Here is the homily preached at St. Peter Parish in Schulte for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time [Year B], September 27, 2015. For the Scripture readings, click HERE.
For the homily’s text, jump below…
The Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Numbers 11:25-29 + James 5:1-6 + Mark 9:38-43,45,47-48
September 27, 2015
“ ‘Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets!’ ”
You might have heard the news about legislation passed recently by the United States Congress, and then signed into law. Effective this past week, two plus two now equals five. But that wasn’t the only change in law this past week. They also decided to repeal the law of gravity, in solidarity with the gravitationally-challenged.
These changes in civil law are entirely consistent with declarations of the past few decades. In a 1992 Supreme Court ruling defending abortion, the majority opinion made the following declaration: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
It’s hard to imagine what sort of chaos would reign in our country if every American actually believed and acted upon this claim of moral relativism. Can you imagine every American defining his or her own meaning of human life, and therefore morality? That sort of false claim doesn’t help anyone. It certainly does not lead to happiness for anyone. The only places it leads to around here are the Menninger Clinic, and the federal pen in Leavenworth.
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Before speaking further, let me respond to an objection that some have raised in the past when hearing this topic brought up at the pulpit. People have objected first that the Church should not meddle in politics, and second that we shouldn’t have to hear about politics at church.
Regarding the first, it might well be pointed out that the Church in our nation is not meddling in politics, but rather that the government is meddling in religion. The Church is saying that she will not bow down before the government, and pretend that the government has competency to speak to, much less make demands of, the Church where matters of the Church are concerned. The Church has both the right and the obligation to explain why and how this is so.
Regarding the second objection, it deserves to be pointed out that there’s a difference between politics and law. Politics is something partisan. Law is something universal, binding everyone to whom it is applied. If laws are made that bind all Americans, and if those laws are contrary to the moral beliefs of the Church, then the Church has a responsibility and duty to demand changes in those laws.
This fact is why Pope Francis visited the Little Sisters of the Poor in Washington, D.C. this past Wednesday. As you likely know, the Little Sisters of the Poor filed a lawsuit against the president’s administration for its 2012 mandate that employers provide insurance coverage in employee health plans for birth control, sterilizations, and drugs that can cause abortions. This mandate includes the Little Sisters of the Poor, whose sole work in life is to care for elderly persons who have little to no financial resources.
Pope Francis’ solidarity with the Little Sisters of the Poor echoed his words at the White House earlier that day. Pope Francis called religious freedom “one of America’s most precious possessions”, and pointed out that “all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it”.
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Of course, it’s not only Pope Francis who has spoken—by his words and actions—about the importance of just and healthy laws. We also hear of this in our Scripture passages this Sunday. We sang as the refrain to the Responsorial Psalm that “the precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart.” The Psalmist explores this further in the verses of this psalm, Psalm 19, declaring that “the law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul”, and that “the ordinances of the Lord are true, all of them just.”
This single psalm is only one example of God speaking about the importance of law in the Old Testament and the New Testament. The first extended description of law in the Bible comes up in the presence of the figure at the center of today’s First Reading: Moses. Likely all of us had to learn the Ten Commandments of the Law when we were little. But our parents and catechists probably didn’t hold an extended discussion with us about the significance of God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses.
The purpose of law is to bring order to a community. This is true whether a civil law in question is a traffic law, real estate law, marriage law, immigration law, or any other type. Each of these types of law deals with a fairly specific area of human dealings. Other laws are broader, such as civil laws prohibiting murder and theft. Those broader laws correspond very directly to the content of the Ten Commandments: specifically, the Fifth Commandment which states “Thou shalt not kill”, and the Seventh Commandment which states “Thou shalt not steal”.
So would a civil legislature ever have the power to pass legislation saying that murder is permissible under all circumstances? Are civil legislatures answerable to a higher form of authority? Or may civil legislatures pass whatever laws they wish?
Father Joseph Koterski, a wise and learned Jesuit, speaks to this point by considering the Nuremburg trials of key Nazi officers after World War II. Consider the dilemma faced by those setting out to try those Nazi officers: in which courts were the Nazis to be tried? Some of the judges chosen to try them were French and American and British and Russian, but the Nazis couldn’t be tried in a French or American or British or Russian court because their actions were not carried out in any of those nations, but in Germany. On the other hand, the Nazis couldn’t be tried in a German court. Although the Nazi officers were German citizens, and committed their actions within Germany, the Nazis had not broken any German laws: the Nazis had very carefully over many years changed the laws of Germany in order to make everything that they carried out during World War II perfectly “legal”. “Legal” according to civil law. But was there a higher law that could be used to prosecute the Nazis?
The solution was to try them for what the Nuremburg courts called “crimes against humanity”. This term spoke to the truth that while civil governments are able to pass whatever laws they want, their laws—and they themselves—are answerable to a higher law. In our Catholic Tradition, we have a different name for this higher law, and that is “natural law”.
Every law, and every person who passes, executes, or judges laws, is answerable to the Creator of all things. God the Creator created the universe with an intrinsic order. Every scientist knows that the material universe has its own intrinsic order, and will teach those willing to listen that the law of gravity, the law of entropy, and the law of conservation of matter cannot be repealed by any congress. Every physician knows that the human body has its own intrinsic order, and will teach those willing to listen that one cannot pretend that an unhealthy diet, or smoking, or exposure to high levels of radiation will make a human person healthier. So it is with civil law on matters of pertaining to man’s intrinsic nature.
Man can pretend to have authority over moral norms, but he does so at his own risk. The question is whether Christians are willing to speak boldly on behalf of the intrinsic moral order by which God created man.
Keep in mind that there’s a difference between on the one hand the teachings of the Church on moral choices pertaining to man’s intrinsic nature, and on the other those disciplines that the Church is free to change. An example of the latter would be fasting on Good Friday. Are Hindus obligated to fast on Good Friday? No. Are Jews? No. Are Protestants? No. The Church applies disciplines such as fasting, abstaining from meat and other customs only to the members of the Church.
But is it a mortal sin for a Protestant to use artificial contraception? Yes, just as it is for a Jew, or a Buddhist, or an agnostic, or an atheist, because the laws against artificial contraception are intrinsic to human nature, just as is the human need for water, or the law of gravity. The Church has no more power to change these laws than does any civil government, or any individual.
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“ ‘Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets!’ ” Today’s First Reading is somewhat mysterious: not only because in this passage the “Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to Moses”; and not only because the Lord took “some of the spirit that was on Moses” and “bestowed it on the seventy elders”; but because the events in this brief passage joins together two realities that are generally thought to be opposed: namely, “law” and “spirit”, or sometimes described as “law” and “prophet”.
Let me give one illustration of this pair of realities being opposed. Those of you who are my age or older might recall a TV show called “The Wonder Years”. This show was set in the 1960’s, and focused on a typical suburban family. The father of this family was very gruff and by the book in raising his family: the sort of person you might call a “law and order” type. By contrast, his oldest child was a girl in her late teens, and later her early 20’s, who joined hippie movements of all sorts: the sort of person you might call a “free spirit”. As you can imagine, there were constant conflicts between this father and daughter.
Although these two fictional characters were stereotypes, they were based on a dichotomy that we find in the “real world”. Each one of us may even find both of these poles within one’s own self: a need for law and order, but also a desire for a more free spirit. Sometimes we don’t balance these two very well.
In your prayers as a Christian, in your examinations of conscience and sacramental confessions, in your receptions of Holy Communion, your need is to focus yourself on the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the one who keeps us grounded in our spiritual life. In fact, no one was ever more a “person of law and order” than Jesus Christ, and no one was ever more animated by the Spirit than Jesus Christ. In Him these two were never in conflict. Nor are they ever meant to be.
However, today’s Gospel passage presents a very stark image of Jesus: one which we might associate with the law and order type. He insists on the need for sharp boundaries, and declares that drastic measures must be taken to protect these boundaries: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” “And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off.” “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’” It’s hard to imagine Jesus wearing a tie-dyed robe and sunglasses as he makes these demands.
So if today’s Gospel passage offers an example of Jesus speaking in a “law and order” manner, where would we see a contrasting example of the spirit-filled prophet in action, and what would this prophet be doing?
One answer is today’s First Reading, though that passage really describes the origin story of Old Testament prophets spiritually descended—so to speak—from Moses. Another answer is today’s Second Reading, where St. James speaks as a prophet (in fact, foreshadowing Pope Francis…), calling the rich to task.
But consider a third example, which isn’t so much found in the Sacred Scriptures, as inspired by them. That example is you, who are a baptized Christian. Each and every Christian, through her or his baptism, is called to be a prophet. It’s easy to imagine Jesus saying in His days on earth, and in our days today, what Moses said in the First Reading: “ ‘Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets!’ ”
Each culture, sub-culture and religion has its own prophets. Prophets may differ from one such body of persons to another. There may be cultures, sub-cultures and religions where to be a prophet is to be nothing other than a “free spirit”, and let the wind blows where it wills, without regard for rules, regulations, doctrines and dogmas. But Christianity is not such a body of persons.
The Christian prophet does not oppose the Law of the Lord. He is precisely the one who takes risks to stand up for it, is willing to be persecuted for his witness, and knows that his life is about the Lord instead of about himself. The Christian prophet knows that while he is vastly imperfect, “the law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul”. The Christian prophet knows that while he is often untrustworthy and simple, “the decree of the Lord is trustworthy, giving wisdom to the simple.” The Christian prophet knows that while he is often false and unjust, “the ordinances of the Lord are true, all of them just.”
You are being asked by God to serve Him as a prophet: to defend His saving Law, the Law that brings order, refreshment, wisdom, truth and justice to the spirit. This is the spirit of Jesus and His Father: the Holy Spirit. This is the spirit that gives everlasting life.
We live in a world today that is so topsy-turvy that it becomes more and more clear each day just how much spirit it takes to defend God’s law. But the great British journalist G. K. Chesterton had a very optimistic view of this sort of challenge. He noted that the “act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice.” Would that each of us would give ourselves over to this exhilaration. “ ‘Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets!’ ”