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Turning Tables

Fr. Theodore

We just heard the prophet Isaiah foretell some of the table-turning transformations that would characterize the Messiah’s appearance on earth: Lebanon’s fruitless forest would be changed into a fruitful orchard, while the fruitful orchard would become a forest. The lowly would exult, the proud in turn would lament. Up would be down, the inside would be out, roles would be reversed. All this finds marvelous fulfillment in our Lord’s life.

Holy Simeon summed up the mission of the newborn Christ Child in one sentence, saying, “This child is destined to cause the fall and rise of many in Israel.” Our Lord summed up his mission in like manner when he said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” That’s exactly what happens in today’s gospel. Two men, although blind, nevertheless recognize Jesus as the Messiah, while in the immediate sequel to today’s gospel—which we didn’t hear—a learned doctor of the law proves to be spiritually blind. He claimed that it was by the prince of demons that Jesus drove out demons.

The two blind men publicly proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah by hailing him as the Son of David. Our Lord, always wary of such publicity, doesn’t even acknowledge them on the street. After Jesus entered the house, however, the blind men’s persistence pays off. They approach our Lord, who finds in them the faith that was the prerequisite for every one of his miracles. Our Lord works this cure for them even though news of it will impede his ministry. Jesus warns them sternly not to tell anyone—all the more so since, even before their cure, they were already publicly proclaiming him to be the Messiah.

Clergymen think they have it rough today, but nobody has ever faced any apostolic challenge as formidable as the double dilemma that confronted our Lord. According to popular expectation, the Messiah was supposed to be another conquistador like King David, only on a grander scale. Were Jesus to claim prematurely the title of Messiah for himself, he might spark a disturbance that Rome would put down with violence thereby completely misrepresenting his kingdom as something fundamentally terrestrial.

Even more delicate than our Lord’s messiahship was the question of his divinity. Ultimately, Jesus received the sentence of death for affirming this truth under oath at his trial before the Sanhedrin. Since the case against our Lord had collapsed for lack of evidence, the high priest was forced to adjure Jesus thereby making a formal martyr out of him—although no one took his life; he laid it down. In one and the same reply, our Lord also testified solemnly that he was indeed the long-awaited Messiah.

During his public ministry, Jesus repeatedly insisted that the last would be first and the first last. Meanwhile, professional sinners were proving to be saints while professional “saints” proved to be sinners—fatalities of pride, the subtlest sin of them all. This table-turning transformation, foretold by the prophets, actually unfolds before our very eyes in the gospel episode involving Simon the Pharisee. Scandalized in effect by our Lord’s mercy, Simon decided that Jesus couldn’t be a prophet—much less the Messiah—because our Lord had allowed a sinful woman to touch him. Jesus told this parable in response: “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred pieces of silver, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one for whom he forgave the bigger debt.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she washed my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as evidenced by her great love. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

This lesson explains how divine mercy turns the tables on the first and the last. Here’s an encouraging thought for Advent: Our greatest debts, our personal sins—provided they are lamented, confessed, and absolved—will number among our greatest assets both here and hereafter. So be it. Amen.

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