October 12, 2013

Homily for the Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S. 
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

It is natural to focus on gratitude in today’s readings. I’ll get to that later.

You probably never read the 1952 book, Prisoners are People by Kenyon J. Scudder. And you probably never saw the 1955 movie Unchained, based on that book. But you have definitely heard the theme song of that film, one of the most famous love songs of all time, covered by dozens of artists. I have been humming “Unchained Melody” all week, ever since I first looked at this Sunday’s readings.

What made me think of this song is the phrase in today’s second reading: “The Word of God is not chained.” Although the Apostle Paul is in prison, the Gospel continues to spread. It is unrestricted. It doesn’t depend on him.

Another melody comes to mind, from Leonard Bernstein’s opera, Mass. There is a sung reflection, a homily of sorts, on the same passage from 2 Timothy. “You can lock up the bold men. Go, and lock up your bold men, and hold them in tow. You can stifle all adventure, for a century or so. Smother hope before it's risen, -- watch it wizen like a gourd. But you cannot imprison the Word of the Lord.”

Jesus’ healing was not restricted to Jews. He never suggested that “Samaritans need not apply.” The prophet Elisha’s ministry was not restricted to Jews. Jesus refers specifically to this fact in Luke 4:27: “There were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

St. Paul writes to Timothy of external obstacles to his preaching. The Word continues to spread and the Church grows not only in spite of persecution and imprisonment, but because of them! Around the year 200 A.D. a Christian named Tertullian told persecutors that they were wasting their time trying to wipe out the Church. He is the author of the famous saying, “The blood of Christians is seed.”

Jesus, as is evident in many Gospel scenes, did not allow his ministry or his teaching to be “chained” by the Scribes and Pharisees, when, for example, they attempted to dictate whom he should associate with.

One of the reasons Pope Francis is so popular is that he appears to be on a path of unchaining what he perceives as restricting the deeper message of the Gospel, the deeper mission of the Church. Not only is no one excluded, but he repeatedly gives the example of reaching out to the marginalized, bringing the Good News to them.

When those who have felt excluded find themselves unexpectedly welcome, gratitude inevitably follows. Naaman vows to worship no other God but the Lord. The Samaritan is the only one to return and give thanks.

In today’s world, the Word may seem in danger of being chained in two ways. There are those outside the Church who would prevent the Gospel from influencing modern life and culture. And there are those within the Church who obscure the Gospel message through an attitude of exclusivism or, worse, through scandal—a kind of leprosy that makes people want to stay away from us.

Still, anything we do that might tend to imprison the Word of the Lord in any way is ultimately doomed to failure. In fact, it may well work the other way around, and the Word might “imprison” us, that is, captivate us and transform our lives. That is something to be truly grateful for.

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