Pastoral as Christ is Pastoral

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 15C

Everyone loves a good storyteller, but a good teacher often goes unappreciated for many years. The goal of a storyteller can be merely to entertain and amuse, to hold our attention long enough for a good laugh, but a good teacher can change the way that we see things and the decisions that we make for the rest of our lives. Jesus in the Gospel is both Storyteller and Teacher. He often teaches the crowds using parables, using short stories and images, but the purpose of the parables is not primarily to entertain. Instead, the parables of Jesus confront us with decisions that we’ve made or that we’ve failed to make, the decisions to which God is constantly calling us, to surrender everything to His care, to Him who feeds every bird of the sky and who clothes every lily of the field. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him, rather than following our own ways or the ways of the world. To sell all that we have to buy the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price. Or like the Good Samaritan in today’s Gospel, to drop everything to take care of the person in need by the side of the road. How have we responded? Have we responded to Jesus? Do we live our lives for God and for others? Or do we still follow our own ways and the ways of this passing world?

When I was in seminary studying for the priesthood, and still today after four years as a priest, there are many strategies for ministry described as being “pastoral,” strategies for shepherding the people of God, gently, patiently, ambiguously. To be honest, I’ve found many of these strategies to be rather laughable and pointless, meaningless when we actually examine them and find that they’re very different from what we see Jesus actually doing in the Gospel.

One popular phrase today for ministry is “to meet people where they’re at.” Now this is all fine and good and even necessary. Obviously, communication is impossible if we don’t bother to start from some common ground. But “meeting people where they’re at” and “smelling like the sheep” is rather pointless if we don’t ever bother to lead them anywhere. If a sheep is headed in the direction of selfishness and the pains of hell, when a sheep is headed over the edge of a cliff, only a very bad and careless shepherd would simply reassure the sheep headed for destruction, saying, “Way to go! God loves you. He cares for you. Have a nice trip, as you fall into this pit.” Yes, Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners; He received and did not condemn the adulterous woman; He healed many of the sick and forgave their sins. But Jesus would often tell them, “Go, and sin no more, so that nothing worse may happen to you” (Cf. John 5:14; 8:11). And Jesus offers His own behavior as a model for life and true freedom when He says, “Follow Me.”

Just think of how this parable of the Good Samaritan would play out if the Samaritan would have used only the “pastoral” strategy of merely meeting the victim of robbers where he was at. The Samaritan sees this man wounded and ailing in the ditch, and so he decides to go and be with him, to lay down beside him in the ditch, to meet him where he’s at. So the Samaritan lays down beside him and says to him, “God loves you. God is merciful. I love you. Isn’t this great that we’re here together in this ditch? That you don’t have to suffer alone?”

When we have the ability to bring people to a better place, to greener pastures, to a hotel instead of a ditch, but we don’t, because our only concern is meeting them where they’re at… If we leave them in their misery and desperate, sinful situations without ever bothering to show them the way out to a more abundant life in Christ, this is not love or pastoral concern. This is laziness and indifference. We just want to get along, to be positive and avoid uncomfortable conversations, to avoid calling sin what it is. Any strategy of ministry that claims to be “pastoral” but also allows people to remain in ignorance, to remain in sinful, harmful situations without offering a better Way and greener pastures, this is not what we learn from Christ, our Good Shepherd.

If God does not actually offer us a better Way—even if this Way seems more difficult at first—if His Way is not truly more healthy and fulfilling than what the world and our own selfish desires offer us, then “salvation” doesn’t have any real meaning for us in this life. We were made to know the truth and to be made free by following the truth, the Truth who is Jesus Christ. God made us for more than just stumbling blindly through this life, being wounded and wounding others through our continual habits of sin. God offers us more in the life-giving commandments that He revealed to Moses and in all the teachings of His Catholic Church. That a life free from selfishness, drunkenness, sexual immorality, hatred, lies, violence, contraception, gossip, insults, pornography, laziness, and neglect of our relationships, a life lived in obedience to God and in accord with who He made us to be, this is truly a better and more abundant life, and it is made possible for us by God’s grace.

As we approach Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the Good Teacher, the Good Samaritan, present in this Eucharist, may He set us free from all the lies that keep us bound, from the desires that enslave us to this passing world. Lord Jesus, meet us where we are, but don’t leave us there in our misery. Bring us to greener pastures. Help us to leave behind our sins and to embrace Your more abundant life.

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