25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom 2:12, 17-20 | James 3:16—4:3 | Mark 9:30-37
Oh God, who founded all the commands of your sacred law upon love of you and of our neighbor, grant that by keeping your precepts we may merit to obtain eternal life. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
I usually prepare my homily over the week, and today I am recording on a Wednesday instead of a Friday. So I’ve kind of moved the schedule up, and I was working on my homily this morning, and I couldn’t get to the heart of it or something. So I went and listened to the homily I gave three years ago and said, “Well, that will stimulate my imagination. Maybe I can use that or get ideas from that.” I don’t often listen to myself. I know actors often say they’ll never watch themselves on the screen, a lot of reasons for that. We tend to be pretty critical, self-critical especially. Anyway, as I sat there this morning and listened to me talk, I had a very interesting reaction to what I was saying. This was three years ago. I listened to me describe the Christian life that I believe that I’ve been called to draw people’s attention to, but I heard in my voice a kind of hesitancy to go all the way. In other words, I kept talking about what it shouldn’t be and maybe didn’t quite get to the point of what it is, and I think I know why that is.
As a Catholic priest, I’ve always been in a position of being in front of people and either giving a talk on some topic or giving a homily, and there’s always been — for the most part, people find my voice easy to listen to. I try to be logical, and they feel that I’ve said something. But it often happens where somebody will come up and say, “Well, I don’t understand anything you’re saying. This doesn’t make any sense. You don’t sound Catholic enough.” Catholic enough. Often people who listen to my program and don’t hear the entrance to it, let’s say they hear it on the radio, passing through town, and they listen, and at the end they hear it’s Monsignor Don Fischer who just gave that talk. And they go, “Huh? It didn’t sound like a Catholic priest.” Some of that is on purpose, insofar as, when I speak to you, I’m not wanting you necessarily to become a Catholic if you’re not. That’s your choice, but what I really try to do is avoid the things that are what I would call mostly moral issues but also ways in which a Catholic is invited to imagine their relationship with God and their relationship with the church. And every religion has a slightly different code of ethics around that, and those code of ethics are not necessarily scripturally-based. If one religion says you can’t drink or dance, another religion says you can, if one religion says this is a sin, another one says it isn’t, if you can’t get a divorce in one religion but you can in another, well, who’s right in terms of interpreting scripture? Because we all work with the same source. Well, I’m not here, and I’ve never been here in this role that I have to work with those issues. They’re real. They’re important, but they’re up to the individual religion to work on, individual members of that church to work on it, to ponder it. What I’m here to do and what I want to do so desperately is get to the core message that we find in salvation history. That’s my goal, and I always talk about then, in a way, the bigger issues, the universal issues.
We prayed in the opening prayer that we would understand that the essence of the Judeo-Christian message boils down to one basic thing, to love God and to love our neighbor. That’s a perfect description of the Ten Commandments, three about our relationship with a loving God, and we love him, and seven commandments about how we could express or how we should be aware that, if we do certain things, we don’t express love. I realize that, when you’re asked to love God and to love your neighbors, you are an integral part of that. Jesus added that. Other rabbis did too, but Jesus made sure that you realize that to love your neighbor means you must also love yourself. And to me, it’s always felt that that relationship between my God and myself is the way to have a good relationship with your brothers and sisters. A relationship to God, a relationship to myself.
The interesting thing about the gospel in today’s set of readings is that it presents a child in the midst of the disciples who had been arguing about something that I always smile when I think about it, but they were so far off of understanding what Jesus was really about. The kingdom that he was coming to set up was not one of political power or prestige for the people involved. It wasn’t about having the best seats at synagogues or ruling the world, but the disciples thought, “Sure, if we stick with Jesus — he’s the Messiah. He’s going to be the new authority figure. We know how authority works, and it lords things over people, and that’s probably not good, but you know what? It probably might feel really good to sit on one of those great chairs at the big table.” So they really didn’t fully understand, and we still don’t fully understand. And so the irony of them arguing on the way, as they’re walking through Galilee — and I think it’s interesting. Jesus says — he didn’t want anybody else to know about it, which meant, it sounds like, he needed some downtime with his disciples. So he wasn’t going to be preaching. He’s listening to them, and then he’s talking to them. When he hears them arguing about who is the greatest, who is the best, who is the most capable, who will probably have the biggest position of authority — if that doesn’t sound familiar to you, maybe you don’t need to listen to this homily, but that’s such a part of our human nature, and it’s an enormous part of our culture. People with power, people with influence, people with things, people with stuff, they’re somehow better than the people without it, better than the poor, the weak, the little ones. So what Jesus is trying to say, by putting a child in their midst, is the child is a symbol.
It’s so interesting to me that he uses an impersonal pronoun, it. He talks about the child and says, “Unless you accept it.” So he’s not talking about accepting that child, her or him, but the it is what is a child. What is it about a child that we should be engaged in if we’re going to love God, love ourselves and love our neighbor? Well, every time I think about the gospel and I think about its simplicity, I know there are two major things. I’ll say them to you over and over again, two major things that we’re always invited to try to get out of our system, out of our way of thinking, out of our way of feeling, and that is judgment. And if there is any judgment, and there will be in all of our lives, then something right next to it is always the second part. The partner to all judgment is forgiveness. Stop judging and start forgiving. So when he’s looking at this child and he’s saying, “If you become like a child,” well, I don't know how old this child was, but children then — we might consider children 13, 14, 15. They’re young adults, but they were getting married and having children and taking on responsibilities. It was a different culture, but the children in every culture are the same. And one of the things they have is they don’t tend to be very judgmental, and I don't know that they necessarily are so forgiving, but they don’t seem to have that disposition that requires forgiveness. They don’t hold things against people. There’s exceptions of course, but go to a four-year-old, a three-year-old. They’re not judging their parents. They’re not having long talks with them about how they’re not performing the way they should and that they’re looking into a lawsuit about the way they’ve been treated. They’re accepting, accepting, accepting of what is.
That seems so simple to me, accept what is. You compare it to the rigidity of a strong moral system that so many religions have. Catholicism has it. All religions have it to some degree. It’s a moral system that demands certain things that you do or don’t do, and the pressure on you to do or not do is usually directed toward a part of you that’s called the will. If you have a strong, disciplined will, you can control your behavior in a way that creates tension, anger, anxiety, frustration, and yet religion is notorious for that kind of system.
John Paul II, an amazing pope, so gifted, did so many wonderful things. He had a very strong desire to unify the church through not doctrine but through moral convictions, and I’ve seen people struggle under those. And those who follow that way of life, when I talk to them, there’s one thing I feel inside of them, and it’s fear, the fear of not being good enough, not being disciplined enough, having fault, having frailties, failing. All I can say to myself is that, if you have a religion based on non-judgment and forgiveness, it implies that one of the essential things that’s going on is making mistakes. How do you live? How do you grow without making copious mistakes? The best description I know to understand what sin is comes from the meaning of the word to miss the mark, not to be evil and to be destructive and to be a horrible person, but when you have a strong moral focus, it creates division, and it creates all kinds of stress within the heart of the person who’s struggling to do that.
Sometimes I’m talking to groups, and someone will come to me afterwards. They’re terrified, and I can tell they’re frightened more than anything else that I’ve said something that they don’t think is correct. And it’s not like they say, “Huh, that’s interesting that you say that. What’s your reason for saying that? Because it kind of goes against what I’ve been told.” I don’t see that kind of thing from a certain group of people who are very, very rigid. They are frightened, and they’re angry, and they’re condemning and highly-critical. And I’ve learned to not get angry, because that’s what I used to do. I’d say, “How could you think that about me?” Well, maybe they’ve got something that they’re saying that’s really truthful, but along with it was a spirit of judgment, and when I hear that spirit of judgment, the first thing I want to do is throw up a protective shield, because they’re not talking to me out of love and hoping that, if I’m saying something wrong, they might be able to help me see it or whatever. No, it’s a judgment. It’s a condemnation, and it comes out of fear. I know if there’s anything I could do to help people find the peace that is the heart of the gospel, it would be to stop that kind of practice.
Why are we so threatened by people who see things differently than we do? And why is it that we judge every action on the strict moral laws that are laid upon a person who is naturally in need of being able to make mistakes and be forgiven and make mistakes and grow? Why is that? It’s simply because it’s easier. It’s clearer. It’s more logical. It’s everything that the mind longs for, a nice, clean, rigid order that I can follow with my will. It leaves out the heart. It leaves out our emotions. It leaves out so many things that are so essential to the simple, ongoing demand of the gospel — love. Love, love, love. Stop judging and equating somebody’s actions or what they have, how they look with their value. Want nothing more than for them to grow and to change and to become all that they’re called to be, and give them enormous slack. Slack, it sounds like a bad word. By slack, I mean acceptance for who they are, trust in who they can become, a desire for them to change. All those things are the opposite to me of a rigid moral system that’s judgmental and condemning. If that one thing, that one thing, which I feel is at the core of the gospel, could be understood and believed and lived by everyone, the world would change dramatically. Advertisers would have to rework all their ad promotions, because there’s a subtlety in all of them that implies, “If you have this, you’ll be better. If you have this, you’ll be happier. If you have this, you’ll be more successful in the eyes of others.” All of that is meaningless. If you don’t love yourself, if you don’t experience love from other people, if you don’t know that God loves you, if those things are gone, then you need that moral system. So for me to enhance and develop and increase that moral system that judges and condemns is the last thing I would ever want to do.
Father, your promise is a heart that is at peace. Your promise is a world that is alive with beauty. When we focus only on the dark side, when we focus only on the problems, only the things that aren’t what they should be, we lose an awareness of all that is good, all that is beautiful. Bless us with eyes that see both, and never let our mistakes, our faults blind us to our goodness, our sweetness, the beauty that we are in your eyes, and we ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.