July 4, 2015

Homily for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 5, 2015, Year B

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

Jesus in the synagogue...  Greg K. Olsen
(Click here for today’s readings)

Have you ever known someone who “got religion”? In 1977 it was being reported that the famous publisher of a pornographic magazine had been converted through the efforts of Ruth Carter Stapleton, sister of President Carter. Many were skeptical, especially since the conversion resulted in no change to the publisher’s business or lifestyle. No one was surprised when he later said he was an atheist.

Every year in Lent we see people returning to church, seriously intending to resume the practice of their Catholic faith. We rejoice to see them, we hope for the best, but we also know that in some cases the enthusiasm will fade.

Of course, in many cases, the conversion is genuine. Still, for those who know the individuals in question, it is normal to take a wait-and-see attitude. That seems to be what happened to St. Paul, who was as it were put on a shelf for about fourteen years before Barnabas brought him to the Christian community in Antioch.

This attitude can be attributed to what we might call the “surprise factor.” The more unlikely the change is, the more reluctant people are to accept it as authentic.

So when Jesus came to his home town, people were not only astonished but hesitant. It requires no stretch of the imagination to suppose that the Jesus they knew before this encounter was not in the habit of preaching in synagogues and working mighty deeds. He was just a carpenter. Everyone knew his mother and relatives, who were apparently just ordinary folk. People were put off by the unexpected change, so much so that we are told “they took offense at him.”

And yet, there is no indication that Jesus actually said or did anything offensive, or that he viewed the inhabitants of Nazareth as “rebels” against God, “hard of face and obstinate of heart,” like the people to whom the prophet Ezekiel was sent. True, he expressed his disappointment at not being accepted by his own. In that sense, he took offense at them.

Offense taken on both sides, because, as my twin brother says, expectations will get you every time.

At some point in his life, St. Paul had the opposite problem. Things were going very well, he was having an “abundance of revelations,” and he was in danger of becoming “too elated.” That wouldn’t do. Paul understood that his work, his mission was not about him. So he was given a “thorn in the flesh”—a temptation? sickness? disability? maybe another person (as we might say in English that someone is a “thorn in my side”)? Whatever it was, Paul didn’t like it and asked to be released from it.

His expectation was not met. Fortunately, further revelations helped him to accept the “thorn.” The Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” The situation now made sense to him and, believe it or not, he actually became “content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ.”

In his first Letter to the Corinthians, Paul had written this: “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” What he had stated as a general truth was also a personal truth in his own life.

His words, “When I am weak, then I am strong,” are more than a powerful paradox. They are a rule of life, coming down to this: any time I put my trust in myself and my own abilities without relying on God, no matter what I accomplish, I am a failure as a servant of the Lord; any time I put my trust in the Lord, recognizing my own inadequacies and making no special effort to hide them, then the Lord may accomplish his work though me, even in spite of me.

We may well feel powerless, living in a world where traditional Christian values are being steadily eroded. We may feel threatened by it. We may even have a sense of panic. Or we experience it as a “thorn in the flesh,” and ask the Lord to take it away. When you think about it, a lot of our prayers (like a lot of the Psalms) can be summed up in three words: “Make it stop!”

We get the same answer Paul got: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” It might not be the answer we wanted or expected, but ultimately it’s the answer we need. If we can take it to heart, we can experience peace in even the most troubling moments of life.

Time will tell if this peace takes root in our hearts. It’s like “getting religion.” Sometimes we have to wait and see.

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