There’s a true story of a young boy in Uganda who was abandoned in the jungle in 1988 at the age of two when his mother was murdered. He was adopted by a colony of African green monkeys and raised by them until he was spotted by a villager three years later. When villagers first found the boy and tried to rescue him, the boy hid up a tree and threw sticks at them. His monkey friends put up a ferocious fight to prevent the tribesmen from taking him away, believing they were protecting one of their own. He was eventually taken to an orphanage and taught to speak and to live as humans live. You can imagine how difficult, even traumatic it must have been for him to make these changes. Clearly, when he was approached by the villagers initially, it was his strong preference to remain with the monkeys; it was what he knew. The people who taught him to speak soon discovered that he had a wonderful singing voice and he eventually joined a children’s choir that toured internationally.
When we hear this story, it’s a bit puzzling why the boy didn’t immediately run to the villagers when he was discovered. After all, these people looked a lot more like him than the monkeys did. He could probably see that they were dressed – he had no clothes, of course. It probably wouldn’t have mattered to him at the time that these people lived in huts rather than out in the elements, or that they didn’t have to spend their entire day foraging for food. These people were foreign to him, their ways were foreign, and he was afraid.
In the first reading, Isaiah was talking to the people of Israel who were in exile. They had been away from their homeland for a long time, and I’m sure many of them had grown familiar with the place, the customs, the way of life. So the thought of leaving and returning to their homeland may, on one level, have been frightening. And so Isaiah says: “Say to those who are of a fearful heart: ‘Be strong, do not fear.’ Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” You wonder if the people would have immediately said: “Yeah, that’s great – when is he coming?” Or would they have run away from Isaiah, like the little boy ran up the tree, because they didn’t know God, or they didn’t understand that being saved by God was better than the situation they were in?
So Isaiah tried to explain it to them in simple terms. He said: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped…the lame will leap like a deer…those who can’t speak will sing” – a bit like the boy in Uganda who joined the choir.
Through Isaiah, God was telling the people – and telling us – that he would do wonderful things for them – he will do wonderful things for us. Things will be different – better, but different. So what is our reaction? Do we embrace the amazing promises that God made to us, or do we run naked up a tree and throw sticks at God? The little boy had no idea of the kind of life he was trying to run away from. He knows that now, but he didn’t know it then.
Just like the villagers were inviting the little boy to change his life, God is inviting us to change our lives. He’s promising us that it will be like blind people being able to see – deaf people being able to hear. Imagine the changes that would take place in the life of someone who is blind to finally be able to see – and yet this is our promise.
But change makes us different. It makes us different from our current selves, and it may make us different from other people in some ways – and that can be scary, even if it’s good. I heard a story this week about one of the young people in our parish. His mother had found out that he was smoking. When she talked to him about it, he admitted that a lot of his friends smoked, and that he smoked just because of the peer pressure. Even though it would have been much better for him NOT to smoke, he didn’t want to be different.
There are things that all of us do that are not good for us, and yet we continue to do them. It could be things we do to our bodies, like smoking, drinking too much, eating too much, watching too much TV. Or they could be things we do to our souls: gossip, physical or verbal abuse toward others, lying, promiscuity. When we examine our consciences, do we find the same sins coming up over and over? Is there something about these sins that somehow “works” for us, like the young parishioner who felt that he would fit in if he smoked?
As Catholics, we have the sacrament of Reconciliation (“confession”). It’s a wonderful gift that helps us to look at things we can do better – things we can leave out of our lives – and things that we can start doing. And whether it’s the things that we can do better, stop doing, or start doing – Reconciliation helps us to focus on things that will bring us closer to God. Psalm 36 says: “Sin speaks to the sinner deep in their hearts.” The next time you examine your conscience, don’t just make your mental list of sins, but ask yourself: “What’s keeping me from changing these things? How do these sins speak to my heart? What role do these sins play in my life?” We’ve all heard about people on a diet who get into a stressful situation and polish off a whole container of ice cream. I don’t think ice cream is a cure for stress, but somehow, that container of rocky road speaks to the stressed-out dieter. Is there a way that our sins speak to us? For example, do we feel better about ourselves when we gossip about someone else, or put them down in front of other people? Can’t we change, and find better ways to feel better about ourselves.
When we make changes – “good” changes in our lives – we will be different from our current selves, and we may be different from some other people, and that might be scary. But getting rid of the things that take us away from God, and doing the things that bring us closer to God make us more fully human people. In the Gospel, Jesus restored the hearing and speech of a person who was deaf and who couldn’t speak normally. Jesus didn’t invent new senses for this person; he opened the senses that the man already had. We heard him say: “Ephphatha” – be opened. When we change and open ourselves to God, we’re not doing something unnatural – we’re connecting with something that’s already a part of us. We’re made in the image and likeness of God – to live in alignment with God’s laws is to open ourselves to the joy that God intended for us all along.
Last week, Father Paul spoke about the minimalist Catholics – people who try to get by doing as little as possible, yet still observing the letter of the law. And he made an excellent observation. He said that these people find no joy in their religion. When we open ourselves to God, we open ourselves to the joy.
This weekend, we celebrate Labour Day. In addition to honouring our work, Labour Day marks an important change. It’s the end of summer: time for the kids to get back to school (you’ve probably seen the Staples commercials: “It’s that most wonderful time of the year”).
Vacations are over. There will be many changes in our routines. Will there be changes in our relationship with God? Will we be different?
God is waiting for us like the villagers waiting at the base of the tree for the little boy who was raised by the monkeys. He’s waiting for us to enter a life that is beyond our imaginations.
Ephphatha! Be open!