Did you notice that in the Gospel today, Jesus was in pagan territory, in the district of Tyre and Sidon, in today’s Lebanon, and then left there to go into the district of the Decapolis? The Decapolis was a region of 10 cities also in pagan territory, east of the Sea of Galilee. Pagan territory.
On the other hand, there is the Holy Land, which was not pagan territory. What’s the difference between holy land, or holy ground and pagan land? Do you remember the story of Naaman the Syrian who had leprosy during the time of the OT prophet Elijah? He came to the Holy Land to seek a healing of his leprosy from the man of God; and when he was healed he took back with him to Syria a load of soil from the Holy Land so he could lay out the soil, bow down on it and pray to the God of Israel. It was truly holy ground. He had been healed in the Holy Land.
In Jesus’ day, the territory surrounding the Holy Land was pagan territory. What did that mean then, and what does it mean to us today?
The Holy Land was the land of grace, the land where God became man, the land where God in the flesh healed the sick, forgave the sinner, and even raised the dead. And though the people of the Holy Land did not recognize the Word made flesh in their midst, they were a people who were accustomed to the grace of God at work in their lives.
Grace is the action of God, the gift of God’s self, most perfectly enfleshed in Jesus Himself. So, in today’s Gospel Jesus goes to bring grace, the gift of God’s self, to the pagan territory that did not know God’s grace. And in doing so he cured a man who was both deaf and mute: unable to hear and unable to speak.
Our land today, indeed our whole world, is becoming more and more a pagan territory, a land unaccustomed to the grace of God.
Let me describe what a pagan territory looks like in the words of Fr. Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest who was killed by the Nazis in WWII. He calls pagan territory living “without grace.” It’s to live gracelessly. To live as if God does not matter and has nothing to do with our lives. It’s to live without prayer, that avenue to allow grace to enter our lives. Living gracelessly, living a pagan life, is to live without having the ears that hear the Word of God ushering into our souls the grace and love and mercy of God. Living in pagan territory stifles our voice so we are mute and unable, and unwilling, to give God praise, because God is not a big thought in our minds. That’s living without grace.
What does living without grace produce? A graceless life makes us live a pitiless life, leaving us little or no concern for those who are poor in the world because our preoccupation has become our own self, our own triumphs, our own pleasures, surrendering ourselves to our own whims and following our basic instincts. This is indeed pagan territory, a grace-less way of life, a way of life that is not concerned about the common good, a self-centered life. It also produces, Fr. Delp says, “an age of inexorable fate, a time of horror and violence, of worthless life and senseless death.”
In our pagan territory of today Jesus comes to open our ears to hear the Word in a new way. He says to each of us, “Ephaphatha! Be opened!” Be open to the God whom you cannot see. Be open to hear the mission this God of love is calling you to. Be open to see life differently. And when your heart has been touched by the Word of God, let your lips speak out His praise in such a way that the words on our lips match the passion of our love for our God who is so good to us.
Be open to bringing others to Him. Be open to getting over our reticence that keeps us from speaking of Him, or speaking about our faith, as if our concern about what others think of us is more important than what we think of ourselves before God. Let’s turn a new page in our relations with others; let’s be open to letting this God of love to work through us to reach the hearts of others who are deaf to the Word of God and mute in giving God praise.
A graceless world, a pagan world, cries out for the Lord to come into our territory and speak to us a word of life and love and mercy and compassion. In our pagan word of divisiveness and bitterness and hostility and fear, the Lord Jesus is willing to come into the lives of all His people to bring them hope. And He wants to use our ears to hear the cry in the hearts of His people, and our voices to speak to them of the grace to be found in Christ. But first He says to us: Be open!