Homily for the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

March 2, 2003

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

"I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart."

It's unfortunate that the church in her selection of readings for the liturgy frequently gives us only a brief snatch or snippet from a larger story, with the result that we can miss what it's really all about.

There is a perfect example in today's brief first reading from the prophet Hosea. For in the book itself we are invited into one of the most profound stories -- and the deepest mystery -- of all of Scripture.

The book moves us back and forth between two rich stories. On the one hand, there is the story of the prophet himself and his wife Gomer, and on the other we are drawn into the incredible story of God and his bride, the people of Israel.

Listen to the beginnings of the story.

Im the beginning of the Lord's speaking to Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea: "Go, take a prostitute wife and a prostitute's children, for the land gives itself to harlotry, turning away from the Lord."

So Hosea takes back his wife, and they have two children, a girl and a boy. The Lord tells him to give the girl the name Lo-ruhama, which means "she has lost the pity of her parent." And the boy is to be called Lo-ammi, which is translated as "not my people." For the Lord says, "You are not my people and I will not be your God."

What do you think of when you see a prostitute on the street? As I was preparing my homily I recalled what Monsignor Bob Fox used to say. He was the apostle of Spanish Harlem in the 60's, a priest out on the streets with his people. He maintained there were three possible responses to the question. The first was the response of the tourist, a person observing and unengaged with life: "Wow! This is the real thing; we're in the big city now...." The second response is the one of so many pious 'religious' people: "There but for the grace of God go I."

Fox would say that neither of them is the right response. The real response is "there go I." The prostitute is me, not something alien and removed from me. Oh, I may not sell my body for money. But how many times do you and I sell ourselves for some trinket? We make fun of someone for a laugh; we cut corners and sell out the principles we profess to follow, just to remain one of the gang or not risk being unpopular.

Israel has become a harlot, a prostitute, by giving up the covenant and selling out to pagan gods. She has forgotten where her life comes from.

What was their sin, their prostitution? It was two-fold: to put their trust in political alliances with foreign countries, and to fall into a magical form of worship of the Baals: perform some set rituals and the Balls have to give you fertility.

They have sold out, as you and I sell out. As our church sells out, as our country sells out. I wonder what our God thinks when the lawyers for the diocese of Covington think they are protecting the church by saying that a 13-year-old boy who was sexually abused by a priest might share some responsibility for what happened -- because he had placed himself at risk? Or when we are willing to sell out our principles for oil? Or when some of our leaders see themselves as bearing the mantle of God's providence as they prepare to cause the deaths of thousands of innocent human beings on all sides, Iraqis and Americans?

How does our God react to the abandonment of the covenant? Let's listen to chapter 2:

She is not my wife, and I am not her husband.

Let her remove her harlotry before her,

her adultery from between her breasts,

Or I will strip her naked,

leaving her as on the day of her birth;

I will make her like the desert, reduce her to an arid land,

and slay her with thirst.

I will have no pity on her children

for they are the children of harlotry.

Yes, their mother has played the harlot. . .

"I will go after my lovers," she said,

"Who gave me my bread and my water,

my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink."

Since she has not known that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and her abundance of silver and of gold . . .

Therefore I will take back my grain in its time

and my wine in its season';

I will snatch away my wool and my flax,

with which she covers her nakedness.

I will lay bare her shame before the eyes of her lovers. . .

I will punish her for the days of her Baals,

for whom she burnt incense while she decked herself out with her rings and her jewels, and, in going after her lovers, forgot me, says the Lord.

"You are not my people, and I will not be your God" -- perhaps the most terrifying words in all of Scripture. To be forgotten by God.

It's the picture of a God who is profoundly hurt, and pained, and saddened -- yes, and angry --a God who loves his bride Israel so passionately, who can be infinitely wounded because he loves her so infinitely tenderly. It is only by letting ourselves feel this pain that we will be able to appreciate the depth of God's further response, after the punishment.

For we read in 2:16 "I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart." What a picture: God as a seducer. Leading Israel back to the desert, to the place where she first discovered God's love.

To the desert. Perhaps that is the only place where we ever really meet the Lord, where we are compelled to ask what life is all about, what's important. When we are stripped of all our trinkets and are helpless beggars before the Lord.

Cornering all the oil in Iraq will not save us. Ridding the world of Saddam Hussein will not save us. Bribing other countries to join us in a 'coalition of the willing' will not save us.

Our God wants to make us his bride, and his dowry is the gifts of right and justice, of love and mercy.

We must allow ourselves to recognize the desert into which we are entering, and allow ourselves to be seduced by this God of the covenant. We must let go of our trinkets and remember who we are and where our life comes from. From a God who brings life even out of death.