Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Despite claiming to be law-abiding citizens while professing faith in God most merciful, we grow numb to the corrosive divisiveness and callous disregard for human dignity popping more frequently each day all across the country. Gun violence and police misconduct are top of the list right now. How do we resolve these contradictions in speech and behavior that claim to embrace and reject the same fundamental values? Is our patriotism incompatible with our faith? Is our faith a repudiation of our patriotism? Unthinkable although some believed not too long ago that Catholics can’t be true Americans. Our task lies in finding common ground. I know we can be both because each can draw the best from the other. We just need to reorder our priorities.
The choice we make to live peacefully under the rule of law presumes a basic regard for the dignity of our neighbor endowed with the same fundamental rights as ourselves regardless of the faith we profess, our gender, our disabilities, and all other preferences that define us. We should not casually dismiss our failure to acknowledge our neighbor’s dignity as easily as we fly off the handle when they fail to acknowledge ours. If we seek constantly to gain an advantage over our neighbor, we will certainly see an escalation of mistrust that feeds division and resentment. Yet we who claim a Christian faith cannot but interpret our role in secular society from a perspective other than our Christian discipleship.
Our scripture readings today seem to all support the same uncomfortable truth. If you long to make it big in the world, if you desire wealth and fame, if you hope to make an enduring mark on history so your name is recognized everywhere in any language and your praises are sung for generations to come, you’ve come to the wrong place. At least that’s not what we set out to do here or what we’re about. Yet perhaps safely tucked in this room is an amazing talent or two that the world just needs to discover. Who’s to say? Usually that spotlight shines brighter elsewhere. And there are experienced and competent experts out there eager to share their best advice and guide young talent, truly awesome and gifted individuals who have made it big in the world themselves, who have gained wealth and fame, whose names and faces are recognized everywhere in every language and whose praises are sung from one corner of the world to another. But most likely they won’t be sitting by you. Nor will they be walking through our doors any time soon. But google might know where to find them.
People often crave attention. But few truly deserve the highest acclaim. We might extend admiration, approval, and praise to show our love and support, with sincerity and enthusiasm of course, but rarely for witnessing true greatness. True greatness is by definition not as commonplace as mediocrity. We might not know how to describe it, but some people can tell. I say some people since a few really gifted souls unfortunately slipped notice in their day and have only come to light after they’d gone. Their genius unappreciated, these in western culture we say were born before their time—Vincent van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, Galileo, Edgar Alan Poe, El Greco, Franz Kafka, Oscar Wilde, Stieg Larson, Herman Melville, all but dismissed as irrelevant while they lived yet lauded for their genius only after death. But genuine excellence truly demands no recognition. The most underrated and underappreciated genius is God himself, and some are still unwilling to acknowledge his existence. But does God care? Exactly.
So when Jesus Christ came among us and shared our flawed nature, he decided to step into time before the invention of the printing press and social media and the 24-hour news cycle to make an appearance in an obscure middle eastern village under Roman rule on the seaward road in Galilee. Imagine a different scenario, God’s only begotten Son arriving in our time the much-anticipated offspring of highly acclaimed celebrity parents in some glitzy and glamorous center of worldly influence, power, and wealth. Would our political and religious leaders, or established experts in human wisdom and achievement, critics and the paparazzi be more receptive to him then? We can hope. But we’ll never really know.
And true to form, Jesus reveals to his listeners his working philosophy to frame and demonstrate his vision and mission for the immediate future. This same working philosophy frames and demonstrates his vision and mission for those who would come after him, the church upon whom he would send God’s Holy Spirit, on us who claim and proclaim him as our model and measure of Christian discipleship.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, the clean of heart, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those persecuted for the sake of righteousness, and you when insults and persecution and every evil and false utterance is thrown at you. Rejoice and be glad.” Not quite the alluring promise of popular acclaim and endless accolades. But what should we expect from one who courted controversy by preaching and extending the mercy of God to sinners and the undeserving while defying unjust and self-serving authority? If that was his attempt at irrelevance and obscurity, it only made him a bigger target.
But he exposed the difference between the excellence we crave and the excellence God demands. Lest we miss his point entirely, there is nothing inherently wrong with desiring exuberant applause and basking in the glare of celebrity. But Jesus presents a radical shift in measuring excellence, not in money, not in fame or fortune, but in God’s favor. Trouble is, we have only his alleged success to go by, unconvincing even to many of his followers. There on the cross he still hangs, defeated, diminished, dismissed by every standard that matters to those whose opinion and celebrity we respect and crave.
Yet as a nation we aim for the highest ideals. The preamble of the Constitution summaries it neatly. We aim to create a more perfect union, to establish justice, to insure domestic tranquility, to provide for the common defence, to promote the general welfare, and to secure the blessings of liberty. The greater our desire for that perfect union, the more should our fellow citizen’s good come ahead of our own. The way of the Beatitudes leads to irrelevance and obscurity by all human measure but achieves true excellence in God’s eyes. If we truly desire a more perfect union, securing our own rights first fails miserably to secure our neighbor’s, which in turn feeds division and resentment. Are we ready to try a different way?
Rolo B Castillo © 2023