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Friday, 20 October 2017

29th Sunday Year A 2017

Sermon 49a: 29th. Sunday (A)
(Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; 1st. Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21)

In our first reading from the prophet Isaiah we learned that God is indeed Lord and Ruler of all, even of certain supremely important happenings in the course of human history:

For Jacob My servant's sake, and Israel My elect, I the Lord have named Cyrus, though you have not known Me; I will gird you, though you have not known Me.

And St. Paul in our second reading took up that appreciation of God’s divine authority when he wrote:

Our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction, as you know what kind of persons we were among you for your sake.

How Mother Church today needs such ‘persons’ whose faith is for them a fount of holy power and assured commitment to Jesus Who is the same yesterday, today, and for ever!

A disturbing aspect of modern Church life, however, is the growing tendency to find the Jesus of yesterday, today, and forever, too unpopular to turn to, look to, for guidance, to love with zeal, and to proclaim fearlessly.  Rather many figures in Mother Church today look to society around, to observe what is happening there, especially in matters of popular sexual morality and social responsibility, and to then try to make the Jesus we know -- the traditional Jesus of countless martyrs and saints, the Jesus proclaimed and fought for by St. Paul and St. John in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction , the Jesus of the Gospels -- and then, I say, try to make that Jesus somehow fit in seamlessly with society’s popular practices and ‘beliefs’! 

The traditional analogy of the development of doctrine with human growth is much used now to say -- as has always been the case -- that change is necessary for life; but today’s advocates do not advert to the fact that nowhere in the course of human growth does the person become unrecognizable as, or contradictory to, what he or she was before.  Nowhere did Jesus ever say that His disciples, His Church, would be popular, with ‘bums on all seats in their Churches’.  He did indeed say that His Gospel was to be preached to all, but not that it would be accepted by all, or even by the majority.  In fact, He did give voice to one of His most solemn and considered warnings:

          When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth? (Luke 18:8)

Certain passages of our New Testament are now regularly omitted in liturgical readings; how many more will have to be omitted in future to accommodate modern ‘popular “Catholic” sensitivities’, to allow those whose public words or open life-style contradict the Gospel yet feel at home in Mother Church?

In modern Western society, effeminacy is widespread; not simply because women are becoming more preponderant and powerful in our society, more appreciated in the life of Mother Church (where, however, they have always been not merely popularly, but most devoutly recognised, admired, and beloved as religious), nor, indeed, simply because some are showing themselves to be generally much more career-conscious, self-promoting, and confrontational in men’s regard, with mordent criticism of masculine attitudes as being violent, insensitive, unloving, lacking in communication skills etc.  But it is also a fact that, in conjunction with those feminist tendencies in individuals and society, too many men are, alas, imitating Adam by allowing themselves to be over-influenced, at times even intimidated, by humanistic and overly-emotional individuals, and by public appreciations based, not on the Christian trilogy of Faith, Hope, and Charity, but on the (French) revolutionary and iconoclastic ideals of freedom, equality, and fraternity.

‘Freedom’: who can speak better of that than St. Paul who says:

Brothers and sisters: For freedom Christ set us free; so, stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.  (Galatians 5:1)

A yoke defined, indeed, definitively for us who are Catholics and Christians by Jesus when He said:

Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin (John 8:34),

a yoke which is totally ignored by modern humanists who know no sin, with the result that its crushing weight bears down upon innumerable slaves delighting in and/or subject to the power and pleasure of drugs and sex, industries that disfigure and disgrace our society and our world today!

‘Equality’ … what a word, just right for inciting nit-picking and fostering discord and dissension!!   What words have we Christians been taught and received?  Men and women are ‘equal’ indeed in divine dignity as children of God; ‘complimentary’, however, in personal relationships and shared human endeavours for the coming of God’s kingdom:

Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?  But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as He intended. (1 Corinthians 12:14–18)

‘Fraternity’ … the Romans of old, at least those in the upper echelons, prided themselves on their fraternity/friendship!  If I might, I will quote Peter Brown in his book, ‘Through the Eye of a Needle’ (p. 101):  Whatever their beliefs, Symmachus wished to treat members of his (senatorial) class as peers held together by the old fashioned “religion of friendship.”

And what, originally all-conquering, Christian word have we, in this respect, fecklessly lost by repeatedly allowing our opponents to degrade our words and determine our use of them?   ‘Charity’, divine love, able to inspire and elevate our human relationships and endeavours above all merely human understandings of ‘love’ which, so very frequently and manifestly, show themselves open for, and prone to accommodate, all sorts of disgraceful distortions and open contradictions. 

And so, although the Catholic understanding of Christian marriage rightly emphasizes  that  man and woman marry for both the divine blessing and social good of giving birth to children as also for their own personal and mutual benefit, nevertheless, in this modern social context, Christian family life is suffering because contention and challenge are eroding the unity and thus ruining the example of the spouses; with the result that, for example, children are now being seriously damaged due to a lack of authentic discipline and an absence of true love: they are even being thought able (though not yet sixteen!) to go to court in order to change their native sexuality against their parents wishes!

A Christian husband should teach his children how to love their mother by his own example, and likewise, a mother should insist that her children follow her example and learn to respect and obey their father.  Thus, the Christian husband and father should use his accepted authority not as a despot to get absolute obedience for himself from his children, but to insist on and exemplify love and honour for his wife; while the Christian wife and mother should use her unique hold on the family’s heartstrings, not to get ever more love for herself from her children -- as some neurotic might -- but to lead and guide them in showing respect and obedience for their father, her husband.

It used to be jokingly (?) said that ‘a lady is a woman who makes it easy for a man to be a gentleman’; and I personally grew up with a deep awareness of and admiration for my ‘complementary’ mother, whom I never saw as undermining my father, but rather as helping him to be and become a man, by supporting him as her man-of-the-house and my father.   As for my father he -- by his own personal discipline -- in return helped my mother become more capable of being a truly loving mother, wife, and person by controlling her own emotional exaggerations and excesses.   This mutual helping and oneness – this complementarity -- of the spouses is, moreover, truly sacred, being meant to exalt and support both of them in their dealings with their children: no child should ever be allowed to threaten or break that unity of father and mother; no child should ever be used in selfish confrontational attitudes by either of their parents.

The present-day fragility of family life is reflected in society as a whole, where criminality is rampant because – among other factors – Christians, having too often supinely surrendered words and their meanings over many years, have thereby allowed emotive enthusiasts to decry right punishment as vengeance, and portray justice as inhuman, branding both punishment and justice therefore, as unchristian words and unacceptable social practices. 

There are other passages in today’s Gospel reading relevant to our times in which political violence and racial terrorism seek to cover themselves with a cloak of so-called moral sensitivity or religious devotion, for there we are clearly shown the Pharisees and the Herodians trying -- as consummate hypocrites -- to lull Jesus into a sense of false security:

Teacher, we know that You are true and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men.

They were using such flattery to soften up Jesus before the putting to Him the punch question that was ready on their lips:

Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?"

The idea was, of course, to get Jesus into most serious trouble.  If He were to have said it was right to pay taxes, then those patriotic Jews and the Zealot agitators would have decried Him as some sort of traitor or quisling.  On the other hand, had Jesus said it was wrong to pay the taxes, then the Romans would have been informed immediately and they would have deemed it necessary to seek Jesus out as one potentially troublesome and deal with Him accordingly; which, of course, was just what the Pharisees and the Temple hierarchy wanted. 

Jesus was not going to fall into the trap.  He answered them:

Show Me the tax money."  So they brought Him a denarius.  And He said to them, "Whose image and inscription is this?"  They said to Him, "Caesar's."  And He said to them, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."

Oh! dear People of God, who can fail to recognize the beauty of God’s wisdom in those wonderful words spoken in such a situation?  That beauty -- both simple and sublime -- is something for us to admire and contemplate most gratefully before God!!  But now, at this moment, gathered here as disciples of Jesus wanting to learn from Him how to worship and serve the Father, let us consider something of the implications of those words and perhaps understand Jesus’ attitude of mind and heart a little better.

Those words of flattery spoken by the Pharisees and Herodians were meant to ensnare Jesus, and the attitudes they sought to promote are a perennial temptation and conceit for Christians of all ages, and today we should -- like our Blessed Lord -- be quick to recognise their poison and strong to reject their subtle infiltration into our lives.

We, as disciples of Jesus, are called to lead good lives, that is, lives of integrity before God not conformity with society’s – be it lay society or Church society -- prevailing modern standards and judgements; we have to try to live up to the role set before us in Jesus’ Scriptures and called for in the traditional teaching of Mother Church. 

However, knowing full well that our sins are many and our weaknesses manifest to the eyes of God, we -- needs must -- seek to assimilate this awareness of faith more and more fully and deeply into our personal self-consciousness, so that our Christian integrity may ever be ‘instinctively’ accompanied and embellished by a corresponding degree of humility, truly vigilant lest we ever begin to slide into an easy acceptance of the demands or wishes of men, as ever, willing and wanting to give immediate rewards of praise for compliance with their views.

Jesus Himself was not in any way swayed by such flatteries: His personal integrity would always and only be used to glorify His Father and promote the true well-being of all those who heard and listened to His words; and so, His resolute independence of men and their opinions would be -- always and only -- the other face of His constant care to be free to serve them, for Jesus was always the Servant, never a braggart.  Nevertheless, His requirement of independence made it necessary for Him to be fearless, and so, here, He separated State and Religion for the first time.  Until Jesus came the state had been in total charge of religion: Emperors were worshipped as gods in the all-powerful Roman state.  And therefore, those famous and most beautiful words of Jesus:

Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's,
are not only wonderfully wise words, they were also remarkably brave words for those times.

People of God, only the power of the Holy Spirit and the assured commitment to Jesus which our faith affords us can enable us to be independent and free in our proclamation of and witness to our Catholic and Christian faith before the society in which we find ourselves today.  However, we must never allow such aspirations to become insidiously perverted so as to serve our own personal pride or profit.  We are, above all, servants and disciples of Jesus; and, at all times and in all situations, we must seek -- in Him and by His Spirit -- to glorify God our Father.  Therefore, we must never forget that we are, individually, members of His People, of His family, of His Body, and consequently we can never think of ourselves as independent of our brothers and sisters in Christ: our own personal integrity and independence must be consonant with and embrace the authentic Christian good of all those for whom Christ died.   Just as true glory can only be given to God the Father in and through the whole Body of Christ, Head and members, so also, praise and profit can only come to us as living members of the whole Body of those who, in accordance with the Father's will and the working of His Holy Spirit, are being led to share in the fullness of salvation won for them by Jesus.