Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle B
Isaiah 50:4-9; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35
There is an ancient parable whose earliest known existence is from the Buddhist culture of India, and I’m sure many of you have heard it. It involves an elephant and a group of blind men. All of them inspect this animal which they have never enountered before, and each comes away with a different idea of what it must be like. The one who inspects the trunk think that it must be like a snake, the one feeling the leg thinks it must be like a tree trunk, the ear a fan, the tail a rope, the tusk a spear. The point that the story is trying to teach is a universal truth which transcends religion: what you see in a given situation depends on where and how you look at it. Were any of the blind me wrong? No, of course not. But neither were any of them right as to the totality of the true nature of the animal.
Today we have a similar situation, now set in Jewish Palestine. A bunch of people who are not actually blind, but we must admit are so figuratively, being asked to describe the nature of Jesus after having gotten to know him for a year or two. This Gospel account occurs midway through the Gospel of Mark, so we can’t pinpoint the time it occurred during the three or so years of Jesus’ public ministry, but the disciples have known Jesus enough by this time to have started forming lasting impressions. And we have the same type of responses that the blind men gave on the elephant: based on what some had seen, Jesus was like John the Baptist, and others said like Old Testament prophets. The least blind among them gets the answer that is most correct when Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah, but even though he uses the correct words he doesn’t really understand the true meaning. Peter is using it in the sense that the Messiah would be a earthly leader in the mold of David or Moses and thus lead the rebuilding of the physical Kingdom of Israel. He has heard Jesus preach about coming to comfort the afflicted, how the poor are blessed, and has seen the healings of the blind, the deaf, sick children and the possessed. Still Peter thinks that Jesus has come to rule as a physical king and not to teach us about the kingdom of heaven and promising those that follow Him will be rewarded with a place in it.
If Saint Peter struggles to understand the true nature of Jesus, just as the blind men did the elephant, what chance do we have of truly understanding it ourselves? There is the difficultly of understanding all of the many things that Christ taught, but there is the additional problem that it is so easy for us to cherry pick from Scripture and tradition those things we like and avoid the things we don't like. We like the sacrament of the Eucharist, that God is with us in a material way, but don't like the sacrament of confession because it makes us confront our inadequacies. We like the teaching on one moral issue but aren't a fan of the teaching on another. We count on the salvation that Christ promises as our due but we don't obey the law that the first tenth of the harvest of our labor, the tithe, be given to God as His due.
The second reading, the letter of James, deals with one particular instance of people not understanding the totality that is the teaching of the Church. It was happening in the early church, the first and second generations of Christians after the death of Jesus. There was a belief growing in some communities, maybe based on misreading of Paul's letters, that simply declaring a faith that Christ is the Son of God, or in modern parlance, accepting Christ as “my personal Savior,” is enough to earn the rewards of eternal life. Saint Augustine three centuries later will combat the polar opposite problem, people who feel that they can earn their way to heaven by doing certain religious works, or later during the Middle Ages with people that think they can buy the way to heaven through indulgences and paying others to pray for them. James in his letter today says that both – that faith in Christ is enough or that works alone can get us there – are wrong: we must have a faith in Christ, and this means living a life in accordance with all of this teachings, not just the ones we like or find easiest to do. This is hard, I know. It means studying the scriptures, doing a heart-filled analysis of what it means and what we are capable of doing to obey it, physically, financially, and spiritually. Only this way can we really believe that when we are called to account for our lives will we have confidence it will stand the test. A blind person can know the true nature of the elephant, but only if he or she explores all parts of the elephant and puts the parts together, and doesn't stop after just a few and assumes that this is good enough. I challenge everyone here, and myself, to grown in our faith, not by doing more that we are already good at and like, but by doing that which will spur us to grow in new ways in the large body of tradition that is our Catholic faith.
Our parish intention for this week is to pray for an end to terrorism. The Gospel also has a lesson for us as we commemorate the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. There was a group in the time of Jesus that advocated a violent overthrow of the Roman government. They where called the Zealots, from which we get the term that we use today. Today's Gospel doesn't tell us what Peter said, only that he rebuked Jesus, but if Peter even hinted that the ways of the Zealots might be a method to establish an earthly kingdom for the Christ it could have been what earned the strong disapprobation “get behind me Satan” [Mark 8:33]. Jesus, at another time when people tried to lure Him into rebellious statements, told us clearly to “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” [Mark 12:17]. I am not very knowledgeable on the Islamic religion, but I have heard a professor of religion at Notre Dame state that most Muslims as well as most Muslim religious scholars do not support any of the radicals espousing religious division, let alone terrorism, which can only be considered by anyone who truly understands God as the work of Satan. At the end of the day, Muslim extremist attacks are not truly religious any more than Hitler's extermination of the Jews was for religious reasons: they are a way of blaming others for the many problems that they encounter, and in the case of the September 11 attacks they wanted to blame Americans. The cowardly actions of the 9/11 terrorists changed nothing, changed the mind of no one, and only pleased the desires of sadists who take pleasure in the suffering of others. Let us pray as a parish community that all people of all religions will understand the true nature of God and not be lured into the hatred that results from a skewed and evil reading of religious doctrines. We pray that all people who contemplate violence as a means to their ends, whether religious, political, or whatever drive them, to discover a God of love and compassion that transcends the evils that occur in this world and not be lured by Satan into acts of cruelty. Finally, we continue to pray for those that died during the attacks of September 11 and those that still suffer injury or loss from that tragic day, that they might find peace that comes from the understanding that Christ promises that those that suffer in His name will be rewarded by Him as surely as those that inflict this type of horror will be punished.
As we continue with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, let the God of love fill us with His most blessed sacrament and nourish us with that love. Let us memorialize those that have fallen in terrorist acts while also doing our Christian duty to follow Christ's teachings which will help eliminate the cause of some of the hatred that drive them. May we be joyful disciples that follow the whole of Christ's many teachings – faith, works, love, and forgiveness – that is to say, bear the cross that he asks us to carry with him to Calvary.