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Saturday, 11 June 2016

Homily for 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, By Fr Munachi E. Ezeogu, CSSp

Zechariah 12:10-11, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 9:18-22

On the Gospel, The Challenge of Faith

Among the fables of Aesop is one entitled The Hunter and the Woodman. A Hunter was searching for the tracks of a Lion. He asked a man felling oaks in the forest if he had seen any marks of the lion’s footsteps or knew where his lair was. “Oh yes,” said the Woodman, “I will take you to the Lion himself.” The Hunter turned pale from fear and stuttered, “No, thanks. I did not ask that; it is only his track that I am looking for, not the Lion himself.” In our dealings with God and with one another we are often like this hunter. We profess that we stand for something but when the full implication of what we profess stare us in the face we draw back.

This is what we see in today’s gospel story. Peter, speaking for himself and for the disciples, rightly confesses his faith in Jesus as the long-expected Messiah. When Jesus reveals to him and the disciples the implications of his being the Messiah they begin to draw back. By confessing Jesus as the Messiah the disciples show that they have gone above the level of the “people” who take Jesus to be nothing more than a prophet. Jesus then proceeds to tell them the implications of what they had just said: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Luke 9:22).

Now, the disciples are not ready for this. They are looking for the footprints of the lion and Jesus offers to take them face to face with the lion. They begin to withdraw. This withdrawing is more dramatic in the gospel of Matthew where Peter takes Jesus aside and tries to talk him out of the suffering and death he was destined to undergo. But Jesus would shun him and dub him Satan for seeing things from the purely human rather than from God’s point of view.

Luke’s version of the story which we read today focuses on the disciples as a whole and not particularly on Peter. This might explain why it does not include the dialogue and the incident between Jesus and Peter after Peter had made the all-important confession. Rather Luke shows the disciples pulling back from Jesus at his arrest, suffering and death, which shows that they do not understand the implication of the faith they profess in Jesus as the Messiah.

Peter and the disciples are to be commended for the courage to think for themselves. Jesus shows that he expects his followers to think for themselves when he asks them first, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (verse 18), and then the all-important question: “But who do you say that I am?” (verse 20). The disciples must inform themselves on what the current thinking is on any given issue. One can achieve that by reading books, listening to the radio, watching the television and surfing the internet. Over and above that, disciples must then, in light of Christian faith and revelation, make up their minds on the issue. Christians must not allow themselves to internalise the voice of the “people” such that the voice of the “people” becomes the voice of their conscience. 

This is what Paul is telling us in Romans 12:2 “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” As people of faith Jesus asks us to know what “people” around us are thinking, but not necessary to endorse what they are thinking. Like the prophets of old, faithfulness to God demands that we follow the voice of God within us, which we call conscience, rather than popular opinion.

Nevertheless, discerning what God is saying to us is only the first part of our challenge as Christians. The second and even more deciding part is following in practical life the implications of what God is saying to us. This is the crucial moment. This is facing up to the lion – the lion that must be confronted before justice and peace can prevail. Anything short of this and we are like the hunter searching for the lion trail and not the lion himself. Such a hunter achieves nothing at the end of the day. Soon we shall all be invited, like the disciples, to proclaim our faith in Christ. Let us promise God that we shall not pull back when the implications and challenges of faith dawn on us in our day-to-day lives.

On the Epistle, No Longer Jew or Greek, Slave or Free, Male or Female

“Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has created me a human and not beast, a man and not a woman, an Israelite and not a gentile, circumcised and not uncircumcised, free and not slave.”

This is part of an old Jewish prayer dating back to about the time of St Paul that was discovered in the Cairo Genizah. Still today observant Jewish men recite a daily prayer thanking God for not making them a gentile, a slave or a woman. Before his conversion to the Christian faith, Paul, then known as Saul, recited this prayer with holy pride. After his conversion, however, he reversed it. In today’s second reading to the Galatians he writes:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

The greatness of Paul lies in his readiness to abandon his old belief, even those that were so dear to him, when his newfound faith in Christ so demanded.

As a Jew, the question of those who were children of God and those who were not, those inside and those outside, was very important to Paul. The traditional answer which he learnt from childhood is that the Jews, the children of Abraham, were the people of God. People of other nations, the Gentiles, belong outside of God’s family. In addition, among those inside, some are more equal than others. Men, for example, had special privileges and advantages over women. In the temple worship men worshiped in an inner circle while women occupied the outer circle. But when he came to Christ, Paul realized that the ethnic privileges which the Jews believed they had over the Gentiles, and the gender advantages which men believed they had over women were not part of God’s will and design. He came to realize that in Christ “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). As a Jew he believed that only the offspring of Abraham were heirs of the promise. But now he comes to realize that “if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise”(verse 29).

2,000 years after Paul, many Christians still do not believe that all nations and cultures are equal before God. Many still believe in racial and cultural superiority. Paul challenges us today to step up and allow our faith to shape our ideology. There are many who still believe that people of a lower economic and social class (“slaves”) should continue to be servants even in God’s house. They are to be seen but not heard, to follow but not lead. For those of us who still believe that we are entitled to some special privileges on account of the blood that flows in our veins, or the rung of the social ladder we occupy, Paul’s gospel today challenges us to abandon these ways of thinking, vestiges of a non-Christian past, and step up to the demands of our new faith in Christ.

One aspect of Paul’s teaching that is crucial for the church in our times is that of gender equality. Paul says that in Christ “there is no longer male and female” (verse 28). What does he mean? This question arises because elsewhere we see Paul making rules that apply to women alone and not to men. In 1 Corinthians, for example he instructs women to cover their hair (11:2-16) and forbids them to speak in church (14:34-35). Why would he make these special rules for women after he has told us that “there is no longer male and female?” (Galatians 3:28). Scholars have observed that Paul’s statement on the equality of women and men and his rules for women do not have the same weight. Paul’s statement on the equality of women and men before God belong to the area of faith or Christian principle. His rules to women belong to the area of custom or practical implementation. Custom changes but faith does not. Church custom seeks always to reflect our faith, but never full succeeds. Custom always needs to be updated. Let us today ask the Holy Spirit who leads the church into the fullness of the truth to enlighten our church to a better understanding of other cultures and of women, and to give us the courage to put this equality into practice.

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