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Homilies 2018

YEAR B – January 21, 2018
Very Rev. Fr. Carl Reid, VF
Blessed John Henry Newman Catholic Church

Three things to consider today from three different dates; the first two purely exegetical in terms of explaining perhaps puzzling passages from today’s readings, the third eschatological.

First, from approximately 2,000 years ago, as our Lord was walking on this earth, and as recorded in the Gospels. Are any of us here today wondering why we have, apparently, the identical episode, first in the Gospel according to John last Sunday, and then in the Gospel according to Mark today, that of our Lord meeting Andrew and Simon?

In actual fact, though it appears that both are recording the first meeting of Jesus with the brothers, there is a chronological key in the opening words of the respective Gospel passages. Last week from the Gospel according to John, John the Baptist, during his active time of ministry, pointed out our Lord to Andrew, and we presume John the brother of James, who then went and brought his brother Simon, soon to be known as Peter, to Jesus. In Mark’s Gospel, even though it is very near the beginning of his record, Mark states, “After John was arrested”, which is to say, the time of his public ministry had ended, as we know that, from his arrest to his beheading, John was never released by Herod, once again to exercise freely his ministry. Therefore, the calling recorded in today’s passage from Mark happened sometime after the first meeting as recorded in John’s Gospel.

And this also helps to explain the apparent incongruity of Jesus just having met two fishermen, spontaneously calling them, and they immediately dropped everything on the spot to follow Him? No, they already knew Him, and as John recorded in last week’s Gospel passage, knew Him further to be the long-awaited Messiah. Therefore, at this second (or perhaps even more? we don’t really know) meeting, the call would not have come as a complete surprise to the two fishermen – neither it should be mentioned of James and John, who are recorded also in Mark’s passage to have done the same in apparently suddenly abandoning their father Zebedee to follow Jesus.

End of first exegesis.

Second, from approximately 2,800 years ago, during the time of the prophet Jonah. As we heard, after Jonah had proclaimed God’s message to the Ninevites, they repented in sackcloth, and, “God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.” 

“Wait a minute”, one might ask, “how can God, Who is immutable, unchanging, change His mind; and, if He is all goodness and incapable of evil, how can He have planned to do something evil?” To explain this fully would take a full, rather lengthy sermon; but I shall try, briefly, to explain how the limitations of our human nature and language result in these apparent disconnects as regards God’s nature and actions. Almost by default, we talk about God in human language as if He were a human being, a creature rather than the Creator; however, when philosophers or theologians such as St Thomas Aquinas speak of God and His nature, they are quite precise, making it very clear that, in His essence, God cannot change. In a given episode, what might change is the effect. To the Ninevites, God tells them that if they don’t repent, this is what’s going to happen; however, when they do repent, then it doesn’t happen. Metaphorically, therefore, we speak of God having changed, or having repented, of what He was going to do with them in response to their repentance. It might help if we turned things around: God did not change; He changed the minds of the Ninevites, but who naturally would have concluded, even though it was themselves that had changed, that God had in fact changed His mind.

And what of the phrase that God “repented of the evil” that He had intended. This is to a large extent a language issue, one that affects perception. The particular Hebrew word ra’ah, for evil, is also the word for suffering, or misery, or distress. In our English context, we understand that evil is always something that is wrong, quite bad. Suffering does not have the same connotation. In his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (redemptive suffering), St John Paul II, points out that in the Old Testament, because there is no word for misery or suffering or distress, sometimes it will say that God himself “does evil”, when what it means is that God can cause suffering, God can cause distress through his punishments, as when he punishes human beings for turning away from him. In this case, that's what's being described here. It's describing the suffering and the misery that is going to come upon the Ninevites if they don't repent; but, because they do repent, that “evil,” that suffering, that misery does not come upon them, God does not inflict a punishment on them. That's what the expression means, “God repented of the evil which he intended to do to them.”

We might expand that further into that very important acknowledgement of human culpability in suffering, thinking perhaps of C. S. Lewis’ observation, “There are two types of people in the world: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done;’ and those to whom God says, ‘OK, thy will be done’.” Which is to say, it is not always a situation of God causing suffering, often for our own good and the process of our sanctification; but rather, God will most certainly, if we so choose, allow us to suffer – so much of which is the result of our own sinfulness.

End of second exegesis, and which brings us to the third date, and eschatology – the happy consideration of death, judgement and the final destiny of the soul and humankind – and it should be happy for faithful, practising Christians as we look through Purgatory to joy and eternal bliss. The time? Place yourself, eight days ago, in the city of Honolulu, more specifically in the International Marketplace in the heart of Waikiki. Suddenly everyone’s cell phone issues a warning that a nuclear warhead is on its way, and there are but minutes left. Minutes, not being 38, which is how long it took for the person that pushed the button to issue an “Oops, false alarm” message; but nonetheless, only minutes left to live.

What would we have done? Many people scrambled without much thought; others, resignedly decided to have one last cappuccino, realizing there was nothing they could do. Or is that true? Jonah, gave the city of Nineveh, not 38 minutes, but 40 days warning. In their case, that would have been time enough to flee (but not from God, of course). Not enough time however, for the people in Honolulu. 

St Paul today, “the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away.” Isn’t that frighteningly prophetic as regards Honolulu?

Our Lord hits the nail right on the head, if we take His opening words and apply them to His Parousia (Second Coming), “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Quite unlikely, were we to have been in Honolulu, that we would be in the company of a priest who could hear our last confession; still, there could not possibly be anything better to do for a Christian than, repentantly, to fall to one’s knees and pray, eschatologically, “Thy will be done.”

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(27TH OT) YEAR B 2018
Very Rev. Fr. Carl Reid, VF
Blessed John Henry Newman Catholic Church

Today is one of those few Sundays in the Church year where we have the option of two celebrations: either Harvest Thanksgiving, or the particular Sunday after Trinity. We’ve chosen the latter, not least as we don’t own this building, and therefore haven’t presumed to decorate it for Harvest Thanksgiving; and, after preaching for 30 consecutive years on Thanksgiving… Still, our hymns today are Thanksgiving themed.

Truly, the primary reason for choosing the 19th Sunday after Trinity is the perhaps too often glossed over theme as presented in the Old Testament reading and the Gospel passage. Well, perhaps not glossed over, but rather not completely understood in that, as well-known readings, they may not have been thoroughly explained to the faithful.

Let us see if we can perhaps expand our individual and collective understandings. I might, of course, be preaching to the choir; nonetheless I pray, a worthy reminder.

First the challenge to our Lord by the Pharisees concerning divorce as we heard in the Gospel reading. It does bear mentioning that, although we might think, with soaring divorce rates in our current society, we have suddenly slid from a flourishing Christian model of the family, such is not actually true. Throughout much of history, the institution of marriage has been in somewhat of a mess.

To wit: there were at least two schools of rabbinical thought concerning divorce at the time of Our Lord’s incarnation. At one extreme was the school of Rabbi Shammi which held that in order to divorce one’s wife, she had to be guilty of some kind of sexual infidelity or adultery – we might equate that with the mid-twentieth century zenith of the model family. At the other extreme, Rabbi Hillel’s followers were very open about divorce – if your wife burned your dinner, that was legitimate grounds for putting her away.

Jesus asks the questioners what Moses commanded. And, likely thinking of a passage from Deut. 24, they responded that it was allowed. Said passage in Deut. being, “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house...” The difficult to translate Hebrew word for indecency meaning some truly shameful deed. Which is to say, not a trivial thing; divorce by Moses’ standards should have been very infrequent.

Even so, Jesus lowers the boom: “For the hardness of your heart…” laying out that divorce, instigated by either the man or the woman, is most assuredly not at all part of God’s plan. In so doing, He quotes from an even earlier part of the Torah, specifically the Pentateuch – the first five Books. He may even purposely have snared the Pharisees by asking them what Moses commanded, and they quite naturally thought of the passage in Deut., the Fifth Book of Moses. And then, Jesus takes them right back to the beginning, Ch 2 of Genesis, the First Book of Moses to what God commands.

Now before we dismiss our Lord’s having chosen a very early part of the creation story, and therefore of questionable historical value to enlightened 21st century Christians, let us remind ourselves once again that the proper approach to the early Chapters of Genesis is not primarily “how and when” but rather, “Who and why” – to which our Lord points exactly, “But from the beginning of creation, 'God (Who) made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.' So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder." 

In the middle of that, an often overlooked but profoundly important why. “So they are no longer two but one.” But expanding a little on that, let us consider the first reading, from which our Lord quotes, in order, hopefully, to broaden even further our understanding.

“Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’” Two things here: “it is not good that the man should be alone” points to our creation for the purpose of communion. We shall return to that thought also as it pertains to “they are no longer two but one.”

“I will make him a helper” – the Hebrew word for helper meaning “corresponding to or complementing him.” Note, not a servant or handmaid. The Hebrew term for help or helper ‘ezer is neutral in terms of social standing – God is often called the ‘ezer, the helper of those who call upon Him. God is going to make the man an ‘ezer, a helper, not unlike Himself.

First God brings the animals to Adam (the man) for him to name them – the first time in the creation account that someone other than God performs the authoritative act of naming. The man is being deputized with divine authority; we might say Adam was the first prophet. In passing it is worth noting that where the RSV states, with respect to this naming, that God brought “the beasts of the field” to Adam, other English translations say “wild beasts.” Unfortunate lack of attention to the Hebrew and what Jewish scholars say about this: beasts of the field implying animals that have the potential of being domesticated in that the word field suggests plots of land as established for that purpose, versus wild beasts which has a very different connotation that doesn’t really make sense with the immediately following words, “but for the man there was not found (among the animals) a helper fit for him.”

And then the profoundly important and symbolic creation of the first woman. For the “suitable partner” or “fit helper” to come forth, Adam is going to have to cooperate and even to suffer. So, in a typological foreshadowing of Jesus’ death on the cross, Adam falls into a deep sleep and must give his flesh and blood for his bride to come forth. God takes Adam’s flesh from his side – like Jesus’ pierced side – literally “builds” (Hebrew banah) the flesh into a woman. The woman is “built” in Hebrew, rather than formed or made, because she is a temple.

When Eve the bride is brought to Adam at last, he bursts out into the first recorded human words in Scripture, as well as the first poetry in the Bible: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. She shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” This is covenant-making language in the sense of a family relationship formed by an oath. These words of Adam constitute an oath. The subsequent change of her name (in this case, giving of a name) is common in covenant rituals, because covenants create a family, and one often gets a new name when joining a family, to denote the new relationship that one now has with the other members of the family.

The closing words of the passage from Genesis are where we left off with Jesus in the Gospel passage, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” to which I promised we would return. As we have considered, Genesis underscores that each person is made for the purpose of communion. God himself is a communion of Persons that share a nature: so God creates Man as both male and female, and when they unite as “one flesh”, a third person comes into being. Marriage therefore is a natural icon of the Trinity.

In passing, another easily understood but rarely explained part of the marriage ceremony as we understand it today, “Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?” is most often viewed as some sort of medieval concept of the woman being nothing more than chattel or property. The passage from Genesis lays that to rest, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother” which is to say, the man has already left his family. In the marriage service, the apparently controversial question is simply asking the bride’s family if they are prepared to similarly alter the familial covenant so that the woman may also leave her father and mother and enter a new covenantal relationship with the groom.

In the Gospel, our Lord doesn’t leave it off at the end of the Genesis passage. He underscores the covenantal meaning and understanding of marriage, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”

When we think of the modern, callous, shallow understanding, even perversion of marriage – to be sure, social engineers have pushed the discussion into frighteningly novel waters – we might all most certainly pray that society will return to some sort of common sense, ultimately of course to the understanding of the typologically divine nature of the marriage covenant. Even more importantly, are we prepared for persecution as promised by our Lord, if we, as we should, defend that which Jesus has so profoundly taught us about marriage?