[Homily. College Chapel. Feb 17, 1915]
Our Gospel reading for today (Mk 8:14-21) is the continuation of yesterday’s Gospel (Mk 8: 11-13). Since I discussed these two Gospel readings together in my homily at the Mass for College Days, I hope those who were there don’t mind hearing again a portion of what I said yesterday.
Yesterday we saw the Pharisees trying to trip up Jesus, to tempt him to excess in performing a spectacular miracle to bring about his downfall. In bad faith, they demand a sign. Jesus does not give it.
Instead in today’s Gospel he says, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.” As we know: Leaven is what is mixed with dough so that in baking bread it properly rises. “Leaven” here is used figuratively to refer to some inner human vitality, some inner life energy, that makes a person grow and flourish. But in the Markan Gospel, Jesus uses “leaven of the Pharisees” insultingly. It refers to an inner evil principle of sick interior growth, something like a physical cancer within, that grows and kills. The leaven of the Pharisees is their self-deceiving megalomania that turns into deception of others, their deluded inner conviction that they have the truth about God when all they have is pettiness, that they are the way to God when they are merely the way to themselves, that they are the living examples of how to relate to God when their example only leads people astray. They took the sacred scriptures and reduced them to purely external ritualistic observances. They taught that salvation was following these rituals, getting it right, getting it perfect, never leaving anything out, reducing the religious relation to mere superstitious ritualism, devoid of love, mercy and compassion. That is why Jesus, who wanted to introduce his Father as loving and compassionate, had harsh words for them: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitened tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but inwardly are full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” (Mt. 23:27-28). The leaven of the Pharisees, the pride in our self-serving piety that seeks to undermine Jesus, we must beware of in ourselves.
But for those who approached Jesus hungry for the truth, yearning for genuine human life, to those whose leaven was not “of the Pharisees” but the inner human hunger for truth and life, he provided abundant signs. As a sign, Jesus fed four thousand with one loaf of bread and had seven baskets of bread left over (Mt. 8:1-10); as a sign, he opened the ears of a deaf man with the word “Ephphata!” (7:31-37); in Tyre, as a sign, he cured the possessed daughter of a Syro-Phoenician woman. Perhaps, the good news for us here is that for those who approach Jesus with genuine inner hunger for truth and life and joy he will not fail us. He will work out his wonders, convince us of his truth, enrich our lives and fill us with joy through many signs. We have only to approach him.
We have only to approach him and keep on approaching him. In this context, perhaps we can today ask him for help in two areas: first, the prayer, “Lord, teach me to pray.” And second, the prayer, “Lord, that I might see.”
“Teach me to pray!” (cf Lk 11:1-4). Even those of us who have been walking with Jesus for a while and have made it a habit to come to Mass daily, may still find it easy to join in the apostles’ request to Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray!” We may find it difficult to find the time to pray. So many things are going on, so may pressures to perform outstandingly, so many tasks to fulfill, so many deadlines. Spending time alone in prayer is truly difficult. In prayer, focusing on God or on Jesus is sometime truly difficult. In prayer, I think about my unfinished projects, my exam in one week, the things I have to buy before the stores close. When we want to focus on God we are distracted by the curdling in our stomach, the little pain in our leg, the twitch in our eye. Jesus knows how difficult this may be. That is why when we go to him and say, “Lord, teach us to pray,” he responds favorably. He will not refuse to teach us. He says: call God Father, not just your Father, but Our Father. Pray, truly, “Thy Kingdom come.” Thy will be done.” Mean it. When there is pain that possesses us and hatred that rules us, “Thy Kingdom come.” When in confusion so many people want to take advantage of us, manipulate us, and lead us astray, “Thy will be done.” “Forgive us our trespasses.” First, let me admit I have trespasses, let me see how through my loose tongue I have truly wronged others, let me admit that to get to my present position of power and influence, I have tread wrongfully on others. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I expect to be forgiven, but often I cannot forgive others. I can’t forgive especially those closest to me, my husband or wife, my son or daughter, my brother or sister, who have hurt or wronged me. Jesus teaches us to pray. Regularly, he goes off to a lonely place to pray. In times of distress he prays. In prayer he sweats; he even sweats blood. But at bottom he prays, “Father, not my will, but thine be done” (Mt. 26:39).
“Lord, that we may see.” (cf. Mt. 30:32ff). Today we are bombarded by so many images, fantastic shapes with rich colors: rich landscapes, magnificent skyscrapers, heroic bodies, tender loving, unspeakable violence. They come in TV, in the movies, in the internet promising pleasure, ecstasy, joy, happiness, truth, but bringing often disappointment, human debasement, pain, suffering and confusion. The intensity of the images, mesmerizing not only eyes, but also ears, and all that I can touch and feel, sets off dynamics in us that overwhelm. They are blinding images, so that seeing, we do not see, and rationalizing we do not reason. Wanting the truth and the fullness of life, we are shortchanged in a sea of superficial images and unkept promises. That is why when we approach Jesus and he asks of us, “What is it that you want from me?” like the two blind men in Matthew’s Gospel, our prayer might be, “Lord, that we may see” – that in all the images competing for my attention and for my soul, we may recognize the signs of his presence and of his providence, and discern the truth.
“Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees,” Jesus says. Let our prayer be: Lord, teach me to pray. Lord, that I might see, that I might recognize the signs of your presence in my life!