Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the prophet Isaiah who speaks to “all faint hearts.” He tells them to have courage and not be afraid. They eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf will be opened. In Mark’s Gospel we see Jesus traveling. A deaf man was brought to him for healing. Jesus took the man aside and cured him of his deafness.
At first blush these readings make perfect sense: No matter what happens to you, have faith and all will be well. After all, doesn’t Isaiah promise that the deaf will hear and doesn’t Jesus cure a deaf man?
So here’s the problem: Preachers all over the Catholic world will spend this Sunday talking about how faith will cure disease and suffering. Fair enough but we all can look on our own lives and know it’s not true. Everyone I know struggles with something. Maybe it’s a parent with dementia or a sibling who struggles with addiction. Maybe it’s a child with autism or cystic fibrosis. These readings trouble me because they imply that suffering happens because of a lack of faith or courage. Maybe it’s because God has judged us not good enough for healing. The deaf man in the Gospel regained his hearing because he paid attention to Isaiah, and we should do the same. If we “fear not” we will be healed of all our suffering.
And it pains me to say this, but there are (allegedly) Christian evangelists who have built their fortune on this lie. They have made millions by telling their viewers that God will reward them with healing if they support their ministry. They promise individual healing in return for individual checks.
I’ve spoken before of my frustration over this type of “personal Christianity,” of how I’m uncomfortable with the concept of personal salvation and the idea of “accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.”
I’ve spoken of this before but when I was a seminarian I was blessed to be a prison chaplain. It was a tough place. The inmates had every reason to put on a strong face and no reason to embrace the Prince of Peace, but we encouraged them to do exactly that. Some did, and one day one of them pulled me aside with a question. He told me that he believed that once he accepted Jesus Christ his life would be easier, but it wasn’t. He told me he felt betrayed because his life hadn’t gotten easier and he asked me why he should have made his profession of faith in the first place.
I’m not sure it made any sense to him but I explained that choosing to follow Christ doesn’t necessarily make this life easier or better but instead it sets us on a path that makes the world better. If deciding to follow Christ took away all suffering, evangelization would be much easier.
As we look at these readings I’m going to ask that we pull back on the focus of our cameras, to see these readings not as individuals, but globally. A few years ago I was talking with a coworker about my age. His employer made a decision that was good for the company but not good for him; it meant he transferred to an area that wasn’t his strength. His boss, who was considerably younger, asked him if he was OK with it. He laughed and told her that he was fine with “taking one for the team” once in a while. He told her that he wasn’t raised in the generation where everyone on the soccer team got a trophy. He was able to see himself as a part of a larger system and didn’t judge everything on its affect on him.
Because let’s face it: bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. I write this in the week where we honored Senator John McCain. Senator McCain lived a complicated life, but early in his life he identified himself as a patriot, a proud American.
His decision to live in this world certainly didn’t shield him from suffering, and at times called him to enter into suffering. It also didn’t call him to a juvenile “My country, right or wrong.” It did call him to live a truth greater than himself and recognize that while he didn’t always make the right decisions, he never lost the values that drove him. When other Americans lived up to those values he celebrated them. And when we didn’t he was the first to call out the other person.
I suggest that we live out lives of faith in much the same way. I suggest that the promises made to us are made to us, not just me. I think if we look at these readings in the light of “what I get out of it” they’ll never make sense. But if we commit ourselves to living a set a values it will give us the strength to endure the inevitable suffering in our life.
And so what do we do with the man cured of deafness in the Gospel? Perhaps it was just what it looks like: the man was deaf, Jesus prayed over him, and then he could hear. Or perhaps his deafness was not physical deafness that we think about, but a type of prejudice that prevented him from hearing.
Or maybe the healing was not with the deaf man, but with those around him. Afflictions back then were seen as a curse from God and those afflicted got what they deserved. Perhaps what changed in this miracle was that those around the deaf man began to treat him like a human being, not someone who God afflicted. Perhaps Jesus gave them all a vision of how we are to treat each other.
Wouldn’t that be a miracle.