Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 27C
There’s a tendency nowadays to sort of scoff at the idea of doing things out of a sense of duty or obligation, to look down our noses at this statement of the faithful servant in the Gospel: “We are unprofitable servants. We have done what we were obliged to do.” It might even make us uncomfortable to realize that these are actually the words of Jesus Himself, and that this attitude is what Jesus promotes and encourages among those who wish to be His disciples.
What we don’t often stop to think about and realize is that obligations and minimum requirements are just a regular part of countless aspects of our daily lives. If you want to get a job and then actually keep that job, you’ll probably be required, obligated, to show up for work on time, and to let somebody know when you’re not gonna be there. When you’re a student, if you want to get credit for the classes you’re taking, you might actually have to show up for class once in a while. When you’re on a sports team, if you want to be able to play on the team during games, you have to show up for practice. And there are plenty of times when we’d probably rather not go in to work, or to school, or to practice or training, but as an employee, as a student, or as an athlete, these are the basic requirements and obligations that we need to fulfill, when we feel like it and when we don’t feel like it.
For some reason, though, when it comes to how we practice our faith, we don’t like to talk much about obligations anymore. And the sin that we often try to avoid most of all is being insincere or fake, being a hypocrite, just going through the motions or saying the words out of a sense of duty without really feeling close to God. But is someone who shows up for work or school or practice a hypocrite just because he doesn’t feel like being there? Of course not. He’s just a committed employee or a committed student or athlete. So why should we feel like hypocrites when we show up for Mass to fulfill our Sunday or holy day obligation as Catholics, even if we still have trouble really focusing or entering into the prayer of the Mass? Or if it seems boring to us. Or we don’t feel like we’re getting anything out of it. We’re committed Catholics and disciples of Christ, who need to give thanks to God every Sunday and holy day by assisting at Mass, whether we feel like it or not.
There’s a popular saying: “Fake it until you make it.” But for whatever reason, we don’t think we’re allowed to do this in our lives of faith. But the only way for us to grow in the virtues is to do the right thing even when we don’t feel like it. Let’s say I’m going about my day and I run into somebody who really annoys me and gets on my nerves. I find it difficult to be around them, and, if I could manage it, I’d rather avoid them altogether. Now, what if I were to make a conscious effort to smile at this person, to wish them a good morning, to ask how they’re doing and to take a genuine interest in their life? Would that be wrong for me to do? Would it be insincere? Hypocritical? No. To treat someone with respect even when we don’t feel like it is just part of growing in the virtue of charity, in the love of our neighbor. Because the only way for us to arrive at a place of genuine concern and care for those individuals we find difficult is for us to actually practice those concrete signs, gestures, and words of kindness, even when we’d rather do or say something else.
Fake it till you make it. Should we come to Mass on Sundays, go to Confession, or act with charity towards the people around us merely out of a sense of obligation? Of course we should strive for more than just meeting the minimum requirements of our Catholic faith and human decency, but if that’s where you’re at right now, and that’s the best that you can offer to God today, that’s very good. Even the greatest Saints experienced times of what’s called spiritual dryness—sometimes for many years—when God felt absent, when they felt like they were far from God. But they were committed, and they continued to act on what they knew to be true and how God and His Church had called them to conduct themselves.
We know now from letters to her spiritual directors and others that St. Teresa of Calcutta went through decades of dryness and darkness in the experience of her faith, all the while she remained committed to caring for the poorest of the poor and guiding the Missionaries of Charity which she had founded. Her commitment was heroic, not hypocritical. Fake it till you make it. Speak and act the way that God wants you to, even when you don’t feel like it. Practice the virtues, and they get easier with time and experience. We are committed and obligated to going through the motions, through the sacraments we celebrate here, so that these motions, the very actions of Christ, can transform our minds and hearts.