Scripture in Depth
Reading I: Isaiah 35:4-7a
Although this passage occurs in the first part of Isaiah, among the prophecies of the preexilic Isaiah of Jerusalem, it breathes the spirit of Second Isaiah and, if not written by him, must be contemporary with him and from the same school. Its life situation is the impending return from exile (see especially Isa 35:4b and 7b).
This passage was chosen for today because of Isaiah 35:5 and 6, which speak of the healing miracles that will accompany the return from exile. When we remember that for Second Isaiah the return was the final redemptive act of God, we can understand how early Christianity saw this passage (like Isa 29:18 and 61:1-3) as a prediction of Jesus’ messianic healings.
This was clearly in the mind of Mark (or of his tradition) when he chose the highly unusual word mogilalon (literally: “with difficulty of speech”) to describe the deaf-mute whose healing is recounted in today’s gospel reading, for mogilalon is precisely the same Greek word used in the Septuagint for the word “dumb” in Isaiah 35:6. Thus, this passage is eminently fitted for use with today’s gospel.
Responsorial Psalm: 146:7, 8-9, 9-10
Selections from this psalm are used on other occasions in the Lectionary, but particularly noteworthy is the use of the same verses on the third Sunday of Advent in series A (but with a refrain more suited to Advent) as a response to Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10, which is almost the same Old Testament reading as today’s.
It is a psalm of praise for the healing power of Yhwh, especially for his opening of the eyes of the blind. Unfortunately, the psalm does not mention the opening of the ears of the deaf and the releasing of the tongues of the dumb, but that may be taken as implied.
Reading II: James 2:1-5
Continuing the exhortations based on the names of the twelve patriarchs in Genesis 49 (see last Sunday), this passage is said to be based on the name Judah (=“Lord of glory”—Genesis 49:8-12). It is an exhortation to the right treatment of the poor.
Because the early Christians, for the most part, belonged to the powerless classes of the Roman Empire, the New Testament shows very little concern for social justice as compared with the Old Testament prophets.
But James’ Church consists of rich and poor members, and a concern for the proper respect of the poor as persons surfaces immediately. Yet, there is no indication that the wealthy members of James’ Church had any political power, and therefore there is little suggestion of a real social ethic.
The utmost that this passage suggests is that the silence of the New Testament on such matters is no indication that the gospel has no social implications. It all depends on the conditions under which the Church has to operate, and these vary greatly in time and place.
Note how James, who on the surface looks so moralistic, again bases his exhortation on the truths of the Gospel: wealthier Christians should show concern for the poorer members because (in baptism) God has chosen the poor to inherit the kingdom.
Gospel: Mark 7:31-37
This is one of the two miracle stories peculiar to Mark (the other is the healing of the blind man of Bethsaida in Mk 8:22-23). Both stories represent our Lord as employing a physical healing technique, and perhaps for that reason did not appeal to the later evangelists, who preferred to depict him as healing solely through a word.
Like so many other gospel pericopes, this story seems to have passed through a number of successive stages:
1. An original exorcism by Jesus (its exorcistic character is suggested by the words “his tongue was released”).
2. The Palestinian Church, which interpreted Jesus in terms of the eschatological prophet-servant, wrote up the story as a fulfillment of Isaiah 35.
3. The Hellenistic Church, which interpreted Jesus in terms of the wonder-worker or divine man, preserved the foreign word “Ephphatha,” thus 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).
4. The evangelist gives a fresh meaning to the story by the place where he locates it in his continuous narrative. It symbolizes what is happening to the disciples (see Mk 8:22-26). They have been deaf to Jesus’ word (Mk 7:18a) and are as yet unable to make any confession of faith in him. Eventually, however, at Caesarea Philippi, it will begin to dawn on them who Jesus really is, and Peter will make his confession of faith. Thus, the ears of the disciples will be opened, their tongues will be released, and they will speak plainly, declaring through their spokesman Peter, “You are the Messiah” (see next Sunday’s gospel).
Reginald H. Fuller
**From Saint Louis University