Living and effective

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Oct. 11

Wisdom 7:7-11; Psalm 90:12-13,14-15,16-17; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30

PENNSYLVANIA Hospital in Philadelphia was our nation’s very first medical center. Founded in 1751 by Dr. Thomas Bond and Benjamin Franklin, the hospital is home to the nation’s oldest surgical amphitheatre, the “dreaded circular room,” located on the third floor.

The surgical amphitheatre had a gallery containing wooden benches sufficient to seat 130 observers. Patients paid absolutely nothing for their surgery, so long as they allowed the hospital to sell tickets to the event.

Now that’s one solution to our health care crisis!

NO ONE knows exactly who wrote the book of Hebrews, but we do know the purpose of the book. It appears that a first-century community of Jewish Christians was contemplating a disastrous abandonment of the Christian faith and a return to Judaism. Hebrews was written to remind these believers that Christianity is far superior to Judaism.

Yes, Judaism honors the prophets, but Christ is superior to the prophets (Hebrews 1:1-3). Yes, Judaism venerates angelic intermediaries, but Christ is superior to the angels (Hebrews 1:4-2:18). Yes, Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai, but Christ is superior to Moses (Hebrews 3:1-4:13). Yes, Judaism has its Levitical priesthood, but Christ’s priesthood is superior (Hebrews 4:14-10:18). Christ is far superior, because he represents a new and living way to salvation (Hebrews 10:19-12:29).

Today’s passage is found in the section, “Christ superior to Moses.” The author of Hebrews reminds his readers that Moses was unable to lead those who fled from Egyptian bondage into spiritual rest, that is, to freedom from the problem of sin. However, that same rest is now promised to followers of Christ, “if only we will hold firm to the end our confidence in him” (Hebrews 3:14). “Therefore, let us strive to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:11).

THE KEY to gaining mastery over sin is found in obedience to the word of God: “The word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.”

God’s word is, first of all, “living and effective.” What God commands is no dead letter. He really means what he says. God’s word is utterly unlike my words, which so often have no effect whatsoever. When I say to my children, “Clean up your room” or “Empty the garbage,” all too often nothing changes. Even my black lab refuses to listen most of the time. When I tell her to get down off the bed, she just rolls her eyes, let’s out a groan, and continues her nap.

But God’s word is entirely different. He means what he says and he effects what he commands. God himself declares, “My word shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).

GOD’S WORD is also “sharper than any two-edged sword.” Compared to a military sword or a surgical knife, God’s word is vastly more penetrating and precise in its effect. In fact, “before God no creature is hidden, but all are laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (Hebrews 4:13 RSV).

St. John Chrysostom proposed that “laid bare” refers to the preparation of a slaughtered animal, where the skin is drawn back and the animal’s inward parts are laid open to view. But a reference to surgery makes even more sense. Surgery reveals our unseen, innermost parts to view — for the purpose of restoring the patient to fullness of health. Only God is working on the spirit. With his word, God exposes the very thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Because of the restorative power of the word of God, “access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 131). For this reason, the church “forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful . . . to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures (CCC 133). (Emphasis added.)

THIS IS why, of all catechetical endeavors, “the liturgical homily should hold pride of place” (CCC 132). And this is the reason effective homilists spend hours wrestling with the weekly readings before daring to unsheathe the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17).

In 1751, America’s first hospital opened in Philadelphia. There, in spite of the primitive state of 18th century surgical procedures, countless sick and infirm found physical relief from their suffering.

In 1733, 18 years before the founding of Pennsylvania Hospital and just a few blocks away, Jesuit missionaries founded Old St. Joseph’s Church. From that day till this, countless spiritually sick and infirm persons have found spiritual relief from their suffering. The word of God remains “living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword.”

Father Douglas Grandon is parochial vicar of Sacred Heart Parish in Moline.

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