23rd Sunday of the Year

Monday, September 6, 2021 - 11:15

Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction on these reflections before carrying on:

The whole is greater than the parts and one of the aims of these reflections is to show how the Sunday Gospel readings all fit together.  The passage we hear each Sunday is presented as a stand alone episode.  It is important for us to see how each episode has its part to play within the whole story of the Gospel.  This is particularly important in the next few weeks because so much has been left out of the Sunday readings.  The evangelist has a plan or plot in the telling of his story about which we need to be aware.  As  I have noted before, it is best to follow the Gospel in your Bibles so as to see the Sunday passage in its context and it is good too to compare with a different translation.

In this Sunday’s Gospel, we are following Jesus making a journey into Gentile lands, around Tyre and Sidon.  Last Sunday, the Gospel prepared for this trip with Jesus taking a more flexible approach to tradition and purity than the rigidity of the Pharisees.    The journey will end with a boat trip with another encounter with the Pharisees and a warning to the disciples against their teaching. 

Three episodes then form the journey and they need to be seen as hanging together.  Only the middle one though, the healing of the deaf mute,  features as a Sunday Gospel.  The purpose of this trip would be to show Jesus interacting with Gentiles.  Luke later will omit this part of the Gospel story because he has a whole second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, to explore this topic.   We can assume that Mark’s community will have included Gentiles so they needed to hear words from Jesus which spoke directly to them and their needs.   

Jesus’s first encounter near Tyre was with a woman who wanted Jesus to heal her daughter.  After some persuasion by the woman, Jesus does so.  It is one of the rare occasions when Jesus is bested in an argument.  He then recognises that his ministry and mission is not exclusive to the Jews, that he has to be open to Gentiles as well.  The Lectionary follows its usual custom of presenting an episode only once over the three year cycle so here not surprisingly the far more dramatic account of  this episode from Matthew in year A is preferred.

Jesus’ journey continues with a healing of the deaf mute which is told only by Mark.  The importance of listening and speaking are stressed.  This is the Gospel this Sunday.

Finally, Jesus for the second time feeds a crowd with a few loaves.  This is clearly a Gentile crowd as indicated by the seven loaves and seven baskets.  Seven is the number of completeness, wholeness (not perfection as often stated).   This feeding is not introduced with teaching by Jesus as in the previous feeding.  That is covered by the deaf mute episode.

We can perhaps see a story in these episodes:  the Church has to be open to all (the Greek woman).  People need to listen and be taught and to speak out the praises of God (the deaf mute). They are then fed by Jesus as they gather to celebrate the sacrament, the Eucharist.  This Sunday’s reading from the letter of James becomes pertinent at this point, rich and poor alike forming the one community.   Following up my thoughts last week, this would be an emphasis of the current 1970 Missal rather than the 1962 one.  We are all together praising God.  There’s a saying I remember:  gather the people, tell the story, break the bread.

Our Gospel this Sunday therefore is the middle stage:  telling the story.  On one level it is the restoration of hearing to a deaf man, the deaf usually having problems with speaking as well.  The story begins with an unusual itinerary which stresses that Jesus is among the Gentiles.  By the standards of Jesus this healing is a remarkably complex and elaborate.  Jesus is well able to heal with a word.  As this and the healing of the blind person a little later are both unique to Mark they may reflect an earlier stage in then developing  tradition.   Jesus is presented in terms of the wonder-worker with the foreign word “Ephphatha,” creating an impression of the wonder-worker’s mysterious power and emphasizing the physical means of healing (putting his fingers into the man’s ears, spitting, and touching his tongue).   Certainly there are times when an elaborate ritual is a help to healing.  This is the background to our sacraments which are celebrated today with both word and deed.  An older tradition would have been quite minimal in its approach:  a little water poured on the head for baptism rather than proper immersion.

With a physical healing like this there invariably follows the need to look and reflect upon its deeper significance, proper listening and proper speaking as the two parts of a conversation.  St Teresa of Avila rightly said that prayer is a conversation with God.  It is as important that we listen to God as that we speak to him and do so both personally and also as a community.   Today more than ever we are seeking to listen to what the Spirit says to the Churches and that would be part of Pope Francis encouraging the holding of Synods, the Synodal way.  

In so doing we are seeking the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah.  Prophets are not always critical, most of them have as well oracles of hope and salvation.  Mark in the Gospel is alluding to this oracle of Isaiah.   A message of hope at the restoration of the people of Israel is now emphatically opened to all peoples by the Gentile setting of this miracle.

We can therefore make our prayer:

Lord open our hearts
and we will understand your word
Open our lips
and our mouths will proclaim your praise.