Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Is 35:4-7a; Jas 2:1-5, Mk 7:31-37
Today's readings are laced with strong reminders of hope; God's fidelity, inclusiveness, strength, and power over oppressors; and Jesus' miraculous healing of a man's capacity to hear and speak. These themes entice us to ask - What events made people fearful, blind, mute, doubtful, hungry, excluded, or deaf? What conditions in our own day leave us vulnerable and in need of reassuring words?
September begins harvest time across the U.S. However, in late summer, over 63% of the contiguous U.S., "America's bread basket," was classified as experiencing moderate to exceptional drought.[i] The 2012 corn crop will fall below 11.0 billion bushels, a 17-year bushel per acre low; soybean production will hit a five-year low; and soy yields a 10-year low. The drought severely affected non-agricultural areas, as well. As of August 17, 2012, wildfires had consumed roughly six million acres across the country, above the 10-year average of 4.9 million acres.[ii] Low water levels required closing of an 11-mile stretch of the Mississippi River to barge traffic and wildfires expand from northern California to Idaho.
Global climate change expert Bill McKibben warned: "If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven't convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed . . . the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe."[iii]
These are real facts and real events being lived out by real people. We are tempted to shut down - stop listening and reading - and just watch the football game, or escape into our iPods, retreating once more into our comfort zone. But if we do that, like Judah of old, we risk spiritual peril! But those ancestors in faith have wisdom to share with us. Let's look more closely at today's Isaiah text.
Judah's national story, similar to our own, backgrounds Is 35:4-7a. In eighth century Judah there was immense wealth, but deeper destitution. National prosperity was gained on the backs of the weak and powerless. This affluence supported elaborate Temple worship that was hollow and empty, void of the instilling genuine just social, political, and economic structures and loving actions required by God's covenants with people and all of creation. The comfortable, satiated population was blinded to the fact that their lifestyle stirred God's cold righteous anger and indignation. Such oblivion was a sacrilegious affront to the God who had birthed that people and pledged covenant fidelity to them and all of creation. Comfortable in their own little worlds, Judahites did not see the folly of their ways and the military threat of powerful Assyria at their boarders
These events occasioned the Prophet Isaiah's preaching God's judgment against Judah's sins, and God's passionate invitation to change their evil ways. Isaiah particularly confronted Ahaz, Judah's king (7: 1-17); even giving him a sign of a woman pregnant with a child called Immanuel (God is with us) - but Ahaz ignored him. Ultimately, Judah suffered greatly under Assyrian rule, only to be liberated many years later following a national period of renewal and repentance. It is a vision of renewed liberation that Is. 35:4-7a celebrates.
So what does all of this have to do with us today? Like Judah, the U.S. has great wealth. Yet, while U.S. ranks 4th among the top 47 nations of the world with an overall high standard of living, it ranks 23rd in income equality. The top 20% of U.S. population holds 50.2% of the wealth and the bottom 20% hold a mere 3.3%. In 2010 the U.S. poverty income level was $22,314 for a family of four, and $11,139 for an individual. Some 47 million (1 in 6) Americans were poor in 2011, and the official U.S. poverty rate was 15.7 percent. Meanwhile, in 2012 there were 5,134,000 millionaire households.
We are missing the mark in living our covenant commitments to God, neighbors, and creation. Like Judah, we in the U.S. need to move out of our comfort zones, actively repent, and return to a covenantal way of relational living. Like Isaiah reminded Judah, Pope Benedict XVI challenges us:
The environment is God's gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole....(48). The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa. This invites contemporary society to a serious review of its life-style, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences;" the adoption of new life-styles" is needed .... The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere (51).[iv]
Just as Judah did an about-face, we too can change our ways.[v] "The LORD raises up those who were bowed down. The LORD loves the just" (Ps 146:8-9). Jesus is "Immanuel - God with us" and his healing power is ours to receive. Our new eyes and ears will then focus differently, and we will treat God's earth and all its peoples with reverence and dignity (Mk 7:35). Once again "Streams [will] burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe. The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water" (Is 35:6b-7a).
By Dawn M. Nothwehr, O.S.F., PhD, The Erica and Harry John Family Professor of Catholic Theological Ethics
[iii] Bill McKibben, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math: Three Simple Numbers That Add Up To Global Catastrophe - And That Make Clear Who The Real Enemy Is," Rolling Stone, (August 2, 2012) http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719, accessed August 19, 2012
[iv] Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/ documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20090629_caritas-in-veritate_en.html, accessed August 19, 2012. Also see USCCB, Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection and Action on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching, November 14, 1991, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/environment/renewing-the-earth.cfm, accessed August 19, 2012. See also USCCB, Global Climate Change A Plea for Dialogue Prudence and the Common Good, June 15, 2001, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/environment/global-climate-change-a-plea-for-dialogue-prudence-and-the-common-good.cfm, accessed August 19, 2012.