Sunday Word

Toxic talk

Father Ben Berinti
Sunday, Sept. 23
Wis 2:12, 17-20; Ps 54:3-4, 5, 6-8; Jas 3:16–4:3; Mk 9:30-37

More than any other writer of New Testament letters, I find James the most irritating, because he’s the most practical. While in theory, at least, we believe that the word of God proclaimed in our presence is always a word spoken directly from God to us in that particular moment, and not merely some historical, passé regurgitation of old news, sometimes it is hard to accept that poke in the ribs, knock upside the head, or punch in the gut the word of God often delivers as “real-time” word of life.

James was addressing a community in deep conflict, with plenty of fighting and arguing, taking sides and excluding, shouting and shaming—which makes his lesson for this Sunday all the more alive in our midst, since it seems our communities exhibit much of the same behaviors and attitudes. James was seeking a gentler, more peaceful community rather than a community intoxicated with toxic talk — incendiary flame-throwing that was destroying the very heart and soul of the community.

The author of Wisdom, another good place to find practical, real-life advice for navigating our lives, knows the power of words to do harm, to even kill, and exposes those who try to out-shout, out-maneuver, and destroy those whom they find “obnoxious to us” — namely, those who live in righteousness and justice — and who refuse to keep those virtues to themselves, but rather prophetically call others to the way God intends for human beings to live in this world God created as good.

Continuing his conversation and admonitions from last week’s Gospel, Jesus reasserts the painful, cross-shaped path of discipleship, which for his listeners has also become a kind of “toxic talk.” But here the disciples take a less drastic approach than those described in the Book of Wisdom and try to snuff out Jesus’ teaching by employing another useful tool when faced with something one doesn’t want to hear or listen to: Just change the subject! Divert attention from the truth at hand by steering the conversation in a completely different direction,a tactic very much alive in our world. Jesus catches the disciples red-faced as they admit to conjecturing about individual greatness and importance rather than facing and digesting his talk of suffering and death.

And then Jesus disarms them by placing a child in their midst —representing complete vulnerability and dependence — and calls them to receive the child as they would receive Jesus himself and the Father who sent him, for Jesus is to become total vulnerability and dependence, the servant of all, who seeks to turn all toxic talk into words for everlasting life.

Father Berinti, Missionaries of the Most Precious Blood, is pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Melbourne Beach.

Miscalculation

Father Ben Berinti
Sunday, Sept. 16
Is 50:5-9a; Ps 116:1-6, 8-9; Jas 2:14-18; Mk 8:27-35

Ever recall a moment in your teenage-sassy years when you may have made some flippant, less-than-respecting-your-parent remark, and the parental comeback was the patented, “Who do you think you’re talking to? Who do you think I am? One of the kids down the street?”

That mistaken tone of voice or smart-aleck jab was definitely a case of overreach and miscalculation, as well as a presumption that didn’t fit the proper understanding of “parent.”

And such is the miscalculation in the account of “Who do you say that I am?” in the Evangelist Mark’s passage for this Sunday. Peter, in his usual barrel-chested style blurts out: “You are the Christ!” But in reality, he presumes a very different meaning to the title “Christ” than the one Jesus is about to reveal to him. For Peter, there is the hope and promise of glory and triumph that traditionally are associated with the “Christ” (and the expectation that some of those benefits will pass on to disciples who follow him).

But Jesus radically redefines the meaning of “Christ” for Peter and any other would-be disciple: Deny yourself; take up your cross and follow me. That is, “follow me” along the path I will take: great suffering, rejection and, ultimately, loss of life.”

Oh yes, there will be “rising,” but not until the previous steps have been completed with commitment and passion.

Peter faces the same options of the prophet Isaiah in our first lesson. Isaiah asks the Lord “open my ears that I may hear,” but fears that what he may “hear” will not be pleasant or enticing, and therefore lead to a response of rebellion and turning back — choices he hopes not to make. Peter doesn’t like what he hears and offers a rebuke of Jesus for such foolish talk and expectation. Jesus, on his part, sets Peter straight in no uncertain terms.

How often do we, along the path of our faith journey in life, ask the Lord to open our ears (and eyes and hands and heart), but then don’t like what we hear coming back to us (or don’t want to look at what we see, or don’t want to receive what is placed in our hands or on our hearts)?

So, the most honest response we give to “Who do you say that I am?” is, “It depends.” It depends on what we’re looking for, hoping for, desiring from the Lord at that moment, and thus we construct a “Christ” that fits our needs and not the truth of his cross-shaped life.

The “faith” part of accepting Jesus as the Christ can be somewhat simple, if it is nothing more than a credal statement or a word said in a prayer. But to know Christ as one who does the “works” that he does, especially as the Letter of James points out, giving a brother or sister something to wear and something to eat when they are in desperate straits, attending to the “necessities of the body” before offering doctrine or catechetics or pious platitudes, is to truly embrace the fullest meaning of and the person whom we name “Christ.”

Peter eventually comes to find the great gift and treasure hidden inside the frightening truth of Jesus’ declaration about what it means to follow him. And if you and I stay the course — not settle for idle chatter about Christ, and make it our work to serve the needy wherever and however we find them in our lives — we too will share that same gift: a fulfilling life gained only by losing it.

Listen first

Father Ben Berinti
Sunday, Sept. 9
Is 35:4-7a; Ps 146:7-10; Jas 2:1-5; Mk 7:31-37

It was my first day walking the August-steamy streets of Kingston, Jamaica. This was no casual sauntering around an all-inclusive island resort, but rather baby steps on a weeklong pilgrimage with fellow parishioners, invited to experience the missionary work of Food for the Poor.

As we made our way to a ramshackle, abandoned building in complete disrepair — a broken-cement structure that had morphed into a kind of open-air “nursing home,” no less overflowing with suffering people than the Gospel pool at Bethsaida (alas, here no pool in sight) — we were stopped in our tracks first by the odor emanating from the structure, but then by the words painted on the exterior wall leading to the entryway. The paint was blood red, and the bottoms of each letter were dripping down the façade.

Like a slap in the face, we read the words: “Tell the story!” This was to become my personal motto, not merely for the duration of the pilgrimage, but for all the days following my return to our parish. But first, before any of us could “tell the story,” we needed to hear the story.

In the evangelist Mark’s rendition of the healing of the deaf-mute, there is a revelatory structure, a progression to Jesus’ visceral and tactile action that, I believe, is no accident. Ears are opened, then tongue is loosened, and finally words are spoken. Jesus groans, “Be opened,” But before the man’s tongue is set free, before he becomes a plain-speaker, he must first become a listener.

The prophecy of Isaiah proclaims a God who is coming to us with exceedingly astonishing wonders: the lame learning new dance steps; streams bursting forth from arid landscapes; burning sands transformed into crystal-clear pools; blind eyes sparkling with new vision.

And as if Isaiah is not exuberant enough with God’s promises, the psalmist this Sunday sings loudly in praise of God who “raises the bowed down, protects strangers, sustains widows and orphans, feeds the hungry, and delivers justice to the oppressed.”

But before any of these things make their way into the lives of real people, before they can be transfigured from dreamy words on a page of the Bible, the stories of those who are yet awaiting these promises of God must have their stories heard, listened to and compassionately embraced.

For us to engage in the Gospel life, to partner with the Lord, to be co-workers in the vineyard, we too must have our ears opened and listen to the cries of the poor and suffering long before we start opening our mouths about those in need. For we surely live in a culture that is all too quick to pontificate about immigrants, those mired in violence and poverty, those who lack access to adequate health care, those who go days without food or drink, those who live on the streets or in their cars, those who are locked behind barbed-wall prisons. At times we are anxious to open our mouths before we have taken the time to listen, to open our ears to the stories of those we easily analyze, evaluate and often condemn. Perhaps through the proclamation of this Sunday’s word, Jesus intends a miracle for us — that our ears might be opened; that we will have the capacity, in the words of St. Benedict, to “listen with the ears of our hearts” to the stories of the ones whom the Lord comes to save. After all, as St. James’ uncomfortable reminder queries: “Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom?”

Indeed, in order to “tell the story,” we’ll need to listen to the story, and for this, Lord, we beg you, stick your finger in our ears and declare: “Be opened.”

Father Berinti, Missionaries of the Most Precious Blood, is pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Melbourne Beach.

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United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

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