23rd Sunday Year B
Approach Jesus with our spiritual impairments, let Him declare on us Ephphatha, which means “Be open”. Then we can be truly free.
What is freedom to you? The world defines freedom as the ability to do whatever one like. If that is the definition of freedom, then none of us is truly free. For a start, in our society, there are civil laws that governs our behaviours. Under our civil laws, we are not free to do whatever we like – we are not free to jaywalk, to damage public property or to hold mass gathering without a permit. At a personal level, the freedom of one person to act in whatever way he/she likes often would deprive another person of his/her freedom. In this way, the two persons cannot be both free. From example, my freedom to cause harm to another person would deny that person the freedom to live safely; my freedom to detain another person against his/her will would deprive that person of freedom of movement.
In spite of the illusive nature of worldly freedom, freedom has often been quoted by advocacy groups as their reason for wanting social changes. For example, I should be free to spent my money anyway I want, even if it involves vices such as pornography, prostitution or drugs; I should have the freedom to do what I want with my body, even if it means ending the life of the baby in my womb; I should be free do what I want with my life, including ending my own life; I should be free to marry whoever I want, even if it is a person of the same sex. As in the case of the earlier examples, worldly freedom is often a zero-sum game – one party’s win is another party’s loss. If I spend my money on vices, I am depriving others of their greater need of that money, e.g. my family and charitable causes. If I am free to end the life of a baby in my womb, I am depriving my child the freedom to live. If I am free to end my life, I am depriving others the joy and richness my life brings to them, especially my loved ones. If I am free to redefine marriage to include the union of a same-sex couple, I am depriving those with a traditional view of marriage their time-honoured definition of marriage. With the arrival of COVID-19, we continued to be obsessed with the concept of worldly freedom, even among Christians and people of faith. We have the anti-lockdowns, the anti-vaxxers and the conspiracy theorists. Everybody wants their freedom – freedom of movement, freedom to travel, freedom not to be vaccinated, freedom from catching COVID, freedom to enter any establishment we like, including hospitals and aged-care homes. And just like all other previous examples, the absolute freedom of one group deprives the freedom of another group. This inevitably leads to chaos and conflicts. But what is the real underlying reason for the chaos and conflicts we are witnessing in our society? In truth, as much as it is often quoted as the reason, the lack of freedom is not the reason. Rather it is because too many are deprived of their spiritual senses – our spiritual sight, spiritual hearing and the ability to speak spiritual truth.
The First Reading was written during a period when, as a consequence of their defeat by the Babylonians, the Jews lived in exile in a foreign land. The passage was written to give hope to the Jews that the exile was coming to an end. “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you” (verse 4). At that time, their enslavement, sufferings and oppression will be no more, signified by the healing of the blind, the deaf, the lame, and the mute. Notice that prophet Isaiah associated freedom from exile with the regaining of sight, hearing, mobility and speech. So we ask ourselves: Am I free? Am I blind, deaf, lame or mute? My brothers and sisters, in truth, many of us live self-centred, selfish and narcissistic life. True sacrifice is rare. We often think of our own interest first and what we want for ourselves before we consider the other person. We only think of the other person’s needs when our own needs are satisfied. When I give to the poor, I give them my leftover loose change. When I work as a volunteer, I do so only in my spare time. Like the Jews under Babylonian bondage, we too are under bondage. Our bondage is the bondage to our sins of self-centredness, selfishness and narcissism. Under the bondage of sin, like the Jews under the bondage of their human oppressors, we too become blind, deaf, lame and mute – blind to the Grace of God; deaf to his teachings; too lame to give a helping hand; and too mute to proclaim God’s truth.
St Paul gave us an example of spiritual blindness in the Second Reading: “For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’” (verse 2-3) My brothers and sisters, I invite you to play out St Paul’s scenario in your mind. Has St Paul described our reactions, if these same two persons walk into our church on a Sunday morning? Do we not see both of these persons are son and daughter of God, with the same dignity as us, loved by God just as He loves us?
So what should we do? Jesus teaches us, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Mt 7:3) The truth is, we are all sinners. To a greater or lesser extent, we all suffer from deprived spiritual senses. On the cross, Jesus the truly sinless one, did not look down on the deprived spiritual state of his tormentors. Instead he pleaded with His Father, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34) To one who is addicted to pornography, prostitution or drugs, let me speak the words of counsel to him, not in a derogatory manner but speak the words of love. To one who has ended the life of her baby in her womb, let me hear the despair that had led her to that decision; and let me speak consoling words to her. To one whose physical ailment becomes so painful that he is contemplating euthanasia, let me see the pain and let my hands be that of God’s as I lend a helping hand. To one who is confused about his sexuality that he yearns for a person of the same sex for connection and sexual intimacy, let me see and hear the yearning of his heart and let me speak courageous words of counsel. Of course, not all of us are in the position to speak words of counsel, at least not all the time. And even when we are, we are often not in a position to bring about immediate changes to that person’s life. As sometimes, these issues stem from long-running trauma and wounds in that person’s life. It is in times like these that I need a discerning heart. I need to listen to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. I need the wisdom to know when to act. And at the right opportunity, I need the courage to act with spiritual sight, hearing and speech. And above all else, I need to convey my love and the love of God.
Finally, in those areas of my own life where I have been spiritually blind, deaf, lame or mute, I need to approach Jesus in humility. I need to try not to justify my sins. Rather, like the deaf man in this week’s Gospel, I need to beg Jesus to lay His healing hand on me (verse 32). Let Him declare to me as He declared to the deaf man, “‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’” (verse 34) Then, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (First Reading, verse 5-6) It is then that I am truly free.
May our Lord Jesus grant us true freedom. Amen.