Homily: 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle B
Friends, in our first reading today, the prophet Jeremiah talks about the Israelite exiles returning from their dispersion to Jerusalem—God's holy city. His message from the Lord contains beautiful language that, for the exiled Israelite, would have been the best news that he/she had heard in a very long time. Here Jeremiah takes on roles beyond that of prophet: the role of “angel”, or “God’s messenger”, as well as “evangelist”, that is, someone who brings “good news”. The message is beautiful because it names the anawim, that is, the poor ones, who might not otherwise be included in a large traveling group—the blind, the lame, mothers with children, etc.—and declares that they, too, will be included in this return to Jerusalem. Still further, the news declares that this will be a triumphant return: in which the roads by which they will return will be smooth—in order to make the travel easier—and that there will be abundant water along the way, so that no one loses strength. Those Israelites would have heard in this message the contrast to the other great return from exile—the Exodus from Egypt—in which their ancient forefathers traveled over rough roads and were often without water on their journey to the land which God had promised them. This contrast would have increased their joy at this good news.
As I reflected on this passage, images of the migrant caravan making its way from Honduras, through Mexico, and towards the United States came to mind. Please allow me to say, up front, that I am not equating this caravan of migrants and the ancient Israelites. There are obvious differences: the migrants are leaving their homeland, not returning to it, and, as far as I have heard, this isn’t a migration foretold by God. Nonetheless, there are similarities: those in the caravan are fleeing what, for them, feels like a desperate situation in their homeland; thus, the news of a caravan going to a land in which they have hope for a better future for themselves and their families inspired them to begin the journey. The images of women with children and other seemingly weak persons taking part in this caravan also resonate with me as I reflect on this passage. Now, I don’t claim to know what the right thing to do will be when they arrive at our border, but I hope that we will hear their hopes and respond gracefully.
Going back to the scriptures: in the Gospel we see Jesus enacting a fulfillment of this prophecy from Jeremiah. If you’ve been following along over the past few weeks, Jesus has been on his way to Jerusalem: his final trip to Jerusalem. Over the past few years, he had been teaching and quite a large group of disciples had begun to follow him. On this last trip to Jerusalem, going up for the great feast of Passover, this large group of disciples were following him: giving us an image of the exiled Israelites being led back to God’s holy city. Leaving Jericho (itself a city of symbolism: as it was the city at the lowest point—geographically—on the journey to Jerusalem from which one truly began his/her “ascent” to God in Jerusalem), the blind man Bartimeus calls out to Jesus and asks for “mercy”. He uses the messianic term—”Son of David”—to address Jesus, thus also indicating that Jesus is doing something bigger than just “going up for the feast”. Jesus stops, calls the man to him and grants him his desire to see. Although Jesus dismisses the man to his own way, Bartimeus begins to follow Jesus to Jerusalem: the blind now joining in this “return from exile”. While this, in itself, is an important connection to make, I think that there is more for us to take away this Sunday.
One image that came to mind while I was reflecting on this Gospel passage was the “running scene” in the film Forrest Gump. Forrest is in middle age and has accomplished amazing things in his life. He’s lost his mom and some close friends and in a moment of reflection, he decides to get up and start running. Although he didn’t intend to go far at first, as he reached each “boundary” (the street, the town, the county, the state), he just decided to keep running. He ran to the Pacific Ocean and then turned around and ran to the Atlantic Ocean. Then, he turned around and ran back to the Pacific Ocean: all, by his own account, “for no particular reason”. Soon the media finds out that this guy is running coast to coast continuously and people start to take interest. People are intrigued and think that he must be some sort of “spiritual or political guru” to do something so radical and yet to be so quiet about it and so begin to follow him. They think that he must be going somewhere and want to follow him there. Ultimately, however, Forrest wasn’t going anywhere: he “just felt like running”. And so, when he stopped feeling that way, he stopped running and went home: leaving his “followers”, stunned and speechless, in the middle of a desert highway.
I thought of this because of the contrast to Jesus in the Gospel. There, Jesus is going somewhere: he’s leading people to the fulfillment of the promise; he’s leading people to Jerusalem, where he will be crucified. Those who are following him, are following him to the cross. The healing of the blind man Bartimeus shows us that Jesus came “to make all things new”; and his leading people to Jerusalem where he will be crucified shows us that it is through the cross that he will accomplish it. Still more, the healing of Bartimeus and his subsequent following of Jesus shows us that Jesus desires that no one be left behind: if only they would cry out to him for mercy and respond to him when he calls. For us who have been called and responded, it is a reminder that Jesus is not leading us to nowhere, but rather from our exile to the “new Jerusalem”: which is eternal life in God’s heavenly kingdom.
My brothers and sisters, one thing we should take from these readings today is this: that we are both Bartimeus and Jesus. Bartimeus because we all have spiritual (and perhaps physical) blindnesses that only Jesus can heal; and that we have to cry out to him, asking for his mercy. Jesus because he chooses to work through us so that others might come to experience his mercy, too. We, therefore, must both cry out to him for his mercy and call out to the blind who are on the side of the road to come to him. To put it, perhaps, more distinctly: here in the Mass we are Bartimeus; then, at the end of Mass, we are sent out to be Jesus.
Friends, here we are: in exile in this world! But God knows that he made us to be with him in the eternal holy city that he has prepared for us. We are following Jesus, who desires to lead all who willingly come to him into that eternal city and his death, resurrection from the dead, and ascension into heaven is our proof that he isn’t leading us to nowhere, but to that place to which, deep within us, we desperately long to return. Let us, therefore, cry out to him today for his mercy (and for mercy on all those torn by violence in this world!) and receive from him—from this altar—what we most desire: union with him. Then, armed with this euangelium—this good news—let us go back into the world to proclaim it with our lives.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – October 28th, 2018