Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel who claimed that the spirit came to him. The spirit told him to go to the rebels who turned against God. Ezekiel is tasked with proclaiming God’s word to them, and even if they don’t listen “this set of rebels shall know there is a prophet among them.” In Mark’s Gospel we see Jesus back in his hometown. But this time when he began to teach in the synagogue, those gathered began to ask where Jesus get this wisdom and decided not to accept him. Jesus said: “A prophet is only despised in his own country among his own relations and in his own house.” He could work no miracles there, though he cured a few sick people by laying hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.
When I look at Ezekiel and Jesus, I see an odd juxtaposition. Ezekiel, called by God, is given great power. He’s tasked with telling his people to reform their ways and will be known as a prophet even if he isn’t successful (full disclosure: it didn’t work out that way for him).
But Jesus appears to have limits on his power. When his townspeople refused to listen to him “he could work no miracle.” Why was that? Perhaps he was angry and stormed off. Perhaps he was discouraged.
Or maybe it was something else. We’re well used to healing stories where someone approaches Jesus and asks for healing. And last week we read about a woman who grasped for healing. But both initiate with the person who needs healing. What happens with those who may be in need of healing but don’t ask for it?
Clearly Jesus does not pass out healing like Oprah passes out gifts: “You, over there! You get your sight back! And the infertile couple next to you? They get a baby! In fact, everyone gets healed just for showing up today!” But what does make the determination for who gets healed?
We’re used to hearing some form of “your faith has healed you” and growing up I was told this meant something akin to asking for a birthday present. If you are good enough or do the right thing, you will get what you want. If you demonstrate enough faith, Jesus will heal you of your affliction.
In fairness that makes some sense: as Christians we see faith as a bedrock value. Faith allows us to hope for what we cannot see, expect what we cannot imagine, and live what seems like foolishness. We all aspire for the value of faith.
But perhaps our call to faith goes deeper. Perhaps faith doesn’t only check off the box in the healing application, but is instead a necessary element in allowing healing to happen.
As Catholics we hold fast to a belief in sacraments. At the core of our being we believe in certain milestones in our lives where we and God reach out and touch each other. When we were confirmed as teenagers we were taught about the Big 7: Baptism, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Confirmation, Matrimony, Orders, and Anointing. We were taught that these seven sacraments were far from the only encounters where we reached out to God and God reached out to us, but these public events marked important events in our lives.
And each involved some necessary action on our part. Baptism requires water in its ritual, orders and anointing require oil in its ritual, etc.
Each of these sacraments required some necessary action on our part that calls God to us. We can look on this action as some kind of incantation but I think that sells us short in our relationship with God.
Long time readings of these homilies recognize that I believe that God loves and trusts us enough to make us active participants in the building of the Kingdom of God. We’re not called to be passive, obedient pawns waiting for God to save us, but we’re instead called to be active participants in our own salvation.
When it comes to healing I like to think that while God has the power to heal without condition, we hold a necessary part in this. When Jesus came back home and wasn’t taken seriously, he didn’t heal our of anger or hurt (though that was certainly the case), he didn’t heal because he couldn’t. Just as we can’t baptize without water, God has given us the power to prevent healing because of our lack of faith.
Even today I think we can overlook the possibility of healing in our own lives. Perhaps we don’t ask for healing because we think we should “tough it out” or we think we deserve the suffering that comes from not being healed. But I also think we overlook healing because of a lack of imagination.
When we think about the people we know well, the people we grew up with, we can think we know everything about them. Those gathered around Jesus in the Gospel dismissed him on the belief that they knew the limits of his abilities. “That’s Joe’s kid. Who does he think he is? Him given the ability to heal? Right.”
Their blindness prevented them from seeing that healing, even sacramental healing, can come in ways that reach beyond our prejudices. When we think about the people in our lives we need to be careful not to sell them short or think that we already know the limits God has given them.
The people who dismissed Jesus likely remembered him as a small child or a gawky teenager. “Certainly he can’t be the Messiah. I remember when he couldn’t find his way home.” This demeans not only the person (Jesus) but God. When we do this we decide that we know what God is thinking and who God will not choose.
I can speak from experience on this. In the Catholic tradition certain sacraments are reserved for priests, among them Reconciliation (that we used to call confession) and Anointing (that we used to call extreme unction). We call these the sacraments of healing. I can tell you that there are few experiences more powerful than telling someone that their sins have been forgiven. What did I do to deserve my role in the sacrament? Nothing.
But I hope that the those who knew me as a child (and were well aware that I was “just Don’s son”) wouldn’t let them stop me from being able to cooperate with God’s grace. In the end, even if there are limits on Jesus’ healing, it doesn’t matter if we choose to cooperate in this healing, no matter who is involved.