6 Sep 2015
“My brothers and sister show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” (James 2:1) In the name …
Today we read a very early story about Jesus and a very early story about the church. We can tell that our Jesus story is early because it’s a little bit queasy. There aren’t too many New Testament stories that make you go “Ewww,” but this is one of them. Even the other Gospel writers thought so. When Matthew and Luke sit down to write their Gospels about 10 to 15 years later, and when they come to this story, they decide not to retell it. Jesus sticks His fingers in the man’s ears and then spits into the man’s mouth. This is the “Ewww” content of the story, but this is also what indicates that this is a very early miracle story because the “Ewww” hasn’t been edited out. As the church grew older, she told a more dignified story of Jesus, and stories like Jesus putting His fingers in the guy’s ears and spitting on his tongue we no longer shared.
This old miracle story begins with people bringing a man to Jesus so that he could be cured. The way the Bible puts it is that they begged Jesus “to lay his hand on him.” (Mk. 7:32) In 2015 we probably have a respectable image of Jesus gently touching the person, but this story goes back to a time that had fewer filters. I can remember when I was in the Seminary and we were learning about the sacrament of the sick. We were supposed to anoint the points of the five senses. Holy oil was supposed to be applied to a sick person’s eyes, ears, nostrils, lips, hands and feet. Now what we do is anoint the forehead because this is where all of the senses are processed. But I don’t think the change was based on the science of anatomy. I think it was based on changing sensibilities. It wasn’t comfortable for the sick person or for the priest to be anointing the entire body. But we weren’t always this squeamish about the body. And 2,000 years is a lot longer into the past than my old seminary days.
Jesus was not afraid of human contact, of human encounter. One of the most revealing, but most overlooked teachings of the Bible is that Jesus embraced people. He touched the leper; He let children frolic around and over Him; crowds pressed in close to Him; He washed the feet of His disciples; He let a woman wash His feet; and He even put His fingers in a deaf man’s ears and spit into his mouth. This is the stuff of God’s self-revelation in action. This is how The Almighty wants to be known. When we translate this revelation into our contemporary world and use it as a model for the present-day church of Christ, we hear a message of enthusiastic welcome. The church, like the Jesus she makes present in the world, should smile when all sorts of people come to her and her to them. Our sign outside that faces the road tells those who pass by that “All Are Welcome Here.” Those are the words of today’s Gospel. Those are the words of a Jesus who did not shy away from anyone. And those have to be our theology.
When the Gospels tell us that Jesus welcomed foreigners, the sickly, children, women, prostitutes and tax collectors, they are telling us that Jesus left no one out. When Jesus walked from village to village, when He even crossed over to foreign lands as we hear today with mention of Tyre and the Decapolis, the message is loud and clear that Jesus went out to the people wherever and whoever they were. In the Propers of this morning’s Mass, we read back and forth the Old Testament words about the sacredness of the city of Jerusalem. This was the place where God dwelled in all the world; this was the place that was uniquely holy and special. These were the words and thoughts that filled the imaginations of the people of Jesus’ day and age. And then there’s Jesus. His is a new revelation of a God not of place, but of people, not of the past, but of the present.
And this is a theology that the earliest church picked-up and embraced. The Epistle of James comes from one of the first Christian communities anywhere in the world. This is the church of Jerusalem. This was the center of the earliest church. And this was a church who preached: “Show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” If the church favours one over the other, says the Epistle of James, then the church does not understand Jesus. I think people need to hear and believe this. It’s comforting and healthy, and it lets us be us and know that this is O.K. with Jesus.
I’ve been enjoying The Jim Gaffigan Show on television this summer. I don’t know how autobiographical it is, but on television Jim Gaffigan is married to a devout Roman Catholic wife. Last week’s episode had her finagling to have Jim take their parish priest to a comedy club where he was performing. The priest is right in front of the stage. A woman comes to tell Jim Gaffigan that it’s almost time for him to go on stage and then she adds menacingly, “And by the way, there’s a priest in the front row.” The way she said it was like there was a guy with a rifle out there. The comic who had just finished his act came off stage and complained that priests are audience killers. How can people laugh and have a good time with a priest sitting there.
The next night Jim Gaffigan is supposed to appear on The Tonight Show. He tries to avoid the scene of the previous night by inviting his priest backstage with him. There the priest hits it off with members of the band and even with Jimmy Fallon. They start having such a good time with the priest that they end up bumping Jim Gaffigan from the show. I don’t know if this story line is based on anything in real life, but you get the feeling it may have been. And that’s a priest who understands Jesus. He enjoys people like Jesus enjoys people. He loved being among them wherever they were like Jesus loved being among people wherever they were. That’s the church of Christ. That’s who we are called to be. There’s already more than enough condemnation and finger pointing and scare tactics in the world. The church doesn’t need to add to them. The church needs to be different. The church needs to look past differences and mistakes, and like Jesus, seek out and enjoy the company of all sorts of people. That we may become stronger as this kind of church, for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo