Words on the Word
23. Sunday B
Isaiah 35.4-7: Behold, your God will come with the recompense of God
James 2.1-5: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith?
Mark 7.31-37: ‘He has done all things well’, they said
The book of Isaiah is haunted by prospects of possible destruction. The religious history of Israel, a minute nation on a strategically desirable strip of land, is rehearsed in terms of geopolitics, with the massive shadows of Egypt in the south and Assyria in the north never far out of sight. The passage read to us today speaks, on the face of it, of healing and transformation. The deaf, we are told, will hear; the blind will see. It is one of those passages we flick through the Bible to find, while we skip complicated narratives of politics, full of names hard to pronounce. There is a risk, though, that we reduce Scripture to a medley of favourite themes, a Classic FM collection, with only lyric second movements and the occasional piece for solo harp. We like bits of Scripture that promise consolation; we’re unkeen on those that speak of judgement. Yet our passage explicitly invokes God’s vengeance and recompense. It matters to read it in context. Just before it, judgement is pronounced on faithless Edom: its land will become burning pitch; ‘from generation to generation it shall lie waste’; only ‘the owl and the raven shall dwell in it’. Just after our passage, the seizure of Judah’s cities by the king of Assyria is announced, the operation that would result in Israel’s exile from the land, the effective reversal of the exodus. What does it mean to promise restoration and new wholeness in the midst of such woes?
While we rightly speak of God’s unconditional love, we are wrong if we think ‘unconditional’ means ‘blind’. God’s love is not blind. It makes demands. The story of Israel is a story of bringing up a child up to the stature of maturity. Again and again, at moments of consequence, key protagonists are told: ‘Show yourself a man!’ Intended is no facile machoism of flexed biceps and a look of aggressive superiority. No, what God calls forth is a person’s mature, interiorised, fully owned response to a call born of grace. The Lord honours us by considering us partners in covenant. He expects us to act as such, to be men and women of our word. To allow a grown woman or man to act like a child is not to love them; it is to indulge them in ways that will prove destructive. If destruction plays a major part in Sacred History, it is because man brings it upon himself. God lets us taste the consequences of our choices; such is his regard for our freedom.
The beautiful verses from Isaiah put before us today do not, then, mean that all will be well regardless of whether or not we live lives worthy of God’s commandment. It tells us, rather, that however all-encompassing God’s just retribution might appear, vengeance will never have the final word. A remnant will remain that is faithful in the midst of infidelity. By persevering to the end, it will witness what is tantamount to a new creation, when scorched wildernesses will again be made fruitful and the burning sand becomes a pool, when all infirmity is healed by God’s extended hand, which not only ‘thwarts the wicked’ but also ‘raises up those who are bowed down’. The perennial question, which Jesus makes explicit, is: ‘Do you want to be healed?’—that is, are you willing to put behind you, once for all, everything that stands in the way of your healing?
The Gospel of the deaf-mute healed of his dual impediment bears out the promise voiced by Isaiah: the old passes away, the new has come. While this one man of faith approached the Saviour freely, others, however, were plotting to have him destroyed. This story is the last of a series of miracles of accreditation reported by St Mark before the multiplication of bread, which immediately points forward to Christ’s Pasch, by which he was to ‘suffer many things, be rejected and killed, and after three days rise again’. Peter, having seen the manifestation of Jesus’s power remonstrated sharply with his Master: ‘This must not happen to you!’ But Jesus insisted: this is exactly how it had to be.
In the New Testament, too, therefore, we find that healing does not rule out perplexity and pain. The Lord does not peddle fairytales; he proclaims a Gospel of redemption, of God’s power working through reality as it is, in its complexity, not magicking it away. It is good to be reminded of this truth at a time when, in so many ways, portents of destruction surround us. In Syria, a war now largely forgotten still rages, with the possibility of reconfiguring the world’s future. In Europe, one country after another is adopting sloganised narratives of self-affirmation, ever more explicit in their determination to boot out elements that do not conform to their norm. In the Church, we witness a collapse of moral credibility for which we have to look back centuries to find parallels. It is tempting to lose heart in the middle of this mess; to ask: Where is the Lord who makes the haunt of jackals fruitful land? The answer is that he is in the woe, able to use even evil to bring forth good. The transformation takes time, it requires patience and great dedication on the part of all who claim to be the Lord’s, who may be called upon to bring great sacrifice. But the Lord’s word will prevail. He, whom we dare to call our Father, will not abandon those who prove themselves his children. Let’s embrace the present, then, as our time of special grace; let’s assume its pain as our task. Who knows, perhaps the Lord would use you, or me, as humble instruments of the healing he desires to bring? Would we then refuse him?