23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
They were exceedingly astonished and they said,
“He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.
How often in our lives do we find ourselves “exceedingly astonished” when we hear in the Gospels the things that Jesus said or did? Perhaps, when we were children, we had that marvelous and refreshing sense of astonishment in our faith, but how often as adult Christians do we react that way when we encounter the Jesus of the Gospels? For instance, were we in the least astonished or moved by the miracle recounted here for our enrichment?
This miracle in today’s Gospel presents Jesus to us as the one who truly and powerfully fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament by curing the deaf and the blind, and we are told that the people who actually witnessed it were “exceedingly astonished” and their reaction is part of their witness to us that “he has done all things well.”
And, in a number of ways, this miracle should astonish us just as it did them, and it should rouse our faith and wonder at the ways of God. First, this particular miracle of curing the deaf man takes place where we might not expect it would, not in Jerusalem or Judea or even in Galilee, but in the Decapolis, a pagan area outside the promised land of Israel. Why does He choose this pagan place to fulfill the prophecy we heard in the 1st reading from Isaiah about the coming of God’s chosen one, the Messiah? Why there and not in, say perhaps, Nazareth does he open the ears of the deaf [so that] then the tongue of the mute will sing.” Indeed, that same prophecy speaks of other signs of the coming of the Messiah – the “eyes of the blind will be opened” and “the lame will leap like stags.” And in other places, including other places outside the “holy land” of Israel, Jesus will fulfill prophecy by curing the blind and healing the crippled. And these signs, perhaps witnessed by as many or more pagans as Israelites will in truth fulfill the Old Testament prophecies and designate Him as God’s Chosen One who will bring God’s vindication and recompense to Israel and to all mankind. Did the pagans too perhaps hear of these prophecies? Regardless, we know Jesus wanted these wonders to serve as signs for both pagans and Jews that he was indeed the One whom Isaiah prophesied when he said: “Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.”
Faith assures us that He can do these things because is our God, and that He has done them mainly to show us that He has come for our vindication, that is, to save us by his divine recompense for our sins. What kind of God is this Who does such things for us men who have so offended His majesty as to merit damnation. He comes to save us! How can we understand such love?
It is also astonishing that he so much wanted us to understand the depths of his love and mercy that he chose to perform very specific miracles, not only to testify to his person and mission of salvation, but to help us begin to understand what He was doing to prepare us for this gift of salvation. That His miracles were also signs that teach is made clear when he sends word to John the Baptist and cites this exact prophecy to confirm his identity as the Messiah, when perhaps John’s faith was disturbed: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” Yes, Jesus’ miracles testify to his mission and identity by fulfilling the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, including curing the deaf and the blind, whose physical handicaps are also a sign of the deeper maladies of soul that Jesus must cure in us in order to save us: our spiritual deafness and blindness that undermine the gift of faith, the beginning of our salvation.
Thus, when Jesus cures our deafness and blindness we begin to “hear” and to “see” just how he fulfills these and many other things prophesied in those same readings. We begin to see how for instance, in a marvelous and unsuspected way Jesus fulfills Psalm 146 which prophesies that the Messiah will “secure justice for the oppressed” and “set captives free” and “thwart the way of the wicked.” We may be troubled because Jesus does not choose to remedy the injustices of the Roman State nor deliver to freedom all those oppressed in slavery. Before we could see and hear, the prophecies might have confused us, but now we can see with astonishment that He fulfills them a far more wonderful way, delivering us ourselves from the oppression of sin, and thwarting the intentions of the demon who wants to destroy our humanity.
Those without faith will often chide Jesus because He does not cure all the physically blind and deaf and sick in this world, when He surely could. Indeed, does it not at times negatively astonish us to see that Jesus chooses not to cure all the blind and deaf and crippled of his own day, and does not resolve all the evils or our own day, that with His infinite power, He actually works miracles in a very restricted way, and solely for his own religious purposes? Do we not perhaps feel that same kind of negative astonishment, or at least frustration, that he even flees when the crowds pursue him looking for cures and liberation from their enemies?
But faith “positively” astonishes us by revealing that he does in fact provide a cure for all of humanity’s spiritual blindness, deafness and crippled souls, and He even provides evidence that He will one day do away with all the physical maladies of his faithful as well, that is by His own resurrection from the dead!
So with faith we come to see more clearly why he has chosen to exercise his miraculous powers in such a very restricted way, lest we should be tempted to follow Jesus, like many in his own day, just for the free meal or the cure, or the liberation from our enemies, and not for the greater gifts that He absolutely intends to give to all those who follow him in faith and love.
And yet this negative astonishment must yield to the positive astonishment of faith, and then we will know with certainty that it must be true that he has indeed come with “divine vindication” and “divine recompense” and that he truly does mysteriously fulfill the whole prophecy of Isaiah. Likewise, He must in some very real sense “secure justice for the oppressed,” since we know the words of Psalm 146 apply to Him. But how do they apply?
Faith alone can “see” that He indeed does all these things, if they are properly understood according to God’s intentions and the true mission of Jesus. Faith alone sees that He is truly God’s vindication because, according to John’s Gospel, he proves the world wrong about sin and God righteousness – that sin is the enemy of both God and man, offending God’s justice and goodness and destroying man’s dignity and freedom.
Faith “sees” in astonishment that He is also God’s “recompense,” because His singular life and death truly and abundantly compensate God for the near infinitude of the sins of all mankind. Recompense means a compensation for injury, for the insult to God and the damage to His creation, and Jesus’ life and death alone superabundantly compensates God for all the offense of all the sins of all mankind. Likewise, by this “divine recompense” Jesus, who is a true man, our true brother, truly secures justice for all of us who are oppressed in the greatest possible way, that is, by the weight of our own sins.
Political oppression and things like physical blindness and deafness are truly physical evils, but they are really miniscule in comparison to the universal moral and spiritual evil and oppression of sin. These spiritual and moral evils, unlike physical evils, truly destroy man as man, by destroying his human dignity. Indeed, they “murder” us spiritually because they destroy the life of God in our souls.
Thus, understood in this higher sense, we can also come to see how Jesus truly cures and heals us all. He cures all of us of the terrible blindness caused by sin through the gift of faith and baptism; by these same gifts He opens all our hearts to hear and accept the Word of God and thus enables us who were mute because of our sins to sing the praises of God who has set us free. By his divine power He has healed all of us who have been crippled by our evil deeds, and He alone enables us to walk upright lives as Gods true children.
How sad, then, that men in every age try to reduce Jesus and His mission to that of a mere political messiah, denigrating His person and mission and thus making His work look like a failure. Christ always resisted any attempt by the people to reduce his person and mission and frustrated their desire to make him an earthly king who would remove all the evils of this world by his infinite power. In the end, he did not even defend his very life by that power, but He rather chose to allow the world to torture and kill him, and turned that ultimate evil into the greatest good for man, by offering his suffering and death for our salvation, for the freedom and dignity that world cannot give us and cannot take away from us. That above all truly astonished his followers then, and still astonishes us if we truly believe in Him and love Him with all out heart. Praise be Jesus Christ, now and forever. Amen.