Homilies For Sunday Liturgies and Holy Days, July 2014
14th Sunday of Ordinary Time—July 6, 2014
Jesus, meek and humble of heart
Purpose: Today’s readings provide one of the most wonderful opportunities, in the three-year Sunday cycle, for preachers to awaken, foment, and nourish, among their listeners, that personal love of our Savior which, as recent popes have consistently emphasized, is central to “the Joy of the Gospel,” and thus for the “new evangelization” of our traditionally Christian, but now radically secularized, culture. Today’s Gospel (Mt. 11: 25-30) is a key biblical text underlying devotion to, and worship of, Jesus’ Most Sacred Heart; indeed, it was also the Gospel reading for that Solemnity just nine days ago. Since the great majority of worshipers this weekend will not have attended that Friday Mass, we recommend homilies that strongly promote this devotion: Make today an unofficial “Sacred Heart Sunday”!
Readings: Zec 9:9-10 ● Rom 8:9, 11-13 ● Mt 11:25-30
Today’s Scripture readings bring to light one of the sublime paradoxes of the Gospel: the surpassing greatness of the true God, as he is revealed to us in Christ, is shown precisely in his littleness, his gentleness, his humility. Clearly, these are qualities made possible for an eternal and almighty Creator only through the mystery of the Incarnation.
Thus, in the first reading from Zechariah’s prophecy, Israel, personified as the “daughter of Zion,” is given a vision that is to be fulfilled centuries later on Palm Sunday: the Savior king comes to his people as one who is “meek, and riding on an ass.” It is a vision in which Israel “rejoices heartily”—a rejoicing that has now cascaded its way to a permanent place in Christian culture ever since G.F. Handel immortalized Zechariah’s words in a radiant, soaring soprano aria of his great oratorio, “Messiah.” That same cultural heritage led to another moment of dramatic symbolism when, in 1917, the Holy City was captured from the Turks and came under the control of a Christian power for the first time since the crusading era. The British commander, General Edmund Allenby, had a deep respect for Jerusalem’s sacred heritage, and was unwilling to make his own entry in a manner similar to that of the “King of Kings.” Thus, on December 11, 1917, eschewing all elevation upon the backs of horses, or even donkeys, Allenby and his men made their formal entry into the conquered city on foot and in silence. Exactly eight years later, Pope Pius XI promulgated his great encyclical, Quas Primas, on the rightful sovereignty of Christ over every human society.
Christianized societies, too, have often fallen very short of Gospel teachings in their communal behavior. Nevertheless, what a contrast there is between this holy joy elicited by the Messianic King’s example of simplicity and modesty compared to the fierce, undisguised accolades to power, pride, and violence that, in every age, greet boastful displays of worldly pagan might! The spirit of a typical Roman conqueror’s processional triumph through the streets of the capital in early Christian times, dragging slaves and doomed captives behind his chariot in degraded humiliation, seems very little different from the spirit which, two millennia later, animated Hitler’s gargantuan Nazi rallies at Nuremberg, or Stalin’s parades through Red Square, that showcased endless rows of a Soviet arsenal portending massive death and destruction.
Today’s Gospel builds on Zechariah’s exhortation to rejoice in the quiet meekness of Israel’s King. For here we find our Lord praising the Father, precisely for having revealed the secrets of the Kingdom to “little ones”—the lowly and unlettered—rather than to the wise and learned. In fact, we learn from Luke’s account of this same incident (10: 21) that Jesus “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” as he lifted up this praise to God the Father. It seems significant that this is the only moment recorded in any of the Gospels in which we are explicitly told that our Lord rejoiced. This passage thus reveals to us something that lies deep within the Sacred Heart of Jesus: his profound longing to identify in a special way with the least of those brethren whose human nature he has come to share: humble working men and women, including sinners (“strayed sheep”), children, and those who are poor, sick, suffering, outcast—in short, all those who are not great and important in the eyes of the world.
This meekness of the Messiah King leads to a deeper appreciation of the central paradox of Christ’s Gospel —the Incarnation. The one whose human heart is filled with joy as he shares the lot of these “little ones” is, at the same time, the One whose eternal nature is infinitely higher than theirs! In this one short, but sublime, Gospel text we see both the “heights” and the “depths” of Jesus’ unique identity. In language that is rare in the Synoptics, but very similar to that of St. John’s Gospel, our Lord implicitly affirms his own divinity. He claims a unique reciprocal relationship with the Father, who has handed over to him “all things”: “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son.” Only God can intuitively know the depths of God.
And yet, this Son of God—so far above us in his divine nature—shows us the full extent of what divine love is really like by coming down to our level. Precisely because he has shared our own burdens—even death on a Cross!—in the weakness of human flesh, the one who is “meek and humble of heart” is able to give us real, and not merely, verbal, comfort and “rest” in our sufferings, thus lightening that “burden” and “yoke” which he himself asks of us as a condition of discipleship.
15th Sunday of Ordinary Time—July 13, 2014
The “seed” of God’s word in human hearts
Purpose: A homily based on today’s readings can appropriately have two main purposes: first, to encourage self-examination on the part of listeners, and the preacher himself: How receptive to the seed of God’s word is the “soil” in my own heart? (Is it shallow? Are there rocks, thorns, or weeds there that need to be pulled out?) The second aim can be to bring out the relevance of this parable for that “new evangelization” of our secularized western culture, which all recent popes have stressed as a top priority. How can we believers become more effective and fruitful, not just as receivers of God’s word, but also as its sowers in the human “field” we live in?
Readings: Is 55:10-11 ● Rom 8:18-23, 11-13 ● Mt 13:1-23
Today’s Gospel—the Parable of the Sower—is probably the most “mission-oriented” of all Jesus’ parables: it is directly linked to the great mandate of his “last will and testament” revealed at the Ascension: “Go, and make disciples of all nations!”
The preceding Scripture readings place the parable in its existential context. We hear “bad news” in the second reading, wherein St. Paul laments that through the primordial calamity of sin, the whole creation has been “made subject to futility,” is now “in slavery to corruption,” and finds itself “groaning in labor pains even until now.” The good news, however, is that labor pains are fruitful—they end in the joy of welcoming a new creature made in God’s image! That message of hope is more explicit in the first reading: The seed of God’s word, once sown, has an innate power and fecundity even under adverse circumstances. It “will not return to him void.”
The Gospel parable itself confronts us with a sharp, penetrating, personal question. Everyone in the pews today has already received the seed of God’s word in, at least, some minimal way. So we are challenged to examine our conscience: Which of the different types of “soil,” mentioned by Jesus, best describes my own heart at this time? Might it even be the first category—the hard pathway where the seed of faith has simply been “snatched away”? Surveys indicate that even some regular Mass attendees are unbelievers—for instance, some who come just to accompany a Catholic family member. A little new seed sown on this seemingly inhospitable surface will sometimes start to germinate. For instance: “Perhaps, someone here today really doesn’t believe in God. That’s a pity, because God believes in you! He surely wants to tell you that he’s there, he loves you tremendously, and he wants to come into your life. Why not take some time to reflect on that? Give God a chance!”
Our Lord explains that the seed falling in shallow soil on rocky ground refers to those timid or superficial believers who fall away out of human respect or fear when discrimination or persecution for the faith comes their way. There has been a sharp and dramatic increase in hatred and persecution of Christians since the new millennium began, especially in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. We need to pray daily for our brothers and sisters in the faith who are often showing heroism in the face of either jihadist fanaticism, or North Korean-style cold, merciless, tyranny. At the same time, those of us in relatively free, Western societies should be stimulated to follow their example; for militant and intolerant secularism is constantly chipping away at our own religious liberty. We find ourselves under ever-increasing legal, social, and economic pressure—all in the name of “tolerance” and “diversity”—to keep silent about, and even deny, our deepest, conscientious convictions about God’s plan for authentic marriage and family life. Let’s ask ourselves: “Have I been too timid to speak out for my Catholic faith and moral convictions? Do I even know how to defend Church teaching on these hot-button issues? If not, should I be studying my faith more seriously?”
The parable then speaks of seed that falls where it must compete with a lot of thorns and weeds. More humdrum and subtle than outright hostility and persecution, but perhaps even more corrupting over time, is the constant drip of worldly concerns (work, recreation, ambition, money, comfort, personal relationships) that may be good in themselves, but often eventually crowd out and displace the Kingdom of God as that which we “seek first.” Perhaps, the most important single question to ask ourselves in this context is: How is my prayer life and sacramental practice? Perfunctory and intermittent? Or devout and regular? Taking out some quality time each day to truly open our heart to the Lord, as well as regular reception of the Eucharist, and Penance, is essential to a faithful observance of the First Commandment.
If our prayer and sacramental life is regular and serious, chances are that the seed of the word has already found reasonably fertile soil in our hearts, and that we are bearing some of the fruits of charity, and the other virtues, that Jesus has in mind. However, his words leave us no room for complacency. Are we bearing fruit “thirty-fold”? Fine, but in the same breath, the Lord speaks of “sixty” and “a hundred-fold”! At a time when the Church is stressing, as never before, the need for Catholics to re-evangelize our spiritually barren, post-Christian culture, that further fruit Jesus wants us to produce will consist largely in our own transformation: from receivers of the word into new sowers. Many surveys show that evangelical Protestants are far more up-front in sharing their faith with others than the average Catholics. We can, and should, learn from their zeal, while avoiding their erroneous interpretations of Sacred Scripture.
Suggested reading: Sherry A. Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2012).
16th Sunday of Ordinary Time—July 20, 2014
The quiet growth of God’s kingdom
Purpose: Today’s homily can focus on God’s mysterious and unobtrusive plan for initiating and extending his loving rule over all creation. Unlike earthly kings and rulers, who are anxious to proclaim their authority loudly, and impose it as quickly and decisively as possible, God has chosen to manifest his eternal sovereignty over the world, little by little, quietly and patiently, allowing time for our sins, mistakes, and incompetence to work themselves out. He, therefore, requires moderation and tolerance on the part of Christian leaders, in both Church and State. The Responsorial Psalm—emphasizing that the Lord is merciful, kind, and slow to anger—can be seen as summarizing the main message of today’s readings, a message that has been developed anew in Vatican Council II’s teaching on the human person’s right to civil liberty in religious matters.
Readings: Wis 12:13 ● Rom 8:26-27 ● Mt 13:24-43
Today’s reading from St. Matthews’ Gospel follows from last Sunday’s reading, with more parables using the analogy of a seed that sprouts, grows, and bears fruit. However, this time the seed represents something more than the preached word of God; it is now likened to something much larger: “the kingdom of heaven.”. This is Matthew’s preferred term for what Mark and Luke call “the kingdom of God.” This kingdom includes “heaven” in the popular sense—eternal happiness with God after death—as our final destiny; but it has already been mysteriously initiated in earthly history and, as it unfolds, the whole meaning and purpose of creation is progressively revealed. For God’s kingdom is the gradual establishment and manifestation in history of his intimate presence among us as Shepherd and sovereign Ruler. This is the most tremendous, mind-blowing reality we could ever imagine, and yet, paradoxically, it’s one which begins very modestly and unobtrusively, like the tiny mustard seed in one of today’s short parables. The kingdom begins to develop in the quietness of humble and prayerful hearts—often with the Holy Spirit prompting and assisting us to reach out to God with “inexpressible groanings” that manifest our ignorance of how to pray, or, even what we should pray for (2nd reading).
The first reading from the Book of Wisdom shows us something of how the Lord was already establishing his kingdom under the Old Covenant. In contrast to the “might-is-right” scenario that prevailed in many “god/king” autocracies of the ancient Near East, the surpassing might of Israel’s Shepherd manifests itself precisely in his justice and clemency towards his frequently straying sheep. With no fear of any possible rival, he has no need of deceit, bluster, cruelty, or treachery to establish and maintain his rule: “For your might is the source of justice; your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all.” What Wisdom there is in those words!
The Gospel passage today includes three parables of the Kingdom: two very short ones, and another longer one which Jesus subsequently explains to the disciples. The mustard seed is so tiny that it seems to have no significant potential. Likewise, what earthly, would-be king would be so foolish as to try initiating his rule by choosing as his officers a tiny handful of obvious “losers”—unlettered (and unarmed!) fishermen—and having them proclaim a message with apparently zero credibility: the folly of the Cross? What prudent, educated person will ever acknowledge the divine kingship of another obvious loser—i.e., a poor, itinerant, Jewish preacher, whose mission ended ignominiously with his execution by the Roman superpower? And yet, as they say, “the rest is history.” That seemingly powerless Gospel worked to bring new life to the world, like the small measure of yeast, that quietly mixes with flour and water, creating life-giving bread.
Today’s main parable is that of “the wheat and the weeds.” Jesus stresses here that, while God’s kingdom will indeed involve a severe final judgment upon those who persevere in obdurately resisting the Holy Spirit’s promptings, he is very patient with sinners in this life, and requires patience on the part of all Christians—especially the Apostles, and those who will follow them as church leaders. It helps us to appreciate the parable if we know that the specific weeds mentioned here (“cockle”, “darnel” or “tares”) look very similar to “the real thing” in the early stages of growth, before the actual ears of wheat appear. Likewise, while God, in his omniscience, knows eternally who will finally be lost and saved (the “sons of the evil one” and “sons of the kingdom”), this judgment call should not be presumptuously anticipated by over-zealous Christians anxious to “weed out” sinners from the church community. All too often, this will lead to rash judgments: we will condemn, and prematurely alienate, as supposed “hypocrites” many weaker brethren whom the Spirit is gradually leading to a grace-filled healing in the midst of their moral and spiritual ups and downs.
The parable does not mean there should be no church discipline—no Canon Law! (In Chapter 18 of this same Gospel, Jesus himself will give guidelines for what has subsequently taken shape as excommunication.) But over the centuries, this parable has constantly challenged the Church to beware of, and overcome, the temptation to immoderate zeal in dealing with those presumed to be false brethren. Tragically, for about half of the second Christian millennium, learned theologians explained away our Lord’s words so as to justify the intolerance of the Inquisition, and Catholic rulers who took it upon themselves to torture heretics, and send them to the stake. But our early patristic tradition had gotten it right. St. John Chrysostom, for instance, commented on this parable: “The Lord said this to prohibit any putting to death; for we ought not to kill a heretic, seeing that this would introduce a never-ending war into the world.” The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty has recalled, for the Church and the whole world, that this ancient tradition is the one that truly reflects the clemency with which God wants to build and spread his kingdom.
17th Sunday of Ordinary Time—July 27, 2014
Divine wisdom, the kingdom’s greatest treasure
Purpose: The ensemble of readings today invites a homily that brings out the contrast between earthly, material riches and the only true and lasting treasure: the supernatural gift of wisdom by which we come to know and love God above all things. Jesus’ Gospel parables skillfully bring out this contrast by making worldly wealth itself—the treasure hidden in a field, the pearl of great price—a symbol of that real treasure which we find only by entering God’s kingdom, by faith, and making it our priority. Jesus also likens the kingdom to a heavily-laden fishing net, from which inedible refuse will be cast away at the end of time. In doing so, he reminds us not only that we should refrain from premature judgment of other professed believers, but also that we ourselves can lose the saving gift of wisdom by foolishly letting down our guard and giving way to sin.
Readings: 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12 ● Rom 8:28-30 ● Mt 13:44-52
Today’s Gospel concludes a three-week series of parables in which our Lord speaks of that mysterious reality—which in St. Matthew’s version is translated literally as “the kingdom of the heavens”—of God’s loving rule over ourselves, and the whole creation. In light of the preceding readings, a central theme in the three short parables we hear today is about that priceless treasure—indeed, it is the only true and lasting wealth there is—which we discover and receive by entering God’s kingdom. This treasure is the divinely-bestowed wisdom (the ensemble of faith, hope, and charity) by which we come to know and love God as our King, as well as to love his commands (response to today’s Psalm).
King David’s son, Solomon, living a millennium before our Lord came to proclaim God’s kingdom, was already seeking it in his own way. In the first reading, we meet Solomon as he begins his reign over the house of Israel—that ancient root from which, under the New Covenant, the universal Kingdom of God announced by Jesus, will grow, spread and, finally, triumph. When God invites the young monarch to ask confidently for whatever he most longs for, his response seems politically incorrect. Solomon is no Machiavelli. He requests none of the specific diplomatic, military, financial, or other power-clinching benefits that preoccupy most rulers. Instead, he paradoxically shows wisdom beyond his years by acknowledging his lack of wisdom for the huge task now confronting him. Since he makes the acquisition of that virtue his one great priority, the Lord blesses him in an exceptional way with “an understanding heart” and the capacity “to distinguish right from wrong.”
Of course, it is not only kings and rulers that God wants to bless. In the second reading, St. Paul assures us that for all those who make God their true priority in life, “all things work for good,” since that free decision on our part is, at the same time, made possible by a loving God’s calling, foreknowledge, and predestination. He eternally sees the end of each Christian’s vocation—which is nothing less than our conformity to the beautiful image of Christ—in its very beginning.
These first two readings, with their call to set our hearts on the spiritual treasure of God’s love, rather than the transient, but alluring, riches of this world, can help us penetrate more deeply the message of the first two Gospel parables we hear today. Jesus brings out the contrast between earthly riches, and the priceless treasure of God’s kingdom, precisely by making the first a symbol of the second. But it’s the kind of symbol which, like a signpost on the highway, points beyond itself to a greater destination: “Wouldn’t you be overjoyed to find a treasure-trove buried in a field, or the most magnificent pearl that ever came out of an oyster? Well, that’s nothing compared to the lasting joy that will be yours if, through faith, you discover Christ as God dwelling with us in human flesh, and become a citizen of his kingdom! And indeed, not just a citizen, but the adopted son or daughter of the divine King himself!”
These little parables also recall the different ways in which we can find the kingdom. For some, its discovery comes without any deliberate search, like unexpectedly unearthing that buried treasure. We’re reminded of St. Paul on the road to Damascus—thrown off his horse by a sudden and, literally, blinding encounter with the risen Christ. For others, the treasure of faith may come only after years of groping and searching for meaning in life, like the merchant who has spent years in endlessly scrutinizing pearl after pearl.
Jesus’ last parable reminds us again that, even though its final victory is assured, God’s kingdom is still in a state of war with Satan throughout this present life. The enemy’s agents, and fellow-travelers, can often infiltrate the temporary, earthly structures of the kingdom—the Church Militant—just as the big fishing net inevitably scoops up a lot of noxious creatures and trash, as well as good fish. Many sects have failed to understand this parable. They have denounced (sometimes with good reason!) the “worldliness” they see in the visible Roman Catholic Church, but have chosen the false solution of trying to set up “pure” alternate churches in which membership—or at least, first-class citizenship—will be reserved for a holy, devout élite. These folks, conscious of being “true believers”(i.e., “saved” or “born again”), distinguish themselves clearly from those they see as “unconverted non-Christians,” even though the latter may sometimes profess the faith, and attend church. Jesus warns us here that this kind of judgment is to be left up to God at the end of history. For we may err gravely, not only in judging others to be outside the kingdom, but in smugly presuming ourselves to be permanent insiders! The sad example of Solomon, who eventually lapsed from his initial zeal and wisdom into worldly sensuality and decadence, reminds us that our joy in being sons and daughters of God’s kingdom must, in this life, be accompanied by constant vigilance against the enemy’s wiles.
For further reading: N.T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (Harper-Collins, 2012).