July 2, 2016

Fr. Butler's Homily for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 3, 2016, Year C

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Provincial Superior, La Salette Missionaries of North America
Hartford, Connecticut

I have always had a problem with the portion of today’s Gospel where Jesus tells his disciples to shake or wipe from their feet the dust of the towns that do not welcome them, i.e. that did not accept the Gospel. It seems so harsh.

Now this is the same Jesus who, in last Sunday’s Gospel, rebuked James and John who wanted to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans that would not let them come into their town.

Is there really any difference between the two situations? In fact, there is.

First  there is the urgency of the situation. Last week we saw disciples sent simply to prepare the way for Jesus. Today we see them sent to do the same things Jesus did, particularly curing the sick and preaching. They were not to be distracted by financial concerns or casual conversation. To judge by the final paragraph in today’s text, their mission was largely successful.

Then there is the reason for the rejection. The Samaritans refused admission to their town because Jesus and the disciples were on their way to Jerusalem. There was a long-standing feud between Jews and Samaritans about the legitimacy of the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerazim, and feelings obviously ran high on the subject.

In the other situation, people rejected the message, the Good News of the Kingdom. With the dramatic gesture of wiping the dust from their feet, the disciples were to emphasize the importance of the message, and proclaim it one last time before leaving. Maybe, just maybe, some of the people would get the point and heed the warning.

Put yourself in the position of those townspeople. You see the disciples wiping the dust from their feet while repeating the same message they have said all along. What are you supposed to think?

I am reminded of the scene from the wonderful film The Miracle Worker, when Helen Keller finally understands the meaning of the finger movements of her teacher Annie Sullivan. Before this happens, however, there is a lot of “tough love” on the teacher’s part, and even the great moment of revelation is framed in that context.

Helen’s parents simply pitied her and usually let her have her way. Annie Sullivan recognized the 8-year-old’s intelligence and did what she had to do to light the spark of humanity in her. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, she “must be cruel to be kind.”

In the same way the harsh gesture of the disciples is not a matter of personal frustration, but becomes an act of “cruel kindness.” No one really enjoys being in that position, but, when all else fails, you do what you have to. Not to do so would be the real cruelty.

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