Friday, September 04, 2015

What Does It Mean to be Deaf? The 23rd Sunday in OT

The reality of sight and hearing are a great mystery that natural science has difficulty explaining. 

Robots, of course, can be equipped with sensors to detect sound and light, and react in various ways to audio and visual stimuli.  But a robot cannot “see” or “hear” in the way that a human person does.  A robot cannot create the visual field that each of us “sees” when we open our eyes.  A robot can sense the frequencies of sound but cannot feel the harmonies of Mozart or experience the sensations of good music.  A robot is not conscious.  True sight and hearing are experiences of consciousness, of the mind.  Without the gift of the mystery of consciousness, everything is blackness and silence, because there is no mind to perceive anything.  When God breathed into Adam the “breath of life” and gave him the gift of consciousness, then light and sound came into being for the first man.

To hear and to see are mysterious gifts of the creator God.  In this Sunday’s readings, we are invited to ponder more deeply the different senses of what it means to be blind and deaf, and how Jesus can heal us of these maladies.

1.  Our First Reading is from Isaiah 35:4-7:

Thus says the LORD:
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 mute will sing.
Streams will burst forth in the desert,
and rivers in the steppe.
The burning sands will become pools,
and the thirsty ground, springs of water.

The Book of Isaiah is second only to the Psalms in the number of times it is quoted in the New Testament.  The greatest of the literary (writing) prophets, Isaiah is often called "the fifth gospel," because of the remarkable number of passages in which it seems to reflect a "New Testament" perspective on reality.

The Book of Isaiah divides naturally into two major parts: Isaiah 1-39, and Isaiah 40-66.  The First Part (1-39) appears mostly directed to the people of Israel prior to the exile (> c. 587 BC); the Second Part (40-66) seems addressed to Israel (really Judah) in the exile (c. 587 BC–537 BC) and after it (537 BC—).

The First Part of Isaiah (1-39) includes some important prophecies of a coming Son of David who would restore the fortunes of the people of Israel (see Isaiah 9 and 11).  The First Part ends with four chapters about the reign of the good king Hezekiah (chs. 36-39), because he was the best fulfillment of the messianic prophecies (Isa 9, 11) within the lifetime of the prophet himself.  However, Hezekiah did not fulfill everything, and much that Isaiah foresaw remained to be fulfilled by a greater Son of David who was yet to come.

Isaiah 35, from which our First Reading comes, is a conclusion and summary of the prophecies of the First Part of Isaiah.  In it, Isaiah foresees a glorious new era for the people of God.  God will come down and meet with his people:

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 mute will sing.
Streams will burst forth in the desert,
and rivers in the steppe.
The burning sands will become pools,
and the thirsty ground, springs of water.

But who are the "blind" and "deaf"?  Near the beginning of Isaiah, when God calls the prophet to the prophetic ministry, God told him this:

And he said, “Go, and say to this people: ‘Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive.’  Make the heart of this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”   (Isa 6:9-10)

Were all the people of Israel literally hard of hearing and visually challenged?  Of course not.  We are talking about spiritual blindness and deafness here.  And likewise also in Isaiah 35, I would suggest.

And what about the "streams in the desert"?  Does Isaiah mean that literally, too?  In the final age, the southern desert of Palestine will become wetlands due to a rise in the water table?  I suggest not.  Compare this other passage of Isaiah where he explains the meaning of the water imagery:

For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground;

I will pour my Spirit upon your descendants,

and my blessing on your offspring.  (Isa. 44:3)

The water imagery refers to the outpouring of God's Spirit.

I suggest that Isaiah's original prophecy was intended figuratively.  He did not necessarily see a coming age of physical healings and climatological change, but a great spiritual revival among God's people.

This great revival is described in the terms of a new creation. The healing of the blind is like God saying, “Let there be light!” for his people.  The miraculous gift of water to the land calls to mind the rivers of creation that flowed out of the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:10-14).  Healing is a re-creation.

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 146:7, 8-9, 9-10:

R. (1b) Praise the Lord, my soul!
The God of Jacob keeps faith forever,
secures justice for the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets captives free.
R. Praise the Lord, my soul!
The LORD gives sight to the blind;
the LORD raises up those who were bowed down.
The LORD loves the just;
the LORD protects strangers.
R. Praise the Lord, my soul!
The fatherless and the widow the LORD sustains,
but the way of the wicked he thwarts.
The LORD shall reign forever;
your God, O Zion, through all generations. Alleluia.
R. Praise the Lord, my soul!

Psalm 146 is the first of five "Hallelujah" psalms that conclude the Psalter (that is, the Book of Psalms).  "Hallelujah" (hallelu-Yah) literally means "Praise the LORD!"  "Hallelu" is a masculine plural imperative ("Y'all praise!") and "Yah" is an abbreviation of YHWH, the divine name. 

The last five psalms (146-150) were intentionally added as a conclusion to the Psalter, to focus the message of the Book on praise of God.  Therefore, the Psalms are called tehillim in the Jewish tradition, which translates as "Praises."

The Book of Psalms was finished in its present form probably in the fifth or fourth century BC (this is my opinion—other scholars would propose other dates), long before the prophecies of Isaiah had been fulfilled.  In fact, at the time the Psalms were being finished as a book, there was a great number of divine promises that had not been fulfilled: although the Temple had been rebuilt, none of the promises of the coming Son of David had been realized, and Israel still existed as a vassal state to an often oppressive foreign power.  

The implication is this: the great praises of God's goodness in Psalms 146-150 are more statements of faith than statements of fact.  God's people were still experiencing hunger, oppression, and forms of captivity, but defiantly asserted their faith that LORD, in a way as yet unseen, would make things right in the end.  On our lips, too, they are expressions of faith—though we see many examples of sickness and oppression around us, we make an act of faith that the LORD can right the wrongs of this world either now or in the world to come.  It is the only worldview that enables hope.

Obviously, the vision of the LORD as the one who heals the sick and disabled ("he gives sight to the blind") in Ps. 1146 resonates strongly with the prophecy of Isa 35 and also the Gospel Reading.

3.  The Second Reading is from the Epistle of James, 2:1-5:

My brothers and sisters, show no partiality
as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.
For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes
comes into your assembly,
and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in,
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, "
have you not made distinctions among yourselves
and become judges with evil designs?

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?

From the 22nd to the 26th weeks of Ordinary Time in Year B, the Lectionary works through the most important selections from the Epistle of James.  This James is probably James the brother of the Lord (cf. Mark 6:3), whom tradition has identified with James the Lesser, son of Alphaeus (Matt 10:3).  This James was the first leader—bishop, if you will—of the church in Jerusalem, a role that seems reflected in the account in Acts 15. 

The Epistle of James is intensely practical, not theoretical.  Absent are St. Paul's sometimes difficult-to-follow theological arguments.  James is a kind of New Testament "wisdom literature," a New Covenant equivalent to Proverbs and Sirach.  For this reason, it is a great book for "beginning Christians," and remains a great reminder for "old Christians" who sometimes lose sight of the basics!  It would be a great thing for all of us to carve out some time during the 22nd-26th weeks in Ordinary Time to read this entire Epistle through in one reading. 

This Reading is largely self-explanatory.  Christians are not to judge each other based on material wealth.  In James words "Did not God choose those who are poor ... to be ... heirs of the kingdom," we hear echoes of Jesus' own teaching: "Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours!" (Luke 6:20).  Riches aren't bad in themselves, and Jesus' followers included wealthy persons like Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea.  However, riches often tempt us to pride and self-indulgence, and in most cases prove to be an impediment to growth in holiness. 

4.  The Gospel is Mark 7:31-37:

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

As is often the case in Mark, the Evangelist includes specific and vibrant detail in the story: sticking fingers, spitting, touching, groaning, the Aramaic word "Ephphatha," an living aural memory of Jesus' spoken language.   Tradition has always identified St. Peter as the source of Mark's vivid detail.  The Church historian Eusebius quotes Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis (AD 60-130) as follows:

Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not indeed in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things done or said by Christ.  For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord's discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them.

This healing involves some “new creation” imagery.  This deaf men, inhabiting a silent universe, is only “partially created,” in a sense.  Jesus lays hands on the man and spits on him, which recalls Jewish ideas of creation at that time, which imagined God forming the first man by his own hands, after spitting on the dust of the earth to make moldable clay.  Jesus exercises the powers of creation.  In time, he will be recognized as the Creator himself, joined to human nature.

Why does Jesus tell the cured man not to tell anyone?  Is it really a case of "reverse psychology," a paradoxical ploy to spread the Gospel?  I suspect not.  For all the fascination that we have in Jesus' ministry of healing and miracle-working, they were not by any means the point of his mission.  Jesus really did not want word of his miracles to get spread around, because it attracted crowds of curiosity-seekers who obstructed his freedom of movement (Mk 1:45) and distracted from his teaching, which was more central to his mission.

As mentioned above, there is good reason to think that the prophecies of healing in Isaiah were figurative of spiritual healing even in their original sense.  So why does Jesus perform physical healings at all?  I suspect it is because we are so dull, without physical signs we would never have recognized him (John 4:48).  

When this Gospel speaks about the "deaf hearing," it refers to us, who are so spiritually deaf that we can show up at Mass on Sunday morning and can't even remember what Gospel was read by the time we're driving home for lunch.  When it refers to the "mute speaking," it means us, who are so mute we cannot think of a single thing to say to our neighbor or co-worker to move them toward faith in God, Jesus Christ, and the Church, though we may have been Christians all our lives.  

The Good News is, Jesus is able to heal the deaf and the mute.  So let's pray at this Mass that Jesus will remove our spiritual ear plugs and our stopped-up mouths, that we can understand the Bible proclaimed in Mass and speak the Gospel effectively to those around us.

1 comment:

Louis said...

As always, great job Dr. Bergsma! Your services to the understanding of the Word are invaluable!
-Fr. Louis

I love the application at the end connecting deafness and muteness to the Gospel.