REV. ROGER KARBAN
James, the author of the second reading this Sunday, would find a tremendous amount of homily material in the recent government influence-buying scandals (James 2:1-5). The congressional hearings showed that the rich can frequently purchase access to the powerful, while the poor have no clout.
Thankfully, the opposite happens in God's kingdom. The first reading (Is 35:4-7) reinforces our belief that Yahweh's eyes constantly focus on the helpless. God especially cares for "the frightened,...the blind,...the deaf,... the lame,...the dumb," and encourages the powerless to "be strong, fear not!" Because of Yahweh's intervention, eyes will be opened and ears cleared; the lame will leap like a stag, and the tongue of the dumb will sing.
That's why James takes the members of his community to task about their attitude toward the rich and poor. "Your faith in our Lord Jesus glorified," he writes, "must not allow of favoritism." Then, after giving an example of their preference for the rich, he reminds them, "God chooses those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom He promised to those who love Him."
Concern for poor
James knew that Jesus, as a good Jew, always tried to embody Yahweh's concern for the powerless. The Gospel (Mk 7: 31-37) narrates just one of many occasions in which Jesus uses His miraculous powers to benefit someone who could never afford to buy access to Him. By including such a miracle in his Gospel, Mark is reminding his community that no one can be a follower of the Lord without reaching out to the helpless.
But going beyond the point of Jesus' concern for all, Mark's story is unique among miracle stories. Most probably because this account comes from the earliest of our four written Gospels, it includes details rarely found in such narratives.
First, Jesus uses a "third element" in the cure: spit. We're accustomed to "two element" miracle stories: just Jesus and the person to be cured or raised. Usually, Jesus neither needs nor uses anything else. He simply says something or touches the individual, and the miracle happens. But here Jesus spits on His fingers before He touches the dumb man's tongue.
Many Scripture scholars believe that Jesus, like other miracle workers of His era, occasionally might have used third elements in His miracles. But because our evangelists primarily were concerned with Jesus' power and the implication of His miracles, they probably "cleaned up" many of the narratives. Perhaps, here in Mark, we have an example of a primitive story which "slipped through."
Groan of effort
Second, some might be surprised by the comment that Jesus, praying for the man's cure, "emitted a groan." Usually we don't think of Jesus having a hard time working miracles. After all, He's God. But here He groans like someone who finds doing miracles a difficult task.
Again, scholars think the historical Jesus frequently groaned when He worked miracles. Such actions weren't always the easy, effortless feats depicted in our four Gospels. But since the early Christian community was more interested in stressing Jesus's divinity than in giving us a blow-by-blow account of an event, we rarely hear about the groaning. This simply seems to be another one which slipped through.
It certainly explains the narrative's uniqueness. Yet, beyond just uncovering the tradition history of a specific Gospel passage, there's something valuable in knowing that the historical Jesus sometimes used normal, everyday elements when He helped the powerless, and, at certain times, He didn't find the task very easy or rewarding.
Such knowledge might help us focus on our "third elements." The everyday blessed "spit" which we totally take for granted could be the very thing others need to make them whole. Once we begin to see the extraordinary power of the ordinary, we might also begin to understand that we can never empower the helpless unless we're willing to use some of the strength which God has gifted us.
If the historical Jesus did it that way, it seems foolish to bide our time until a better way comes along. We might actually discover a new Christian virtue: groaning.