The Prophet Isaiah, IBenedetto Gennari il Giovane
Isa 35:4-7, Mark 7:31-37
Isaiah is the Shakespeare of Scripture. Most of Isaiah is poetry. It is beautiful in its composition, set almost like a musical symphony. It’s not without reason that my scripture professor used to say, that Handel’s Messiah was probably the best interpretation of Isaiah he had come across. We hear one such beautiful excerpt today, bursting with hope and joy. It is all the more beautiful because it appears within the first part of Isaiah, which is quite dark and tense, commonly referred to as the book of Judgment. That the ears of the deaf will be opened, and the dumb will sing for joy; rivers will appear in the scorched land. As Isaiah began to prophecy, Israel and Judah had been quite prosperous and relatively trouble free. The simple assumption was that God was blessing them, because they were his people. But while everything looked good on the outside, things were not so beautiful under the hood. Far from being a people of God, they had very much become like their neighbours. They were oppressing the poor, there was no justice in the land and with few exceptions, the kings were corrupt. Now a new superpower, Assyria was on the rise, which could only mean danger for Israel and its neighbours. Isaiah was sent to prophecy to the very young king. He should repent and put his trust in God, rather than the other nations and God will protect them. If he would not, Assyria – and then Babylon – would become God’s instrument of judgment against Israel. But as Isaiah is already warned, the king would not listen, and the judgment of God will come upon Israel.
Israel was unique not because they were a great nation, but simply because God had chosen them. He gave them his Word which is his love. This Word is what created the heavens and earth. And so, the primal creed of Israel was the Shema – Listen Israel! Israel’s primary call was to listen. In listening they would be free, free to love; which is why the Shema was followed by Love the Lord your God with all your heart. It was in listening to this Word that they would know who they were – a people loved by their God. When you know you are uniquely loved, you don’t need to be in competition with anyone else. But the great temptation of Israel was to find their identity by listening to the other nations. To know from them what it meant to be great. When we willingly turn away from love, our hearts become hardened. And these same nations would destroy them. Isaiah understands their spiritual condition even as he begins and what his preaching will do to them:
“Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people fat …lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Isa 6:9-10
Those who are blind usually have an extraordinary power of hearing, which they rely on to find their way. To be blind and deaf, means you’re at the mercy of different forces. You do not know what is going on or where you are going. And it leaves one terrified. A ‘fat’ heart is frequently used in the OT to describe Israel in rebellion. Physically, if you have fat around your heart, your danger of having a sudden heart attack rises sharply. Apparently it results in a condition called ‘atrial fibrillation’ which causes an abnormally fast heart rate. And the problem is that such fat is not easily detected; you can look quite fit and still be a walking heart attack. And this is the spiritual condition of those in rebellion. They seemed healthy but are enslaved, at the mercy of force and not in control of their lives; their hearts are beating hard – as they do when you’re terrified. Your fortunes can change any time. And this word of hope bursts in on to the people – “Say to all faint hearts, ‘Courage! Do not be afraid. Your God is coming, vengeance is coming… to save you.”
The vengeance of God is his passion to free his people from everything that destroys them. As we come to the gospel, Israel is once again enslaved. Their hopes are on the Messiah who will wield the vengeance of God against Rome. But he instead, opens their ears. Rome might be enslaving his people now, but it was their own hearts which were hard, bringing Rome’s judgment. The man brought to Jesus is one with a speech impediment, someone who can speak, but with difficulty. His ability to speak indicates that he was able to hear at some point but lost it subsequently. He becomes a symbol of Israel in its rebellion. And Jesus takes him away from the crowds and blocks out his ears with his fingers. You cannot be healed if the problem is you’re listening to the wrong people. This was to be an encounter with the One in whose image he was made. And he touches his tongue with his saliva. This might seem strange now, but the healing properties of saliva are well known. But even more, in doing so, Jesus communicates to him his own power of speech. And he does this in an act of great intimacy, the equivalent of a kiss. And he sighs, expressing the passion of his Father who longs for us to be healed; and as he does, he breathes forth his Spirit, just as Adam was created by the breath of God blown into his nostrils. This is an act of re-creation, of renewal. The people react with the same word that describes God’s pronouncement on creation – it is good.
We are the heirs of the promises to Israel. When you were baptised, the priest would have placed his fingers on your lips and your ears and prayed the ephata prayer: “May he soon open your ears to listen to His word and may he soon open your lips to proclaim this Word.” Like Israel, we were birthed through an encounter with the same Word of love which God spoke over us, before the foundations of the world. It is in listening every day to this Word that we can find our identity. Too often, just like Israel, we seek our identity elsewhere. We can look healthy, but we live in fear. But God is waiting to speak his Word over us which sets us free. He does this through the Scriptures. He does this in the intimacy of our prayer, away from the crowds.
The Scriptures are, after the Eucharist, the greatest treasure we have as Catholics. One way of listening is through the ancient practice of Lectio Divina. Each day, take time to allow the Holy Spirit to speak to you in the Word. Today, we are facing judgment after judgment on the church. The terrible scandals are all the fruit of the hardness of heart of a number of her ministers. People have walked away in great numbers. And it has left the Church unable to proclaim the Word to a world which is in desperate need of it. But the renewal comes about, like Israel, through our ears being opened. In letting this Word of life transform our hearts. And for this we pray.