November 6, 2016 by
David Jackson in
Reflections on Sunday Gospels
A past homily from a priest friend of mine who is now on the other side of Resurrection.
Today’s gospel sounds a lot like any one of our front-page, morning newspapers or the morning news on NPR: suicide bombings in Iraq killing 50 people in a market place, including children on their way to school; the slaughter of civilian refugees in Darfur; Iran constructing a nuclear bomb while some US Administration officials threaten war against Iran; fires ravishing the San Diego area; the city of Atlanta, GA, running out of water; global warming threatening to put more of the continental land of the planet under water; American children being denied health care, etc, etc, etc.
Quite honestly, I do not think that Jesus was talking about the end of time and the cataclysms attending that end when he spoke so apocalyptically in today’s segment of the gospel. I think Jesus was trying to tell his followers that the promises made by God to Israel that were represented in the temple were going to be fulfilled, but not in the way that they had expected. God had promised that Israel would be restored, and the people understood that literally – as, “We’ll be a great nation again. We’ll be powerful, and sovereign, and all the world will look up to us.”
But Jesus was really telling them something else. God is going to restore the kingdom, all right, but the temple won’t be needed any longer and neither will armed force be a part of the restoration movement. Instead, Jesus urges his followers to give up their ideas of how God will establish the kingdom, especially the image they are carrying in their heads. Jesus proclaims that the kingdom is about turning your other cheek, going the extra mile, losing your life to gain it, loving your enemies; forgiving those who don’t stop doing evil against you.
Naturally, what was so hard to take and the reasons there would be arrests and persecution, including his own, is because Jesus is breaking away from conventional attitudes and values. For instance, he hangs out with sinners and pronounces them as members of the kingdom, too. And, perhaps worst of all, he forgives sins and heals the sick and maimed, leaving the temple entirely out of the loop. He was changing the rules of the game and that was the real and serious offense. That’s why Jesus states that his disciple, following in his footsteps, would be betrayed by family members and friends, handed over and imprisoned – even put to death. They would be hated for the same reasons he was hated.
Change, that included changing the rules of the game, was just too much to take as a teaching from this young rabbi. What he was offering was a subversive plan in which all religious conventions would be turned upside down. Following him would be a very risky undertaking – maybe even a deadly undertaking: to be the light of a world, which tends toward darkness.
Jesus still comes to us offering the same agenda, challenging our narrow views of who can be loved and embraced by God. Jesus seemed very comfortable being with public sinners, eating in their homes, praying with them, offering them compassion and healing. His agenda clearly showed that the poor and disadvantaged had a special place in his heart because of their special need. He is pleased with people who have material wealth being willing to be generous, yet his model is the poor widow who gives not from her abundance but from her poverty. The sick are to be healed and consoled, not viewed as defective or unclean. Swords are to be sheathed, cheeks turned. The imprisoned are to be rehabilitated and freed; the faithful nurtured; the wayward restored.
When Jesus is betrayed by Peter, he forgives him and assigns him an enormous responsibility. When his flock scatters after his death, he calls to them across the lake where they are fishing and cooks them breakfast. Everything he does is counter to conventional wisdom and human nature.
If we are faithful to his radical agenda of love, acceptance, compassion, and forgiveness, a non-revengeful way of living, we may at times be misunderstood or dismissed. At worst, we will be reviled, rejected, betrayed, and even hated. It will be disillusioning at times – even painful. We may grow weary or afraid. Some people will walk away from our company, others will pull back moral support. But we should always be able to refocus remembering Jesus’ promise: “By your perseverance, you will secure your lives.”
There is a woman I know who is now in her mid-70s. I met her and her family when they attended my Masses in a Navy chapel at Davisville, RI. After raising 3 children, she went back to college to get a masters degree in social work and theology. I do not know of anyone I admire more. She has dedicated the last 25 years to prison ministry and the last 15 of those years to men on death row while staunchly advocating for a moratorium of the death penalty in the State of Alabama. With the execution of men who have become her dearest friends through the years, she endures an apocalyptical upheaval in her life with the state murder of each of them – and yet she does not stop implementing the gospel in a purely selfless style which I have never witnessed in any priest or religious. Her example is providentially out of gospel imagery though she does not feign religiosity – only an undivided loyalty to the men she calls her friends. To me she is the Jesus of today’s gospel in a world where some Christians advocate against abortion of fetuses but still do not see the sinfulness of aborting, that is, murdering, incarcerated adult human life. In Jesus’ words, My friend’s perseverance has secured her life.