Following the Master

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 24B

Today, we reach the turning point in Mark’s Gospel. Up to this point, everything’s been going great. Jesus has gathered His disciples, and with great authority He has been teaching, casting out demons, and healing every disease among the people. Crowds of people are always following Him just to hear Him and to get close to Him. They even recognize Him as a great Prophet, and last week as He healed the deaf-mute, the crowds exclaimed, “He has done all things well.” Today, St. Peter even recognizes Jesus as the Christ, the promised Messiah who would bring salvation. Not everyone was so happy about Jesus, though, and there had been frequent disagreements with the Pharisees and the ruling powers. Today, Jesus spells it out for us, that He doesn’t just bring a naïve ‘prosperity gospel,’ or promise that once we begin to follow Him all our problems and sufferings will go away. Jesus begins to make His way toward Jerusalem, where “the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly.”

Jesus tells us plainly that the Christian Way is not an easy way. There is no easy way. In this life, suffering is unavoidable, but there are two ways that we can approach it. There is the narrow way of following Christ, of freely accepting the suffering that we meet in this life, out of love and obedience for God our Father. And then there is the wide way that many travel, of rebelling against any thought of suffering or loss or limitation, of taking Christ aside and rebuking him, saying, “God forbid that such things should happen to You or to us.” How many of us, the moment we face any trial or touch of suffering, how many of us find ourselves with St. Peter, opposing Christ because we think, “not as God does but as human beings do”? How many of us make ourselves into enemies of the Cross of Christ the moment that our faith is tested? There are two ways, and neither one is easy. We like to think that this second way of rebellion and self-indulgence is easier than actually embracing the crosses of this life, but rebellion and sin bring untold sufferings and deep emptiness that no human soul was meant to endure.

It seems quite popular today to think that we should be able to solve any problem just by being more positive and encouraging. That especially priests should just be smiling all the time, saying how wonderful everything is. And as we look back on history, so many of the Saints and Martyrs for the faith were just too blunt and insensitive in how they communicated the truth. If only they had been more careful to say what they needed to say in a way that their listeners could receive it, perhaps they wouldn’t have had to die. Even Jesus Himself could have kept His persecutors from putting Him to death had He just been more pastorally sensitive, more willing to “accompany” the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

Sadly, I’ve gotten this sense even from other priests, that the Saints were just too extreme, instead of coming to the much more obvious conclusion that we today are cowards. And that if we are trying so desperately to avoid the crosses of the priesthood, the crosses that come with being a prophet in today’s culture of religious indifference, if we are striving to avoid upsetting anyone with a homily against sin, because that would be negative, or having to actually say “No” as a pastor, or to educate and bring people in the direction of the Church’s actual teachings and laws, if even priests are doing everything we can to avoid suffering and conflict, what usually happens is not that we find creative ways of communicating the truth without upsetting anyone. Instead, we simply learn to avoid certain topics altogether, whether we realize it or not. “No servant is greater than his Master.” If they persecuted Christ, they will persecute His disciples. If the world hated Jesus, it will also hate any follower of Jesus, when we’re actually true to following Him.

I think it’s about time that we stop thinking ourselves better than the Saints and Martyrs of past centuries, and instead, start to actually imitate them, to imitate their passion for Jesus Christ, their unquenchable zeal for the honor of His Name and for the spreading of the Gospel. Jesus assures us with St. Peter that the cross and persecution is unavoidable, so let’s stop trying to water down our Catholic faith to make it more palatable and popular. Let’s offer it to the world at its full strength, and witness how Jesus Christ can change hearts and transform lives. I’m tired of being a priest for a Church that seems ashamed of her own teachings and sacred tradition. Jesus told His Apostles, “You will be hated by all because of me, but have no fear of them. Even the hairs of your head are numbered. So take courage. I have conquered the world.” Speak out boldly in the Name of Christ, and you will not lose your reward.

To Hear and Speak as God Wills

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 23B

By now, I’ve lost track of how many baptisms I’ve celebrated as a priest. One part of the ritual for baptizing children is inspired directly from the Gospel passage we just heard. As most of us know from experience, infants and little children are not very different from the deaf and mute man in today’s Gospel. Hearing with their ears, they understand very little, and even when they begin to understand, they still might not want to listen very well, or they pretend not to hear, and it’s usually quite some time before they’re able to speak plainly. So, after baptizing the child, the priest or deacon touches the ears and mouth of the child with his thumb, while saying, “The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father.” I’ve always considered this a beautiful gesture and prayer, even for those of us who have been able to hear and to speak for some time. When you take into account everything else we hear, how often do we really listen to the Word of God? And with everything else that we say, how often do we actually proclaim our faith in Christ, “to the praise and glory of God the Father”?

These gifts of hearing and speaking are easily taken for granted, but if you’ve ever experienced hearing loss or the loss of your voice, or have spent some time with someone else who has trouble hearing or speaking, it’s amazing how difficult it can be to communicate even the simplest of things. As our second reading on Sundays, we’ve been having passages from the letter of St. James, but there’s one important part of his letter that won’t be read. In James chapter 3, he discusses the power of speech. He compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship, that even though the tongue seems to be one of the smallest members of the body, what we say can make a huge difference in the direction that our lives take.

Think of how many times we sin on a daily basis by listening to things we know we shouldn’t, or by misusing the gift of speech, saying things we shouldn’t or by not speaking up when we actually should. Everyone realizes that gossip is sinful and can make for a toxic social environment, but how often do we willingly listen or even seek it out to indulge our curiosities? How often do we spread to others what they really don’t need to know? The spreading of false or unverified rumors is not the only way that we sin in this area. Even when we share things that are true or that we’ve observed firsthand, when we speak about the faults of others without it really being necessary to do so, talking negatively about people behind their backs and harming their reputation in the eyes of those who have no connection and no responsibility to correct those faults, this is the sin of detraction.

Something we might ask ourselves is if the person I’m talking about were standing right here with us, would I still be saying what I’m saying about them? If I’ve never bothered to confront the person directly about it, then I haven’t done what I can to remedy the situation. So much of the situation in parts of the Church right now or for the past decades comes from lots of talk and rumors and gossip while so many bishops and priests were unwilling to correct or confront one another directly about their sins or crimes, unwilling to make any difficult decisions, even when it came to their grave responsibility of protecting the most vulnerable among us. The culture needs to change. The culture of empty talk, complaining, gossip, and detraction, without any real action or correction, is not healthy and not helpful.

Jesus wants to open our ears to hear His word of truth and move our hearts to act on it. He wants to open our mouths to proclaim His faith, plainly and with confidence to those around us, to the praise and glory of God the Father. These are the sacred purposes for which God has entrusted to us the gifts of hearing and speaking. What a shame to put these gifts instead to sinful purposes, to listen to empty talk, to spread falsehood or detraction, or to remain silent when God is calling us to speak up. How often do we remain silent just to avoid conflict and making waves, to avoid uncomfortable conversations? Jesus has opened our ears. He has touched our mouths. He has given us the grace to use these gifts according to His will, for healthy communication in our relationships and in our families, for the purification and for the building up of His Church.

Choosing God’s Values

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 22B

Where do our values come from? Our sense of right and wrong, what makes for true happiness, genuine human flourishing? In our Gospel today, Jesus talks about three different sources that we can allow to guide us, to shape our own affections, of what we love, and of what we hate and despise.

The first source of our values is the commandment of God, the word of truth “from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change.” The commandments of God teach us to love what God loves, and to hate and despise what God hates. God loves and desires our genuine happiness, even more than we desire it ourselves. God knows, because He made us, that sin can never truly satisfy us. He weeps for the misery of His children, as they continue to choose their own destruction through sin and disobedience. Moses and the Israelites always viewed the 10 commandments as being among the greatest of gifts that they received from God, as indispensable insight into God’s own design in creating us. “What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today? Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations.”

How many of us still view God’s commandment as a great gift and blessing? Wisdom to guide our feet away from all the blind alleys and pitfalls that can never bring true happiness or lasting peace? As the proper boundaries within which our freedom and creativity can really flourish, safeguarded against the abuse of freedom and the slavery of sin? How often do we not rather think of God’s commandment as being outdated, out of touch with reality, overly restrictive of our freedom, especially when it comes to human sexuality, or what is required of us in the worship of God, or when it comes to the use of drugs and alcohol? And if we don’t quite trust the timeless wisdom of God’s commandments, what does that say about the real source or sources of our values?

There are two other sources and influences that Jesus talks about in the Gospel: one He refers to as human precepts, and the other, the evil desires arising out of our own hearts. Instead of the commandments of God, how much do allow ourselves to be guided instead by human precepts and the prevailing opinions of society? In recent years, when it comes to what the culture around us considers acceptable, the most noticeable change has taken place in the areas of transgenderism and homosexual behavior, but it is not limited to those areas. For a longer time, there has been acceptance of cohabitation before marriage, abortion, contraception within marriage, and many forms of adultery, including divorce and remarriage without an investigation into whether the first marriage was valid and binding till death. In other areas, recreational use and abuse of drugs and alcohol is widely accepted. But the commandments of God have not changed in these areas.

Do we really seek to understand why, and not just dismiss the Church’s teachings as Old Testament meanness and insensitivity? Or do we rather take our cues and adopt and adapt our values to the shifting opinions of the passing world around us? The people of God, which we are, is called to be holy as God is holy, to be set apart and different from the ways of this passing world. But being different and going against the flow can be difficult, and it can bring persecution, so what do we do? We keep the peace, we go along, we don’t make waves, as our lives all go together from one disaster to another, from the emptiness of one living hell to the next.

The last source of our values is easy enough for us to understand. Jesus speaks of the evil desires which come out of our own hearts, “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.” The commandments of God are not easy to live out, especially when our own hearts are inclined to other ways, other methods of getting what we want, and so it becomes easier for us to doubt the commandments of God, rather than doubting our own disordered hearts.

But God still wants to save us, from the lies of this passing world and from the evil of our own hearts. God gives us the grace in Christ Jesus His Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit, to truly live according to the timeless wisdom of His commandments, to be set free from slavery to sin and the living hell that the world offers us. How long have we been living already according to human precepts, measuring ourselves against the standards of the world, feverishly feeding the most superficial desires of our hearts with very little satisfaction, without any true peace, all the while our deepest and truest desires go unanswered? Why not actually give the commandments of God a real try, for a change? We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.