TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY B 9/9/12
I suspect that you have spent more than a few hours watching the Republican and Democratic Conventions over
the last three weeks. You noticed the careful orchestration, the slick graphics and astute direction, and, most of all, the
extraordinary promises of both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. It’s hard to imagine how they could possibly paint a more
glowing and beautiful picture of the future if they were elected. They would solve all our national problems and make our
personal lives more secure and happier. And as we listened, often with enthusiastic and partisan ears, I suspect a small voice
deep within each of us kept saying, I don’t think I should take their promises too seriously. They promise what politicians
always promise and, besides, events unforseen will probably overtake their plans and curtail or block them. So do we react
when we hear utopian dreams. We are happy to dream awhile, but we soon adjust such dreams downward and, realists that
we are, figure that the next decade, and the far future,will be pretty much like the last decade and the past generally.
Hence I wonder what your reaction was to the reading from Isaiah (35:4-7): "Your [God]comes. . . Then the
eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue
of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert." Does it sound
like what you have been listening to over the last weeks? It’s even grander than the politicians’ promises of
a bright future!
What should we think? Is Isaiah like a modern politician, painting a rosy picture of the future to make us
feel good? Is a picture like this meant to help us forget our problems for a pie in the sky bye and bye? Let’s defer
answering that question until we look at Jesus in Gospel encountering the deaf man, because Jesus fulfills the prophecy of
The Gospel of Mark describes how Jesus walks through pagan territory on his way to the Sea of Galilee. Walking
through non-Jewish territory is a hint that Christian communities will someday be established there. It’s an indirect
pointer to what will happen in the future.
As he arrives in Galilee, a deaf man is brought to him. Keep in mind that at that time most people could not
read. Whatever they knew had to come from hearing and remembering what they heard. Today, we can read so that if we were deaf
we would still be connected to the community and know what was going on the world. But this deaf man, we have to resume, was
cut off from the life of the community. One indication of his isolation was that "people brought [had to carry him]
to [Jesus]." Jesus takes the deaf man aside, put his fingers into his ears and spits, putting his saliva on his tongue. Very
physical! He said an Aramaic word, "Ephphatha," which means "Be opened!" People remembered the Aramaic command; it must have
Now we are in a position to return to the promises of Isaiah and answer our question whether Isaiah is simply
talking like a presidential candidate–everything will get better and better, just elect me. Jesus’ healing of
the man is a literal fulfillment of Isaiah, "the ears of the deaf will be cleared." Fulfillment takes place in the encounter
with Jesus. Jesus is there, and so people are enabled to hear. The healing symbolizes something more. Being with Jesus enables
people to hear what they haven’t heard before. What they haven’t heard before meeting Jesus is that special Word
of God addressed to me. In short, it’s not only about the deaf man in the Gospel. It’s about us. We can conclude
that Isaiah is telling the sober truth, but what he predicts will come about in a different way than we might expect.
Even though Isaiah’s prophecies of the healing of human beings is fulfilled in Jesus’ healing,
it is only a first step in God’s word of promise coming true. We know that only one deaf man was healed that day, yet
there must have been many such deaf, and blind, and lame people who were not. Jesus’ healings were real and helpful,
but they were only a foretaste of greater things to come.
Isaiah speaks of a final time, and Jesus’ miracles point in the same direction. Jesus introduced the
final phase of the Kingdom or Reign of God. The final phase has begun–we are in the midst of it–but it has not
yet come to its conclusion. The climax lies in the future.
Meanwhile, it co-exists with another kingdom, the kingdom of the world. Jesus’ teaching and healings
give us a glimpse of the full realization of the kingdom, but they are only glimpses, hints, of what will come later.
Maybe you did not notice something in Isaiah that has become of great importance in our own day–the
healing of nature along with the healing of human beings: "For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in
the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water." The Bible sees humans as intimately
connected to their environment. God’s touch heals and transforms not only humans but the ground on which they stand,
the animals they share that land with, and food they eat. In God’s eyes, we are very physical beings, with bodies that
express ourselves as much as our souls do. In the end time, the world–humans, animals, vegetation, earth–will
At the end, what makes the words of Isaiah and the gesture of Jesus different from that of politicians–ourselves–is
that they words and deeds of God, who is all-powerful and whom we can trust. We hear the promises of Isaiah that God will
bring all things to health and fulfillment, we see Jesus fulfilling these things in a small way. From that we gain certainty
the fullness will come in the future, through God, and this is the basis of our hope. We are people of hope because we believe
in God who is reliable and we trust in his promise.