Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Homily. Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time. Year B.

The problem of the confrontation between good and evil, of its outcome, and of a possible redemption wished and waited for, is at the heart of the most ancient literary traditions that constitute the Book of Genesis and to which belongs the excerpt read this Sunday. Today we hear about the ‘Fall’ — the sin of Adam and Eve — where sin first entered the world and humankind gained their inheritance from their first parents. ‘Original Sin.’ But God is good, and it is through his mercy and grace, through the washing in the waters of baptism, this original sin is washed away.

Reflection on the problem of evil stems from the experience of suffering, the painful character of work, death, the evil desires that haunt the human heart, revolts against God, and of a universal perversion that takes many forms. As to belief in the mystery of redemption, it results from the deep conviction that ‘God writes straight with crooked lines,’ is able to transform the series of repeated human failures into a history of salvation.

In the beginning, we find disobedience to God’s order—sin—instigated by a mysterious, cunning, intelligent, and malevolent being—the serpent—who causes the Fall of humankind. The event is recorded in the manner of a popular tale whose apparent simplicity reveals, to anyone with eyes to see, the depth of the author’s reflection and his talent as a narrator. God must come on the scene for Adam to become aware of his fault and perceive that it is the origin of the malaise he feels. ‘The Lord God called to the man and asked him, ‘where are you?’ He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, but I was afraid because I was naked.’ ‘Thesudden fear of God, who only yesterday was familiar, and the shame of himself, hitherto unknown, are the first manifestations Adam feels of the disorder introduced by sin; for it is true, he has eaten of the forbidden fruit. But immediately, reflex of self-defence comes into play, to transfer to God the responsibility of the happening: ‘The woman you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it.’ As a father faces his children who, having committed some foolishness, seek to exculpate themselves by accusing one another, God turns to the woman, ‘Why did you do such a thing?’ And she, too, finds an excuse, ‘The serpent tricked me into it, so I ate it.’ Obviously, the author wants to get to the origin of sin. By interrupting the reading after God sentences the serpent, this Sunday’s liturgy stresses the promise of the complete defeat of the one through whom sin entered the world. This way of proceeding is entirely consonant with the tradition that has seen in this narrative the first announcement of the Gospel, the proto-evangelium.

‘Christians can never speak of sin and guilt without speaking of the forgiveness promised and granted in Christ to human beings. It is precisely in the misery of 

sin—this too is the revelation of the first pages of the Bible—that the promise of God’s salvation is given to humankind; and this is why justification, redemption, and salvation cannot come from humans’ own strength or from the merit of their own actions. Thus, on the one hand, sin reveals human weakness and, on the other hand, in sin, God reveals the greatness of his grace. Human guilt becomes in Christ a happy guilt. Augustine even speaks of the ‘necessary sin of Adam that gained for us so great a Redeemer. A text which has been incorporated into the great liturgy of the Easter vigil, in the Exultet.’ (Based on the Proclamation of Easter. The Exultet).

Finally, God and the serpent join in battle. Man and Woman will be punished for their fault, but the instigator of their disobedience will be cursed. The fact that it moves by crawling is considered to be the sign—and the punishment—of its heinous crime. It is destined to an attitude of permanent humiliation. All the days of its life, it will be reduced to eating dirt and condemned to fight a losing battle against those it had hoped to subject to itself by taking them away from God. An enmity will be established between their two progenies. The woman’s offspring will strike at the serpent’s head, but the serpent will be able to strike only at the offsprings heel. To the end, the author remains faithful to the picturesque and symbolic literary genre he has chosen, the only one possible, no doubt, that is appropriate to conveying his reflection on the subject and to sharing it with large numbers of readers. Everyone indeed can understand that, though strenuous, the struggle will end with the defeat of the serpent whose head will be crushed, as God foretold.

But what must we—or what can we—understand by ‘offspring’? Does the term designate an individual or more than one person? That it refers to an individual is supported by the fact that one of the protagonists of the battle—the serpent—is an individual character. We are therefore justified in understanding that the serpent will one day be confronted by a being who will prevail over it. Moreover, at the time of the literary tradition of which this story is a part and was set down in writing—at the time of Solomon, David’s son—old hopes had become more focused and intense; a conqueror would rise from the people born of Abraham, and through him, the progeny of the ancient serpent would be overcome.

And who is the woman who will give birth to this progeny? Eve, projected beyond herself into a faraway future, disappears in favour of a Woman—we must capitalise the word—who will appear in messianic times like the victor who will overpower the serpent, she will be an unusual character, the mother of the great conqueror. Such a place given to a woman must not surprise us. Let us remember, among others Sarah, Abraham’s wife; Rebekah; Rachel; ‘the virgin [who] shall be with child, and bear a son and shall name him Immanuel, that is, God with us.’ And finally Micah’s prophecy concerning Bethlehem of Judah, which will witness the birth of the son of her ‘who is to give birth.’ Each of these played an important role in the fulfilment of the plan of salvation. The Bible stresses this, and we cannot forget or ignore it. A woman has been the first to be tainted by sin: through a woman, the first in order of grace, will come the salvation promised from the beginning and toward which our hope is directed.

We now turn to today’s gospel, and Jesus—the Messiah—the great conqueror. It is understandable that certain attitudes of Jesus shocked people, especially when they challenged a practice as steeped in tradition as the sabbath. Here he, [Jesus] is accused by the scribes of expelling demons by their chief Beelzebub, and of being himself possessed by an unclean spirit. Would it not be better to forget these sorry facts that the gospel writer has recorded [we wonder why]? And why mention them to Christians assembled for the liturgy? They know that Jesus was endowed with the divine authority and power of the Holy Spirit. They are now gathering to welcome, with thanksgiving the salvation first announced by God from the beginning, then accomplished by Jesus. But for that very reason, must we not apply ourselves to hear this Gospel anew with our attention free from all prejudice, trusting the judgement of the Church, which offers it to us in this Sunday’s liturgy.

‘A prophet is not without honour except in his native place and among his own kin and his own house.’As the four Gospel’s attest, Jesus verifies the pertinence of this proverb, which has remained famous. This is not surprising since—human among human’s—he has known all the limitations of the human condition, such as the difficulty of making oneself always well understood, there is always the risk of being misjudged, even by one’s own kin, or at least by some of them. It is hard to believe that any member of his own family who knew him well would declare him out of his mind. We would be ill- advised though to indignantly revile them as if similar misunderstandings never took root among us. Mark, who does not mince his words, goes so far as to say, that Jesus’ family, learning that he was in a house where he was surrounded by a crowd and could not even eat in peace. ‘Set out to seize him, for they said he is out of his mind.’ Do Jesus’ relatives act only out of concern of him, whom they want to protect against himself and bring to a more reasonable attitude? ‘Let him at least take the time to feed himself instead of allowing all those people to devour him.’ Or do they really think that Jesus is demented? Do they speak thus in order to divorce themselves from him, in the eyes of suspicious religious authorities, from any responsibility for Jesus’ words and actions. Mark says nothing that would allow us to answer such questions. He needs to introduce Jesus’ family at this point and to mention even their lack of comprehension, in order to insure the sequence and coherence of his narrative. By arranging his material in this way, Mark, on the one hand reminds his readers that to understand Jesus is not to be taken for granted, for his behaviour defies human reason. By making us face Jesus’ relatives and their reactions, Mark implicitly poses the question that cannot be answered lightly: ‘And you, sincerely, what do you think?’ On the other hand, according to his custom, Mark obliges us, as it were, to be direct witnesses of what is going on inside the house; when he invites us to join the group of Jesus’ relatives.

To the scribes, who are mixed with the crowd inside the house, and who accuse him of being possessed by Beelzebul the prince of demons— and that he is has an unclean spirit within him, and that it because of this he is able to cast out devils Jesus gives answer— ‘Your calumny is not only hateful but also ridiculous.’For how could Satan cast himself out— destroy his own power? He could not. Wolves do not devour one another. ‘If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot last. And if a household is divided against itself, that household can never stand. And if Satan has rebelled against himself and is divided, he cannot stand either.’ But to say that he has an unclean spirit within him is an abomination —one could not think of an accusation graver and more loaded with serious consequences concerning a man who presents himself as sent by God. It is an affront and a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, who is really in him. ‘I tell you solemnly, all men’s sins will be forgiven, and all their blasphemies ; but let anyone blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, he will never have forgiveness; he is guilty of an eternal sin.’ Do the scribes realise their blasphemy? Do they not remember all the promises that God made in the beginning in the Book of Genesis

The end time has come, that of the decisive confrontation between the vanquished Satan and the Woman and her offspring, whose coming has been announced from the beginning. All can and must join this battle, siding with Jesus. This battle is strenuous. It requires wrenching separations, painful choices, whose weight and value in the last analysis are light compared to the eternal glory assured us in ‘a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in heaven,’ so that we may live forever with his son.

‘With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.’