Homily for the 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 25, 2001
Our Divine Saviour Church, Tifton, Georgia
In the ancient near-East for over a century before Christ it became customary for various communities to gather collections of 'Wisdom-sayings'. These were not highly theological concepts, but rather practical norms for living 'a good life'. Ways of being a wise and up-standing citizen. They were much like Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac, really. The People of Israel did the same thing in books like Proverbs or the Book of Wisdom.
That's what the church gives us in today's readings. The first is a set of wisdom-sayings from Sirach, about 100+ years before Jesus. Then the Gospel gives us a similar piece, only this time the sayings are those of Jesus. The biblical writers heard these sayings passed down orally and they gathered them together into 'speeches' of Jesus. It is most probable that he never gave such 'speeches' in their present form.
Although it is in the nature of such collections that the sayings be more or less random, I would suggest that we can find at least one unifying thread in these. It focuses on the power of human speech: our words have consequences. It's something worth our reflection, because we need to think about the effects of things we say -- and maybe more importantly, the way we say them.
Let me start from an example that might be easier for us to work with because it's a bit removed from our daily world; it's 'out there', so to speak. When Benjamin Netanyahu was campaigning against Yitzhak Rabin in an Israeli election, he and his followers filled the airways and streets with all sort of vile attacks on Rabin, accusing him of being a Nazi, a murderer. There were large photos with Rabin's face being canceled out with a huge 'X'. A few weeks later Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. And Netanyahu says, "Oh, I didn't kill Rabin. Some madman pulled the trigger." It's too easy. Netanyahu absolves himself of creating the climate which made Rabin's assassination seem legitimate to a weak-minded individual. Netanyahu avoids looking at the effects of his rhetoric -- for which he is responsible.
Now for some thing a little closer to home. And I know some in this church may be upset with me when I bring this up. But I must confess that when a man goes into an abortion clinic and kills doctors and patients, and then the leaders of the Right-to-Life movement declare that they don't sanction his behavior, for me it's a little bit disingenuous. When you are shouting and calling people 'baby-killers' and such things, is it that easy to shuck off any responsibility for the frenetic atmosphere of hatred that is being fomented?
We need to look seriously at our national culture of vilification. It is becoming less and less possible in our society to hold a reasonable debate on complex issues without people attacking each other personally, instead of being able to disagree and stay at the table with respect for one another.
Where does this climate come from?
It's easy to look to the politicians in Washington, to our films and music. That's a slam dunk, because it puts the blame on 'them' -- whoever the latest easy target is. Why can't they stop having food-fights and behave like reasonable people?
The question we have to ask ourselves is: how are we, how and I contributing to creating this climate? Because it's a social phenomenon and we as members .of society bear our responsibility for contributing to it. Let me look at two things even closer to home.
The first is talk radio. Which many of us listen to, quite innocently, in our cars or at work or home. Just some entertainment? Do we ask .ourselves what constant listening to this kind of junk is doing to our modes of conversation? Listen a little more carefully. Do you ever hear any of these people listen to the point being made by other callers? Just a little bit of thought tells us that these talk-jockeys incite people to mindless spouting of slogans and smart-ass attacks on others. Up in our area last week a station finally had too much and fired a talk host who was calling Jews 'kikes'. Do we want to fill our minds with such junk? Let's not kid ourselves, it's not neutral.
A second illustration. I was talking to one of my nephews recently about road rage (interesting that we even have to invent a special term for it, isn't it?). He said, "Uncle George, we've got fan rage." People who throw batteries at players in the field, parents who shower referees with curses because the referee - who might be a neighbor just trying to help kids have good sports -- dares to call Billy out. A couple of years ago near Cincinnati we had a couple of parents hitting a referee over the head with iron folding-chairs, for God's sake. (I think if we ask the kids themselves, a lot would probably say their parents are an embarrassment, trying to live through their children. That's what kids will say to each other: "I wish Mom/Dad wouldn't even come to my games, they make me feel so embarrassed.")
How do we work at changing this cultural climate? Two reflections.
The first is from Pope John Paul II. Now this man suffered greatly under Communism, so you would think he would have nothing good to say about it. In fact, though, he tells us in his writings that every culture has its good aspects -- even socialism. He comes down on the side that the bad outweighs the good but he's able to acknowledge the good. And incidentally, we can't just claim all the good of capitalism without looking hard at its destructive effects, either. John Paul is one of the world's toughest critics of the effects of unrestrained capitalism: the poverty it creates, the consumerist mentality which is exhausting our planet's resources, etc. The point is that he won't let us settle for easy black-and-white thinking.
You won't take it ill if I mention St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits. In the initial meditation in his Spiritual Exercises he lays down some initial presuppositions that should be part of every human exchange. First, that I should assume that the persons I am in conversation are speaking in good faith instead of immediately making them the enemy because they happen to come at the issue from a different perspective than I do. And second, that I try to find the potential truth that could be hidden in their position even if I disagree with their conclusion.
Our exchanges with one another need to be chances to learn, to grow in wisdom, not exercises in winning or overcoming the other guy. Each of us is responsible for small pieces of our public discourse and we need to get out of the win-lose, black-white stances that seem to characterize so much of American life today.
As we receive the Lord in Communion today let us pray for the kind of wisdom he is trying to show us, that in our dialogue with our neighbor we may contribute to the building of God's kingdom through genuine humble exchange with others in the pursuit of truth. Our words have consequences.