Today’s Gospel passage brings us to the end of the second great discourse of Jesus in Saint Matthew’s Gospel. The first was the Sermon on the Mount where he called the crowds to a new way of being human, based on the divine values of love, generosity, and responsibility for each other. In this missionary sermon, He has been instructing His disciples how they should behave and what they should expect when they go out to proclaim that it is possible to renew the face of the earth. That mission of Jesus’ disciples is as difficult today as it was then.
Firstly, Jesus uses the word ‘prophet’. A prophet in our biblical tradition is not merely one who foretells the future. A prophet is one who proclaims what the world could be like – and who is not afraid to point out where a society is building its house on sand. All these teachings will be unwelcome to those who are doing very nicely, thank you, from the status quo. In any age, if the disciples of Jesus do not seek to play an uncomfortable challenging role if the Church becomes tasteless and without inspiration and hope, if the Church becomes too aligned to the dominant ideology of the powerful, then it loses its prophetic voice. The Gospel invitation is for the modern world to catch on to the divine dream. It is not for merely the Church to catch up with the modern world’s assumptions. A Church that does not look out of step with its society, a Church that lets its principles be excessively influenced by changing market values, needs to hear Jesus’ instruction to His disciples 2,000 years ago.
But this is not an invitation to develop bitter, critical hearts. We already have more than our fair share of moaners. Angry hearts cannot reflect a God who so loved the world that He sent His only Son. That was not how Jesus engaged with His contemporaries. A prophetic Church speaks of, and models what a grace-filled society could look like. A secularised society would be content if faith were reduced to the sphere of the private and the personal.
But a prophetic Church is – as Pope Francis says – called to be at the service of a difficult dialogue (Evangelii Gaudium 74). Faith is thus always highly political. Jesus’ ministry proclaimed that poor and sick lives matter and that apparently little unimportant lives matter. That is why He asks us to be a field hospital and not a private clinic. A prophet is a happy complainer because he or she calls us to greatness. A prophetic voice will not be afraid to engage with where people are at in order to bring them to a different place. For the prophet, a frightened silence is never an option.
Secondly, both Jesus and Saint Paul in our second reading talk about dying to ourselves and losing our lives for Jesus’ sake. That is not a welcome message. The dominant ideology tells us that self-indulgence offers us the best that we can hope for. We have discovered over the last three months that there are many beautiful things to enjoy that cost nothing. We do not need to constantly be purchasing expensive entertainment from outside. The story of the Holy Bible begins with Adam and Eve who face the basic human struggle – do I do what is right or do I succumb to the appetites and capacity for self-deception that lies within each one of us? Free choice comes at a cost. Real freedom is based on deliberately choosing the good, the true, and beautiful even that means depriving myself of some immediate pleasure.
I read a report during the week about the horrific levels of sexual violence suffered by many third levels students. Would it be unwelcome if a prophetic voice pointed out that this shocking trend in violence seems to be correlated with the widespread availability of pornography in our digital society, to which our young people are especially exposed?
The Gospel message is that we grow as great human beings by allowing our lives to be shaped by God’s dream and not by a depressing nightmare of embarrassing behavior and hidden regret. It is hard to build a stable future on the basis of giving priority to ‘the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial, and the provisional’ (EG 62).
A society built on the sand of merely subjective truth and fake news, it will be the author of its own downfall. The prophet loves people and seeks to warn them of real pitfalls. Poor leaders are afraid to speak the uncomfortable truth. We need wise leaders who are concerned about where we are going, and not just preoccupied with where they are going.
Thirdly, from this week, many areas of society – including places of worship – will be re-opening. This will present challenges for us all. I hope that we have learned lessons about life since we were locked down in March. This is a time to cherish those lessons and not to allow the insights to be lost in a tsunami of going back to the future. We have seen what has happened in those places where there has been a stampede to forget we escaped from worse consequences through self-discipline. It will take many people time to overcome the fear of mixing again. We want our churches to be places where people can share the infectious good news of the Gospel – but avoid being Corona-infected through selfishness and carelessness. We have to begin cautiously. In all areas of human life, short term gain can lead to long-term pain. These next weeks will be a time for discovering the Resurrection that Saint Paul talks about in writing to the Romans. We have been buried for three months in the reality of closed churches. Over the next days, the stone will be rolled back. As with Jesus, it will be to a new way of being alive and being the Body of Christ. As happened 2,000 years ago, Resurrection will not be easy to understand. But, as with Jesus, this new form of ‘resurrection’ is a call to come together so that we can be sent out. The prophetic voice always speaks of hope and a different future.
Over the next months of journeying with Saint Matthew’s Gospel each Sunday, we will see how Jesus, by His words and His actions, helps His contemporaries dream of a grace-filled future. This great missionary discourse from Jesus is a call to all of our parishes to look again at how we can have missionary hearts today. It will mean the often unwelcome task of speaking the truth in love and dying to part of ourselves. It will mean letting God build His Kingdom through the courageous little actions of our daily lives. The Lord will work when we make space for His dream in our domestic Churches and in our shared sacramental life in Church.
The opening of our church buildings is about letting people in – so that God’s grace can pour out again over our hurting community and over those who thirst to hear the prophetic voice that speaks of God’s audacious dream for us. Amen.
· This homily was preached on the Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, 28 June 2020, in the Cathedral of Saint Eugene, Derry.