Homily for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 27, 2002
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Isaiah 8:23-9:3; Psalm 27:1,4,13-14; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17; Matthew 4:12-23)
The readings for today take us over a wide territory, both in time and in geography.
We begin six centuries before Christ, in Jerusalem. The prophet Isaiah can read the signs of the times, and he sees that the Assyrians are going to overrun the city and lead the people into exile. His whole mission, as one commentator tells us, was to denounce the "pride, self-indulgence, and callous injustice toward the poor." of the people and their leaders.
It's no use, his cry is not heeded. But along with his denunciation he holds out hope as well. Disaster will indeed come (as it eventually did) but after the exile hope will come from "Galilee of the Gentiles."
In the Gospel we jump forward 600 years, and the prophecy is being fulfilled as Jesus leaves Nazareth and goes to live in Galilee, where he begins his life work.
But as we read the passage, it's important that we take note of one detail that we might easily miss because it's in the very introduction of the passage. The account begins "when he heard that John had been arrested." Jesus is not going into his mission blindly. He is aware that to proclaim God's word is a risky business. Because he upset the powers that be, John is languishing in prison. And he will eventually be beheaded. Jesus is going to proclaim God's kingship, and that is very upsetting to earthly rulers.
And he begins, not by the spectacular epiphany that many might have expected of the Messiah, but by recruiting four fishermen. This messiah is not going to do it all himself, he is beginning to gather followers. "Gathering"; that's the root phenomenon of what we call 'church'. He is going to attract disciples, and that is also disturbing to the political and religious rulers. At one point later on, as they watch his following grow, they cry out, "Look, the whole world is following him! What will happen to us?"
Now we leave this simple scene by the lake and travel across the Aegean Sea to Corinth. It's now about 20 years later and Paul is writing to the gathered community, the church,. there.
We need to understand the context of that community. Corinth is very different from Galilee. It's a big cosmopolitan city, the crossroads of government and business. It's also a sports center! Every other year people gather from across Greece to the equivalent of the Olympics. It's close to the sea and there are transients of every kind there. There is even a common expression used across all of Greece: to "live like a Corinthian" is to live a life of debauchery and license.
And into that rough-and-tumble, alien world Paul had come and preached about Jesus. He labored for eighteen months gathering together a community of believers. After forming the community and getting it on its feet, he moves on. And what happens?
He begins to get reports from some of the members of the community -- 'Chloe's people' -- that the community is in shambles. They have splintered into factions and rivalries, each one claiming to have the real truth, with bickering and hostility. At one point they report that even in the celebration of the Lord's supper there is terrible exclusion, so that some get fed and others go hungry.
One group says "We belong to the Apollos party." Apollos was apparently a celebrated orator, a charismatic figure that would be quite magnetic to some. Others say, no, Paul got us started so we're staying with Paul. Others figure that from the Gospel story it is Peter who is the 'big guy' so they profess to follow Cephas.
And there is even, if you can imagine, a "Christ party." They think they've really got the inside track -- I mean, how high can you get, having Christ on your side?
They're all people arrogantly convinced they have the answer; they're willing to demean and exclude others in the community. Why because they've lost touch with the core of what it's all about; as Paul puts it elsewhere: "Christ crucified, foolishness to the Gentiles but to those who are called, the power of God and the wisdom of God."
Let's leave Corinth for a moment and let 2000 years pass. And I invite you to travel to any city in our country. And isn't it the same picture repeated today? We have people willing to call other heretics over their pet issue.
There are people who will kick and scream that 'the tabernacle must be put back into the center of the church' -- totally unaware of the fact that churches for centuries after Jesus had no tabernacle at all and lived the faith rather well, thank you. We have people who staked their whole membership in the church on the campaign to keep from having girl altar-servers. They were so sure they had the ear and the backing of Pope John Paul that when he finally allowed girls to serve at the altar, a woman who was one of the most outspoken leaders in stopping it was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "we've lost the war. . . " The war? What an image.
We have people ready to throw in their lot with the latest spellbinding guru, and it doesn't make any difference whether it's on the right --- people cheering Archbishop Lefebvre's campaign to return to 'the tradition' --- or the left -- people willing to traipse after George Stallings' new church that will be fully black.
We have people who spend their energies caught up in the latest spectacle, whether it's rosaries that turn gold or images of Mary they see in the windows of a bank in Florida. There are Christians so disturbed by the evil of abortion that they are willing to torch an abortion clinic and kill those who work there -- or even the women who find themselves in that terrible conflictual situation.
On the left there is an organization that is named "C.I.T.I." -- Celibacy Is The Issue. Hello? The issue? An issue, OK, but the issue? For others the issue is ordination of women. For some it might be the kind of music in the parish.
Last week I heard a good story. A fellow was talking about those pushy born-again types who are always going around asking, "Are you saved? Have you been saved?" Someone asked him once again and he wearily answered that yes, he believed he was saved. But that wasn't enough for his questioner. He wanted to know "do you know the day you were saved?" The man answered, "Yes, I know the exact day on which I was saved. It was a Friday afternoon. . . . In Jerusalem. . . About 2000 years ago."
Now don't get me wrong. Many of these issues are worth discussing. How we design our places of worship is important, and how we deal with the evil of abortion, and who we believe God is calling to ordination, and whether celibacy is the best policy for today's world -- these are all issues worthy of exchange and dialogue. But not to demean and ridicule people simply for disagreeing with our position.
Just the other day John Paul II gathered over 200 of the leaders of world religions to pray with him, in the city of that great icon of peace-making, St. Francis of Assisi. And what was the kernel of his message? That religion must never be used as a justification for violence.
Remember, he is talking to leaders of faiths which have killed thousands, faiths which have led crusades and jihads against one another in the belief that God was on their side. Ours included. We burned people at the stake who had a religious experience that was different from ours.
No doubt, John Paul was alluding in the first instance to our latest terrorists, who distorted Islam for their insidious purposes. But he was challenging all the world, too. And he was challenging us. We may not fly airplanes into the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, and we may not behead people or burn them at the stake, but we need to examine ourselves and acknowledge that we can do violence to others in ways other than killing. We do violence by putting the other guy down, bu drowning out their voice by ridicule, by refusing to take them seriously. And by allowing ourselves to soak up the mindless invective of talk radio.
Later on in his letter Paul deals with the division in the Corinthian church by inviting the members to set their hearts, not on things like prophecy and teaching and speaking in tongues, but on "the greater gifts. what he calls "a mor excellent way" -- the way of love. He goes on in the magnificent hymn to love in the 13th chapter:
If I speak with human tongues and angelic as well, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and, with full knowledge and comprehend all mysteries -- even if I'm right! --- if I have faith great enough to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give everything I have to feed the poor and hand over my body to be burned but have not love, I gain nothing.
Remember the little piece of wisdom we shared here a few weeks ago: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing! And the main thing is the power of the crucified to heal us of our arrogance and worship of these human issues which we turn into idols.
As he tells us, "Over all things put on love.