August 1, 2015

Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 2, 2015, Year B

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

Jesus teaches the people by the sea,
James Tissot, c 1894
(Click here for today’s readings)

I hate labels. Not the kind we put on jars or folders, but the kind we put on people to indicate our own superiority. "Liberal" and "conservative," for example, which have legitimate meaning in their own right, have come to be often abused in this way, as a slur against those whose opinions differ from ours.

It’s not so long ago that "Protestant" and "Catholic" were labels of this same kind.

2017, just two years away, will mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The hostilities are no longer what they were. Some, perhaps many, of the disagreements have been resolved, but the most fundamental ones have not. One of these relates to the issue of faith and works.

The Catholic Church placed and places significant value on works, that is, good deeds, and believes that they are important for salvation. Martin Luther, the first Reformer, insisted that we are saved by faith alone.

It is interesting to note how this question shows up in today’s Gospel. "What can we do to accomplish the works of God?" (The King James Version is even more emphatic: "What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?") To which Jesus answers: "This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent."

The "work" is to "believe!" Work and faith are here treated as one and the same. We might say that faith is the first "work." Good "works" are not a substitute for or an alternative to faith, but derive their meaning, their importance and their genuine value from it.

Roughly 150 years after the Reformation began, a different kind of "reform" appeared on the scene. It began as a philosophical exploration to see how far the mind could go without relying on the "authority" of ancient philosophers or religion. This eventually led to serious and solid science as we know it. Along the way, however, it set itself up as the ultimate authority and became not only independent from but hostile to religion, especially to Catholicism. This attitude was so pervasive it even found its way into Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute. This period is known as the Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment. Those not of the same mind were labeled "unenlightened."

The hostility showed itself in a particularly ferocious way during the French Revolution. Sixteen cloistered Carmelite nuns had been thrown out of their convent—"liberated," according to the revolutionaries—but continued to come together. They were arrested on a charge of "counter-revolutionary assemblies and continuing to live in submission to their rule and their superior." They were also accused of "fanaticism." When one of the nuns demanded to know what the judge meant by that, he replied: "I mean your attachment to infantile beliefs, your idiotic religious practices." That trial took place on July 17, 1894. The nuns went to the guillotine the same day.

What does this have to do with today’s Gospel? Nothing, directly. But it is more than obvious that no "enlightened" person could believe in the story of Moses and the manna from heaven. And the story that served as prologue to today’s Gospel, and next week’s also (and two more weeks after that), namely, the multiplication of loaves and fishes which we read last week, would likewise be cast aside as "infantile."

The more direct connection is to the reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. "You must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds." The Gentiles were basically the Greeks, not just those living in Greece but the Greek culture that still dominated most of the known world. One of the most important aspects of that culture was philosophy, the "love of wisdom." In other words, enlightenment.

Paul calls that kind enlightenment "futility." Why? Because it cannot lead to faith. Earlier in the same letter he wrote: "May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his [God’s] call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe."

Faith, then, is the true enlightenment because it puts us in relationship to Jesus Christ who, again in John’s Gospel, calls himself "the light of the world" (John 8:12). In the magnificent prologue of the same Gospel we read that Jesus is "the true light, which enlightens everyone."

The notion of enlightenment is not new in the Gospels. It is the whole point of what is called the "Wisdom Literature" in the Old Testament. In Psalm 119, for example, we find this:
The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul.
The decree of the Lord is trustworthy, giving wisdom to the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.
The command of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eye.
It is one thing to be enlightened by faith; it is quite another to go around treating everyone else as "unenlightened." Faith is "enlightenment," not in opposition to anything else but simply for what it is and what it gives. It is the "kindly light" that leads us "amid the encircling gloom."

That’s good enough. No labeling is required.

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