14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Kryptonite. Harmless to you, me, and most everyone else on the planet. I say most because we all know it is the one substance that reduces to a glorious heaping mess that ultimate superhero, Superman, the Man of Steel, also known by his alter ego the Daily Planet news reporter Clark Kent. Superman was first introduced in 1938 in DC Action Comics Issue #1. This past April, Superman turned 80, which, if you consider he was full-grown in Issue #1, would make him closer to 100. And since Superman is a work of fiction, we can further conclude that there is no such thing as kryptonite either. So thus far, I have told you nothing you don’t already know.

The idea of kryptonite is the comic book creator’s way of humanizing Superman, who is otherwise super in most everything about him. That means Superman is just like us in all other aspects. He has to eat, sleep, use the restroom, do laundry, work a day job, pay bills, navigate the tricky minefield of human relationships, and engage in international diplomacy—ordinary stuff we can all relate to. The things that make him super we can definitely appreciate as well: super-strength; super-speed; the ability to fly; telescopic, microscopic, and x-ray vision; the ability to hear at any wavelength and across great distances; the ability to freeze objects with his breath, generate hurricane-force winds, and hold it indefinitely allowing him to travel underwater or in deep space without equipment; genius-level intelligence; an eidetic memory; the ability to speak and understand all languages; powers of super-hypnotism and super-ventriloquism; the power of accelerated physical regeneration and healing; and an all-encompassing invulnerability and indestructibility.

Kryptonite is Superman’s Achilles’ heel, his ultimate weakness. When exposed to it, and it doesn’t seem to matter how much of it he is exposed to, Superman loses all super-function, and can be overpowered, restrained, and rendered completely useless, much like the rest of us under most any circumstance on any given day. Actually, that’s wrong. Kryptonite doesn’t just make Superman lose all super-function, it makes him even weaker and more useless than the average human. Now why he still hasn’t been destroyed by his enemies, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a question of economics.

Speaking of superheroes and their weaknesses, just before the passage we read today from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he was telling his readers about some extraordinary revelations. Already he was regarded as an important person in the Christian community, although he had a number of detractors, people who accused him of weakness and pretense. But instead of getting all offended and defensive, Paul was willing to admit in all humility and honesty that he was indeed weak, that he had to deal with a “thorn in the flesh,” an angel of Satan to beat him, and keep him from getting a big head. Even after turning to the Lord for relief, he was told, “My grace is sufficient for you.”[1] So in spite of his troubles, he would not be intimidated or deterred from the work God entrusted to him. If he was all about his own personal satisfaction and happiness, he would have quit a long time ago. Rather, he understood his role in God’s plan of salvation. And Jesus alone would be his strength.

We probably regard the prophets of the Old Testament as formidable messengers of Israel’s God. Their presence evoked fear and admiration. The words they spoke shed light on the future. But for a number of them like Ezekiel and Amos and Jeremiah, this exalted honor history bestowed on them did not quite kick in ‘til sometime after their demise. While they went about their daily business, they had to contend with rejection and humiliation and even threats to their life. Ezekiel was under the illusion, as likely were some of his fellow-prophets, that working for God in such a high-profile capacity afforded him some perks, superpowers of some kind, nothing overtly conspicuous or extraordinary, just some widely recognized compassionate working conditions like not getting yelled at or killed. Instead, “I am sending you to the Israelites, rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have revolted against me to this very day. Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you. … And whether they heed or resist—for they are a rebellious house—they shall know that a prophet has been among them.”[2] Small consolation, if you ask me.

Now God never guaranteed Ezekiel or Paul such deferential treatment that he did not guarantee first to Jesus. Being God’s own Son, Jesus could have easily displayed the full scope and breadth of his Divine nature, proving his righteousness with mighty deeds, mercilessly quashing his detractors, humbling his opponents to their knees, and eliminating all manner of opposition and resistance. Instead, he faced rejection similar to the prophets before him. Thus the great, almighty, and awesome Son of God was unceremoniously disrespected by the lowly and clueless work of his hands. And at that very moment, God came face to face with his kryptonite. “He was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.”[3]

If God ever has a soft spot, it is for us his children, to whom he continues to call out, inviting us to acknowledge his boundless mercy, to set aside our selfishness, repent of our sins, receive forgiveness, be reconciled to our neighbor, and embrace the divine life he so eagerly wants to give us. But in the face of our hardness of heart and our lack of faith, God is rendered completely and utterly powerless. We think we know what it’s like to be powerless. We can identify with the frustration and helplessness of watching people we love ravaged by illness, destroyed by addictions, wrenched from our grasp by random violence and catastrophic disasters. But are we not deluded to think we even had a hint of power at all anyway? Even our most sophisticated science and technology are at best educated guesswork. We are not and have never been superwomen and supermen. We are not and have never been God. And if God who is the most powerful being we know, can be rendered completely and utterly powerless by our hardness of heart and lack of faith, what other recourse have we really? Shouldn’t we be making every effort to stay on God’s good side, to work with him, and to pattern our choices and our living after the example and values Jesus lived and taught? You would think.

Instead we stray from God’s side, playing deaf and blind to God’s will. We test our boundaries and push the envelope. We wallow in pride and self-gratification. And when God sends us some prophet to call us to repentance and renewal, we have the gall to reject both messenger and message. God is truly great, almighty, and awesome beyond measure. There has never been and will never be one like him. But God will not save us without our consent, St. Augustine once said. We hold in our own hands that which to God is kryptonite. And with it we have the power to destroy or save ourselves.

Rolo B Castillo © 2018

[1]2 Corinthians 12: 9

[2]Ezekiel 2: 3-5

[3]Mark 6: 5-6