Hearts broken open: a homily on Matthew 12

Published on 22 Oct 2019
Rock split by a river

by Ken Hughes SJ

Poet Mary Oliver, in her poem, “Lead” describes walking along a beach on a cold winter morning finding hundreds of sea birds, loons, lying battered and broken, dead and dying from some unknown disease along the sweep of the shore.  She pictures for us the sad scene, and then concludes with these words:

“I tell you this

to break your heart,

by which I mean only

that it break open and never close again

to the rest of the world.”

We do not need broken birds washed up on the shore to break our hearts open these days.  Just recently, the whole world saw that picture of a man and his daughter face down in the mud on the bank of the Rio Grande River, which separates Mexico and the United States.  To us they were symbols of desperation.  They represented the thousands of refugees trying to escape the violence and poverty and hopelessness of their native lands.  They represented those thousands, but, especially, the 283 migrants who died in the previous year as they tried to reach the border into new life.

This man and his daughter may be symbols, but they are also individual people.  Though face down in the mud, they did have faces and they do have names.  The father was Oscar Alberto Martinez of El Salvador, and his daughter was Angie, Valeria Martinez – not quite two years old.

Angie reminds us too of that little three-year-old Syrian boy, whose small body was washed up on a beach in Turkey in 2015.  He, too, has a name: Alan Kurdi.  Do you remember him?

There is a world of power and greed which resorts readily to violence, leaving broken people in its wake.

We see this violence in the very first lines of today’s Gospel, Matthew 12:14-21: “The Pharisees went out and took counsel against Jesus to put him to death.”  This death decision does not, however, come after yesterday’s Gospel story of Jesus and his disciples plucking grain on the sabbath.  Rather, it comes after the omitted intervening story of Jesus healing the withered hand of a man in the synagogue on the sabbath.  Plucking grain on the sabbath was wrong but perhaps reasonable.  But a cure could have been postponed a day.  That was the breaking point!

Now, the critical moment has come.  Jesus, for the moment, withdraws from the conflict.  He becomes the Suffering Servant of Israel as foretold by the prophet Isaiah.  In today’s Gospel, we have the first of the four Servant Songs: “Behold my servant … chosen …beloved, in whom I delight.  I shall place my Spirit upon him. … He will not contend or cry out.  A bruised reed he will not break,  a smouldering wick he will not quench ...”

Jesus will increasingly take upon himself the violence of the world and hold it.  The violence that will be done to him will not slip through his fingers onto others in anger or vengeance. Violence stops with him and is turned back with compassion.  St Matthew notes here that, “Many people followed [Jesus] and he healed them all.”  Even as Jesus’ enemies become more violent, the wounded follow and Jesus heals.

The Gospel invites us also to be “Suffering Servants”, continuing Jesus’ ministry of healing by tending, in whatever way we can, broken bodies and wounded souls.  They will always be washing up on the shore of our life and ministry.  We can never allow our hearts, as Mary Oliver expressed it, to “ever close again to the rest of the world.”

So, now we come to the end of our retreat.  For many of us, we come to the end of our time  at St Beuno’s, here in North Wales.  Although, because of the Gospel today, I have focused on suffering, I need to add that there are two other ways by which our hearts can be broken open: by beauty and by love.  The beauty of the Clwyd Valley and surrounding mountains has broken open my heart once again - probably yours as well.  And in our walks – yours and mine – over green pastures, amidst bleating or silent sheep, passing through sheep gates of all kinds – and, in our prayer, - have we not met the Good Shepherd once again, the one who laid down his life for us, and so felt the love of his heart that our own hearts are open again with love in response?

What better way, then, to leave a retreat than with hearts broken open, whether by suffering, beauty, or love?  What better way to meet and embrace our broken countries and our broken world?