Fourth Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle C February 1, 2004

If we listened carefully to Jesus’ words in today’s gospel we might be tempted to ask: Why didn’t Jesus quit when he was ahead. At the beginning of the reading, we hear how his hearers “were amazed at the gracious words that came from his month” – and yet by the end of this short reading, they were ready to throw him off the cliff.

Recently, I heard a layman – in speaking of the quality of the sermons he was hearing – and mind you, this man did not come from anywhere near these parts – but in speaking of the quality of what he was hearing said that preaching seems to be about telling us to just be nice. And, I am sure he was not too far off the mark – especially, most of us who do preach don’t relish the possibility of being thrown off some cliff.

Nevertheless, while no one should take to a pulpit just to annoy his listeners, God’s word spoken to Jeremiah in the first reading is not to be easily dismissed. “Gird your loins”, he tells those who would be his prophetic voice, “stand up and tell them all that I command you”. God’s servant will be called upon to speak the truth to power – and while we might enjoy hearing the powerful get their comeuppance, we cannot forget that God’s servant is called upon to speak the truth to our complacency as well. Christian life is about more than being “nice”, Christian life is about conforming ourselves to the truth – the truth about God, about us and our relationship to God. It is about discovering the truth that makes us free – and that truth is a person who is Jesus – the truth, the way, and the life.

Jesus’ words provoke. And if the Church speaks Jesus’ words, the Church will also provoke. One can tip-toe around diplomatically only for a while – eventually one will have to jump feet first into truth telling.

We however prefer to be nice than to tell the truth: just ask any husband whose wife asks him: “Does this dress make me look fat?” In our contemporary culture, the most esteemed virtue seems to be what? Honesty/ Integrity? Courage? No, tolerance. Heaven help us, if we use the language of our parents’ generation in describing two people who are living together without the benefit of marriage. We use to call it: living in sin – now, it’s an alternative life-style. And what would be called sinful sodomy is now considered a “domestic partnership” Our contemporary culture bids to us to tolerate all standards – but it is itself intolerant of us if we still hold on to our own standards, if we still hold that truth is not something “I create” – as if someone could create his or her own “truth” but is something that I receive and to which I must conform.

This prophetic speaking the truth is not an option if we are to be faithful to the Lord’s mandate. Today, this prophetic speaking of the truth calls us as Catholics to affirm again the role of marriage and the family – and not only to defend marriage and family but to defend marriage and family against those who in the name of toleration of so called new forms and expressions of marriage and family would ultimately destroy the very possibility of a civilized society.

A few months ago – and I wrote about this in a column in the Florida Catholic – the Bishops of the United States supported a proposed amendment to the US Constitution that would affirm marriage as a life-long commitment between a man and a woman. Such an amendment is necessary – not because we wish to impose our views on our fellow Americans. Most Americans would still hold the tradition view of marriage. However, in much the same way the present liberalized abortion regime was foisted on America by judicial fiat, activist judges stand ready to do the same with so-called same sex marriages.

The view of marriage – as a life long union between a man and a woman for the sake of family. – is not a creation of either Church or State. This understanding of marriage is found in nature itself. All the research on child rising indicates that children are “hard-wired” to be raised best by a mother and a father. Marriage as an institution precedes church and state – if not creation of Church or state, neither church nor state has any authority to change the nature of marriage.

Today, we are faced with a morality based on desires and not on the truth of things.

And, we cannot be silent. We must speak “all that the Lord has commanded”.

When we do however, don’t be surprised it we are told that we are not being nice, that we are intolerant. Don’t be surprised if we are told we have no right to speak – for we are not credible – and certainly, because of the recent scandals in our Church and our personal sinfulness, we sometimes hurt our cause. “Who do they think they are?” And yet, that’s the same argument used against Jesus: “Who does he think he is. We know him; he’s the carpenter’s son, what does he know.”

Today, there’s really no way around it. In our culture – the Church will appear to be increasing provocative – but only because the gospel is. We must not shrink from being provocative – if this is what the gospels call us to. But – and for this reason, today’s second reading is of particular importance. St. Paul presents us with a beautiful canticle to love – which he calls “the path that surpasses everything else.” Everything else is insufficient – even giving our bodies to be burned. Without love, such martyrdom would not count for anything in God’s sight. When God uses Christ and his Christ to provoke men, it is out of love that he does so. And those of us whom he entrusts with the task of living and proclaiming his love, his truth in the world provocatively must do so in love and out of love. Otherwise, we fail to speak for God but speak solely from ourselves, out of contempt for other people, or contempt for their failings their obsession with power, their misuse of power or abuse of nature. This “bitter zeal” so characteristic today of much public debate is beneath the standards of Christian witness, for love, as St. Paul says, “is not jealous, is not prone to anger, does not rejoice in injustice…”

Indeed, oftentimes church language can seem lacking in respect – for we speak a language the world does not easily understand. We speak a philosophical and theological language (words, like intrinsic evil, etc.) and society can understand at best psychological and political terms. Just as his townsfolk took offense at Jesus’ words, it will be hard for us at time not to give offense – even when we don’t mean too.

Since the Lord came to call all to salvation, we must be really to embrace all. As GK Chesterton said: Catholic Church means here comes everybody. For the sake of love, we welcome all – but for the sake of love we also must call all to conversion to Christ. To fail to call to conversion would be a failure of love. And love sometimes to be truly love must be tough love. Nevertheless, our brothers and sisters must sense the love of God effectively at work in us even in the harshest words we utter in God’s name.

As Jesus tells us in the gospel today – he fulfills the words of Holy Scripture. Jesus fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament. Jesus answers the hopes of the world. There is no other savior – for he is the truth, the way and the life.