23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Purity of Mercy
We live in desperate times. Most people who are paying attention to the world around them will agree with that statement. In our society, our nation, our personal lives, and even in the life of the Church, desperation seems the prevailing atmosphere. There’s an old saying that people always rehash in such days: “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”
Many years ago there was a pro football team that was in a desperate situation. It was an important game, their whole season with its championship aspirations was on the line, they were a few points behind, the goal line was far down the field, and there was time for only one more play. Either they scored now, or the season was over. From the bench came the call: “Big Ben Right.” All the players in the huddle were shocked – this was a bizarre play they had only worked on once in practice, and it had never been successful. Now, with all on the line, the coach called this one? But desperate times call for desperate measures. All the receivers lined up on the right side of the line of scrimmage and, at the snap of the ball, ran harem-scarem down the field. The quarterback heaved the ball as high and as far as he could, not aiming at any particular target. The goal was for the team to tap the ball around and hope for a lucky break. The opposing defense had no idea what to do – they had never seen a formation like this, a play like this. It all depended on luck rather than precision.
Miraculously, after being tapped about several times, the ball was plucked out of the air by one of the team’s receivers who then streaked down the field. Touchdown! The season was saved! The desperate measures had paid off!
Predictably, within two weeks, every team in the league had a play similar to “Big Ben Right” in their playbook. Most of them referred to it as a “Hail Mary” pass. (A sad commentary on our society: when all else fails, try praying) But Big Ben Right extremely rarely, if ever, worked again. It was a desperate measure for a desperate situation that worked once. Next desperate situation, try another desperate measure.
Today’s Gospel relates the desperate situations of two individuals: the mother of a possessed girl and a man who could neither hear nor speak. If you doubt their desperation, put yourself in their places. What would it be like to have such a child? You would always be living on eggshells, waiting for the next attack, the next eruption. And you can get insight into the desperation of the deaf man by the word his friends used when they came to Jesus: they entreated Him to help. The word means to implore, to exhort, to beg. This was no casual request. They, and he, were desperate! And what was the desperate measure both these people decided upon? Call Jesus!
We can remember a couple of other biblical characters in similarly desperate situations, the widow of Zarepheth and Naaman the Syrian. The woman was destitute, and she and her son were about to starve to death. Her desperate measure: Make one last meal, then die. But the measure of the prophet was even more desperate: “Share the meal with me first, then you get some.” But just like Big Ben Right, the desperate measure worked. Their flour and oil miraculously extended until the end of the famine. With Naaman, his desperate situation was leprosy. There was no cure, and there was no remission. He was a man who came closer to death every day. His desperate measure, prescribed by the prophet, was to take a bath in a muddy river. Even Naaman felt that was too desperate! But when his servants reminded him of the severity of his desperation, he took the plunge, and came out clean.
So in these cases, what seemed like desperate measures weren’t actually desperate at all. Turning to God never is. Likewise with the two in the Gospel for today. Turning to Jesus was not a desperate measure, it was an act of faith. How do we know the woman had faith? In Matthew’s version of this story Jesus says, “O woman, your faith is great.” (Matthew 15: 28)
Looking at these four cases, it seems we need to amend the adage. Instead of “Desperate times call for desperate measures” I think we can say
“Desperate times call for faith in God.”
What kind of faith should we have? To begin with, faith in His word. Whether it be the words of the prophets, “Share with me what you have,” or “Go wash in the Jordan seven times,” or “Go your way, the demon has gone out of your daughter,” or Ephphatha, be opened!” we hear and believe God’s word in the mouth of his prophets. We also hear and believe His word as recorded in the Bible, words like Isaiah 35: 4 which we heard read this morning, “Your God will come with vengeance!” No matter how desperate your times are, he comes with a vengeance!
As today’s theme reminds us, we also have faith in His mercy. As Matthew reported, the woman kept crying out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord.” She reasoned that if the Lord would have mercy on a lowly dog, there was mercy for her, as well. And she was right. The reading from James tells us, “Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2: 13b) and later on in the epistle he proclaims, “You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful.” (James 5: 11)
Another who was quite familiar with desperate times was St. Paul. In 2 Corinthians 4: 8 he said that he and his team had been “perplexed, but not in despair.” Later on in the passage he confesses, “But having the same spirit of faith.” (v. 13) Like the four believers we’ve been looking at, St. Paul knew how to respond to desperate times with faith, not more desperation. Earlier, in chapter one, he had said, “We do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God Who raises the dead; Who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on Whom we have set our hope.” (2 Corinthians 1: 8-10) He mentions not only faith, but also trust and hope, as keys to overcoming despair, the fruit of desperation.
So we see that it is not “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” but “Desperate times call for faith in God.” But now we come to the question, “How can we tell the difference?” As we have seen in the biblical accounts today, sometimes an act of desperation can look an awful lot like an act of faith. How can we tell if it is Big Ben Right or washing in the Jordan? The difference is simple:
In an act of desperation, our faith is in the act.
In an act of faith, our faith is in God and His mercy.
You are probably in a place today where you are feeling desperate. You are in desperate times, and are ready to take desperate measures. May I just advise a little patience, and listen for the voice of the Lord? It says in James 5:11, “Remember the patience of Job.” We forget how patient Job was. He lost everything, but it was never explained to him why things happened in his life. We can read the book of Job and we know what happened, but he didn’t. He was living in the middle of his situation with no idea what he was going through. He had so much patience in a degree that he was an example of patience even to this day. God may have allowed things to happen in his life so that people can still find hope in Job’s situation. We can all the ‘whys’ in our lives, but like Job, we don’t question God. We say, “Lord, I know you are in-charge I know You are God, and I am going to keep my faith, my hope and my trust in You and in Your mercy.”
Remember faith, trust, hope, and yes, mercy. He even has mercy on us when we have been guilty of acts of desperation! God has still mercy upon us, and He is ready to speak which can bring you out of that desperation. He is willing to forgive those acts, and then speak to us of acts of faith which He desires us to do. Just remember, your faith belongs in Him, and not the act.
Because desperate times call for faith in God.