September 6, 2009
“Are you saved?” This was the question posed to me by a born-again Christian, while I was seated in a restaurant. When I said, no, he immediately told me to accept Jesus as my personal savior, and I would be saved. Before I could object, I swiftly tacked the appropriate verse from Acts, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30). The theological underpinning for this claim is that, Jesus, according to this born-again, has saved us from sin on the cross, and all a person needs to do is to accept him in faith. There is some truth to that proposition, of course, for Christ died on the cross to save sinners. Barring other theological issues that arise from it, however, it must be stressed, thought, that salvation cannot be circumscribed to forgiveness of sins, if by sin one understands a transgression of a law. It would be wrong to limit Christ’s saving work to it. The three readings today widen our concept of what it means to be saved.
We can begin by examining the Gospel. Jesus’ salvific work finds another description in the reaction of the people to the healing of the deaf-mute: “He has done everything well! He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak” (Mark 7:37). Undoubtedly, Mark portraits Jesus as the perfect fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that we find in the 1st Reading, speaking of Israel’s salvation: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the dumb will sing” (Isa 35:5-6). In this oracle, Isaiah sees the destruction of Israel ’s enemies as precondition for the liberation of the people, and, on the positive side, the glory of God manifested in the transformation of the nation, especially among the most unfortunate—the blind, deaf, mute and dumb.
The point should be obvious. When we speak of salvation, we cannot circumscribe it to forgiveness of sins, or to spiritual healing. If we are to be true to the Gospel reading, our concept of salvation should include not only forgiveness of sins, but also physical healing, freedom from sickness and infirmity, the experience of bodily wholeness. We must speak of the liberation of man from bodily and spiritual infirmity and the experience of spiritual and bodily integrity. For this reason, whenever we contribute to the physical well-being of people, we do our share in the work of salvation. In itself, physical suffering is evil, and it is not God’s will that people suffer senselessly. In fact, it is because of the concern of the Church for the bodily health that she became involved in the systematic care of the sick. In the middle ages, we had the medical care of the infirm in monasteries and the Knights of Hospitalers. The philosophical foundation of this is quite simply: man is not only a soul, he is also a body, and has a body.
But there is more to that. Man is a social being. To be alone is to be less than human. We must live with other people. We forge bond of relationships that bind us together. That is why it is true to say that we become human or less-than-human through and with others. If we go back to the 1st Reading and the Gospel, we find that the liberation of Israel includes the experience of wholeness by the unfortunate members of society—the blind, deaf, dumb and mute. At the time of Jesus, these people belonged to the degraded and expendable class. Because of their physical defects, they were not part of the pure Jewish community. The Jewish society practically had no need of them. They were stripped of their rights: they could not even enter the Temple . They were discriminated against. And when people are discriminated against, of course, they do not enjoy salvation.
In view of this, Jesus’ healing was not simply an act of liberating them from their physical defects. Of no less consequence, they were liberated from social and religious discrimination, for they were enabled to worship in the Temple and enjoy the company of others. In other words, healing restored them to the community of Israel . Salvation then implies equality and participation. As the community of the saved, we are all equal before God our Father, and we have no basis to treat other people differently. Understandably enough, James, in the 2nd Reading (James 2:1-5), says that our faith is belied by our partiality shown to others, like the rich.
Clearly, then, salvation is co-extensive with the various dimensions of the human person: physical, mental, spiritual, and social.