Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March and no one had a clue what was going on, and no one really understood what they were doing in response and whether any of it was going to make a difference, most everything we have since associated with a normal life shut down, but not immediately. Guidance started flooding in from all directions, the CDC, the White House, the governor, the bishops. And at times I would get phone calls asking what we were doing for church. One particular phone message was from a lady who was very stressed out because her parents, members of the parish whose names I don’t remember, were still planning to come to mass despite her telling them it was unsafe. This lady wanted me to return her call immediately, I concluded so she can school me on my responsibility as pastor. She was getting all righteous about putting me in my place and telling me how I was being shamefully irresponsible to continue celebrating Sunday mass and exposing her parents and all other seniors who were in that vulnerable demographic to this deadly disease. Any of you who have adult children, did you have that conversation? Needless to say, I did not return that phone call. I refuse to parent somebody else’s parents because they failed at it themselves. No way. Besides, I value my life and flee from danger when I can see it coming.

We’ve heard it before, but in this summer of pandemic, people have taken to the streets to make themselves heard. “Don’t anyone try to stop me. I will do whatever I want. It’s no one else’s business but mine.” The battle lines came clearly into view early on when public officials began sending mixed signals, some insisting with great urgency the danger was immediate and devastating, others casually declaring it was all a hoax. Now some of the hype has since calmed down, or at least the initial panic has settled. But the question still hangs over everything as we decide the higher priority—our personal freedom or the good of our neighbor. It does not always have to be either or. It can be both and. But who gets to say which? And what of the consequences?

The prophet Ezekiel was appointed to be a watchman for the house of Israel. It was God’s way of declaring his love for his people that he would even send guardians and leaders after his own heart, both military and prophetic, to assure their safety and prosperity. It went without saying that God demanded obedience. And at times the prophet found himself in a most difficult position, having to speak an urgent message of warning or reprimand to a rebellious and unreceptive audience. The prophet was of course free to say or do as he pleased. He just had to be prepared for the consequences.

St. Paul had the gift of persuasion. He appealed to a community of disciples who wanted to live the gospel values in a turbulent time among unbelievers and a culture of selfishness and idolatry. So he appealed to their sense of faithfulness and integrity. God had given his chosen people every grace and blessing to know his mind and heart intimately and fulfill his loving plan of salvation for all creation. Jesus sought to fulfill God’s plan embodied in the law. And when we love our neighbor as he commanded, we too would fulfill the law. “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another.”

Our freedom is always a vital part of the equation. Accepting God’s desires and commands conveyed by prophets and other messengers sent throughout history, or by his own Son Jesus Christ, still depends on our openness and willing receptivity to that plan. God would have it no other way. God gave us freedom so we could choose to love him by our free choice. But it would still be our personal responsibility to seek out and attempt to understand what God desires for us and all his created universe.

Now as far as we can observe, humanity above all had been endowed with the gift of reason to tell right from wrong. And unlike plants and animals and other living organisms, the human person had the unique power to recall past experiences and learn from them. We had power to weigh our options, and consider the impact of our words, our choices, and our actions. We had power to put on our neighbor’s mind, and see through their eyes, and know their fears and anxieties, and walk in their shoes, and feel the burden of their oppression. So when we use the full range of our powers of reason, we would come as close as naturally possible to understanding God’s will and plan.

We make great strides in lifting the poor and reengaging the forgotten. Eventually we return to our complacency and our childish squabbles. We argue who among us is the prettiest and the greatest. We fashion idols out of created things. We amass obscene wealth and mark off arbitrary territory and play with expensive toys while we misuse and exploit earth’s gifts and neglect the care of our natural resources. We shut our eyes and ears to the cries of hunger and suffering around us. And on those rare occasions when we might stop to consider what God might want of us, we give more importance to the bottom line than the establishment of the kingdom in our midst. Then we spend whatever is left of our time watching cat videos and arguing with strangers on social media.

In the matter of our common life whether among members of secular society or among the community of believers, Jesus encourages us to live in harmony and strive for mutual cooperation and shared responsibility. The gift of reason bestowed upon each person can be either a useful tool or a dangerous weapon, so we must wield it with care. Sometimes our ideas and words and behaviors have limited reach. Sometimes they can affect or influence many. In every case, we need to seek God’s will above all.

We need to desire what God desires for our own benefit, that of our neighbor, and that of the world around us. Surely God has given us the ability and means to discern his will. We have the wisdom and example of Jesus Christ to guide us along life’s journey. And God has given us guardians and leaders to help us stay attentive and to meet each day’s challenge to keep faith and extend compassion to our neighbor.

And there will be other forces, some familiar and seemingly harmless, some dark and powerful, that will seek to confuse and deceive us, to sway our minds and hearts away from God and his eternal law, away from our adoption as God’s daughters and sons, away from our discipleship as followers of the crucified and risen Jesus, away from our neighbor’s good, away from truth and decency and moral behavior to feed on our fears, our resentments, our selfishness, and our lack of trust.

In the end, we are still accountable to God for our choice of the higher priority—our personal freedom or the good of our neighbor. It is your business and your business alone. Just make sure you can defend it when you stand before his judgment seat.

Rolo B Castillo © 2020