Homily for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 1, 2004

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Ecclesiastes 1,2;2,21-23; Ps 95; Colossians 3:1-5,9-11; Luke 12:13-21)

When we here at St. Agnes hear today's Gospel parable it could be an easy temptation to think, "Oh, today Jesus is going after the fat cats, people who are wealthy. We can just sit back and enjoy it; none of us here at St. Agnes is wealthy as our society measures wealth."

Not so fast, Batman. . .

It's true that the Gospel is about money -- but it's also true that it is not only about financial wealth.

I want to share with you a very moving experience that happened to me a couple of weeks ago.

I was working with a group of religious brothers. They run a high school for boys in Newfoundland. It's a very highly respected school, one that everyone would want to be able to attend. And the Brothers have been in that community for many, many decades. They were looked up to by everyone.

And then the sexual abuse scandal touched home there. And it was not a case of an isolated brother, there were quite a few involved ov er a long period of time. Newfoundland is a relatively small island community where everyone knows everyone else so the result was brutal. News clips on TV night after night after night; bitter parents with angry signs parading outside the school; the abuser brothers in court forced to detail their crimes in graphic details; brothers being led off to prison.

At breakfast one morning I sat and talked with one of the members of the community who was not a perpetrator himself but has had to live through it. He is a wonderful, spiritually sensitive man. I said to him, "It must have been very painful for you."

He answered, "You can't imagine how painful. The shame and disgrace of it. I had thought I gave my life to a holy religious community. Everything I had made into God in my life was gone. Name, reputation, pride at being part of a holy group of men, being looked up to by the community and parents."

Everything I had made into God in my life was gone.

"I would return to my room at the end of each day and just sit in the presence of a lighted candle. For months on end. I couldn't pray, I was too numb. What was life really all about? What had I given my life for? Who is God? And what is really of importance? I'm convinced that it was only that candle that kept me from going mad and despairing."

Everything I had made into God in my life was gone.

Let's leave this fine man there in his room with the lighted candle; let's close that door for a bit.

I thought much about the experience, as you can imagine. And my mind turned somehow to the Ten Commandments. And in particular to those people who spend so much of their energy trying to get the Ten Commandments chiseled in stone in front of every public school and courthouse and city hall. You've read about them; the judge from Alabama is now on a tour around the country with the monument that got him fired. They think it will change the deteriorating morals of our country.

I have to admit that when I first heard about all that it struck me as kind of silly. Don't those people realize that about a week after such a monument is in place and all the publicity dies down the monument will become just another part of the scenery that we walk past without giving it a second thought, like all the other monuments we pass each day and can't even recall why they're there?

But then I said, "Hey, if they want to do it, let them. It can't do much harm and it might do somebody some good."

If they get the order of the commandments right.

Did you ever think about the order of the commandments? I think that for the people who are on that crusade it's possible that they might tell God that the order of the commandments needs to be revised. What's really the most important?

Well, of course the Sixth commandment ought to come first -- because that's where real sin, the really bad stuff, happens. "Thou shalt not commit adultery!" Except that when you listen to people like that you hear "Thou shalt not have sex!" Or at least "Thou shalt not enjoy sex!" That God might have wanted to give humans deep joy in sexual intercourse doesn't fit their view of life.

After the Sixth what might come in second place? Oh, maybe the Third Commandment: "You gotta go to church!" (Actually I believe it refers to keeping holy the Sabbath; setting aside a day for God.) Or maybe it would be "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain." For them that's all about cussing, you know -- when it's really all about using God as a cover for our actions, like claiming that "God is on our side" -- whether it's in Iraq, or excluding aliens from our society because they don't speak English.

In any case, I have a hunch that in their scale the least important commandment is the one that God put first: "I am the Lord your God; you shall not have false gods before me." I mean, how does that affect us? That's all about primitive times, when people made things like little figures and adored them, like golden calves or voodoo dolls and stuff like that. We don't do that kind of stuff in our modern world.

I've come to think that having "no strange gods before me" is first on God's list because it touches our deepest sin, the one that is most difficult to overcome.

In the Gospel parable 'wealth' is only an external symbol. The real point is anything that helps us avoid the truth of our radical dependence on God. The sin of the rich man wasn't in amassing wealth. And it wasn't even in enjoying that wealth and what it gave to him. It was really about him being seduced into thinking that he did it all himself. He lost sight of the fact that it is all --- all --- pure gift. He came to believe that he could just coast, that he didn't need God.

And God in the story uses a fierce expression in bringing him up short. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus warns us sternly against ever calling our neighbor a fool -- and yet that is exactly the expression God uses. You fool! Don't you realize it can all vanish in a snap of the fingers?

The brother I talked to was not wealthy; he and his community live quite simple lives. But he had reputation, esteem, he was sure he was pleasing to the Lord, enjoying God's blessing.

Everything I had made into God in my life was gone.

I am the Lord your God, there is no other. You shall not put strange gods before me.

Our capacity to manufacture created gods is enormous, so powerful that if we really grasped it, it could terrify us. The only thing more powerful, the only thing that can overcome it, is God's love revealed in Jesus. A pure gift. John says it is not that we first loved God but that he first loves us -- without our deserving it.

I invite you now to go back to that brother, in his room with only that small candle warding off the darkness. Let's take our place beside him, with nothing between us and our God, asking to understand what is really important: who God is --- and therefore who we are.

Our brother has given us a great gift by sharing his dark night with us. In return let us pray for this deeply committed man and his community as they wrestle with the challenge of being reconciled with the brothers who have wounded them so deeply and now will live with them for the rest of their days.

And let us ask our faithful God to protect us from our idols.