Mark 7:31-37
Painting a Picture
by Msgr. Stanley Krempa
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.

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."

ďA picture is worth a thousand words" says a familiar proverb. These days, we live by images. Images are very potent. They can challenge the conscience of a nation and they can destroy a career. In today's first reading, the prophet Isaiah is speaking to Jewish refugees and he describes what God's kingdom will be like. He does so not by speaking in generalities but by painting a picture. He says that in those days, the eyes of the blind will be wide open, the ears of the deaf will be cleared, the crippled will dance like deer and the tongue of the mute will speak out.

These were the signs of the rule of God, of the kingdom. So, in today's Gospel reading, when Jesus enabled a deaf man to hear, the words of Isaiah would echo from deep within the people's memory and they could see that the time of restoration, the era of the Messiah, was on the way.

But why should these be the signs of the kingdom? For one thing, these were the people in most need of God's help. If the Lord is going to restore anything, a good place to start is with those unable to communicate, to see, to walk and to hear. But, Isaiah is saying more than that.

In the Old Testament, for the most part, the handicapped were at the bottom or at the margin of society. It is hard for us to empathize with that because we try to mainstream people with disabilities so they can lead as full a life as possible. In those days, help wasn't available. There were no foundations, no telethons, no organized charities, no charitable deduction, no rehabilitation programs and no charitable trusts. If the wealthy did not give to the poor, they had nothing and nobody. Isaiah says that the sign that the kingdom is really coming to life is that there will be no social ladder; people will not be ranked as inferior or superior.

This sets the stage for today's second reading from the letter of James. He says, "Your faith must not allow of favoritism." He gives the example of two people entering a home, one is fashionably dressed with gold rings on his fingers; the other is dressed in the Jewish equivalent of polyester. Everyone fawns over the wealthy person, neglecting the poor individual. What is the vice here? Is it that people are judging a person's dignity and worth by appearances? That's part of it but it's deeper than that. The vice James is spotlighting is that of elitism, the fragmentation of a community or of a parish based on income, ideas, age, nationality or political affiliation. When a parish starts fracturing itself in such a way, it is cutting its own throat.

When a community is splintered into separate groups, where people associate only with "their own kind," people of one group start to develop caricatures, stereotypes and suspicions of those outside their group. If it is not possible for a parish of Christians to struggle honestly with their own propensities to injustice, competition, elitism or fragmentation, how can a church challenge the same vices when they occur in society at large? A Christian community that is so divided loses its power to spread the Gospel. The church is not meant to be a kind of condominium where each group has its own apartment, never interacting with the others. Elitism and cliques are the cyanide of community and parish life.

The challenge for us is whether we can step outside our social group and recognize the dignity that dwells beneath a person's appearances.

Jesus went to people on the margins: the Samaritan woman, lepers, tax collectors, the woman caught in adultery, prostitutes, Gentiles, the handicapped. He touched them on a deeply human level with his grace. Are we willing to do the same? Maybe that is some of the healing we all need today. Then the "universal call to holiness" will not be a slogan but be a picture of unity the world can see in our parish church. Such a picture is worth more than ten thousand words.