20 September 2020

Homily - The Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time - 20 August 2020

 The Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

 Dear brothers and sisters,

“…conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27). This is the admonition Saint Paul leaves with us today, but what does it mean to conduct ourselves in a way worthy of the Gospel of Christ? As with so many things in life, it may be easier to say what it does not mean than to say what it does mean.

When the Apostle tells us to conduct ourselves he is actually speaking about something we pretend not to like discussing. The Greek word he uses – politeumai – has at its root the word from which we derive our word politics. Now, before you tune me out altogether, let me assure you this is not a “political” homily but rather one focused on what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ. How can I say this? Because Saint Paul’s use of this word “suggests the civic or social dimension of life” and that he “wants his readers” – as well as his hearers – “to be alert to the dimensions of their citizenship.”[1] In this same letter, he will later remind us that “our citizenship” – our politeumai – “is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).

When he wrote these words to the Christians in Philippi, he wrote in a time when it mattered greatly if one was a citizens of the Roman Empire or not; we live in a time and place in which something very similar may well be happening. 

Just as many residents of Philippi identify themselves as citizens of Rome even though they live in Philippi, so also the members of the local church, whether Roman citizens or not, find the root of their identity as citizens of heaven. That their conduct here on earth as citizens of the heavenly commonwealth should be worthy of the gospel of Christ is to say that their community life should reflect the good news of Christ their risen Lord and Savior…[2]

Looking around our present society, there are a great many Christians, a great many citizens of heaven, who are not conducting themselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ because they live, act, and speak in a way that does not reflect the good news of Christ risen from the dead.

Our politics are no longer actually concerned with the common good, with “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.”[3] Instead, our politics – and our political conversations - are too often governed, moved, and directed by ideological bents. Rather than truly seeking what is best for society, we blindly hold fast to this political party or that political party, all the while never actually considering what that particular party truly wants to attain. One party accuses the other of incivility, while utterly ignoring its own incivility. (It can easily be found on both sides of aisle.) How does any of this petty bickering and childish manipulation reflect the love of Jesus Christ? How is any of this worthy of the Gospel? How does any of this change the present situation to become more like our heavenly homeland?

This has all been swirling about in my thoughts these last couple of decades, but especially during these last few days following the death of Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg Friday evening. While I disagreed strongly with many of her judgments on the Supreme Court because they were not in keeping with the true common good, I admired her friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom I often agreed strongly and with whom she often disagreed strongly. To the eyes of most Americans, theirs was an unlikely friendship, even an impossible one, because we have forgotten how to view each other not as rivals and enemies, but the “brother [or sister] “for whom Christ died” (I Corinthians 8:11). While Justice Ginsburg was not herself a Christian, her friend Antonin was a devoted Catholic who knew something about conducting himself in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.

I once had the pleasure of hearing Justice Ginsburg speak of her friendship with Justice Scalia shortly after his death. She reflected on how frequently she was asked how she could be so close a friend with him when she often vehemently disagreed with his way of thinking and of seeing the world. Her answer was simple: Justice Scalia always attacked ideas, but he never attacked people. She admired this quality in him and built a friendship with him around it. “Yes, they disagreed. A lot. But somehow they managed to see each other as human beings, not units of animosity, and it was a beautiful, humane, and civilized thing.[4] It was a true political thing.

The friendship between these two was not as simple as agreeing to disagree, as we like to pretend we do with one another, but really we only agree not to talk about our disagreements; on the contrary, the two Justices sparred intellectually with each other because they did not want to simply dismiss one another. 

Without a grounding in Christ, the truths by which we live our lives can gradually recede, the practice of the virtues can become formalistic, and dialogue can be reduced to a form of negotiation or an agreement to disagree. An agreement to disagree… so as not to make waves… This sort of superficiality does us great harm.[5] 

This was something Justice Scalia knew; he knew agreeing to disagree does not engage the truth and wherever truth is lacking, love is also lacking. And whenever love is lacking, we are not living in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ. Perhaps the reason we are so often lacking in love is because we do not see the world as God sees it. His ways, after all, are not our ways, nor are his thoughts our thoughts (cf. Isaiah 55:8).

As one example, we are tempted to think the landowner in Jesus’ parable today acted unjustly or unfairly because we do not see the world correctly; our minds have been darkened by sin. When Jesus asks, “Are you envious because I am generous?”, he uses a figure of speech (Matthew 20:15). Literally, he asks, “Is you eye evil because I am generous?” “The key expression here is ‘evil eye,’ which is a Semitic idiom that describes someone who is envious, grudging, or culpably lacking in generosity.” Generosity, of course, need not only concern money; one can also lack generosity of heart.[6] Where generosity is lacking, so also is love lacking, and when love is lacking we cannot live in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.

When we look upon the world, do we see two camps, “us” and “them,” the “good guys” and the “bad guys”? If so, our eyes are darkened by sin and we do not see rightly. This is not to see that we should need recognize the wicked deeds of others; we must recognize such evil and work to root it out. But there is a difference between seeing wicked deeds and wicked people. Let us beg the Lord to purify the eyes of our hearts so we might always look upon the world as he does, with eyes of love and mercy. If we do, we will keep the two great commandments of love of God and of neighbor and so live in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ. May we become true citizens of heaven. Amen.

[1] Dennis Hamm, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2013), 89-90.

[2] Ibid., 90.

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1906.

[4] Elizabeth Scalia, “Ginsburg; RIP, Scalia; RIP; Happy Warriors, RIP,” The Anchoress, 18 September 2020. Accessed 18 September 2020. Available at https://theanchoress.com/ginsburg-rip-scalia-rip-happy-warriors-rip/?fbclid=IwAR2YS8h2CRkx8S4eFMp6Luf4crW7RVq1bkQi82HN8laeaHXdHBKuKC8bngk

[5] Pope Francis, Address to the Bishops of Asia, 17 August 2014.

[6] Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2010), 255.

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