Homily for February 13th, 2017: Mark 8:11-13.
“The Pharisees came forward and began to argue with Jesus, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him.” The words show the hostility of Jesus’ critics. They argue with him. They put him to the test. They hope that he will fail the test, and thus lose popular support.
Jesus has already given numerous signs: his healing miracles. For his critics, however, these are insufficient. They demand a sign so dramatic that it will compel belief. Jesus refuses their demand. Why? Because he knows that belief cannot be compelled, any more than love can be compelled. The greatest sign of all – the empty tomb -- was still in the future at the time of this confrontation. When it came, Jesus’ critics had a perfectly plausible explanation: persons unknown, possibly Jesus’ own friends, had moved his body. The only person who came to belief on the basis of the empty tomb alone was the man always referred to in the gospel which bears his name as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”: the apostle John. All the other friends of Jesus came to belief in the resurrection only after seeing the risen Lord – and most of them were initially skeptical.
Signs are given to people who already believe, never to people who demand proof as a condition of belief. One of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies is about this: Othello. A rough military man, Othello’s life is transformed when he meets the woman who will become his wife, Desdemona. She brings love into his life, but also beauty, tenderness, and light.
All is well until Othello’s lieutenant Iago, for reasons which literary critics are still disputing, suggests to Othello that the wife he passionately loves is unfaithful him. Whereupon Othello demands that Desdemona prove she has not betrayed him. But you can’t prove a negative. As long as Othello loved and trusted the wife whose love had lit up his life, he received constant proofs of her love. Once he withdrew that trust and demanded proof, no proof was sufficient. A love, once beautiful, dies; and at the end of the play Desdemona herself dies at the hand of her now estranged husband: a tragedy indeed.
You want signs that prove the Lord’s love for you? Proofs that Jesus, while completely human like us, is truly the divine Son of God? Then give yourself to him in faith and love, and you will receive signs which prove both these things. But demand proofs before you believe, and like Jesus’ critics, you will go away empty-handed.