In July 1783, after the cessation of war between the American colonies and England, Benjamin Franklin wrote the following to his friend, Sir Joseph Banks,
“I join with you most cordially in rejoicing at the return of peace. I hope it will be lasting, and that mankind will at length, as they call themselves reasonable creatures, have reason and sense enough to settle their differences without cutting throats: for in my opinion there never was a good war, or a bad peace.”
He continued pragmatically but added a lament for human suffering, “What vast additions to the conveniences and comforts of living might mankind have acquired, if the money spent in wars had been employed in works of public utility. What an extension of agriculture even to the tops of our mountains; what rivers rendered navigable, or joined by canals; what bridges, aqueducts, new roads and other public works, edifices and improvements, rendering England a complete paradise, might not have been obtained by spending those millions in doing good which in the last war have been spent in doing mischief! In bringing misery into thousands of families, and destroying the lives of so many thousands of working people who might have performed the useful labor.”1
Later that year, in September, after concluding a peace treaty with England in Paris, Franklin repeated himself in a letter to another old friend, Dr. Josiah Quincy, “We are now Friends with England and with all Mankind. May we never see another War! for in my Opinion there never was a good War, or a bad Peace.”
Franklin was wise and humane. But the peace treaty Franklin labored so diligently to achieve did not last, and wars have continued to plague humanity since then, growing in intensity, waste, and misery. The world is now witnessing what may be the worst possible example of a unjust, destructive, and horrifying war in Ukraine, one that threatens to draw much of the world into even more deadly conflict.
The Russian president has justified the unprovoked and bloody invasion by claiming “neo-Nazis” rule Ukraine, threatening Russia’s security, in addition to pursuing genocide against Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the eastern provinces — charges Ukrainian and Western governments insist are baseless propaganda. It is another Great Lie used to justify violence, destruction, and death in the quest for power.
There were several “lesser” but no less consequential lies when Mr. Putin and other Russian officials repeatedly insisted as late as January 27th that there were no plans to invade or occupy Ukraine, even as tens of thousands of infantry, tanks, and missile-launchers were ringing the much smaller country. Lying is, after all, contagious. In the words of that wise poet, “Oh what a tangled web we weave When first we practice to deceive [Sir Walter Scott, Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field].
Today’s readings, as we conclude the period of “ordinary time” in the Church’s calendar before undertaking the penitential season of Lent, provide a
telling commentary on the sins of speech, call them what you will – lying, prevarication, dissimulation, spin, or “alternate facts.” Even old Aristotle knew well what lying meant: saying that something is true when you know it is false. Lying, moreover is wedded to hypocrisy, doing the very things we denounce others for doing. It was the sin Jesus most frequently railed against.
The first reading, chosen no doubt for its echo in Jesus’ own words, sets the tone:
“… in his conversation is the test of a man. The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had; so too does a man’s speech disclose the bent of his mind” [Sirach 27:5-6].
The words of Jesus about honest speech with which Luke ends today’s gospel passage are preceded, fittingly and characteristically, by a long diatribe about hypocrisy – looking for and proclaiming evidence of malfeasance by others when comfortably overlooking it in our own case, which, after all, is so wonderfully excusable. Or so we wish!
“…each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks”[Luke 6:44-45].
The temptation to lie is perhaps pandemic, which is tragic. More so, the willingness of many to believe the lie. God grant that our hearts and those of all are filled with love, peace, and patience that find utterance in our actions as well as our words. The truth alone can make us free.
Biblical scholars have quibbled for centuries about the identities of the famed “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse “who figure so prominently early in the 6th chapter of the book of Revelation. Symbolizing the chastisement to be visited upon an unrepentant world, they are most often known as War, Famine, Pestilence and Death. “Conquest” often replaces Pestilence for some reason. Death alone is given what amounts to a name.
Given the events of this winter of our discontent, still in the midst of a deadly global pandemic, world hunger, street violence, and the possibility of a war more devastating than any conflict since the Second World War, Death and his henchmen seem to be particularly busy. But Civil Discord should at least have a jackass to ride with them, perhaps backwards for those who confuse freedom with refusing to be vaccinated during a lethal pandemic. People seem prone to fighting about anything these days while, let it be said, the greatest challenge facing the planet, global climate change, has been pushed to the back pages of awareness. If there has ever been a time for mutual cooperation and “care for creation,” it is now. Well past now.
In any case, Jesus’ teaching as found in today’s reading from the gospel of Luke seems strangely out of tune with the tenor of the times. The
quality of mercy in particular seems not so much strained as absent. Forgiveness, especially of someone’s enemy, is about the farthest thing from our minds.
And yet, there it is. Even in the ancient scriptures, which are filled with enough war, famine, pestilence and death to fill several apocalypses, we come across this remarkable account of mercy and forgiveness in a story about David and Saul, a fitting prelude to the teaching of Jesus.
King Saul, in a passion of jealousy and madness, has again been pursuing his loyal lieutenant David with murderous intent. As he had before [see 1 Sam 24:1-22], David could easily have killed Saul, now his mortal enemy, but spares him. Saul, deeply touched by David’s act of mercy, calls off the pursuit and returns to Jerusalem after swearing (again) that he would no longer pursue David.
There is much more to the story, of course, and it is worth a few minutes reading in the First Book of Samuel, where there is also an account of David sparing the life of the rich and powerful Nabal the Calebite [1 Sam 25]. But all that is prelude to the account of Jesus’ astonishing teaching. Or perhaps not so astonishing, given the example of David, but one as sorely needed today as it was in first century Palestine.
The world “enemy” appears more frequently in Luke’s gospel than anywhere else in the Christian scriptures. Matthew’s gospel is next, and both agree that Jesus taught us not only to show mercy and compassion to our neighbor, but even, indeed especially, to forgive our enemies, those who persecute us, so that we, too, may be forgiven. Today’s passage from Luke is the longest sustained version of this remarkable moral imperative in the New Testament. It was so important to the gospel tradition that it figures prominently in the different versions of the Lord’s Prayer we find in Matthew and Luke, and it also appears in Mark’s gospel [Mark 11:25]. It is often referred to as “the Law of Christ.” We say it every day, but has it ever really sunk in?
Forgiveness was on Jesus’ dying lips, according to Luke 23:34. Always the same word, always the same meaning. In both gospel accounts, Jesus clearly means that we should not seek revenge or retaliation for wrongs done to us or that we think have been done to us. That is the literal meaning of the Greek word found in all the gospels – “aphiemi,” which means to “send away, let go, disregard.” As with bank loans, it means no longer having to repay. (In English we still speak of “forgiving” loans or debts.) It is the antithesis of the vendetta and the one action that seems capable of stopping the cycle of violence.
But Jesus goes further. We are to be merciful, compassionate, for then we are most like God, he tells us. Several words in the Christian scriptures are used for “mercy” or “compassion.” They all get down to a generous attitude of mind and heart that spares those who suffer or are in want. “Misericordia” is the Latin word for it, made from the words for “pity” and “heart.” Our English word “mercy” derives from that, pointing to kindness, forgiveness, and benevolence.
I cannot help but think here of the outrage that ensued because the judge showed leniency this week in sentencing Kim Potter, the policewoman who mistakenly and regrettably shot and killed Daunte Wright in Minneapolis. It would be well to recall that “Merciful” is one of the oldest titles for God in Judaism, Christianity, and especially Islam, in which a favorite name for God is Al-Rahman, “The Merciful.” Mercy is what we want from God and, let me add quickly, what God wants from us.
“… earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.” [The Merchant of Venice, iii. 1.]
Beginning in 1991, I taught courses in dreams, spirituality, and memory for graduates and undergraduates at Loyola University and Dominican University. After twenty years of research and teaching, you could reasonably say that I take dreams seriously. So when I had a dream this morning, shortly before arising, I took it seriously. No that it was sad, tragic, or threatening. It focused on a phone call from the director of Loyola Medical Schools’ Sexual Dysfunction Clinic, Dr. Domeena Renshaw – truly the most gifted psychiatrist I ever met.
Hearing her voice again was an unexpected delight. In my dream she was calling to find out if I could rejoin her team as a clinical therapist, which I had done for over two decades in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. But Domeena retired in 2009 and the clinic was discontinued. (I hear that Domeena, now in her 90s, still attends grand rounds occasionally, which is not surprising.) Having worked under supervision those many years mainly helping clients strive to repair broken marriages and resolve marital problems, it got me thinking.
Today has been designated World Marriage Day, an achievement of Worldwide Marriage Encounter. It was approved as a day of commemoration by Pope John Paul II in 1993, ten tears after it had been proclaimed by 43 U.S. states and several foreign countries. The now permanent theme of WMD is taken from John 15:12 – “Love one another.”
Today’s readings are not about marriage, but there is a connection. It has to do with happiness, something we all wish for married
couples, sometimes noisily and with feasting and possibly a few family fistfights on the lawn after the banquet. People still take weddings seriously – sometimes perhaps too much so.
We commonly think of happiness as a state of perpetual bliss, a carefree celebration of the good things in life. We wish newlyweds a “happy life together,” and rightly so. But the happiness Jesus refers to in today’s reading from Luke, which continues our on-going readings from his gospel and, presently, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthian Christians, deserves a bit of mulling over, not least because, unlike Matthew, Luke follows up his “beatitudes” with some sobering “woes.”
At the time the New Testament teachings were being put down in writing, the Greek word used for “blessed,”makarios, which is what Jesus speaks of, did not simply mean “happy.” There were perfectly good words available for happiness or bliss, going all the way back to Aristotle. But even Aristotle knew that makarios means a gift of the gods, “grace,” not the result of a life lived well, free from care and hardship (eudaimonia).
Jesus follows up his promise of ultimate joy with a warning – “woe to you!” he says four times. Woe – ouai – is the counterpoint of “blessed,” in fact its opposite. “Woe” is not a bad translation of the Greek, which in Latin comes over as vae. But the Yiddish comes much closer – ‘oy vey!’ — an exclamation of distress or grief. It means “misery,” which is what awaits those who revel in their wealth, good fortune, and fame – to the detriment or neglect of their struggling neighbors.
The reading from Jeremiah comes into play here, and perhaps provided Jesus with a model for his four “woes.” “Cursed [arar] are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord” [Jer 17:5 RSV]. But Jeremiah also has his beatitude: “Blessed [barak] are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord” [Jer 17:7 RSV].
All this is not unrelated to World Marriage Day. Not by any means. All those years of working with couples to heal ailing marriages – and with amazing success, thanks to the pioneering work of Dr. Renshaw – clearly taught us all that marriage is not some road to perpetual bliss, of unfettered happiness and trouble-free enjoyment. It can be a very rocky road and even great marriages require stamina and the endurance only deep love can foster.
Does marriage succeed? Much of the time. Statistically, the ratio in the U.S. of successful and failed marriages is about 50-50. At present the divorce rate is 2.9 per 1,000. In 2017, approximately 787,251 divorces were granted in America, which means that around one and a half million people got divorced that year. But since 1990, there has been a downward trend in divorce statistics. The divorce rate in 2018 and 2019 was significantly lower than in 2008 and 2009. And despite a slight increase in 2011-12, the divorce rate has fallen overall throughout the last decade.
There was a sharp decrease in the number of weddings in 2020, but this year there will be an estimated 2.5 million weddings, the most the U.S. has seen since 1984. Statistics indicate that the prospects for an enduring marriage are better today than in the previous three decades.
True blessedness is not merely a gift. It also requires hard work and fidelity, a willingness to bear one another’s burdens, and honest and effective communication. Marriage Encounter has performed near-miracles in fostering successful marriages. And the pioneering efforts of compassionate, caring healers such as Dr. Renshaw have achieved astonishing results in helping couples grow in respect, love, and mutual endeavor. We have much to be thankful for today.
February is Black History month. At this fraught moment in our nation’s story, today’s readings come at a critical moment. They pertain. I first preached this homily in 2004. I was surprised today at how pertinent it is once again.
At one time or other, we’ve all received a call (or we will), late at night, or early in the morning, at home, or at work or school. Someone on the other end of the line urgently wants us to do something or go somewhere. The call is one we may dread, one that we may hope will never come. It might also be welcome. One way or another, there are calls that we may not or should not refuse. They will shape the rest of our lives, summoning us to a destiny we only dimly imagine.
Today’s three readings all turn on the challenge of the prophet’s call or, as we say, vocation. In the first, we hear the story of Isaiah’s vision in the Temple, which has much in common with Jeremiah’s experience we heard about last week. Here, we have the classic theophany, a manifestation of God’s presence in power and glory. And it has the expected effect on Isaiah: “I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” [Isaiah 6:1].
Jeremiah was even less confident and immediately tried to back out of his summons: “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth” [Jeremiah 1:6.] But God touches Jeremiah’s mouth and gives him prophetic speech. Isaiah’s response is more wholehearted than Jeremiah’s: “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here — me! Send me.’”
The first reaction a prophet has to the call of God is likely to be sheer terror and even a fast retreat. After denouncing her, Elijah fled to Horeb to escape the wrath of Queen Jezebel [1 Kings 19:8], and Jonah’s futile attempts to evade his responsibility became a paradigm of the reluctant prophet. Even Jesus was tempted to back away from the full implications of setting himself against the principalities and powers that dominate the social systems of the world, both his and ours. In last week’s gospel, we saw how he came to understand and perhaps even anticipate the rejection and violent repudiation his mission would entail. And in each of these cases, God promises to strengthen and support the one chosen to bear the bad tidings that so often make up the prophet’s message. It is that promise of help, of companionship and strength that Paul appeals to in the reading from his letter to the Corinthians:
“…by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of [the other apostles], though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me” [1 Co 15:10].
The same promise is conveyed in the gospel reading, which takes the form of a parable in action.
Peter and his partners had been fishing all night, without success. And now this stranger, this… this carpenter’s son tells them to try again, they weren’t doing it right. Peter protests, much as Jeremiah and Isaiah protest. And he is then witness to a different kind of theophany, a small domestic miracle, but one that means something to a professional fisherman with a big temper and a bigger heart. When Peter sees the net full of fish, he repeats the disqualification that we have heard from Isaiah: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” “I am just a boy.” “I am a man of unclean lips.”
But, as before, the words Peter hears are of strength and support: “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching people.” And like Isaiah, the response of the other fishermen is also instantaneous and generous: “And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.”
Later, of course, the disciples faltered. Discouragement, defeat, ridicule, and exhaustion always take their toll. And so it is not amazing that we all try to evade the implications of discipleship. You can expect to. God apparently expects it, and provides assurance that the task can be done and will be there to help and support. I am reminded here of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was near despair one Saturday night in Montgomery, Alabama, in the midst of the now-historic bus boycott. Then, it was just a lot of trouble. He could have been a highly paid and respected professor in a northern seminary. But he felt called to work with the poor and oppressed in the heart of the most racially segregated area of the country. And now, everything seemed to be failing, and his career was in tatters. But as he prayed at the kitchen table that night, he felt God’s presence and heard the same promise: I will be there, I will support you, I will give you the strength.
King was a good scholar and knew his bible well enough to realize that probably meant he would wind up like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul: an exile, opposed, slandered, hunted, imprisoned, beaten, and ultimately killed in a far-off place. But he, too, said yes. And like Medgar Evers, John Lewis, and Desmond Tutu, he changed the world. But their task is not finished.
We may not face the same huge challenges that great prophets had to contend with. It’s even allowed for us to want to avoid them. There is excellent precedent there. But each of us is nevertheless expected to undertake the cost of discipleship in our own time and place, to say the truth when the truth is inconvenient, to pluck up and pull down if necessary, to work hard, to fish all night and, ultimately, all our lives. And we get the same promise and are offered the same reward: God will be with us and receive us in the end. There’s no turning back, really, even if we are permitted the brief luxury of avoiding the summons until God finally lets us know that there is some business at hand that needs attention. Right in front of our noses.
So let us pray that we will be able to recognize that call when it comes, for it will come, often and in small ways for most of us; so that we, too, can say, Here, Lord! Send me!