Sunday, February 01, 2009
4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35; Mark 1:21-28
Picture: CC Stuti~
Sisters and brothers, do any of you have ear piercings? I understand that people who do sometimes face a problem. The piercing is, of course, meant for earrings. But, as anyone can imagine, it’s neither comfortable nor convenient to have heavy pieces of jewelry hanging from your ears all the time. On the other hand, however, you don’t want to remove the precious object for too long, because if you do, the hole is likely to close. And then you’ll have to endure the pain of getting your ears re-pierced. So you’re faced with a dilemma. Do you wish to tolerate the hassle of continually wearing a pair of earrings, or do you want to remove them and run the risk of needing to have your ears re-pierced?
Of course, I've heard that these days one can actually buy something called a retainer, which is designed to keep piercings open. But I do remember a time before retainers were readily available. Back then, one of my relatives used to walk around the house with a small piece of a broken toothpick stuck into each of her earlobes – a convenient solution to a difficult dilemma. But I suspect that this tactic is not without risks of its own, one of them being the possibility of infection.
Strange as it may seem, in the spiritual life too, there is a somewhat similar dilemma, a parallel to the piercing problem. We find it, for example, in the experience of the Israelites in the first reading. What is their dilemma? On the one hand, they know that they are nothing without the Lord, their God, who had earlier saved them from slavery in Egypt. Especially through their struggles in the desert, they are beginning to realize that there is something like a piercing within their hearts and in their life together as a people. There is a special space that is meant for God alone to fill. On the other hand, however, they find the experience of God too terribly intense to undergo for any extended period of time. More than any heavy piece of jewelry, the weight of the Divine is so great that when it comes upon them, it feels as if they will perish. So they beg Moses: Let us not again hear the voice of the Lord… lest we die. But then, their piercings keep crying out to be filled. What to do?
As we know, throughout their history in the Old Testament, the Israelites will face continual temptations to fill-in their God-shaped piercings with things that are less than God, things like pagan idols, and greed, and even, as in the case of the Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ day, the keeping of ever stricter and more detailed prescriptions of the Law. And when this happens, a kind of spiritual infection sets in. When God’s rightful place is usurped, people suffer. The poor are neglected and exploited. The rich lose a sense of their own humanity. Wars and conflicts erupt. The nation itself degenerates in decadence and decay.
It is in the midst of this difficult dilemma then, that Moses announces God’s promise to send a prophet, whose main role is to be something of a retainer. The prophet’s task is to help the people to keep their piercings open for God alone. But for this solution to work, the prophet must speak only what God commands. And the people must heed the prophet’s message. However, we know that frequently, things will not work out as planned. Often, the people will reject and even do away with their God-appointed retainer. Or the prophet will be motivated by self-interest, and end up speaking what is false. In either case, the piercings are once again infected. Suffering and death are the result.
It is into such a situation of spiritual sickness that Jesus enters like a powerful antibiotic. Here at last is the only possible resolution to the dilemma. On the one hand, Jesus is truly God, and so, he is able to occupy the people’s piercings without causing an infection. On the other hand, however, Jesus is also fully human. People can relate to him without suffering the terrible weight of the Divine. As Jesus tells us in another gospel: my yoke is easy and my burden light (Mt. 11:30). It is this resolution to the dilemma that we see in today’s gospel. More effective even than a God-appointed prophet, the divine-human authority of Jesus’s person and teaching are such that they are able to drive out the unclean spirits that contaminate people’s hearts and lives. Quiet! Come out of him! And with a loud cry the unclean spirit is expelled.
Sisters and brothers, isn’t this precisely the kind of authority and healing power that we need so very much especially today – when we seem to be surrounded by difficulties on every side, the financial situation being the most pressing? Plagued by anxieties of every sort, do we not find ourselves sorely tempted to look for quick-fixes of one kind or another, to seek purely practical solutions, relying only on better laws, for example, or more advanced technology, or more accurate information?
These things are, of course, very important. Yet, isn't there also a spiritual dimension to the problem? Could it be that ours is also a spiritual ailment? Could it be that, like the Israelites, ours is also a case of infected piercings? Could it be that we have allowed God’s place to be usurped by unclean spirits of different sorts, greed and self-interest and apathy being among the more obvious? If this is true, then we need to remember that illnesses such as these cannot be effectively treated by simply gathering more and more information. Nor, for that matter, are they cured by merely going to church more often, without a corresponding change in one's attitudes and behavior. As we see in today’s gospel, it is in the synagogue that the possessed person appears. And neither does the unclean spirit lack information. It knows quite well who Jesus is.
Spiritual illnesses require spiritual treatment. The infection of our piercings can only be eradicated when we truly immerse ourselves in the power of Jesus’ teaching and healing action. And isn’t this the reason why we have gathered here this evening? More than merely to satisfy a weekly obligation, we are here so that, in the gathering of God's people and the proclamation of God’s Word, in the breaking of the Lord’s Body and the pouring out of his Blood, our piercings might be purified of every unclean spirit, and God restored to God’s rightful place. We are here, so that, as Paul exhorts the Corinthians to do in the second reading, we too might, once again, commit ourselves to serving the Lord without distraction. Such that when we leave this place to return to our own respective homes, our various occupations and different relationships, we too might become true prophets in the world, God’s retainers, committed to helping to preserve God’s rightful place in the piercings of human hearts and lives.
I'm reminded, for example, of the report in today's LA Times, about the prophetic actions of parish communities in Orange County, who are taking concrete steps to help people suffering under the weight of the current economic crisis.
If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts…
Sisters and brothers, this is what we prayed in the responsorial psalm just now. How might we better respond to God’s voice as it addresses us today?
Posted by Fr Chris at 12:07 pm