The American spirit seems to like things that are made strong and tough. Trucks are advertised this way, a popular vehicle in our country. People are often encouraged to be strong in the face of adversity. Little boys are wrongly told not to cry, to “toughen up”, in the face of difficulty. We are told there is “no crying” in any number of things.
But what is it that makes someone truly strong? Is it the false elements I just mentioned? Is it the house built on rock that Jesus uses as an example in the gospels? And how is it we reconcile this idea of strength with Saint Paul who says that when he is weak, it is then he is strong? When we hear the words in today’s first reading, “Be Strong, Fear Not!” what exactly does that mean, and how and in what ways is such a phrase intended for you and me?
As is often the case, as we explore this idea of strength, the world gets turned upside down a little bit. Bold words are expressed to those in the time of Isaiah, to be strong, because they feel anything but strong at the moment. The words are meant as an encouragement, because when they consider their current situation, they do not feel very strong. Weak knees, feeble hands are the way the people are described.
They are not unlike the poor who are shunned in the reading from James. It is not difficult to see how we might become subtly taken in by the lure of people who are rich. We see the challenges that come from those who are under this spell. Build walls to keep out the strangers! Beat away those lazy poor who just want to mooch off of the rest of us! Let us ridicule and blame the poor and weak for being poor and weak! How easy it can be to see the world in this way.
Fortunately, in the gospel, Jesus provides for us a way to become strong. Any priest or deacon who has performed baptisms has some familiarity with this gospel, as the Ephphatha! is a word used in the baptism rite. But how is it that the healing of a man hard of hearing and unable to speak can have anything to say to us today? Why is it that this specific word is used here? What is the point of the gospel today?
To find an answer, it is helpful to look at the rite of baptism, since today’s gospel is rightly about baptism. “The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak.” That is the reminder we are given. The reality is that without the grace of God, without the movement and action of God, we remain in faith like people who are unable to hear God and to speak his word. We are in a bad place when it comes to faith.
For this reason, the reminder that Jesus can make the deaf hear and the mute speak is followed by a prayer that Jesus do just that. “May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father.” Through the grace of our own baptism, we are asking Jesus to prepare us to be witnesses to the gospel. How?
First, it is essential that we are able to hear the word of God. It is important to know that in today’s gospel, Jesus is in what we might call today a “secular” area of Israel, an area that is not largely Jewish. It may be for this reason there are explanations about Jewish customs. And yet, in this area, the power of the message of Jesus is taking root. They are hearing, even though they might not seem to initially be those inclined to hear the word. They are ready to hear the word of God. It was not as true in the hometown of Jesus, where he grew up, as they walked him to the brow of the hill in anger. They were not able to hear the word.
And without hearing the word, it is harder to speak. What we hear inside our heads when we speak is not the same as what others here when we speak. You might experience this when you hear your own recorded voice. It may even sound strange to you. And so Jesus, by expending some effort to heal the man (making spit, which was considered a healing thing in the day of Jesus), he also makes clear to us that there is a relationship between hearing the word of God and speaking as a witness to what we hear.
This is what makes us strong. But ironically it is not in getting busier that we are disposed more to hearing Jesus. It is not in more programs, lessons or activities that are the primary way of hearing. It is in quiet. It is in silence. It is in seeking out that quiet time with Jesus, whether in adoration, or in the bible, or in simple requests for him to be present in prayer that we come to have our ears opened to hear the word.
The challenge, of course, is that our world is anything but disposed to hearing the word of Jesus. Greed, violence, lust, objectification of humans, especially women, even religious leaders who like the Pharisees, can lay heavy burdens on people without lifting a finger, these are all the noises that block the word of Jesus.
And so it is not in the typical way that we find ourselves strong as Christians. Saint Paul, who I referenced earlier, reminds us that true, lasting strength, comes when we trust the Lord Jesus to guide us in our lives. It is true strength when we can see the poor as our opportunity to serve Jesus, as our opportunity to be faithful to his voice in the gospel of Matthew that reminds us that serving others is serving Jesus.
As we stand at the beginning of an academic year, let us ask Jesus to open our ears, to loosen our tongues, that we my hear his word an share with others the good news of this unbelievable and fulfilling friendship with Jesus.