Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Chosen Race, A Royal Priesthood, A Holy Nation, A People Of His Own.

Thursday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
1 Peter 2:2-5, 9-12
Like newborn infants, long for pure spiritual milk
so that through it you may grow into salvation,
for you have tasted that the Lord is good.
Come to him, a living stone,
rejected by human beings
but chosen and precious in the sight of God,
and, like living stones,
let yourselves be built into a spiritual house
to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices
acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood,
a holy nation, a people of his own,
so that you may announce the praises of him
who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Once you were no people
but now you are God’s people;
you had not received mercy
but now you have received mercy.
Beloved, I urge you as aliens and sojourners
to keep away from worldly desires
that wage war against the soul.
Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles,
so that if they speak of you as evildoers,
they may observe your good works
and glorify God on the day of visitation.
Yesterday Peter was speaking of the gift of God’s word to us. Today he sees that word as a form of nourishment - milk. We should be as eager as newborn babies for that “milk”. (Have we ever observed with what gusto the hungry baby attacks his mother’s teat and drinks deeply?) The author is speaking figuratively. Milk is not to be understood here as in 1 Cor 3:2 or Heb 5:12-14 - food for the immature in unfavourable contrast to solid food. With the complete nourishing ‘milk’ of God’s word we “grow into salvation”.

For those who have already got a first taste of what God has given to us in Christ (”You have tasted that the Lord is good”, Ps 34:8), there is an eagerness for that nourishment which will lead to growth and maturity in the Spirit. Since this taste has proved satisfactory, the believers are urged to long for additional spiritual food.
Peter now moves to another image when he speaks of Christ as a “living stone”, rejected by many but precious in the eyes of God. This Stone is the very foundation of the Church. It is a “living stone” both in the sense of referring to the real person of Christ and as a source of life for others. Christ as the Son of God has life in himself. He is also “living water” (Jn 4:10-14; 7:38), “living bread” (Jn 6:51) and the “living way” (Heb 10:20).

It is a stone chosen by God but so often rejected by human beings. In his addresses to the people in the Acts, Peter repeatedly makes a contrast between the hostility of the unbelieving towards Jesus and God’s exaltation of him.

But, not only that, the Christians, too, are living stones, “built as an edifice of the Spirit”. They derive their life from Christ, who is the original living Stone to whom they have come, the “life-giving Spirit”. These references to stones may well reflect Jesus’ words to Peter in Mt 16:18, where he is told that he is the Rock on which the whole structure of the future community is to be built, called here a “spiritual house”.
The house is spiritual in a metaphorical sense, but also in that it is formed and indwelt by the Spirit of God. Every stone in the house has been made alive by the Holy Spirit, sent by the exalted living Stone, Jesus Christ. The Old Testament temple provides the background of this passage. It reminds us of Paul’s telling Christians that they are the temples of the Holy Spirit and where the letter to the Ephesians speaks of each Christian as a stone contributing to building up the whole edifice of the Church. For now it is the people and not a building which is the Temple housing God’s presence in the world. Paul will say to the Corinthians: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16 and see Eph 2:19-22).

The purpose of that sacred building is to be a “holy priesthood”. This is the priesthood of the whole body of believers. As priests, believers are to (1) reflect the holiness of God and that of their high priest, (2) offer spiritual sacrifices, (3) intercede for others before God and (4) represent God in the presence of all. Through our priesthood we offer “spiritual sacrifices”, as opposed to sacrifices of animals and fruits. These can include: bodies offered to God (Rom 12:1), offerings of money or material goods (Phil 4:18; Heb 13:16), sacrifices of praise to God (Heb 13:15) and sacrifices of doing good (Heb 13:16). These sacrifices are “acceptable to God” through the work of our Mediator, Jesus Christ. In brief, believers are living stones that make up a spiritual temple in which, as a holy priesthood, they offer up spiritual sacrifices.

Quoting the book of Exodus (19:5-6) Peter, in a phrase much used in our liturgy, calls the Christians “a chosen race (Is 43:20-21), a royal priesthood (Is 61:6), a consecrated nation (Deut 28:9), a people [God] claims as his own” (Deut 4:20; 7:6; 14:2; Is 43:21; Mal 3:17). It is a phrase originally directed to the Israelites but now extended to God’s people of all races, Jews and Gentiles alike, who have chosen Jesus as their Lord.

And in words recalling a passage from the prophet Hosea (2:23), we who were once called “no people” have become God’s own people. Once we were beyond God’s mercy and now we have found mercy. In Hosea it is Israel who is not God’s people; in Romans it is the Gentiles to whom Paul applies Hosea’s words; in 1 Peter the words are applied to both.

The final two verses (11-12) belong to the third part of this letter, where the position of the Christian in a hostile world is discussed.
They are reminded that privilege and choice brings also responsibility. There is no room for complacency. We have to realise that in this world we are strangers and exiles. The word ‘world’ can be understood in both its scriptural senses. We do not belong to that world which is opposed to all that God and Jesus and the Gospel stand for. But even in the sense of the material environment in which we live, we are not meant to be here forever. It is not our permanent home. It is a place we pass through to a much greater destination.

Hence we are not to indulge our baser instincts which can undermine our spiritual destiny. We are not to be bothered by attacks made on us by outsiders who may call us “troublemakers”. Given our different life vision, this is only to be expected. Our Way is a “sign of contradiction” for many.

We are to persevere in following the Gospel because many unbelievers, seeing how we behave, seeing our integrity, love, compassion and sense of justice and peace, will ultimately come to praise not us but the God who enables us to live this way. Jesus had said the same in the Sermon on the Mount: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16).

May they observe the good things that we do so that in time they are led to change their ways and give glory to God “on the day of visitation”. The Greek word translated “observe” refers to a careful watching, over a period of time. The pagans’ final evaluation is not a ’snap judgment’. The “day of visitation” is perhaps the day of judgment and its ensuing punishment, or possibly the day when God visits a person with salvation. The believer’s good life may then influence the unbeliever to repent and believe.

It is a very meaningful reading. It is full of lovely images of Christ and of our relationships with him and it concludes by reminding us how we are to reveal the presence of Christ’s Spirit within us by the way we relate to all those around us.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 100
Come with joy into the presence of the Lord.
Sing joyfully to the LORD, all you lands;
serve the LORD with gladness;
come before him with joyful song.
Come with joy into the presence of the Lord.
Know that the LORD is God;
he made us, his we are;
his people, the flock he tends.
Come with joy into the presence of the Lord.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
his courts with praise;
Give thanks to him;
bless his name.
Come with joy into the presence of the Lord.
The LORD is good:
his kindness endures forever,
and his faithfulness, to all generations.
Come with joy into the presence of the Lord.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Mark 10:46-52
As Jesus was leaving Jericho
with his disciples and a sizable crowd,
Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus,
sat by the roadside begging.
On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth,
he began to cry out and say,
“Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.”
And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent.
But he kept calling out all the more,
“Son of David, have pity on me.”
Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
So they called the blind man, saying to him,
“Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.”
He threw aside his cloak,
sprang up, and came to Jesus.
Jesus said to him in reply,
“What do you want me to do for you?”
The blind man replied to him,
“Master, I want to see.”
Jesus told him,
“Go your way; your faith has saved you.”
Immediately he received his sight
and followed him on the way.
At a first reading this is simply another pleasant story about Jesus healing a blind man. However, as we shall see, there is much more here than meets the eye. Although Mark’s gospel is the one which gives most details when telling a story, leading people to speak of his using the memories of an eyewitness (perhaps Peter), there is a lot more symbolism in his stories than at first seems apparent.

First of all, this story is strategically placed. It comes at the end of a long portion of the gospel beginning with the healing of a deaf man (8:31-37). This section includes the high point at the middle of the gospel where the disciples recognise Jesus as Messiah and Lord and also the three predictions of his passion, death and resurrection with their accompanying teachings. In between are several other episodes and teachings. Through it all we see the disciples stumbling along in various degrees of misunderstanding as they accompany their Master.

Today’s story brings all this to an end and, in a way, can be seen as a summing up of all that has gone before. Immediately after this, the final phase of the gospel begins with Jesus in Jerusalem for the last time.

We find Jesus and his disciples in Jericho, which lies just north of Jerusalem. They are journeying south on their way from Galilee. We saw yesterday how alarmed they were about Jesus’ determination to head for a place so full of danger for him (and them). As Jesus was leaving the city, accompanied by his disciples and a large crowd of people, there was a blind beggar called Bar Timaeus (son of Timaeus) sitting beside the road. Already we have in this apparently simple description a sentence full of symbolism, some of which we will discuss further on.

Jesus is not just leaving the city*; he is on the first stage of the final and climactic period of his mission on earth. He is heading for Jerusalem. Although he is surrounded by a large number of people, most of them are with him only physically but not in spirit, as we shall soon see.

When the blind man hears all the commotion he naturally wants to know what is going on and is told that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. Immediately on hearing this he calls out, “Jesus, son of David, have compassion on me!” It is a form of what we now call the “Jesus Prayer”. A prayer we need to make constantly; a prayer we can only make sincerely when we are truly aware and accepting of our dependence on Jesus’ help and guidance, when we fully acknowledge the distance that exists between what we are and what Jesus is calling us to be.

In making such a prayer, the blind man is opening himself up to all that Jesus can and wants to give him. However, the surrounding crowd, smug in their (physical) closeness to Jesus and contemptuous of an irritating beggar, try to silence him. How often people have given up their approach to Jesus because of discouragements they have met! How often have we, perhaps, been a source of discouragement or scandal to people who were tentatively looking for Jesus and the meaningful life he can open up for us?

This man, however, is not discouraged. The more he is scolded by the crowd, the louder he shouts. Jesus has told us to ask, not once, but many times. This the man does. Then Jesus stops. If the man had not called, Jesus might not have stopped. He would simply have continued on his journey. Jesus constantly passes through our lives. Every single day. How often have we failed to recognise his presence? How often have we failed to call him? How many times has he passed on and out of our day?

“Call him over,” Jesus tells those around him. Notice that Jesus does not call the man himself. He tells others to call him. Again that is something that is the norm in our lives. If we believe that Jesus has appeared to us in a vision and directly called us, either we are ready for canonisation or, more likely, for a mental home! No, it is through others that we are constantly being called. In fact, we might reflect today on the huge number of people who have directly or indirectly brought Christ into our lives. It is because of them that we are what we are now. Without them, we would not know Jesus or the Gospel or the Church.

Notice, too, the fickleness of the crowd. Those who were just now scolding the man are now urging him to approach Jesus. “Courage, do not be afraid; he is calling you.” How many people need to hear those words! And how often they never do! Yes, there is no need ever to be afraid of Jesus, our Good Shepherd. And he is calling everyone of us, in some way or other. But perhaps many have never heard the call, because Jesus expected me to do the calling. But I was too absorbed in myself to do so.

“Get up!” they tell the man. Yes, he is being told to rise, the same verb that describes the rising of Jesus from the dead. He is not just being told to get on his feet but to enter a whole new way of living. He throws off his cloak, which presumably was all he was wearing, and comes to Jesus. He comes to Jesus encumbered with absolutely nothing. It is also reminiscent of the disciples leaving their boats, their nets and their family to follow Jesus. It is reminiscent of the early Christians stripping themselves of all their clothes, symbolic of their sinful past, as they go down into the baptismal pool. When we approach Jesus, we need divest ourselves of everything, get rid of everything we tend to cling to. (Remember the story of the ‘rich’ man earlier this week?)

Jesus now asks him: “What do you want me to do for you?” Isn’t this a wonderful thing to hear from Jesus? But he is asking the very same question of us every day. We often tend to ask what Jesus wants us to do for him but he is also asking us what he can do for us. And when he asks you that question today - as he will - what answer are you going to give him? What you say is going to reveal a great deal about you and your priorities in life.

In a sense, of course, Jesus does not need to know the answer to your question, but you do. And the answer comes from the asking. And have you noticed any changes in the way you would answer the question over the years? And what would today’s answer be?

By the way, did we not hear Jesus asking the same question before? Yes indeed. In yesterday’s Gospel when James and John came asking for a favour, Jesus asked them, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Compare now the two answers. The disciples asked for a privilege, for positions of status and authority and power, to be one up over others. What did the blind man ask for? “Rabbuni, that I may see again.” Of course, in our present context he is not just asking for physical sight. He is looking for something much more important; he is looking for IN-sight, the ability to see into the meaning of life and its direction and its ultimate values.
In answer to the question that Jesus is asking us, we could hardly make a better response: “Lord, that I may SEE again.” When we truly see with our inner eye, it changes our whole way of looking at the world and our behaviour changes accordingly. We cannot ask for anything more crucial in life. Perhaps we feel all along that we have been able to see both literally and figuratively. But today we are asking to see again, to have a deeper vision that goes much further into the ultimate meaning of our lives.
Fr Tony de Mello speaks of this in his last book. He calls it Awareness, being wide awake and living with your eyes open. No wonder Jesus responds generously to the man’s request: “Go; your faith, your deep trust in me, has saved you.” “Saved”, that is, restored him to complete wholeness. Only a person with perfect sight (in the sense we have discussed) is truly whole. Only such a person knows where to go and how to get there.
And what happens then? The beggar receives the sight he asked for (”Ask, and you shall receive”) and what does he do? He does the only thing that a person with true vision can do - he follows Jesus on the road, that Road, that Way to Jerusalem and all that it means. He becomes unconditionally a disciple.

Going back now to the beginning of the story we were told that Bar Timaeus, a blind beggar was sitting by the road. This description is one that fits every person who discovers Jesus. We are, without Jesus, blind, we cannot see clearly although we may be very clever and highly educated. But, if we cannot see what Jesus sees, we are sightless, blind.

And we are beggars. We can only truly come to Christ when we realise that, whatever intellectual, social or material endowments we may have, we are basically poor. That was the problem of the rich man who came to Jesus. In his monetary wealth, he was not aware of his radical poverty. We have nothing that is really ours.

Thirdly, the man was sitting beside the road, not on it. And this indeed is the lot of everyone who sits beside the road, to be blind and a beggar in need. The road, as we have said, in the Gospel story is a symbol of the Way that is Christ. It is where there is Truth and Life. And so at the end of the story, the man having made his compact with Jesus, is now able to see, is no longer a beggar, and is accompanying Jesus on the road, on the Way.
This story has meanings going far beyond a mere miracle story. It is a beautiful summing up of how Jesus’ disciples learnt to see and walk with him along the Way. It is a Gospel in miniature, a vignette of the spiritually deprived person discovering where Truth and Life are and committing oneself to it totally.

*Luke mentions the same visit but describes Jesus entering Jericho. Here he has his encounter with the Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector (Luke 19:1ff).

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

I like Bartimaeus, he's so feisty. When he is told to be silent, he shouts all the more. Then people tell him to have courage, but the last thing he needs is encouragement. Finally, when Jesus tells him to go on his way, he promptly makes Jesus' way his way and follows Him - neat!