Monday, February 23, 2009

If you are able, have pity on us and heal him.”

What is wisdom? It is the ability to discern relationships, to evaluate alternatives, to make judgments according to right reason. What is the source of wisdom? According to the scriptures, in particular the Book of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, the source of all wisdom is the LORD. What is the goal of wisdom? According to the same scriptures, the goal of wisdom is to learn to discern relationships, evaluate alternatives and to make judgments according to the will of God.

Who can count the sand on the seashore, the drops of rain? Only God can. What is the length of eternity, the height of heaven, the depth of hell? Only God knows.

To whom has the source of wisdom been revealed? To whom has the discipline of wisdom been explained? Who can understand the subtleties of wisdom? Who can discern the pathways of wisdom? If you have been following the thread, you will probably say that God is the answer to all of these questions.

That is true. There is only one truly wise, truly awe-inspiring one, seated on his eternal throne. There is only one all-powerful, all-knowing, truly wise and awe-inspiring source of wisdom: God seated upon his throne in the heavens. The LORD is the source of all wisdom. It is he who has created wisdom through the Holy Spirit. It is he who has poured forth wisdom upon all his works, upon every living creature, according to his goodness.

But it is not the whole truth. The closing words of today’s First Reading, from the Book of Sirach, are these: God has lavished his wisdom upon his friends. And we are his friends if we do what he asks of us. And all that he asks of us is to love him with all our heart, and mind, and might, and to love others just as God has first loved us. That is true wisdom, eternal wisdom, healing wisdom.

In today’s gospel, from the ninth chapter of Mark, we see Jesus come down from the Mount of Transfiguration together with Peter, James and John. As they approached the other disciples, they saw a great crowd and scribes arguing with them. When they saw Jesus, they ran up to him. He asked, “What were you arguing with them about?”

Before they could answer, a man approached Jesus. “Teacher, I’ve brought you my son, who is possessed by an evil spirit. When it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive it out, but they weren’t able to.

“How long has this been going on?” Jesus asked. “Since childhood. It sometimes tries to throw him into the fire or into water to burn him to death or to drown him. If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and heal him.”

Jesus said, “If I am able? Everything is possible to someone who has faith.” The boy’s father replied, “I do believe. Help my unbelief.”

Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and said to it, “Deaf and dumb spirit, I order you to come out of him, and never enter him again!” The boy was thrown into convulsions, and began shouting. Then the spirit left him, and he fell to the ground, stiff as a corpse. That prompted the crowd to exclaim, “He is dead!” But Jesus took him by the hand, and he stood up.

When Jesus entered the house, the disciples asked him, “Why couldn’t we drive out the spirit?” He answered them, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

“If you are able,” the man said. Once we allow the word “if” to enter our thinking, all is lost. It is like a flaw in the seam between the side of a bucket and the bottom. No matter how tiny flaw, everything in the bucket is bound to leak out.

“If I am able?” Jesus replied. Does he think the man is hedging his bets? Or perhaps he was thinking that his son isn’t worthy of being healed.

What happens if there is no “if”? “Everything is possible to someone who has faith” says Jesus. Having faith is not a question of calculating alternatives, and accepting the one that seems most likely to occur. That’s not faith, it’s odds-making. At the track, or in the lottery, there are big winners and little winners, but the greatest profit goes to the house, not to the bettors. Faith is not a gamble, it is an attitude of confidence. Real trust is not blind; it is the outcome which is unseen; the trust is in the person who made the promise.

“I do believe. Help my unbelief”, says the man in today’s gospel. Is that contradictory? Maybe so, if our belief is isolated from our trust; if our faith is not united with our hope. Faith, in the sense of belief, is yes or no. I believe that the earth orbits around the sun, and not the sun around the earth. Copernicus was ignored because he could not demonstrate the truth of his theories. Centuries later, Galileo was silenced because the Doctors of the Law (not the Pharisees, but the Inquisition) were not ready to accept the truth of his observations. Trust, on the other hand, is a matter of degree. When we first straddled the seat of a two-wheeler, and grasped the handlebars, we were not ready to trust mom or dad – or in my case, Uncle Jim, who gave me my first bike, when they said, “Just practice, and you’ll learn. Trust me.” (Uncle Jim had daughters and no sons. Learning on a bike without a center bar is even tougher, or so I’m told, than learning on a “boy’s bike”. But the more I rode, the steadier I got. What was motivating me was not knowledge, not faith, but hope. I fell off the bike a few times until I got the hang of it.

It is by trusting that you learn to trust, and by trusting again that you learn to trust more. Trust (or faith and hope) does not lie fallow in the mind. It grows by exercise, with time. Boys and girls become men and women because they grow. Boys and girls, men and women, develop stamina – strength and endurance, because they exercise. That’s really how everything alive grows and develops.

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