Imagine you grew up being formed on the Old Testament. There are certainly words of judgment and challenge, but there are also very comforting words, especially toward those who have a difficult life. Our reading for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time from the Prophet Isaiah recalls the words that people would’ve heard as they hoped for the coming of the Messiah. They were told that when the Messiah comes, the blind would see, the deaf would hear, the lame would walk, those who were unable to speak would be able to speak in the dry lands, and burning sands would be filled with springs of water. You can hear the words of hope spoken through the prophet. Those words create a longing in the hearts of those who hear them. People live with anticipation of the coming of the Messiah.
When Jesus appears and starts His public life, people begin to recognize the similarities between the prophecy of Isaiah and the life of Jesus. Many of the miracles He performed fit right into those exact words from the prophet. It didn’t take much of an imagination to make the connections between the Messiah and Jesus. However, some of the assumptions that people added to the prophecy made it difficult for them to recognize Jesus as the promised one.
Some assumed that the Messiah would gather together an army, with swords and shields, and throw their captors out. Some assumed that the Messiah would only treat those of the Israelite community and those who passed the purity codes of the time. Some assumed that He would rain down violence and bloodshed upon the enemies of the Israelite people. You could see why that would make it difficult for them to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. In fact, in each of those cases, He did just the opposite.
The encounter that Jesus has with the deaf man in the Gospel reading violates many of the purity laws that existed during Jesus’s time. Those who were diseased or had some other physical challenge were considered to be carrying a curse from God. Most, if not all, of them were ostracized from the community and thought to be less than those who were observing the laws. People could see that Jesus healed the man’s infirmity. For them to believe Jesus was the Messiah, however, they had to change their understanding of some of their assumptions about Him.
We see in the Scriptures that the wisdom of human beings is not as great as the wisdom of God, but we continue to fall into that same difficulty. Jesus taught us to live one way, but we believe that we know better. We continue even in our day to ostracize some because they violate the purity codes of our own time. When Jesus asked people not to spread the word of this healing, it wasn’t because He was shy. Even His own disciples were wowed by the miracles, but felt insulted when He told them that He must die and rise on the third day. Rather than changing their understanding of who the Messiah would be, they challenged Jesus’s words and teachings. It seems to be the height of arrogance, but we fall into that same trap all the time.
Distinguishing between the rich and poor, those with power and influence, or welcoming and ostracizing by a person’s skin color or country of origin is not following in the footsteps of Jesus. Waiting to care for someone until they are grateful for our presence, or testing their belief system before we show them compassion and generosity is clearly against the life and teachings of Jesus. And yet we still keep falling into that trap. When Jesus tells us to take up our cross and follow Him, He means that living as we ought is full of sacrifice, inconvenience and suffering.
We are called to be witnesses in the world not for our own wisdom and understanding, but as witnesses to the wisdom and understanding of Jesus. Our lives are meant to be shocking, but not in our hypocrisy, but in our faithful discipleship as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Let us pray that God might remove from us any hints of arrogance and allow us to humbly do what He asks us to do, submitting to God’s wisdom and not our own.
Father Wester is pastor of All Saints Parish in St. Peters.