For many Christians, today is Reformation Sunday, the last Sunday of October, which anticipates Reformation Day on October 31 (otherwise known as Hallowe‘en), commemorating the day in 1517 on which Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. That relatively minor event, as church doors were bulletin boards for the area, nevertheless launched the centuries-long effort to reform the Church – a perennial struggle, in fact, and one which both preceded Luther’s heroic battles and have continued to the present. Ironically, no one bothered to show up and debate the upstart monk who was fed up with the ecclesiastical grift and graft of his day.
For Roman Catholics, the notion of “ecclesia semper reformanda” [the Church must always be reformed], which seems traceable to the great St. Augustine, may have even greater relevance at present, as the Amazonian Synod wrapped up its deliberations in Rome last week with proposals to admit married men to the priesthood in areas of severe clergy shortage and to ordain women deacons. Not that these are somehow foreign to the Roman church, as for centuries priests, bishops, and even popes were married and women deacons are not only mentioned in the New Testament but also served for centuries in churches throughout the pre-medieval Christian world. Of course, mandatory clerical celibacy in the Western Church was a chief target of Luther and the Protestant Reformers, and it should also be noted that Lutheran and Anglican “deaconesses” have served for over a century in those churches. There is, as they say, precedent.
Today’s readings in the Catholic liturgy are appropriate for mulling over the perennial task of personal and institutional reform. Not surprisingly, there is hardly a figure of greater disrepute in Scripture than the unjust judge, the antithesis of the righteousness God expects of those whose duty is to safeguard and dispense justice. The first reading from the Book of Sirach provides a concisely opposite portrait of the true judge, one who like God does not cater to the rich and powerful but hears the voice of the widow, the orphan, and the illegal alien.
The other readings continue the theme: God is not impressed by social status or titles, but searches the heart. And to all accounts, what God is looking for is humility and repentance, not moral flawlessness. God knows we are sinners. The problem seems to be whether we do.
The reading from the Second Letter to Timothy focuses on God as the only truly just judge, not only because God is Justice itself and despises injustice, but because only God is truly able to read our hearts. God is therefore the only judge we must truly fear. Speaking for Paul, the author writes,
The first time I had to present my defense, there was not a single witness to support me. Every one of them deserted me — may they not be held accountable for it. But the Lord stood by me and gave me power, so that through me the whole message might be proclaimed for all the pagans to hear; and so I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.
Therefore, he says with confidence, “all there is to come now is the crown of righteousness reserved for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that Day; and not only to me but to all those who have longed for his Appearing.”
Jesus’ parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee follows directly on Luke’s account of the parable of the unjust judge of last Sunday’s readings. It is a warning about judging others — and the wisdom of refusing to. The tax collector compared himself to no one, but admitted his own imperfections from the depth of his awareness of his own failings. He did not even see the Pharisee, who was all too aware of the disgusting public sinner cowering in the shadows.
This is not some incidental moral exhortation from Jesus, who famously warns in Matthew 7:1-5, “Judge not, that you not be judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
And Luke has already cited this famous dictum, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven” [Luke 6: 37]. And in John we find, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” [John 7: 24]. Paul, too, tells us in Romans 2:1 “you have no excuse,…whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”
The lesson for us in today’s readings, and throughout the Bible and our common Christian tradition, is simple enough: do not be quick to condemn others, whose hearts you cannot read with the eyes of God. Be slow to criticize, quick to forgive. Do not hold grudges, and do not persecute the repentant sinner – or anyone else, for that matter.
The prophetic condemnation of injustice, oppression, and falsehood is still mandatory, however. We are not given license to blind ourselves to evil or excuse ourselves from opposing it. What we are forbidden is exalting ourselves over others, especially those we perceive to be sinful. As long as men and women do wrong, there will necessarily be the need for constant reform. Let us pray that it will be just and equitable and that our willingness to pardon and forgive will reflect the integrity and compassion of the God we profess to imitate and whose Rule we seek to follow.
The juxtaposition of world events and the scriptural readings for our Sunday celebrations is occasionally surprisingly telling. As Karl Barth once wrote wisely, “One broods alternately over the newspaper and the New Testament and actually sees fearfully little of the organic connection between the two worlds concerning which one should now be able to give a clear and powerful witness.” (Revolutionary Theology in the Making, p. 45.) Today should be no exception.
Bloody invasion and land-seizure is hardly a modern invention, despite the distressing examples in recent times, from the annexation of the West Bank, Gaza, and Crimea to the expulsion of the Rohingya from Myanmar and the Turkish onslaught into the Kurdish homeland of northern Syria this past week. Some might call it “business as usual.” It led to the Second Word War, the Korean War, the first Gulf War, and countless others in past ages. Scripture is no exception.
The account in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus describing the Amalekite “war” probably refers to a defensive attack against the invading Hebrews, as with the Edomites, Jebusites, Moabites, Philistines, and other adversaries who resisted the great divinely-sanctioned Hebrew land-grab – a biblical saga later appropriated by English Puritans to justify their bloody conquest of the New World. (It doesn’t take a magnifying glass to find Bethel, Canaan, Goshen, Hebron, Jericho, New Canaan, Salem, Zion, and dozens of other biblical place names on the map of the new “Promised Land.” But, like the “Indian Wars,” that is another story…) The point for our purposes is about perseverance in the pursuit of justice as much as in prayer.
In the gospel reading, Jesus doesn’t commend the judge in his parable for finally doing the right thing, much less for being incompetent, but praises the widow for her persistence in demanding justice. She, not he, is the central figure. In a world seemingly awash with injustice, lawlessness, graft and grift in both low and high places, the example of her refusal to back down could hardly come at a more appropriate time.
Like the message of Jesus’ parable about that desperate widow, the point of the first reading, an initially charming story from the Book of Exodus that nevertheless ends with slaughter, is also about persistence, staying the course when fatigue and opposition seem about to wear us down. It’s about moral courage in difficult times, as Timothy is exhorted in the second reading, “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”
And there lies the chief difference with regard to the kind of stubborn pig-headedness that just insists on “my way or the highway.” The quest for justice is not about self-justification, much less self-aggrandizement, but about right – and rights. It takes moral vision – and a moral compass – to get that straight.
How could anyone not be impressed with moral courage of inmates of state and federal prisons who struggle for decades to prove their innocence, often (but not always) with the help of associations such as the Innocence Project, who sometimes appear to hold up their arms when they grow weary? Or the persistent vision of teenagers like Greta Thunberg who in their struggle against the giants of industry refuse to back down but press ahead in the struggle for environmental justice?
For any number of reasons, the story of the “importunate widow” is as relevant today as perhaps never before. It brings to mind the catchy mantra occasionally seen on bumper stickers: “Work Hard, Pray Harder, Stay Humble.” And that’s a tall order.
As the dogs of war are unleashed again in the Middle East, it falls to peace-seekers to turn to action rather than mere words. Jesus said, after all, “blessed are the peace makers.” Today’s readings are not about peace, however, and only initially about faith. But I could not help connecting another theme, one highlighted in the Second Letter to Timothy, our second reading.
“…understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people” [2 Tim 3:1-5].
Sobering advice. As for today’s message, what struck me as relevant on this day back in 2016 is all the more so today…
It might be a little difficult to feel particularly thankful just now, at least if you are still nurturing a glimmer of faith in the current political system, but that doesn’t make gratitude any less relevant. When Jesus tells the Samaritan leper that his faith has made him well, or, more accurately, “your faith has saved you,” he is pointing to the most important of all human responses to God. But another theme is no less important — thankfulness. The connection between faithfulness and thankfulness is central to the gospel, and especially to Jesus. For to be thankful means to express our faith in words and, more importantly, actions.
In a little over a month, Americans will be celebrating Thanksgiving Day, a memorial that goes back to the Civil War, when it was declared a day of fasting and prayer. For many of us, expressing gratitude will be difficult, especially for those who have lost friends and loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, or on the bullet-ridden streets of our great cities, and for so many others who share their loss and heartache. For many more, it will be hard to be thankful for the many blessings we in this country have received when we are all the more conscious of the crushing poverty and suffering that exists in so much of the world — not least of all in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other war-torn regions of the planet.
But for most of the world, neither poverty nor war is the most dreaded of human ills, and it was especially so in the ancient world. It was and is disease. The scourge of what was called leprosy features in the story of Naaman and Elisha and also in the gospel. What we call Hansen’s disease today is only one kind of disease of the many that went by that name in the ancient world — all were terrifying and those who contracted them were shunned and usually driven out of the community entirely. Its victims depended on the generosity of family and often strangers for their daily food and survival. To be rich and a leper might be endurable, as in the case of Naaman, the commanding general of the Syrian army, but to be poor and a leper was a disaster. To be poor, a leper, and a Samaritan in Galilee was far worse. For some reason the gospels are silent about women lepers, but surely there were many, and that would have been the worst of all fates.
Naaman’s cure requires him to wash seven times in the Jordan, something he finds humiliating, but he finally does it and is cured. In gratitude, he offers lavish gifts, but Elisha refuses them. God has cured Naaman because he believed. For that Elisha needs no reward.
God’s fidelity is the focal point of this story, as it is in the passage from the Letter to Timothy. God’s graciousness and kindness extend to all. And God will never go back on the promises made in the ancient past, even when our faithfulness wavers and fails.
And so we come to the poor Samaritan leper who like the nine others, turns to Jesus and begs for pity, for mercy. All Jesus asks of them is to do what the law required — to present themselves to the priests in Jerusalem, who alone could declare them cured. Luke notes that Jesus and his disciples were passing between Samaria and Galilee — a long ways from Jerusalem. But the lepers believe him and start off. On the way, they are healed. But only the Samaritan, overcome with gratitude, returns to give thanks to this Jew, his traditional enemy. In Jerusalem he would likely have been stoned and driven away from the Temple, which may have led to his decision to go back, but Jesus takes no notice of that. He simply marvels at this gesture, shocked to find that only this despised outsider had the grace to return and thank him. And when he says to him, “Rise and go your way, your faith has saved you,” there is much more in the statement than a comment on his healing. Perhaps we only truly know gratitude when we find ourselves outcast — without resources, hated, friendless, and desperate. To express it is to recognize the source of our salvation.
Earlier in Luke’s gospel, and only there, Jesus actually refers to the story of Elisha and Naaman the Syrian. That was in his inaugural sermon in his home town, where he got less than a welcome wagon visit after preaching successfully and healing people in the towns around the Sea of Galilee. After all, the townsfolk knew this fellow from his childhood. How did he get so full of himself? Who does he think he is?
Jesus said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his own home town.’” He goes on to point out, ‘there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way” [Luke 4:23-30].
Jesus seems to be saying that we may be more likely to find kindness from strangers than from our own people. And our gratitude will be proportionately greater, as it was for Naaman the Syrian enemy and the Samaritan leper, the despised stranger who alone returns to express his thanks.
God forbid that any of us have to go through such a purification to learn the meaning of true gratitude for all the favors God has bestowed on us. The United States is manifestly the most prosperous and successful nation the world has ever seen. The challenge we face as a people is whether our response to such blessings will be a gratitude that expresses itself in justice, peace, mercy, and generosity to the less fortunate, not only in our own country, but throughout the war-weary world.
[Homily preached first on Oct. 2, 2016] Traditionally in the Dominican Order, the first Sunday in October was observed as Rosary Sunday, although the Feast of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary is observed on October 7. Rosary Sunday seems to have fallen by the wayside somehow. The Feast itself goes back to 1571, when Pope St. Pius V (a Dominican) instituted it to commemorate the naval victory of the Christian fleet over the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto, which was attributed to the prayers of Christians and especially the rosary.
The battle, a dreadful one, changed the course of European history. It ended with the almost complete destruction of the Ottoman navy. Some 15,000 Turks were killed or captured, 15 Turkish galleys were sunk, 177 captured, and between 12,000 and 15,000 Christian galley slaves were rescued. The Christian allies lost 17 ships and about 7,500 fighting men were killed. Thousands more were wounded.
The Battle of Lepanto did not end the threat to Europe, but it was the first major Ottoman defeat by the Christian allies, and it destroyed the myth of Ottoman naval invincibility. When the Pope received word of the victory days later, the old man burst into tears. In memory of this triumph he instituted the feast of the Rosary on the seventh of October, and added the supplication “Help of Christians” to the Litany of Loreto in honor the Virgin Mary. And that’s why, if not exactly what, Catholics still celebrate the Feast of the Holy Rosary – another violent episode in the long struggle for supremacy between the Christian West and the Muslim East, so often a history written in fire, blood, and death.
Violence was very much on our minds then, and it is still on our minds today — perhaps differently, but not without a connection. And that concerns our readings today.
To begin with, scripture itself alerts us to the shock of violence with the prophet Habbakuk lamenting before God back six centuries before the birth of Jesus, as the armies of the Chaldean kingdom of what we now know as southern Iraq were threatening to destroy Jerusalem :
I cry out to you “Violence!”
But you do not intervene.
Why do you let me see ruin;
why must I look at misery?
The ancient prophet was protesting against war, destruction, and especially the violence associated with conquest, something threat the people of Iraq and so much of the Middle East are all too familiar with today.
By contrast, the word of God calls for patience. “The vision still has its time,” Habbakuk is told, “it presses on to fulfillment and will not disappoint.” But what vision? Not of rashness and bloodshed, for sure. What the prophet longs for is what we long for: justice, and justice is truly the child of faith as much as it is the parent of peace — “the just person because of faith shall live,” Habbakuk learns, and St. Paul will later cite this passage in his letters to the Romans and Galatians. It also appears in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
The Letter to Timothy paints on a smaller canvas but also places faith in the foreground: “Take as a model of sound teaching what you have heard me say in faith and love in Christ Jesus.” And in the gospel, Jesus, too, speaks of faith — a faith so powerful it can uproot large trees and cast them into the sea. And so Jesus asks us, if even seed-like faith — tiny, dry, and unpromising — can do wonders, what can full-grown faith accomplish?
But what has faith got to do with violence today? In one sense, everything, as we experience the consequences of conflicts in the Middle East, China, Ukraine, and perhaps more urgently here at home.
Social violence, war, insurgency, riots and the ruthless suppression of dissent do not erupt out of nowhere. As Jesus would say on another occasion, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” [Mark 7:20-23].
And so also violence. We don’t have to look far. It is often very close at hand – on our streets, in our schools, and in our homes. It is not just that the cycle of violence is begun at a very early age, but that the poisonous lesson learned there, and elsewhere in our world, is that the solution to conflict is violence. But the gospel tells us that violence is not the solution; it is the problem. But so are the ills that give rise to conflict – social injustice, bigotry, radical hatred, economic disparity, and political oppression.
What is too-often started in the home, can be ended in the home. When it comes to domestic violence, especially when the victim is a man’s wife and the mother of their children, seeds of far greater violence are being sown, seeds that unlike the mustard seed of faith, will grow into terrible and destructive acts of oppression, crime, and war. October, the month of the Rosary, is also Domestic Violence Awareness month. This year the week of October 20 to 26 has been designated as a National Week of Action. And we need to act. And we need to pray.
So let us pray for faith — faith not to uproot sycamore trees, but to do something far, far more difficult — to lift the great weight of violence and suffering from the backs of women, children, the poor, the sick, the elderly and defenseless, immigrants, and persons suffering from racial or ethnic prejudice. Let us patiently work for the triumph of love in our homes, schools, and workplaces, and the justice that works for peace everywhere.