21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
This weekend (Aug. 23-25) I was in Irondequoit, N.Y., for a funeral, and this morning I concelebrated at a parish Mass, so have no new Sunday homily. Since I didn't preside over the funeral, I have no homily for that, either. Here's an "oldie."
Luke 13: 22-30
St. Joseph, Passaic, N.J.
Aug. 26, 2001
“Behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13: 30).
Both the gospel and the reading from Isaiah speak of God’s call to all the nations to belong to him. When Israel is scattered far and wide, says Isaiah, they will attract foreigners and lead them to the Lord, and those peoples shall become his own as much as Israel. Jesus tells the Jews of his time that people will come from every quarter of the world to enter the kingdom of God, to feast at the Lord’s table. We ourselves are testimony to Jesus’ words, for we don’t come from his land or his people, in an ethnic sense.
But Jesus’ words are uttered in a context of caution, even of warning. He spoke to large crowds during his public life, he healed many people, he ate and drank in the homes of many and had others as guests at his house in Capernaum. Yet on the day of judgment many of those folks, Jesus warns, may find themselves locked out of God’s house. Few actually believed Jesus’ message and became his followers.
It’s not enuf to belong to the chosen people or to have been familiar socially with Jesus. “Lord, open the door for us.” “I don’t know you.” “But we ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” “I don’t know you. Depart from me, all you evildoers!” (Luke 13:25-27).
We may think that a certain social familiarity with Jesus, a certain cultural sense of belonging to his Church, of being Catholic in our bones, assures us of closeness to God, guarantees that the gates of heaven will swing wide open for us when we come knocking. Well, as Sportin’ Life sings in Porgy and Bess, “It ain’t necessarily so.” Being a priest doesn’t assure me of salvation. Knowing Catholic doctrine doesn’t assure me of salvation. Sitting here in church Sunday after Sunday, going to Holy Communion, getting your kids baptized and married in church—none of that assures you of salvation.
On Aug. 14 some fellow’s letter appeared in the Record, giving his opinion about Pres. Bush’s decision on stem cell research. He wrote: “It was obviously a 100 percent political decision made by a president with a lack of vision and courage to do the right thing for the majority of the people. I don’t see any conflict of conscience at all. As a Roman Catholic I was always taught to believe that healing and caring for the sick was the highest calling. Now my church and other religious groups say that is not the case.”
Well, yes, Catholics are taught that healing and care of the sick are high callings. But the Church has never said it was the highest calling or the highest priority. The Church has never said that we may do something wrong in order to produce a good effect—in the particular case referred to in the letter, deliberately and directly to kill an innocent human being in order to help heal someone else. And, in fact, the Church has also consistently condemned the production of human beings in laboratories, whether for experimentation or for possible implantation in the womb. People are not commodities, not products, not means to a doctor’s or a scientist’s or a parent’s end.
Instead, what the Church has always taught as the highest calling is being a disciple of Jesus. Do you remember the gospel about Martha and Mary that was read 5 weeks ago? Martha was hustling to prepare and serve a meal to Jesus and her other guests, while her sister Mary sat listening to Jesus, and when Martha griped to Jesus about that—“Tell her to get up and help me!”—Jesus replied, “Martha, you’re worried about many things. Only one thing’s necessary. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her” (Luke 10:40-42).
Or, to return to the topic of healing and caring for the sick, sometimes compassion toward the sick means causing them pain and trouble: surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, physical therapy—some of you have been thru that, and you know that none of it’s pleasant, but all of it may be the highest compassion. Likewise, Jesus is being compassionate in the fullest sense—Jesus, who was so compassionate toward all of us that he suffered torture and death for us—when he directs us to a difficult road as the way to heaven: “Strive to enter thru the narrow gate” (Luke 13:24). In St. Matthew’s version of the same warning—we read St. Luke here, but in St. Matthew’s version—Jesus adds, “For the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction…. How narrow the road that leads to life” (7:13-14). Even the pagan poet Vergil noted that the descent into hell is easy.
Walking with Jesus isn’t all warm feelings. Sometimes it’s hard choices, unpopular opinions: to do good rather than to feel good; to exercise tough love; to put others ahead of oneself; to swim against the currents of a materialistic and hedonistic and “I want it now” culture—the wide and easy road to perdition. (That’s mixing my metaphors, of course, since one doesn’t swim on a road. Maybe I should say, “Swimming against the wide river that sweeps one over a deadly waterfall.”)
Last week Jesus asked his listeners, “Do you think that I’ve come to establish peace on earth?”, and he answered, “No, I tell you, but rather division.” He went on to speak of households divided by their decisions for or against him (Luke 12:51-53).
Our age, our culture, wants toleration of every opinion and lifestyle; wants compromise in every disagreement. The Gospel, however, does not compromise about sin: “Depart from me, all you evildoers!” The Christian who ate and drank in the Lord’s company but didn’t repent of his sins and attempt to change his ways will be wailing and grinding his teeth, will find himself cast out of the kingdom of God—just as Jesus warned the chosen people in his own time.
Therefore, brother and sisters, don’t listen to those who tell you that the Church has to accommodate itself to the morality of our time, that the Church has to understand how people are nowadays, that the Church has to get “with it”—that we have to accept and even approve of pornography, of divorce, of sex outside of marriage, of homosexual behavior, of contraception, of abortion, of in vitro fertilization, of embryonic stem cell research, etc. Instead, “Strive to enter thru the narrow gate.” Read the word of Jesus in the New Testament, believe what you read, practice what you believe, and trust in the power of Jesus to forgive whatever wrong you do thru human weakness.