23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Picture: cc Rachel Groves
Sisters and brothers, do you know what it feels like to have a disability of some kind? Or can you tell if someone else is disabled in some way? How do you do that? Well, it depends on the nature of the disability, right? Some are very obvious. For example, a person with no arms. Or no legs. But what about less obvious disabilities? What about something like depression, for example. Or other psychological conditions. These are more difficult to discover, aren’t they? And not just in others. But even in ourselves. I may, for example, often feel very anxious, without even realising that I am feeling anxious. And that my anxiety adversely affects how I relate to people. And how I react to situations. In order for me to seek and find help to cope with my condition, and perhaps even to be healed from it, I need first to recognise it. To acknowledge my disability.
I mention this because, as you’ve probably already noticed, our Mass readings are filled with people with disabilities of one kind or another. Indeed, it is to disabled people that the Good News is addressed. So that we really won’t be able to receive this good news, if we don’t first recognise and acknowledge our own impairment.
In the gospel, Jesus heals someone with a physical disability. Or perhaps two physical disabilities. A deaf man who had an impediment in his speech. As you know, it’s not uncommon for deaf people to also be mute. Since we normally learn to speak by listening to the speech of others. Someone born deaf naturally finds it a great challenge to learn to talk. More help is required. More effort needs to be made. But what has all this to do with me? Assuming that I’m not disabled in this way. That I’m neither deaf nor mute. What significance does Jesus’ healing of such a person have for me? For us? To see the connection, we need to pay closer attention to the other readings.
In the first reading, it is not just a single person who suffers from a disability. But a whole nation. And here the disability is not just physical, but political. The once-proud nation of Judah is now no more. It no longer exists. Its territory has been overrun by the Babylonian army. Its Temple, the holy place where it’s God was believed to live among them, has been desecrated and destroyed. Many of its people, including the king, have been sent into exile in Babylon. Once they were God’s chosen race. Now they are no people anymore. They’ve been swallowed up by foreign invaders.
But, again, what has this to do with us? With you and me? Assuming that we are all still citizens of our own respective countries. Singaporeans, of Singapore. Which, by the way, will soon be electing a new government. Malaysians, of Malaysia. Indians, of India. Filipinos, of the Philippines. And so on. Surely, we do not share the political disability of the people of Judah. Is the good news then not addressed to us as well?
To begin to see the connection, we need to deepen our understanding of what is being said in the first reading. For the prophet Isaiah, the political disaster that befalls the people of Judah is actually a symptom of a deeper disability. A spiritual sickness, arising from their idolatry. Their worship of false gods. Which prevents them from communicating with the One True God. From seeing God’s mighty works. From hearing God’s reassuring words. From proclaiming God’s steadfast love. To use the words uttered by Jesus, in Matthew 13:15, this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes. As a result, long before they were sent into exile by the Babylonians, the people of Judah had already exiled themselves, far away from God.
It is to these spiritually disabled people that the good news in the first reading is addressed. God promises to rescue them from their suffering. Not just to bring them back from Babylon. And to restore them politically. But also to open the eyes of the blind. So that they may see the works of God. To unseal the ears of the deaf. The better to hear the words of God. To bring forth, in the desert of their misery, springs of water, the water of God’s grace, to quench their parched and lonely hearts. More than their superficial political disability, God promises to heal their deeper spiritual sickness. For it is only when the people are able, once again, to communicate with God. When their hearts are opened to receive God’s love. That they will find joy and peace. And finally be able to give praise to the Lord in their lives.
This marvellous promise, made in the first reading, finds its fulfilment in the person and ministry of Jesus in the gospel. The healing of physical disability is only a sign of a deeper spiritual restoration. Jesus’ command to the deaf-mute to be opened is addressed also to all those of us who may find ourselves spiritually deaf. Unable to hear the consoling and challenging words of God. Unable to appreciate the connection between the scriptures that we read, and the lives that we lead. To those of us who, because of our deafness, may also be spiritually mute. Unable to sing the praises of God. Perhaps also because we’re preoccupied with many worldly concerns. Bogged down by the stressfulness of life. Distracted by the faults, that we see in others, as well as in ourselves.
The powerful word, ephphatha, is addressed to those dry and desolate places in our lives where we continue to struggle to find meaning in what we do everyday. Those areas of our hearts where we may feel as though even our religion is nothing more than a heavy burden. A series of obligations unreasonably added on to the already heavy weight of the long list of things that society expects of us. To this barren spiritual wilderness, Jesus says, Ephphata! Be opened! Be opened to receive God’s communication. Be opened to see God’s face. To hear God’s voice. To do God’s work. To sing God’s praise. To rejoice in God’s love. To be enfolded in the warmth of God’s embrace.
And there’s more. The healing of our spiritual disabilities is not just for us. It is meant to benefit others as well. In the second reading, we find people whose spiritual sickness disables them socially. Their blindness to God’s presence in the world, renders them unable to appreciate the beauty of the poor. The only thing that they find attractive is the artificial glitter of material wealth. So they apply double standards. They become unjust judges. Discriminating for the rich against the poor. To people such as these, God also promises healing in Christ. But only if they are willing to acknowledge their disability. To humbly confess their own poverty in the sight of God. Who chose those who are poor according to the world to be rich in faith and to be the heirs to the kingdom.
Sisters and brothers, we may not be disabled physically. Or even politically. And yet, is it possible that there may still be areas of our hearts and our lives that require the Lord’s healing? Places where we need to hear the powerful word, Ephphata! Opening us to the presence of God. So that we may reach out to those who most need our help.
Sisters and brothers, which of our disabilities, yours and mine, does the Lord wish to heal today?