2004—Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time—C
Jean Paul Sartre once said: "Things are exactly what they appear to be and behind them...there is nothing." This may explain why he is often referred to as one of the great pillars of nihilism. What you see is what you get, and only that! If he is right, and things are exactly what they appear to be, and words say exactly what they seem to say, and the world can be taken literally at face value, given this morning's readings, this could be a very short homily. But it would also be a very depressing one.
Let's start with the latter part of today's gospel. If we take Jesus' words literally, we might never again enjoy the warmth and comfort of a good meal. We might never again share the intoxicating delight of a good belly-laugh. We might cease trying to provide a decent and fulfilling life for ourselves and those whom we love. We could even become positively paranoid about people liking us and praising us for the good we seem to accomplish. It is easy to preach only the "woe to you..." parts of the "Good News." It is also finally depressing and misleading.
But I fear many preachers today will do just that again. We Catholics, especially, are very good at being depressing. Psychologists sometimes call the process "selective abstraction." Give me one negative detail on which to focus and the entire rest of the picture goes out of focus. We all know the process: let's say you have just finished a magnificent meal for twelve of your best friends. It was splendid, and eleven of the guests can't stop telling you so. But the last one, the twelfth, says as she's leaving. "Well, I sure hope I don't get sick tonight. That new recipe was really dreadful." Which comment are you still thinking about at midnight? Or you give a great presentation which everyone loves—well, almost everyone. And again, one voice—the negative one—manages to drown-out the chorus.
It's like a mental filter (that's what it's called in some cognitive-behavioral therapy systems). It's like one drop of ink in a glass; it takes only a second to darken the whole scene. I wonder how many "good Catholics" will hear today only: "Woe to you who are rich, you have received your consolation."
Or how many of us will hear only Jeremiah's opening line: "Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh...." Shall we all go off to become hermits? To live in solitary focus on some ethereal bliss?
Let's hope Jean Paul Sartre was wrong: Some things are not what they appear to be, and behind some things there is a great deal yet to be discovered. The same Jesus who appears to condemn riches says in another place: the poor you will always have with you; for now I deserve to have this expensive ointment poured over my head and feet. The same Jesus who appears to chastise the party-goers who have their fill, is himself accused of being a drunkard and glutton. The same Jesus who appears to condone a dour, grim world here and now, must have had an infectious smile that literally lit-up the pathways of Galilee. Otherwise, there would have been few disciples—or they would have been a pretty bleak gang.
Both Jeremiah and Luke are really talking about in what we put our ultimate trust. The question is: in whom do you trust? In what do you trust? Finally! Is it wealth and riches? Is it food and all the good things this world has to offer? Is it laughter at other's expense and while Rome burns? Is it your reputation in which you put final trust? If it is in any of these good things that you finally trust, you will be disappointed! That's the real "Sermon on the Mount"—or, as the Pastor corrected me, in Luke's gospel, the "Sermon on the Plain"! In what can you trust?
For God's sake, literally: don't give up all the wonderful riches life offers; don't forego wonderful meals and choice wines; don't be afraid to laugh heartily at the amazing stupidity that passes for life these days. Don't be afraid to be yourself even at the cost of others' derision. Jesus didn't. But don't ever forget those around you who are poorer, who are hungrier, who weep, and who are thought crazy by this world. Their reward, too, will be great!
In our Commonwealth this week there are many who are hungry and many who are weeping. Some literally; some figuratively and spiritually. Some are still waiting for a church to unveil its compassion and understanding and welcome. Some are waiting for ideologies and bigotry to be bleached in the blood of our lamb. Some still remain terrified of reputations and ideologies, and strangely false gospels in which they have put all their trust.
Today's "Sermon on the Mount" must be about all this and much more. Today is a chance for each one of us to again ask ourselves: in what do I place my final trust? This Magna Carta of Christian living is not about ideology; it is about love.
Margaret Mead, after a lifetime of anthropological research concluded that: "One of the oldest human needs is having someone to wonder where you are when you don't come home at night." She gets it! In a slightly more philosophical vein, William James put it this way: "I now perceive one immense omission in my psychology—the deepest principle of Human Nature is the craving to be appreciated." He gets it! They both seem to understand; it is finally about love.
Why is this so hard for us as a church to grasp? I wish I knew. Perhaps it has something to do with how much we think is really important in faith, how much we think we have to believe in. But I hope we can all echo Joan Chittister who said a few years ago: "When I pray, I still say "I believe,' but the truth is that I now believe both a great deal less and a great deal more than I did years ago." In what do you need to really believe and trust?
Ah, back to Jean Paul Sartre. Things are not exactly what they appear to be, and, actually, it is behind them that lies the great truth: As we sung in today's psalm: Blessed are they who hope and trust in the Lord, and simply love each other in deeds as the Lord has asked.