Homily for the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
21 February 2022
Ss. Peter and Paul, Naperville
Over the last few Sundays, the Church has been bringing us through Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s Matthew’s version of Jesus’ most famous sermon that normally comes to mind when we think about the Sermon on the Mount, but Luke’s narration of this sermon is just as valuable for our understanding of who Jesus is, who he understood himself to be, and what, in his own words, he was sent to us by the Father to accomplish.
The mission of Jesus is not only eschatological; that is, there is more to the mission of Jesus than simply, “Get everyone to heaven.” The tradition calls Jesus the autobasileia – the kingdom himself. When Jesus says in Mark’s Gospel, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” this is what he means; “Repent, for I – my very person, my very existence – am the Kingdom come to fruition in your midst.” So for the Christian, the “Kingdom of God” is not some far away reality, but is something that is always close and always tangible wherever Jesus makes himself present.
This means that the kingdom of heaven is now, and here. As such, the way we live now and here has to be affected by the presence of Jesus. Anyone who claims a life-changing encounter with Christ Jesus, but continues to live in exactly the same way as before with as much (or more) gusto for that former way of life has not, I’m afraid, had an encounter with Christ Jesus.
Too many of us want to wear the cross around their necks but not bear it up, as Jesus did, upon their backs. Too many Christians want the satisfaction of feeling righteous before God, thinking rather naively that righteousness before God is a matter of doing good works so that boxes can be checked off, while the heart remains walled off and locked away; we know that true conversion means learning to love what is good, so that we might become what we love; real conversion is the process by which the things that I desire and the things God desires for me gradually become one in the same.
The other side of this is truly scary: if I don’t build my life on what he wants, then I’m probably building my life on what I want; if your God lets you do whatever you want, your God is probably you.
We often hear that loving Jesus means preparing ourselves for life with him in the New Heaven and New Earth to come by a life well lived on this earth in this time, but if you’re anything like me you often find yourself wondering what this means practically. “Okay fine,” we say, “I’m supposed to be holy. But how?”
God is interested in the long game, and he’s chosen to play it in a way that is constantly paradoxical. He’s the God of all creation and power, but comes to live among us as a baby; He’s the creator of every time and place, but decides to live among us in a small town in a particular historical time; He’s the author of all mankind, and the redeemer of every person, but spreads these messages by entrusting them to a very small group of people who are, by our standards, some of the least qualified for the work that has been given to them.
What is he thinking? My proposal today is that Jesus went about his work in this way because he knew it would be a way that we could imitate.
I use a lot of social media, and I’ve talked about it here before. In October, I gave a talk to the Chesterton parents about the dangers and risks of social media and I think a lot of them tried to limit their kids’ use of it as a result. My favorite student reaction to this went something like, “Mom, Dad, you’re going to listen to someone who literally also uses these exact same apps all day long about how dangerous they are?” I hate when juniors in high school are right (and lucky for me, they very rarely are! Just kidding)
Alright, yes, I do use social media and I need to curb the habit; one thing that is helping me use it less is the increasing sense that I am not made to be this digital, my life and its details are not meant to be available on such a large scale. I don’t think we’re built to be influenced by the entire world, and the abundant life that Jesus talks about is not available to us through the mediation of a screen.
This was Jesus’ method: “he comes, present, to a small group of people; who then, over years with him, experience him as an exceptional, extraordinary person. They see someone who is brilliant enough to absolutely outfox the Pharisees and scribes, but he’s also completely humble and comes from humble origins. They someone who is so powerful he manipulates nature without even moving, but he’s also compassionate enough to worry about a widow who’s lost her only son, or to worry about a hungry crowd. In other words, they had never seen Genuius allied with Humility. They had never seen such authority married with compassion. He was truly everything that they hoped to become themselves, and everything they hoped humanity could be. He was truly too good to be true.” (Helen Alvaré, Day 4 Keynotes, SLS20)
There’s an Italian writer named Alessandro Manzoni, who did for the Italian language what Shakespeare did for English, and whose most famous book is called I Promessi Sponsi, The Betrothed.
There’s a scene in it near the very end where Cardinal Borromeo says to a young priest who has really failed a young couple in his parish, and sent them into a world of hurt. The Cardinal says to the priest, “Don’t you realize? Christ has no one but you to manifest himself, and if you are not too good to be true, no one will know that Christ Jesus is still here.” You have to be the same kind of exceptional humanity or no one will believe that Jesus risen and living, and still calling people to himself.
The list of practical ways to engage this method, to both reveal and receive the presence of the living Jesus in the midst of your Naperville life is extensive, just in the Gospel today:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who mistreat you; Give to everyone who asks of you; Stop judging, stop condemning, forgive and receive forgiveness.
I bet that if you spent your Lent trying to put those things into action, aided by the grace of the Eucharist and confession, that you’ll be a saint by Easter.
The truth remains: we reap what we sow, and God will not be mocked. The measure with which we measure will be measured out to us. If we’re measuring out condemnation of others, harsh attacks, or letting ourselves judge and identify others by who they vote for, whether they’re wearing masks, what they wore to church today, or any other short-sighted and wasteful criteria, then this admonition of Jesus of receiving the measure with which we measure might be frightening.
But if we can stand before God, present among us in the person of his Son Jesus, who is truly the model and method of how to live a life in the world that is truly attractive and interesting because it is truly too good to be true, I’m not saying we can let our guard down and just coast into heaven…But I do think that taking time to live with the people who are right in front of us, to get to know the people we work with and see everyday, to cut people a little more slack and show others the mercy we wish they’d show to us; if we’d stop hiding behind the anonymity of unsigned letters, angry school Facebook groups, coffee-shop gossip sessions, anger-filled and incorrect YouTube theologians, and ranty/condemning text conversations about other people in the same room or house as us…I think we’d all be a lot better off.
Si tropo bello per sere vero, be too good to be true. The world needs your Christian conversion because it needs your Christian witness; it needs this Christian hope and this Christian optimism. It needs Christ Jesus now, and in the genius of his method, he came to you through someone else, and he’ll go to someone else through you.