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Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 22, 2010 ' .

Church of the Resurrection, Cincinnati

 

(Based on Isaiah 66:18-21; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30)

 

In today's gospel the church makes us confront what could be the most frightening image in all of Scripture. 'Could be '—everything depends on the way we read it.

 

We are to imagine ourselves coming up to the house of the Lord and knocking to be let in. We are desperate to be with the Lord. And we hear his words from the inside: "I don't know you. " I don't know you. Depart from me.

 

To be cut off from the Lord—rejected—is the worst fate we could imagine. The very thought could immobilize us. It could turn us into a pillar of salt, like Lot's wife.

 

Is it possible that such a paralyzing fear is what Jesus would want us to take away from hearing this story? Could that really be what he wants?

 

From all that we know of the rest of Jesus' preaching nothing could be farther from the truth. It would contradict the major message that runs through all his relations with his disciples. Again and again he told them, and tells us "Fear not!" The first time he met some of them and invited them to be his followers, he says, "Fear not. You will be fishers of men and women." After the disciples faced the storm on the lake and saw him calm the waves, he chided them: "Why were you fearful, you of little faith?" When he appears to them in the upper room after his death, again he says, "Don't be afraid; it is I." And he says: "Fear not, little flock, your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom." On one occasion he says, "Fear is useless."

 

From the fact that he has to challenge us so many times to put aside our fear, it seems clear that fear itself must be the greatest enemy of our spiritual lives. Our greatest temptation is not to trust in the faithfulness of our God.

 

So if we are not to be controlled by fear, what are we to make, then, of this word in today's Gospel, of the prospect of being cut off from the face of the Lord?

 

Perhaps the key lies in a principle that we have learned before but are continually liable to forget. The principle is this: the parables and images of Jesus are not in the first instance about us. They are about God, and who God is. Jesus' mission was to challenge our feeble concepts and misunderstandings about God and what the God with whom he enjoyed an unimaginable intimacy is all about.

 

The One he called "My Father" is the father who waits out at the edge of his property for the return of the son who had rejected him. He's the shepherd who leaves the healthy members of his flock to search out the one who was lost. He's the woman who searches frantically for the precious coin she has lost. He's the land-owner who entrusts his vineyard to servants to keep up and won't violate their freedom. He's the farmer who has to tell his field-hands not to be so quick to uproot the weeds that appear to be threatening the harvest, lest they also waste the least grain of the fine wheat he desires from his sowing.

 

The parables are not about us. We make them about us because of our preoccupation with ourselves and our security.

 

The question we need to attend to is not: what does this story have to tell us about us, but rather, what does it have to tell us about our God? We have to put ourselves, not in the shoes of those who are knocking to get into the Lord's house, but in the shoes of the One who is on the other side of that door.

 

In today's first reading from Isaiah we have God speaking to a people in exile in Babylon. They have lost everything. Their homes and land, for sure, but more profoundly, their Temple, the house of the Lord, the place of promise. And what does Isaiah's God tell them? I am going to liberate you! Not only that, but I am looking forward to a great gathering of people from all the nations, from every comer of the earth. They will come streaming to the house of the Lord.

 

This is the God who says, "My delight is to be with the children of the human family." A God who desires passionately to share divine life with us.

 

When we recall all that, the words that Jesus puts on the Father's lips: "I don't know you," can only be words that come from deep pain and sadness. What must it be like for the Lord not to know, not to recognize, those the Lord created in God's own image and likeness, those the Lord has loved with an everlasting love?

 

This is not the vengeful image of God that Jesus was trying to wipe from our imagination. This is a God who cares deeply and infinitely for us. A God who can suffer in pain at not having us in the Lord's house.

 

There can be no doubt of God's love for us. But that love is not sentimentality. It is the love of a God who takes us seriously, as creatures endowed with the incredible dignity that comes with freedom and responsibility to share in God's own creativity. God wants us to appreciate the dignity that is ours as free persons, a freedom God will never force but will respect at all costs, even to the possibility of the pain of not having us there to share life with the Lord.· .

 

There has still one more serious point for our reflection. When the people are outside the door and wanting to be let in, what is their claim? Why do they think they should be admitted and welcomed?

 

Listen to what they say: Let us in, because we ate in your company, and you taught in our streets. There is nothing there about how they responded to the Lord's teaching. No words about the love they showed, their care for their neighbors. They think they deserve to be allowed in. They have a sense of entitlement. They thought they had an 'in.' They just knew they would be first.

 

Jesus had to deal with that mentality all his life. At one point he says, "Not everyone who says, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter into the kingdom, but only those who do the will of my Father." It applies even to Mary, his mother. When he is preaching and some disciples come to tell him his mother is outside the place, he says, "Who is my mother? Those who do the will of my Father are mother and brothers and sisters to me." Mary is the first of the disciples, not because of the amazing relationship of biological motherhood she has with Jesus but because she does the Father's will.

 

If the story challenges us to dig deeper in our appreciation of God's love for us, it also challenges us to get clearer on what constitutes a claim to enter the kingdom. On another occasion he shocks his listeners by telling them that prostitutes and tax collectors will enter the kingdom before the self-righteous. He returns to the prophecy of Isaiah and renews the promise of the Father to the exiles in Babylon. Multitudes will indeed stream into the kingdom from the four comers of the world-but they won't be the people the world expects to find there.

 

There is an old piece of wisdom we need to reflect on. It tells us that when we get to heaven—if we get there!—there are three surprises that await us.

 

The first surprise is to find ourselves there.

 

The second surprise comes when we look around and find who else is there. There will people we would have judged unworthy.

 

And the third surprise will be to look around and see who is not there. Those we might have considered the pillars of the church. The ones who did 'all the right things'—but  didn't get the point that it's all'about love. About dying to ourselves to live for others.

 

The words of Jesus are not meant to make us lose heart or be afraid. They are meant to remind us of how much our God wants to share divine life with us. They remind us of the great dignity that is ours as free, responsible persons. But they also remind us to be serious about our spiritual lives. Not out of fear but out of gratitude for the Lord's love and care for us. We are the pearl of great price. And finally they remind us that words, or even good religious practices, are not enough. It's all about doing the Father's will. Dying to ourselves and sharing in the joy of Jesus. As always, it's all about love.

 

Amen?