MARCH 11TH, 2018: FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT
In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people
added infidelity to infidelity,
practicing all the abominations of the nations
and polluting the LORD’s temple
which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.
Early and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers,
send his messengers to them,
for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place.
But they mocked the messengers of God,
despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets,
until the anger of the LORD against his people was so inflamed
that there was no remedy.
Their enemies burnt the house of God,
tore down the walls of Jerusalem,
set all its palaces afire,
and destroyed all its precious objects.
Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon,
where they became servants of the king of the Chaldeans and his sons
until the kingdom of the Persians came to power.
All this was to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah:
“Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths,
during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest
while seventy years are fulfilled.”
In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia,
in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah,
the LORD inspired King Cyrus of Persia
to issue this proclamation throughout his kingdom,
both by word of mouth and in writing:
“Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia:
All the kingdoms of the earth
the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me,
and he has also charged me to build him a house
in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people,
let him go up, and may his God be with him!”
Brothers and sisters:
God, who is rich in mercy,
because of the great love he had for us,
even when we were dead in our transgressions,
brought us to life with Christ — by grace you have been saved —,
raised us up with him,
and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus,
that in the ages to come
He might show the immeasurable riches of his grace
in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith,
and this is not from you; it is the gift of God;
it is not from works, so no one may boast.
For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works
that God has prepared in advance,
that we should live in them.
Jesus said to Nicodemus:
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,
because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
And this is the verdict,
that the light came into the world,
but people preferred darkness to light,
because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come toward the light,
so that his works might not be exposed.
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.
At times I’m criticized for giving “depressing” homilies. Probably a valid critique. I suppose one reason for my bleak approach to preaching is that I try to give homilies based on the Scripture readings of the day. As any serious student of the Bible knows, our sacred authors are normally motivated to write only when they surface problems in their communities. Rarely do any of these unique individuals sit down on a beautiful, sunny day, no care in the world, put stylus to papyrus and produce an inspired work.
Should they have background music playing as they write, I’m certain it would be a specific cut from The Music Man: “Trouble, trouble, trouble! We got trouble right here in . . . .”
Our Chronicles author leaves no doubt about the trouble he’s facing. Though the Chosen People have recently been freed from their Babylonian Exile, many in his community seem to have forgotten what originally triggered that nation-changing experience. He clicks off their offenses. Turning from Yahweh, practicing idolatry, introducing pagan worship in the Jerusalem temple are just a few of their blatant sins. But the most horrendous of their transgressions is one we Catholics were never taught to confess: ignoring and mocking the prophets in their midst. They “. . . scoffed at Yahweh’s prophets, until the anger of Yahweh against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy.”
Accustomed to obeying canon law, papal decrees, and episcopal regulations, we easily forget the normal way God’s will is discovered in Scripture is by surfacing and obeying the prophets God continually sends to us. Not knowing the five (or six) rules for distinguishing real prophets from fake prophets is as inexcusable as not knowing the difference between mortal and venial sin. Yet I’d hate to give an exam on the former to a normal Sunday Mass crowd. (By the way, rarely are any religious institution’s administrators prophetic. According to Paul of Tarsus, prophecy and administration are two distinct gifts of the Spirit, almost never given to the same person. Prophets usually make lousy administrators; administrators, lousy prophets.)
The Pauline disciple responsible for Ephesians addresses a different problem. Seems some in his community are looking at salvation as something they’ve accomplished through their own actions; not something the risen Jesus freely offers. He reminds his readers, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.” Our good works don’t cause salvation; they’re simply the things saved people do. Of course, as the late Marcus Borg pointed out in Speaking Christian, biblical salvation doesn’t refer primarily to “getting into heaven.” It’s a much broader concept.
John agrees. He points out in today’s gospel pericope, that eternal life isn’t an experience which begins after our physical death; it’s already starting right here and now. The evangelist struggles against those who believe “the light” is still in the future. For those who believe, it’s already at work in their daily lives.
One last point. Notice what our Chronicles author says about Cyrus. Though this 6th century BCE Persian king isn’t even Jewish, he’s the person Yahweh has designated to liberate the Chosen People from the Babylonian Exile.
One constant message of biblical prophets – one with which conservatives have huge problems – is that God can work in our lives in many different ways through many different people.
I once asked Carroll Stuhlmueller about his view of current prophets. Refusing to share his list, he replied, “If I told you, and my names ever got out, I’d never again be permitted in any Catholic pulpit for the rest of my life!”
Now that’s a problem!