TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – YEAR B
An Emirates flight from Dubai that landed at JFK airport on Wednesday evening was immediately placed under quarantine. Ambulances were standing by to transport sick passengers to local hospitals. In the end, ten out of one hundred ill passengers were admitted to Jamaica Medical Center with symptoms that turned out to be influenza. This is the time of the year when we are again being urged to get a flu shot to protect us against infection; and there will be warnings about washing hands frequently, covering one’s nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing. We are very sensitive to the danger of communicable diseases.
So, I find it interesting and more than just slightly ironic that the lectionary presents us with this Gospel passage today. The people who present the deaf man to Jesus in hopes of a cure, expect that the Lord will merely lay a hand on the man’s head. But Jesus does more. He puts his ungloved hand into the man’s ears. Then he evidently touches the man’s tongue with his spittle. Of all the cures and healings that Jesus performs, this one involves the most complex interaction. St. Mark, who has little patience with details and generally likes to keep the action moving in his Gospel, records the healing in detail, including Jesus’ command in Aramaic, Ephphatha. And Mark records, too, that Jesus groaned, as though the restoration of the man’s hearing and power of speech were causing him special effort.
We live in an era of prudence and precaution; and that is good. No one wants to visit a clinic where instruments are not properly sterilized, where dental or surgical or medical workers do not change their gloves after attending to each patient. We have a better approach to viruses and bacteria today than I was a youngster.
Having said that, I wonder if he were dealing with the man in the Gospel today would Jesus wear a gauze face mask and latex gloves, and be super cautious about spitting. My hunch is that he would not. Nor would Francis of Assisi refrain from kissing the hand of the leper who was begging a coin from him. Nor would Elizabeth of Hungary have donned an isolation gown and mask before attending to each poor person she served in her makeshift hospital.
The love of God, when it enters into our world as it did in Jesus – and later in his saints – gets down and dirty, because that is the way that so much of humanity is. Isaiah sings a lovely song about God making his people whole again and restoring all of creation. Sometimes our healing speeds easily on the wings of faith, as when the centurion sent word to Jesus, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Only say the word and my servant will be healed.” At other times, it requires repeated effort, as did the restoration of sight to a blind man, or a ritual such as washing in the pool of Siloam. Sometimes, it cannot be accomplished without prayer and fasting. But whatever it takes, God is here with us, rolling up his sleeves, poking his finger in ears, smearing eyes with a mixture of soil and spit, touching tongues. The Incarnation – the mystery of God coming to us in human flesh – means that God never stays at a safe distance, is never reluctant to heal with a touch of his ungloved hand. He is willing to bleed and die with us so that we can be restored to life in him/
And, if he cares for our bodies with personal attention and therapeutic touch, how much more so our souls. Jesus mixed with tax collectors and sinners. He declared that he came a divine physician for the spiritually ailing. He, the love of God Incarnate, is not afraid to draw close and touch even the most hardened sinners. We never have cause to be afraid of inviting him into our wounded hearts or souls soiled by sin.
He asks only that we exercise the same compassion as he himself does. He does not ask that we ignore prudent measures to avoid contagion, but he does demand that we shun discrimination and indifference as much as we do infection. St. James states it bluntly. To remain spiritually healthy, we must “adhere to the faith in our glorious Lod Jesus Christ.” And the most potent inoculation against spiritual contagion is the Eucharist that we are about to share. Taken regularly, the Eucharist keeps us in the bloom of spiritual health.