A HOMILY FOR THE THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Today’s Scripture readings
Ezekiel 33; 7-11: Psalm 119: 33-40; Romans 13: 8-14; Matthew 18; 15-20
The themes of today’s Scripture readings revolve around questions of individual responsibility within the context of larger groups. That larger group may be the nation, the community of believers, or a church. As individuals we have responsibilities not only to ourselves but to the larger group to which we belong. Those responsibilities involve individual action for the wellbeing of others, as well as concern and involvement in the collective life of the group or nation.
Our reading from Ezekiel is about the role of the prophet in his society. We think often of prophets as elderly persons waggling their fingers in admonition and reproof. Reflexively we tend to think of them as bearded males given to wrathful pronouncements. We overlook, however, the role of women prophets in the bible, and in the history of humanity. How many of you know of or remember the prophet Hilda, in the time of King Josiah? Do you recall Anna, the prophet who prayed unceasingly in the temple and who greeted the baby Jesus as the redeemer of Jerusalem? She appears in the Gospel according to Saint Luke, in Chapter 2. So in addition to reproving and warning, prophets comfort, console and discern for the society around them.
“You, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.” Ezequiel today, and Jeremiah in last week’s Old Testament reading, relay messages from God. It is a vital responsibility, because if not carried out the prophet will face judgment from God: the blood of those he was to warn shall be on the prophet’s hands if he keeps silent. Now if the prophet warns the wicked and they do not repent “the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.” The prophet will have warned his nation that its sins weigh on it and cause it to waste away. The behavior of a nation is not a matter of indifference to God, and it explains why he raises prophets to warn the nation he cares about. “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die , O house of Israel?”.
When we reflect on the society around us, we may not hear prophetic voices. Perhaps it is that we are not listening to them, or for them. Those of you who follow Guatemalan news will have learned this week of the gigantic racket that the prison system of Guatemala has become. What I am telling you is based on reports from El Periódico for September 5 and 6. Most disturbing is that the person singled out as being the chief operator of the racket is in jail himself, for his role in the murder of a Bishop. The fact that he is imprisoned has not kept him from acquiring luxury vehicles, including a Porsche, or from buying luxurious homes. In jail he has set up a factory where prisoners sew t-shirts. Among the customers is the party in power which has bought thousands of orange t-shirts from his enterprise. It is encouraging that voices have been raised against the perverted system which permits this state of affairs, but will they be heard? Jeremiah and Ezequiel both warned the house of Israel to no avail. Their messages live for posterity, but the kingdom they warned fell and the persons who should have listened, perished instead.
Amid the rampant iniquity of our times, each of us can find guidance in today’s Psalm. It is a prayer to God to give us understanding, and to incline our hearts to his decrees. In this enormously visual age where we can see beheadings on YouTube or spend hours in front of the television set watching inane shows, the psalmist asks God to “Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; give me life in your ways”. In this time of uncontrolled greed and economic inequality the psalmist asks God to “Incline my heart to your decrees and not to unjust gain”. Just as the prophets swam against the currents of their time, and insisted on proclaiming what God said rather than what the crowd wanted to hear, so we too are invited to turn away from the things that are empty and worthless, and to focus on our relationship with God.
What are the implications of living in relationship with God? How are we to live our lives? Saint Paul in this morning’s reading from the Epistle to the Romans suggests that the basis of our life needs to be love. Love is the only debt, or obligation “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law”. The commandments against adultery, murder, theft and covetousness are summed up thus “Love your neighbor as yourself”. There is urgency in Paul’s exhortation; “the night is far gone, the day is near”. Evidently he expects the return of Jesus soon, and this is another reason to change. We are urged to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light”. We are to clothe ourselves in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Whether the end time is imminent or not, whether the return of Christ will be this year or in a thousand, Paul’s message is valid. Jesus taught us to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. That love of God translates itself into love for our neighbor-we cannot love God and hate our neighbors. We cannot love God and do harm to others. We cannot love God and take advantage of others. We cannot oppress or cheat others and say we love God, for in breaking his commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves we are denying him as well.
Today’s Gospel reading is quite typical of a lot of the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus’ sayings were collected by those who heard them in what were called logion in the singular, and logia in the plural. These were sayings of Jesus’ jotted down not necessarily in any order. Rather they were based on the recollections of those who had heard Jesus and reflected the scope and range of subjects covered by our Lord. These compilations were later used by the writers of the canonical Gospels to put together their narratives. Today’s Gospel reflects this early form of compilation. The six verses we have heard proclaimed today deal with at least four different topics.
The first topic Jesus addresses is how to deal with misbehavior among and between members in a group of believers. The person wronged is encouraged to discuss the matter with the person who wronged him. If this person does not change his or her behavior, then a second meeting, with witnesses present is recommended. If that does not result in a change in behavior, then the matter is brought before the group in its entirety. If that fails to change the offender’s behavior, then that person is to be shunned-treated as a Gentile, or as a tax collector. This sounds harsh, but if we follow Jesus’ example we show mercy to the Gentiles and to the tax collectors, just as he did. In any case, we are meant to show love albeit we should be on our guard if the person we love does not reciprocate. Need we be worried about popularity, or be crowd pleasers? No, we need to love.
We also need to remember in the present when the church has become a minority institution in the society around us, Jesus’ words: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”. As individuals we have the responsibility to maintain a prophetic witness to his truth and presence in the world, and to call for the changes that are so gravely needed. As individuals we need to seek God, not watching what is worthless, not seeking unjust gain, but by loving one another. Think of Paul’s words in this morning’s Epistle reading: “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light: let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
PLANNING TRAVEL TO GUATEMALA?