NINETEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – YEAR B
Bishop Sheen once devoted several television broadcasts to the subject of temptation. In the third of the series he addressed people who wrestle with compulsions of various sorts. “You can never, never drive out a compulsion,” Sheen said, “You must crowd it out.” That is, you must fill yourself, your soul with something good and honorable. Then there will simply be no more room for the compulsion.
Sheen’s theory is fascinating; and the people whom we meet in the Scriptures today show us how it works. They find themselves under the thrall of different obsessions more than compulsions that they shake off only when someone offers them something that will crowd them out.
Let’s start with St. Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians that they have to rid themselves of certain compulsions and obsessions before they can be mature in their discipleship. “All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you along with malice.” Paul recommends that they crowd those bad habits out with their opposing virtues. “Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.” Paul had earlier found himself consumed with fury against Jesus’ followers to the point that he actively persecuted all who followed the way, as he called it. What rid him of that anger, hatred, and desire to do harm was nothing less than the love of Jesus revealed to him on the road to Damascus. Once Saul the persecutor had seen Jesus, heard him speak, there was no longer room in his heart for anything but love for Christ and a desire to preach him. So great was the change that he even changed his name to Paul.
Let’s go back for a moment to our first reading where Elijah has collapsed under a tree while on pilgrimage to Mt. Horeb. The prophet has won a contest with the prophets of the false god, Baal. But Queen Jezebel has vowed to kill Elijah in revenge. So, Elijah finds himself obsessed with thoughts of failure, weariness, with frustration, with the temptation to believe that his life has been a waste, and – if truth be told – with anger at God. So badly depressed is the prophet that he wants to die. “This is enough, O Lord! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
God hears the prophet’s distress, and He responds by sending an angel to point out to Elijah how to crowd out his inner demons. The angel brings along a rescue kit consisting of a jug of water and a hearth cake. “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you,” he urges. He has to repeat the process, but in the end it works. “Strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.”
In the Gospel today Jesus’ listeners suffer from the compulsion to murmur that has its roots in familiarity and destructive nostalgia. Having known Jesus and his family, the people cannot take his words seriously. “Do we not know his father and mother? Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven?'” And left over from the passage we heard last Sunday is the obsession about how the manna of the Exodus was the last word in God’s goodness to his people.
As a remedy Jesus suggests attention to God’s grace that can draw people to him, even the most unlikely people such as the woman who for years authored a blog promoting atheism until a few weeks ago when she announced that she is about to be received into the Catholic Church because, as she said, “It offers the only credible explanation of why we exist. Grace can crowd out sin, compulsion, despair, from even the hardest of hearts.
Secondly Jesus begins to suggest the premier remedy, his own Eucharistic self. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
A few days ago, we celebrated the feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, the Jewish convert Edith Stein. Edith’s conversion began when she read a friend’s copy of one of St. Teresa of Avila’s writings. “This is the truth,” Edith thought to herself. But she was not ready to take the definitive step of asking to be baptized until she had spent hours praying before the Blessed Sacrament. The unbelief in her soul had to be crowded out by the Eucharistic presence of Jesus and her hunger for the bread of life.
We need to throw off many compulsions and we pray to be free from a host of obsessions. Let me mention only two – both of them already touched upon. They are an unwillingness or inability to listen to other people and formulate a thoughtful and respectful response. Unfortunately, this compulsion is eating away at our life as a Church and the political life of our nation, just as it poisons our personal relationships.
The second is the compulsion to doubt that we can ultimately, really make a difference, to suspect that it is a waste of time and effort.
Remedies for both of those compulsions are to be found here at our weekly Eucharist. The stance of prayerful listening that we bring to the proclamation of the Scriptures disposes us to listen to our neighbors and family members when we leave church. Gradually it crowds out the compulsion to angry, in-your-face discourse. The stories that we hear of prophets and apostles, of conversions and healings, of the Spirit renewing the face of the earth crowd out cynicism.
Finally, we meet here in our assembly an angel who touches us and points to an unleavened wafer and cup of wine, telling us to eat and drink else the journey will be too much for us. And even before our eyes the angel becomes transfigured in heavenly glory as he proclaims, “I am the bread of life that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.”