The Pharisees came out and began to debate with [Jesus],
seeking from him a sign from heaven testing him.
He groaned in his spirit and said,
“Why does this generation seek a sign?
Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”
And leaving them, he again he got in the boat
and went off to the other shore.
The Gospel of St. Mark 8:11-13
The daily gospel readings these early weeks of Ordinary Time can leave you breathless with the pace of St. Mark’s narrative, yet they have several reoccurring themes that are worth our meditation. One, in particular, is how Jesus responds to the ever-present Pharisees lurking at the edges of many of the beautiful actions of our Savior. The gospel reading for today follows the miracle of Jesus feeding the crowd of 4,000 plus hungry folk who had followed him.
The Pharisees, known to “strain at a gnat but swallow a camel,” floundered in their understanding and acceptance of Jesus. Jesus had just fed the large crowd, the word had spread, and now the Pharisees debated with Jesus’ ability to provide a sign from heaven. What?!? What seems so obvious to us illuded the Pharisees. Why? That is worth pondering because if we are not careful to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we can become just as blinded by our pride. Have you ever been in conversation with someone who already had their mind made up about something and they were not interested in your perspective? They just wanted an opportunity to prove their point. In effect, they were saying, “My minds made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.”
Is it any wonder that “Jesus groaned in his spirit?“ He knew the heart of man; he knew the Pharisee’s hardness of heart caused their spiritual blindness. We know he healed some of them of their hardened hearts, but most remained intractable. Jesus’ dismay over humanity’s spiritual blindness wasn’t reserved for the Pharisees, though. A few verses later in the narrative, Jesus has a conversation with the disciples. The scripture doesn’t say it, but I imagine that Jesus once again groaned in his spirit over their lack of understanding.
Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” They said to one another, “It is because we have no bread.” And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
The Gospel of St. Mark 8:14-21
The Greek transliteration of Jesus questions to the disciples reads,
“Do you not perceive, nor understand? Do you keep an obdurate heart in you? Having eyes, do you not look? And having ears do you not listen? And do you not remember?”
Yikes, even the disciples (that would be you and me) missed the boat sometimes (pun intended)! It just so happens that as I set out to write my thoughts down about this scripture reading, I had a moment where I was a bit obdurate myself. (There are many synonyms for obdurate: stiff-necked, unrelenting, adamant, pigheaded, etc.) I greeted the LORD as I awakened, thanking him for the day ahead. It was a day I had already planned for prayer, writing, and reading. I thrive on order and stability, but sometimes my eyes are so fixed on how I think a day should go that I suffer from the same sight and hearing problems the disciples had. And, yes, I have to admit that I can become pharisaical in my determination to get righteousness right! Does that sound as funny to you as it does to me?
My day started with a plan in mind, but in the LORD’s mind, he wanted to restore my sight about the limitations of my health that I regularly try to ignore. The matter of my health is beside the point in light of how the LORD got my attention. I sensed him saying to me, “Lois, you are zealous for me, but sometimes you struggle with balance. The sign I’ve given you is clear; your body needs to lay down and rest. You have a choice now. Are you going to ignore the sign I’ve given to you, or are you going to pig-headedly force this day to go according to your big fat ego!” No, kidding, that’s just how the day started. At least on this day, I answered the LORD by remembering that I am his beloved daughter and that he desires holiness as well as wholeness for me.
What would have happened to the stiff-necked Pharisees if they would hadn’t been so hell-bent on proving their points with Jesus? They would have received all the graces of salvation that Jesus desired for them because he loved them. We know that eventually, the disciples learned to see and hear what Jesus was giving to humanity through his flesh in miracles and teachings. The disciples transformed into the freedom of spirit that comes from the humble acceptance that we are not in control and that life is not about us.
“Hardness of the heart” is another description used for obdurance, and that hits too close to home when putting that way, does it not? Jesus comes to us offering his grace and mercy as he did to the Pharisees, the crowds that pursued him, and the disciples that followed him. I ask you what I ask the LORD.
LORD, am I so consumed by concern about what’s happening around me that I don’t leave room to be surprised by your grace? You answer me: I know what you need, be more concerned that my kingdom comes into you. I’ll take care of everything else.
LORD, in my determination to gain the upper hand in this relationship, am I losing sight of your desire for me to humble myself? Even before this person who is a burr under the saddle of my existence? You say to me: Don’t second guess her; that’s my job. Pull out that tangle of thorns under your saddle.
LORD, am I following your commandments and precepts to impress others or to love the others? You answer me: “…without love for Me and others; you can do nothing.”
But what about So and So, LORD? Does she seem to look for opportunities to make me feel insignificant? You answer me: No one can use their words to “revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you” without answering to me. Rejoice and take heart, I love you, and that is all that matters!
LORD Jesus, open our eyes and ears so that your kingdom may come into us!
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be, world without end.