The story is told of Saint Francis of Assisi going down to a village with one his monks. Their purpose was to preach the Gospel. When they arrived at the village they quickly engaged the local folk in conversation and passed their time helping the villagers with their work, sharing stories, entering into the life of the community. As the end of the day drew near, Francis said to one of his companions that it was time for them to return to the monastery. They were about to make their way out of the village, when Francis' companion, with great concern, said, "Didn't we come here to preach the Gospel to these people? When are we going to do that?" Francis turned to his brother monk and said, "If these people have not heard the Gospel today, then reading from the Bible will not make any difference to them!" And so they went on their way.
If Francis had been an Episcopalian it could fairly be said that he had "read, marked, learned and inwardly digested" all of today's readings!
The letter of James states it most plainly [James 1:22-25]:
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act--they will be blessed in their doing.
James has been seriously misunderstood, and consequently criticized, for apparently advocating a "theology of works," that is to say, for allegedly holding the view that salvation is possible through doing "good works." The statement that usually gets James into trouble is this: "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." [James 2:17].
But this is merely an extension of the encouragement to "be doers of the word" [James 1:22]. For James, the "doing" of "good works" or, more simply, "works" is nothing more nor less than the normal and natural imperative born of hearing the Good News and understanding its implications. In other words, those who hear the Gospel and understand its message will quite simply be moved to take up the work of Jesus Christ and continue that work in their own communities.
The Gospel imperative is always one of active engagement, but never as an optional extra. As another Franciscan, Richard Rohr, the founder of the Centre for Contemplation and Action, puts it: the most important word in the phrase "Contemplation and Action" is "AND."
James leaves no one guessing about the importance of that Gospel imperative.
This, then, is one of the important connections to be made with the reading from Mark's Gospel. It is a precise picture of Jesus "in action," bringing healing to a man who had been deaf and mute.
But the accounts of Jesus' ministry are never meant to be solely "biographical sketches" - if they are that at all. Their purpose is primarily theological and spiritual. In other words, what is said about Jesus tells the reader something about the nature of God: for instance, God's compassion for the broken and wounded, the lost and the floundering. Spiritually, the reader or listener becomes aware of a power beyond themselves who nevertheless works in their midst to alleviate suffering.
It is important to remember that people such as the deaf-mute - and lepers and the less-obviously physically "objectionable" - were effectively excluded from any kind of public or outward access to God through the temple. The advent of Jesus meant that the outcast and marginalized suddenly - perhaps for the first time in their lives - had direct access to God.
At the same time, the gracious approach and touch of Jesus holds a significance that goes far beyond mere altruism and "nice-ness." It was a powerful indication to the people of the time who were able to "read the signs" and understand the metaphors and allusions behind Jesus' actions, that God was working in their midst to bring about the time of peace that had been spoken of and promised centuries before.
Scholars would argue that the story in Mark is symbolic rather than literal. To the person of faith, this is not a problem, since such a view does no violence to the considerably more profound spiritual truths that the story reveals. Faith, after all, is nullified completely by certainty: how does anyone have faith, which always holds the unseen and the partially-known in tension with lived reality and experience, if the answers are clear, given, and indisputable? If anything can be proved beyond doubt, then faith in it is unnecessary and even absurd.
Whatever the scholars say, the spirituality remains intact. That is always the more important consideration. And in the case of this story, the underlying spirituality of hope is supplied by an oracle from the prophet Isaiah, in the words of today's reading from the Hebrew scriptures [Isaiah 35:5-6]:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;
Isaiah was writing for the people in exile in Babylon, offering them hope that they would return to their own land, the land promised and given by God. Yet the quotation from Isaiah is also understood as words of hope for exiles of every time and place. And there are perhaps no sorrier exiles than those who are estranged from the living God. There will come a time, says Isaiah in effect, when what is wrong will be righted.
Mark understood Jesus, the Son of God, as bringing in the time spoken of by Isaiah. That is the nature of the Good News for Mark - that in Jesus what is wrong with the world is being made right, what is broken is being made whole, what is afflicted is being healed. And so Mark makes a connection between his present and the tumultuous world of the prophet Isaiah.
Nevertheless, the continuing spiritual reality is that the story does not end with Mark's Gospel. It does not end with any of the Gospels. Rather, the story of the Good News continues right through to today, to this place, here and now.
At least, that is the intention of the Good News: that it be a living and continuing reality in the presence of God's people in places where there is distress, injustice, affliction and all that is contrary to God's purpose and vision for a saved humanity. Centuries ago, James understood this call to continuing action. His words remain as true today as they were when they were written.
When Christians seek the lost, comfort the grieving, and heal the sick, they are neither acting for their own sake, nor because they are "nice" people. They are certainly not acting because they believe they can earn their place in the kingdom by what they do. No, Christians do these things because they are called to continue the work of Jesus. They share in his ministry and take the message of the Good News into the places where people are unable to hear it for whatever reason. They take the message to places where people have no voice, among them the poor and the powerless. For in today's world, the deaf and the mute are found everywhere, even in the church.
Mark's Gospel is a reminder of God's will that suffering should no longer be the common condition of humankind. The letter of James reminds the faithful that they have an essential share in exactly the same work as Jesus. In a sense, when the faithful accept their calling and engage the ministry of Jesus, they actually become Jesus, and the Kingdom of Heaven is once more brought near - every time, and in every loving, care-filled, compassion-saturated action.
In the words of Saint Francis: PREACH THE GOSPEL EVERYWHERE. IF NECESSARY, USE WORDS.