Collect: Let the operation of Thy mercy, we beseech Thee, O Lord, direct our hearts, for without Thee we cannot please Thee.
In the northern hemisphere, the shift is on from summer to autumn. In the sequence of Sundays, Holy Church – which rose and expanded principally in the north – begins her own spiritually autumnal meditation in our liturgical prayer. As daylight wanes with each check on the calendar, more and more we hear in our sacred worship the eschatological themes of the end of the world and the coming of the Just Judge. For this reason, in the Novus Ordo – now Novus Ordo Only – the Epistle reading from St. Paul to the Corinthians, heard on the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, is read on the 1st Sunday of that most eschatological of church seasons Advent, albeit just in Year B.
Our context for Matthew 9. Immediately in the previous chapter, Matthew 8:228 ff., Our Lord has just been east of the Sea of Galilee in Gentile territory, the country of the Gergasenes or Geresenes or Gadarenes where He worked the so-called Miracle of the Swine. This miracle is not recounted in the Gospels of the Vetus Ordo, so it is worth a little space today.
Matthew, Mark and Luke have parallel accounts of the Miracle of the Gadarene Swine with differing details. Luke and Mark have one demoniac, naked, cutting himself, so strong he could break chains, whose demon is “Legion.” At that time a Roman legion numbered, infantry and cavalry, almost 7000. Luke has a curious feature. The Lucan demoniac had been living in the cemetery and was naked. But after Jesus exorcized him he is described as clothed. St. Ambrose of Milan (+397) says of this detail that, “Whoever has lost the covering of his nature and virtue is naked…. A man who has an evil spirit is a figure of the Gentile people, covered in vices, naked to error, vulnerable to sin” (Exp. Luc. VI,44). Thus, the reclothing of the previously naked man is a return to the way humans ought to be, as Luke further describes him, “in his right mind.” He begs Jesus to let him follow Him (Luke 8:38).
Although the demonically possessed are not automatically to be assumed to be in the state of mortal sin, we may take this reclothing symbolically to be a return to the state of grace after mortal sin. The Lord didn’t just exorcize the man, He probably forgave His sins. Forgiveness of sins and exorcism would also link this episode in Gentile territory in Matthew 8 with the very next chapter in Jewish territory. Our Savior performed similar deeds in those two, disparate regions to show how He was bringing all the peoples together in His Person. Think of two miraculous feedings of the multitudes, one in Gentile territory, the other in Jewish, recounted back to back in Matthew 14 and 15.
Meanwhile, Matthew 8 presents not one, but two demoniacs. Ambrose comments, “I think we should not idly disregard but seek the reason why the Evangelists seems to disagree about the number. Although the number disagrees, the mystery agrees” (ibid.).
Ambrose, reading the Scriptures more deeply than just for bare facts, teaches us today how to look beyond the details for what they could suggest spiritually. The great Fathers of the Church can teach us how to read Scripture so that it isn’t just a text to be deconstructed.
In any event, the fact that an exorcism and the subsequent possession of the herd of pigs, unclean animals for Jews (but this is Gentile territory), suggests that this isn’t just a concocted tale. Something happened there that made a real impression. Imagine the demonically frenzied sight, the enraged porcine squealing of that forced suicide by drowning. The swine “rushed violently” (Greek hormáo) into the thrashing waters. Onlookers would rightly deduce that Jesus had initiated this horrific scene. It was so frightening for those Gentiles, that they begged Him to go away.
And so He went, and so we finally arrive at this Sunday’s Gospel.
Jesus then crossed the Sea of Galilee westward and made His way to His hometown, Nazareth. Four faith-filled men carrying a stretcher bearing a man locked in paralysis arrived, maybe with others accompanying them, at the building where Jesus was. While our Gospel passage is from Matthew 9, the parallel passages in Mark 2 and Luke 5 provide additional information, for example, there was so large a crowd that there was no room left, “not even about the door.” They couldn’t get through the door to Jesus because of the press of onlookers. Mark relates that they went to the roof and pulled it apart to make a hole through which they lowered the paralytic’s pallet to where Jesus was within.
One assumes that people noticed that someone was tearing up the roof, the tiling (Greek keramos, Luke 5:19). That would have caused a stir. Normally, people don’t go around making holes in roofs. In general, homeowners don’t like it when others pull the roof apart. They, reasonably, try to stop the destruction. Hence, I am led to wonder if this event may have taken place in the Lord’s own house in Nazareth, which may have been small, because they were poor, and lacking room for a large crowd. He and His mother didn’t protest the roof’s demolition because of what was going to occur. Besides, it wouldn’t have been damage that a builder’s Son (“…ho tou téktonos uiós?” in Matt 13:55, asked about him precisely when in Nazareth again) couldn’t repair quickly with willing help, surely from the Faithful Four and Company. There’s no evidence from Scripture for my conjectures, of course.
Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts both say that scribes (Greek singular grammateus – “lettered guy,” gramma are the Hebrew sacred writings) were present, Scripture scholars and interpreters of Mosaic law, also called nomikoi, “law guys, lawyers.” We saw them last week, too. When practical questions came up about how to act under the law, these experts were consulted (when they weren’t already sticking their noses in) even by the priests and elders of the Sanhedrin.
In this dramatic setting, dust motes floating and debris from the roof perhaps still coming down, light streaming from above like in a Caravaggio painting, Our Lord read the thoughts and hearts of those present. He knew that the people (Mark 2:3) who went to such lengths to get their friend to Him were men of faith (Matt 9:2). In that moment, instead of healing the paralytic, which is surely what the Faithful Four had hoped, Jesus forgave their friend’s sins.
Then Christ read the thoughts and hearts of the scribes (v. 4). Because only God can forgive sins, they thought, “Blasphemer!” Jesus had made Himself out to be God. Ironically, they got it right but in the wrong way. Our Lord challenged them with,
Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, take up your bed and go home.” (vv. 5-7 RSV).
The Lord wasn’t toying with these scribes. The Lord’s miracles demonstrated His divine personhood and His power over evil. Words alone wouldn’t impress the scribes. After all, gratis asseritur, gratis negatur, what is asserted without proof can freely be rejected. He healed the man’s body. The malady which required an obvious miracle was the result of Original Sin, and its resulting separation from God, which He had come to heal in every one of us. As He had exorcised the man who had been living like a self-mutilating non-human in the place of un-life, a cemetery, He restored to walking normally a man prone and captive in sin. Draw the conclusion.
In our Epistle for Sunday, we will hear in 1 Cor 1:9: “[S]o that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing [apokalypsis] of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is an oblique way to talk about the Lord’s Second Coming.
I mentioned, above, that as we whirl from summer into autumn, the Church now presents end of the world themes. For that paralytic in Nazareth, this encounter with the Lord through the help of the Faithful Four, this spiritual gift, was a Parousia, an Advent, an Apocalypse. He received, with the agency of the faith of his friends, the immense spiritual gift of the revelation of the divine Lord and forgiveness of sins, together with the renewal of his physical body. It all sounds rather like the sequence of our eventual judgement, possible purification in Purgatory, and resurrection of the flesh.
It is what happens in the confessional during our encounter with Jesus in the person of the alter Christus, the priest, the “other Christ.” As we enter to find Jesus we are paralyzed in sin and acting in a less human way than we ought. Then, suddenly, at the Savior’s command we are clothed in favor and we exit, risen in grace. Ergo….
Lest I go on and on about going to confession, perhaps we can close with a couple of points.
First, like the Faithful Four we must ask for miracles. If we don’t ask for them, we won’t receive them. I suggest that we pray for the miraculous extirpation of the COVID virus, which I think is also demonically cursed. Let us pray for a global eradication of this virus so sudden, so complete and lasting that people will have to recognize God as the only cause and, like the healed demoniac, ask to follow Jesus.
Secondly, please reflect on how the Faithful Four were so determined to get their ailing friend to the Lord that they tore up a roof. It may be that you are the instrument by whom God wants to work in someone else a beautiful spiritual healing, a liberation perhaps from “demons” of the past, a rising to new freedom in grace. Some people need to be carried to opportunities for their own mysterious, transforming encounter with Christ. As a phrase sometimes attributed to St. Teresa of Avila puts it, “Christ has no hands and feet on earth but yours.” Are you willing to expend time and effort to do that for someone who is spiritually sick or separated from the Church by their choices? Perhaps by inviting someone in spiritual peril to go with you to Mass or to confession or to some good scheduled talk at the parish, or even just to have coffee, will make an opening in a hard case and he will encounter grace.