Homily: 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
Friends, this week our scriptures give us a glimpse of both the effects and the consequences of being God’s prophet. In the first reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah, we enter the scene after Jeremiah has been making his prophecy. The Babylonians had laid siege to Jerusalem (meaning, they had surrounded the city and had cut off all supplies from outside, like food, from coming in). Jeremiah had been called by God to proclaim that the Babylonians had been sent by God as a punishment against them for having grossly sinned against his commandments. This message had demoralized the soldiers and so none of them wanted to go and fight the Babylonians. Then, to top it off, God prompted Jeremiah to declare to the king that it was his will that they surrender to the Babylonians without a fight: saying that, while the city would be lost, the people would be mostly saved.
Well, neither of these things sat well with the king and his closest advisors. The Babylonians were absolutely despised by everyone and so the thought of surrendering to them was unconscionable. Further, they were convinced that God was still with them and so could defeat the Babylonians if they engaged them in battle. They knew that Jeremiah was a true prophet of God. Thus, his prophecies unnerved them, leading them to seek to silence his voice. And so, we see that the effects of his prophecy were to disturb his hearers, creating division among them, and the consequences were that he suffered severe punishment at their hands (being thrown in a cistern and left for dead).
In the gospel reading, we hear Jesus declare both the effects and the consequences that his own prophecies will have. He declares that his teaching will both disturb and cause division, and that this division will not be into broad, loosely connected groups, but rather that it will cut to the very core of every family (a father against his son and a son against his father...). And the consequences of his teaching will be that he will be baptized in a “baptism with which he must be baptized”, which we know to be an allusion to the Crucifixion. As we know well, his teaching did disturb and cause division, leading the prominent persons of the day to seek to silence his voice. Thus, the consequence of his teaching was the severe punishment of the cross.
So, why is it important for us to hear these readings and, thus, to understand the effects and consequences of being a prophet? Well, simply stated, it’s because the world is in desperate need of prophets: that is, men and women who will listen to the word of God, observe the world around them, and then be bold enough to speak God’s truth into the world, calling out those who are living contrary to God’s commandments, announcing to them the consequences if they continue, and then calling them to repentance, that is, to turn back to God so that the announced consequences might not be realized. They are desperately needed because so many people today are turning away from God because they think that the pursuit of him will lead to a dreary and sullen life and so turn to a life of pursuing personal satisfaction, often to destructive ends. In hearing this message today, each of us is being reminded of our call to be prophets to those around us.
This “glimpse” of the effects and consequences of being a prophet can be used as an examination of conscience of sorts as to how well we are fulfilling our role of being prophets in the world. Believe it or not, the first question of this examination has nothing to do with whether I’ve disturbed and caused division, but rather with whether I’ve spent time listening to the word of God. Are we spending time praying with and studying the scriptures and the teachings of the Church (which are derived from the scriptures and the Tradition of the Apostles), or are we spending more time watching Fox News or CNN (or, worse yet, endless mindless shows on television or Netflix)? If we are not spending time every day listening to God’s word in this way, then how can we know the message that God is calling us to announce to others? The answer, of course, is that we can’t; and so, when we (inevitably) observe the world around us (because we’re watching too much Fox News or CNN, remember?), although we may recognize that things are off-kilter, we do not know how to respond. At first, we may feel frustrated since we sense that we should do something. After some time, however, that sense of frustration without action hardens our hearts until we no longer feel even the frustration. Friends, let me tell you: This is a bad place to be.
The hearts of those to whom God is calling us to share his prophetic message have hardened themselves against him (like King Zedekiah and his advisors and the Pharisees in Jesus’ day). When we fail to listen to the word of God in our daily lives, we, too, allow our hearts to harden against him, thus rendering us useless as prophets of God and, quite frankly, putting us in danger of losing heaven for having failed to love him. Letting your heart become hard is the easier way to go, however, since we all know (at least instinctually) that the effects of being a prophet are to disturb and cause division (which nobody likes) and that the consequences of being a prophet are to suffer severe punishment. Having a hardened heart may lead to a more dispassionate and unfulfilling life, but at least it’s a quieter one.
Friends, I’ve struggled a lot with heart hardness over these last few years. I’ve allowed the busyness of the world to over-occupy my mind and my heart and I’ve allowed my fear of the effects and consequences of being a prophet to lead me, at times, to stop listening to God’s word. Thus, I realize that, if I’ve been a lousy prophet for God, it’s because I’ve stopped loving him; because if I really loved him, nothing would ever stop me from speaking his truth into the world. The prophet Jeremiah never stopped listening to God’s word and so never stopped loving him, in spite of all that he suffered because of it. Thus, in a lament after much suffering, he could write: “I say to myself, ‘I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more.’ But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it” (Jer. 20:9). One who has a hard heart, who has stopped loving God, does not have this experience.
Brothers and sisters, the question that faces us today is this: am I willing to open myself to being God’s prophet in this world that so desperately needs it? Am I willing to open myself to speaking God’s truth to the people closest to me, knowing that it will disrupt them and cause division as well as cause great suffering for me (itself the purifying fire that Jesus came to set ablaze!)? If your answer is not “yes”, then it’s time to check your heart; perhaps you’ve allowed it to become hardened and, thus, your love for God to grow cold. If so, don’t worry. God’s love for you is still a burning fire and the evidence of this is soon to be made present to us on this altar: the Body and Blood of Jesus, his Son, whom he sacrificed for us. As you approach this altar, ask him to take from you your hardened heart and to give you a heart of flesh that will burn with love for him again: the love that has the power to overcome every trial and suffering on earth and so prepare us for the eternal life of peace which Christ, himself, has won for us.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – August 18th, 2019