The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Homily: 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Ezk 2:2-5; 2 Cor 12:7-10; Mk 6:1-6

Today’s readings are really about three groups of people: the Jews who rejected God’s Word preached to them by the prophet Ezekiel; the people of Nazareth, Jesus’ home town, who rejected God’s Word in the flesh; and lastly, us, the people of today. And perhaps not so obviously, these readings are also about evil.

Evil is a very strange commodity. Sometimes it’s so evident, so blatant, that you can actually feel its presence. Let me give you an example from my own experience.

In 1951, not long after the end of World War II, my family lived in Germany where my father was stationed. Instead of living in Army housing, he felt we should experience the local culture, and so we lived on the economy and went to local German schools. It was a remarkable experience for my brother and me. As a family we also took many short trips to different parts of the country, where I saw the unbelievable devastation that Hitler had brought to his own people, not to mention the rest of Europe.

On one of those trips we visited Dachau, one of the infamous death camps. There I saw first-hand the mass graves, the ovens, the tools of death, all the implements devised by men for only one purpose, to murder the innocents among them. Although it was over 60 years ago, I remember that day as though it were yesterday. The evil, the unbelievable cruelties that had taken place there only a few short years before, was so palpable, so real, I could literally feel it. Evil like that is hard to ignore, even though, at the time, many did just that.

But evil isn’t always so obvious. It often shows up looking clean and shiny, well-scrubbed and well dressed. It can look and sound very reasonable, always ready with a compliment, saying all the right things…and yet beneath the veneer, there is nothing, only misery and despair. Evil rationalizes itself with fine-sounding words and ultimately entraps those who fail to reject it.

As adults we can’t be forced to become ensnared by an evil power like in the horror movies…no, we set the trap ourselves. We make our own choices.

It’s not their sins that characterize those guilty of the greatest evils – for everyone is a sinner – rather it’s the persistence and consistency of their sins. It’s their willingness to choose evil over good, and to do so again and again. You see, the central defect of evil isn’t the sin itself, but the refusal to acknowledge it as sin.

We see this in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel. Jesus has returned to his hometown of Nazareth, where He preaches in the local synagogue. Those who hear Him have to make a choice, a choice between good and evil…and they make the wrong choice. They reject goodness. Their choice, like so many of the choices we make, stemmed from pride. They simply couldn’t believe that one of their own, someone they had known all their lives, could be so special.

How did they put it? “Is He not the carpenter, the son of Mary…?” How could this common man, this laborer, this man to whom many of them were related…how could He have anything worthwhile to say?

Their rejection of Jesus followed directly from Jesus’ faith and commitment. It was easier for them – as it is for us – to be negative rather than positive. Easier to be destructive rather than creative. Easier, in short, to confuse good with evil.

Edmund Burke summed it up pretty well when he said, that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Like so many people today, the people of Nazareth didn’t want to hear the truth, especially when the truth hurt. For that’s what a prophet does: he speaks the truth. And all too often the truth reminds us of our failings and weaknesses. A prophet’s job is to upset people. His job is to challenge and rebuke people. His job is to demands that they change, that they do more than nothing. Jesus’ neighbors, listening to him in the synagogue, became like their ancestors to whom God had sent the prophet Ezekiel. With stern faces and hardened hearts, they rejected God’s prophet, they rejected God’s Word.

But this time it wasn’t God’s Word spoken by a prophet that they rejected. This time it was Jesus, the Word of God personified…Jesus, much more than a prophet… Jesus, the Son of God Himself, who stood in their midst. He is the Truth.

Had we been there, would you and I have rejected Him as well? Perhaps the better question is: do we reject Him today? The truth? Jesus is still with us. He speaks to us through His Word, read to us daily at Mass. He instructs us through the teachings of the Church. He feeds us with His precious Body and Blood in the Eucharist, entering into our very being, calling us to constant conversion through the “inexpressible groanings” of the Holy Spirit.

And yet, how often do we listen and act on what we hear? Do we fear the change Jesus demands of us and prefer instead to do nothing? Do we excuse ourselves from difficult teaching? Do we rationalize our acceptance of evil, because …well, these are complicated and controversial issues?

Pope John Paul II, one of the great prophets of our time, warned us frequently about the acceptance of a culture of death, the same kind of culture that resulted in a place like Dachau. And yet many of us choose to ignore the warnings.

The right to choose, we are told, is more important that the right to life. Yes, the right to choose death, the right to choose evil. Assisted suicide and euthanasia aren’t really all that bad. Yes, the culture tells us, these are quality of life issues. Capital punishment? Don’t listen to the Church. It’s a secular issue, a law and order issue. It has nothing to do with morality.

Ah, yes, evil can come to the table all dressed up, with fine manners, and sound so civilized, so very reasonable.

The culture condemns the homeless and despises those suffering from AIDS or enslaved by addictions. They brought it on themselves didn’t they? Why should we help them? The culture of death protests loudly when the Church addresses the ills and immorality of society.

It tells the Church that religious freedom is defined not by God but by the state. It tells the Church to keep its religion quiet. Stay out of the public square. Stay out of politics, it says. Stick to your prayers and your Masses. Stay inside the walls of your church.

They seem to believe we live in two worlds, one religious and one secular. What a bizarre notion!  No, brothers and sisters, we live in one world, God’s world. He created it, and He’s the One in charge, not us.

We have only two choices. We can accept Jesus Christ and His Truth, or we can reject Him. There is no middle ground, no seemingly safe place where we can straddle both sides and remain uncommitted.

A few moments ago, we joined together to sing the words of the psalmist, “Our eyes are fixed on the Lord.” This is one of the things that differentiates good from evil.

Are our eyes fixed on the Lord? Or like the people who rejected Ezekiel and Jesus are we fixed on other things?

Let’s pray today that, like Paul in today’s 2nd reading, we may find strength in our weakness. Pray for goodness, brothers and sisters. Pray that God will make us as courageous as Ezekiel to speak His word to our world, even when the world seems unwilling to listen.

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