Twenty Third Sunday B

Twenty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

“He makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak.”

What shows us the presence of God? In the Biblical world it was miracles ‑ signs, which pointed towards the emergence of a new Kingdom, the Kingdom of God. This had been prophesied from of old: it was said that One would come, and also that certain things would be associated with this Messiah which would display the perfection of the Kingdom God wanted to establish. Jesus, in both his preaching and his mira­cles, proclaims that the Kingdom of God is at hand, in his own person. He fulfils the prophe­cies of the past, as he displays to the people of his own time, and to us, the nature of Gods Kingdom: in it all diseases and afflictions are abolished: so opening the man’s ears and eyes tells us two things: first that Jesus is God, present in our midst, and secondly that he calls us into a Kingdom where all is perfect.

Notes for Readers

First Reading: Isaiah 35:4-7

You will notice that in the Lectionary this reading is split into four paragraphs and into sense lines: these give you the structure of the reading, and will help you read it well. This is a prophecy of great encour­agement, offering to all “faint hearts” the promise that God will come to them to put everything right. The images are to call up in the minds of listeners a sense of God’s care and desire for all to be happy and content. This reading could be read with quiet confidence – especially note the gentleness of the phrase “Courage! Do not be afraid.” The words “vengeance” and “retribution” are not to be roughly proclaimed but in the same spirit of gentleness. This is obvious in the promises of the third paragraph; try to get the full expression of the phrases “leap like a deer” and “sing for joy”. Then in the final paragraph imagine the glorious promise of water and fertility to a land that is thirsty and often knows droughts.


Second Reading: James 2:1-5

Compared with many of the readings of Scripture we find in the Lectionary, these passages of Saint James can be won­derfully refreshing for their blunt “down to earth” nature. This is a great example of James putting his message across plainly. He doesn’t just outline a theory, but goes into a practical example to make his listen­ers perfectly aware of what he is going on about. Today it is “making distinctions” that he speaks against. The first sentence gives the general idea, but then he launches into his example with the words “Now suppose…” When you are reading, be aware of this change of pace, and enter into the description that follows: even use slightly different tones of voice for the words said (without going over the top or “acting”). The last paragraph is a little more theoretical: make sure you underline the words “poor according to the world” and contrast this with “rich in faith.” Enjoy this reading, and the clarity of the message Saint James is conveying.


the first reading:

The prophet quoted here spoke to a weary and wary people, returning from two generations of exile to a homeland now occupied by other strangers.

the second reading:

This reading is a practical lesson in manners at church, drawn not from conventional sources but from our faith.

the gospel:

This narrative of a healing miracle invites us to consider how Jesus would have us hear and speak.

First reading, Isaiah 35:4-7a [Jerusalem Bible translation]

Our Liturgical Setting: Today’s gospel, Mark 7:31-37, is about hearing and speaking. On the surface, it’s the story in which Jesus heals a deaf man who has a speech impediment. But symbolically it’s about hearing the word of God and speaking it. It’s all about that favourite Marcan theme, the messianic secret. That is Jesus’ desire to keep folks from jumping to the premature conclusion that he is just a miracle-worker, before he can fulfil his mission in death and resurrection.

As is common, the first reading prepares the congregation to hear the gospel. Read the gospel passage yourself, and note the crowd’s enthusiastic response to Jesus. That’s the kind of enthusiasm you should try to capture in your proclamation of the first reading. Here’s the context:

The Historical Situation: The Jews are returning to their homeland after decades of exile in Babylon. Their arrival causes great friction with other tribes already there, especially the Edomites. (Sounds familiar, even in the 21st Century C.E., doesn’t it?) A poetic prophet, steeped in the theology and language of the original Isaiah, tells the people what God is making of their return, and why they should be confident. The passage is similar in spirit to Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11, covered in Lector’s Notes on last December’s Second Sunday of Advent.

(Click here for a very compressed history (250 words) of the Israelite people, from Abraham, through the Exile, up to the time of Jesus.)

Your Proclamation: How would the prophet have sounded? He spoke to a weary, wary people, but he had reason to be enthusiastic. He’s reporting what he’s been told to say by God. When you say God is coming “with vindication,” remember what vindication meant for these people: liberation from alien captors who had mocked and subjugated them for two generations, return to the promised land. Vindication is more than a word.

Pause after that sentence. Then predict the healings and natural wonders with amazement in your voice. Every word in the sentence about the lame is a single syllable; the sentence begs for a rapid, staccato pronunciation, with emphasis on “leap”. In contrast with “burning sands,” say “pools” with a soothing sound. This is poetry. Art is the marriage of content and form. Make it sound like what it means.

Be sure you know the meaning and pronunciation of recompense and of steppe if they appear in your church’s lectionary translation.

Second Reading, James 2:1-5 [Jerusalem Bible translation]

The Background: In the very practical pastoral letter of James, (introduced in last week’s Notes), these paragraphs make a simple point about how members of the church should treat others, whether the others are rich or poor.

Your Proclamation: But the central sentence is anything but simple; it’s sixty-seven words long. So study it carefully beforehand, deciding where to pause and where to switch between contrasting tones of voice. Your goal should be to paint, in the minds of the listening congregation, a picture of the offense described, and then pronounce James’ judgment on that offense. Practice it before a family member or friend who is not armed with a missalette, until that person sees the picture clearly and understands why it’s condemned.

It will help your proclamation if you can recall suffering or witnessing the kind of discrimination that James is denouncing. Are you, or were you ever, a poor person humiliated by someone’s favouritism toward others? Have you felt compassion for a specific person so treated? James wasn’t writing speculative theology, but reacting to real hurts inflicted on real people, and calling real Christians to a higher level of charity and responsibility. If you have real memories of similar events, let them enrich your proclamation.

The lectionary (the version for Catholics in the U.S., anyway), has a paragraph break after the long description of the ugly behaviour. Pause there. Let your listeners answer in their hearts the accusation of James. Let the silence become uncomfortable.

Then proceed with a change of tone. You’re back to using logic again. “Didn’t God choose the poor to give them faith and the kingdom?” You’ve made James’ argument in a second, convincing way.

Background on the Gospel Reading

Today we continue to hear the Gospel of Mark proclaimed. In today’s reading, Jesus heals a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment. This is a story about Jesus’ healing power, and in it we find clues about our understanding of sacrament. We are struck by the physical means used to heal the man, the use of spittle and touch. The Church continues to celebrate the sacraments using physical means. In the Sacrament of Baptism, water and oil are used to show the power of the Holy Spirit. In the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, we are anointed with holy oil on the forehead and the hands. In the Eucharist, bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. We are a sacramental people who believe that God’s grace is given to us through these physical signs.

Some, however, see in this Gospel an image of the proclamation of the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles. The geographic references tell us that Jesus is journeying through Gentile territory. Jesus had previously visited this region and healed a person possessed by a demon. Jesus was already famous there, which explains why people brought the deaf man to him.The story that precedes this reading in Mark’s Gospel sets the stage. Jesus encounters a Gentile, a Syrophoenician woman who asks him to heal her demon-possessed daughter. Jesus engages her in a dialogue about not feeding to dogs the food intended for children. Jesus is struck by the woman’s great faith when she replies that even dogs eat the food that falls from the table, and he heals her daughter immediately. The faith of this Greek woman compels Jesus to respond to her plea.

Mark shows that Jesus’ own mission affirms the early Church’s mission to the Gentiles. This was a significant issue to the early Christian community, which found that the good news of Jesus took root and spread quickly among the Gentiles. Yet there is an irony in the story of healing that Mark tells. Jesus gives the man the gift of speech, but then tells him not to use it. Jesus asks that the news of his healing power, which is evidence of his identity as the Messiah, not be spread. This is a recurring motif in Mark’s Gospel and is sometimes called the “messianic secret.”