaeus was not merely a physical impediment, but it also hampered his relationship with God.  Specifically, blind people were not allowed to worship in the Temple.  The healing Bartimaus experiences not only restores a physical capacity, but also enables him fully to participate in the worship of God's people once more.

Jesus' physical miracles point to realities deeper than the biological or material.  In the prophetic tradition, "blindness" and "deafness" were spiritual realities, descriptions of an inability to receive and comprehend the Word of God (see Isaiah 6:9-10).  So when Jesus is asked why he teaches in parables, he responds:
Matt. 13:13-17 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.  14 With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: ‘You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive.  15 For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.’  16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.
Jesus' miracles are also "parables."  St. John calls them "signs" that point beyond themselves.  In John 9, Jesus heals another blind man, this time through washing in water.  This is a type of baptism, which is our "enlightenment," when we move from spiritual darkness/blindness to the light of God's Spirit (see the icon above).

Most of us who listen to these readings proclaimed this Sunday have been baptized.  Like Bartimaeus, we have had our blindness removed, our true and interior blindness, through the sacraments.  We are able to recognize that Jesus is the "Son of David," king of the earth, to whom we owe allegiance and obedience (Ps 2:8; 89:25-27).  We are able to participate now in worship of the true God.  We have returned from our exile of sin, and so our "mouths are filled with laughter and our tongue with rejoicing."

Of course, to perceive spiritual realities takes an exercise of faith—a hardened and unbelieving heart will never be convinced of anything beyond the senses.  Bartimaeus sets us an example of faith.  In fact, the story is ironic: because he is a man of faith, he "sees" that Jesus is the Son of David while the "sighted" crowds do not recognize who Jesus is.

The Readings this Lord's Day are calling us to recognize Jesus as our King who has restored us from the exile of sin to relationship with God, and in grateful response to follow him by imitating his life.

But if we walk away and say "That's a nice story about a blind man being healed, but there are still blind people around today, so what good is it?", then we truly are blind.

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