Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

I think I’ve figured something out. I’ve been thinking lately there’s something about people that’s a little off. It’s an affliction of the spirit, something like a human decency deficiency. You might tell me there’s so much more than just a little that’s off, or that I’ve arrived late to the party. But it has been eating at me for some time now. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m projecting on all of humanity what is simply a personal irritation. Maybe it’s the global pandemic talking. But I’ve begun to notice it in so many places. And I know the solution is within reach because Jesus hints at it often without a whole lot of beating about the bush. And I’m noticing that the machinery of politics, of human traditions and social conventions along with the limitations of institutions and of leaders of church and civic government often add more to the confusion or distract from the truly important issues, so those who desire improvement soon tend to give up or stop caring and walk away in frustration no closer to a fix than when they began.

I’m talking about this broad mistrust people sometimes have, and by people I mean me and maybe you, this hasty defensiveness, this mild cynicism that’s too eager to dismiss, to put down, to discredit, and at worst to destroy what falls short of my standards, that which is unfamiliar or unconventional or just different from what I am accustomed to or that which strikes me at first glance to be frivolous or misguided. I admit my dis-ease before I suggest it of anyone because unless I am willing to claim my part in this predicament, I know I won’t be any help finding a fix. I sometimes like to think of it as a critical eye or a competitiveness to make it sound less repulsive. Perhaps it stems from a place of insecurity or anxiety, a lack of self-confidence, even a cautious pessimism, an arrogant swagger, a selfish need to intimidate and discourage questions and arbitrarily and unfairly assign malice or unfriendliness to that which I do not grasp or cannot subdue. Is this behavior like some misguided American exceptionalism? Or is it just a form of bullying? And when bullies prevail, is it from actual effective bullying, or is it from some veiled admiration or envy of the bully’s moment in the limelight?

Whatever the reason, this broad mistrust, this hasty defensiveness, this mild cynicism exposes a painful deficiency of compassion toward my neighbor. I remember hearing how persistent hostilities between mortal enemies or historical animosities between long-feuding neighbor states can more easily escalate until one side decides to back down. It is a risky move, but the alternative is just more of what was unacceptable to begin with, more of what has only often brought great suffering, grief, and death, more seething inconsolable resentment, the vicious destruction of lives and property, and the relentless alienation of entire generations. Despite how bleak the future we face, the sensible way about it has to be a de-escalation, a willingness to set aside mistrust and defensiveness and cynicism, and to offer respect, extend compassion, and seek reconciliation. I know. It’s easier said than done. But we have to start somewhere.

Jesus must have been exhausted with the hostility and stubbornness of those who claimed knowledge of the Law and faithfulness to God. But they were not at all receptive to his message of compassion and hope. And if he were to entrust his message to disciples who would continue his work, he would need from them total commitment to his teachings and his way of life. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.”[1] Jesus knew his followers would confront the same hostility and stubbornness he faced. As he did, they too would likely endure much suffering. And like him they will only find fulness of life by renouncing all that the world had to offer for the sake of his cause.

Many smart and holy people have been lamenting the decline of Christianity even from before the global pandemic came along, but even more so now that much of the public expressions of our faith have been so diminished and made so inaccessible. They are convinced the church will not so easily recover from all the crises we have faced in the last 50 years, that the church as we know it will only continue to decline in relevance for both individuals and for society in general. But they rarely offer any consolation for those of us who want to prevent the demise of our communal religious expressions and our Christian way of life.

Now for obvious reasons we can say life as we know it and church as we know it will be greatly altered. Advances in technology and the ever-widening reach of social media continues to accelerate change. But we are not totally without hope or recourse. We need to remind ourselves often that “we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were buried with him through baptism into death, (and) just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”[2] A new dawn awaits us at the end of this long night. But we cannot allow the long night to rob us of hope. As well, we cannot abandon the baptism we have received. By being buried with Christ we have been transformed along with him. There can be no going back to some old life, or to that world we have left behind, the one where selfishness and greed and arrogant pride reigned supreme, where people claimed their rights but cared little of the harm they caused others, where being different made one less worthy of dignity and opportunity and blessing. “Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more. So (we) too must think of (ourselves) as dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.”[3] There can be no going back.

The simple example of kindness shown by the couple from Shunem to Elisha the prophet encourages us to be aware that when we receive those God sends to us to speak his message of reconciliation and to call us to faithfulness, we receive God himself. But we cannot limit God to sending us prophets only. God sends whoever God chooses. Our broad mistrust of others must end, our hasty defensiveness, our mild cynicism, our eagerness to dismiss, to put down, to discredit, or to destroy what falls short of our standards, our easy rejection of the unfamiliar or unconventional or different, of what appears frivolous or misguided. Instead we must own our insecurity and anxiety, our lack of self-confidence, our cautious pessimism, our arrogant swagger, our selfish need to intimidate and discourage questions, and arbitrarily and unfairly assign malice or unfriendliness to what we do not grasp or cannot subdue.

New life awaits where trials are also opportunities for grace to strengthen us, or we will get left behind. The church is ever changing and ever new. Our God however is forever and always will be.

Rolo B Castillo © 2020

[1] Matthew 10: 37-38.

[2] Romans 6: 3-5.

[3] Romans 6: 9, 11.