Messianic faith and the Messianic community
(Readings: Isaiah 35: 4-7; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37)
Introduction to Mass
The readings for today's Mass describe the qualities belonging to the Messiah which the Jewish faith had anticipated for so long Ė qualities that the gospel writers have no hesitation in attributing to Jesus. Then Saint James, in the second reading, also suggest that those who accept Christ as Messiah must apply their faith to issues like social class and inequalities of wealth. A purely personal faith without social ramifications is not the Messianic faith proclaimed by the New Testament.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate this Mass let us acknowledge the ways we fail to realise the implications of our faith, and ask God for pardon and strength.
Those lines from the prophet Isaiah in the first reading give a kind of classic description of what the Messiah was going to be like when he came - he would open the eyes of the blind, unseal the ears of the deaf, and he would make the tongues of the dumb sing for joy.
The future age of the Messiah or the Reign of God, which the prophets talked about, would be a Reign where every kind of suffering and oppression - all the effects of sin - would be removed, and men and women would be made whole.
So of course when the authors of the gospels told the story of Jesus' ministry around Israel and Judah they made sure they portrayed his activity as the activity of the Messiah: making the blind see, the deaf hear and the dumb speak.
God's Kingdom wasn't something to look forward to any more - it had arrived and was here now, in the person and the work of Christ. The gospel writers were establishing Jesus' identity as the Messiah, fulfilling all the ancient hopes and expectations of the Chosen People.
On another level, though, we can read all the stories of Christ's healings as applying to ourselves in some way. The men and women who were cured by Jesus stand for every believer, being converted and restored to wholeness by our encounter with Christ.
One of the older prayers in the baptism ceremony for children harks back to this particular miracle in the gospel this morning: "May the Lord Jesus," it goes, "who made the deaf hear and the dumb speak, grant that at the proper time you may hear the word of God and proclaim the faith".
In other words the cure that Christ performed on that occasion is an image of the way God's grace acts on us and changes us: he opens our ears to hear the gospel message and he loosens our tongue to give public witness to the faith, speaking up for the truth and for our Christian beliefs and values when the occasion demands it.
The best example of that for us is, as usual, Jesus himself.
All religious faiths value highly the vocation of the pure contemplative, and the community of faith is impoverished if it lacks individuals who are dedicated to the search for greater mystical union with God. But Jesus himself wasn't a pure mystic who disappeared into the desert to worship God in private.
Jesusí own need for lengthy periods of silent and solitary prayer are certainly well documented, but his vocation to proclaim God's Reign in words and actions threw him into a very public role, a role that entailed a lot of public debate and controversy.
That activity on Jesus' part makes it clear that faith in God can't just affect us in our interior life, it's also something which inevitably demands that we make a certain public stance, even if it's only a matter of the values that come into play in the way we treat other people. In fact we need to be suspicious of any version of Christian faith which encourages us to retreat from questions of social or economic justice into some purely spiritual or other-worldly realm.
This is the connection, I think, between the story in the gospel this Sunday and the passage from Saint James' letter in the second reading.
If we wanted to summarise the point of that passage in one sentence, it would be that in God's Kingdom there are no distinctions based on money or social class, and so there shouldn't be any such distinctions in the community of the Church either.
Saint James wasn't primarily making a political criticism of the social order of the society he lived in. Living in the pagan society of the Roman Empire, and even in his own Jewish society, James would probably have seen class differences or privileges based on money as an inevitable feature of a world given over to sin - products of fallen human nature.
But just because class distinctions are inevitable, doesn't mean they're morally right or even neutral. Like anything else that arises from our sinful desire to refuse fellowship with and responsibility for each other, class divisions are offensive to God. And so, James is saying, they should have no place in the Christian community, no matter what arrangements hold sway in wider society.
As the Church community we donít reflect deeply enough, perhaps, on the fact that one of the first things the first generations of Christians did, after witnessing the resurrected Jesus and after their experience of receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, was to translate the new Covenant with God into social and economic terms.
They immediately abandoned the principle of private property rights and organised themselves into a more or less communist society, owning all things in common, weíre told, sharing everything.
Perhaps we donít place enough stress on this action of the first Christians as establishing a norm and a standard of perfection, from which all other types of social arrangement are really a form of lapsation, less consistent with Godís own wishes.
Again, itís not so much a matter of seeking to alter the shape of society at large. What James is concerned with is that principles of equality and fraternity, a sense of responsibility of each one for the others, a shared material simplicity rather than the desire to enrich oneself, possibly by depriving other people, should be the rule and the pattern of social life among the followers of Christ.
So these are the two main points I would draw the readings for today's Mass.
First of all, faith in Jesus as the Messiah can never be a purely private, interior affair or a matter of each personís individual relationship with God. The coming of the Messiah implies a transformation of social relations as well.
And second, Saint Jamesí letter gives us some concrete guidelines about how that should apply in practice within the community of Christís disciples. The presence of Jamesí short letter among the books of the New Testament stops us from forgetting or losing sight of this crucial aspect of our Messianic faith.