TWENTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – YEAR C
The 50th Anniversary of Woodstock this past week occasioned an outpouring of nostalgia for that massive gathering of young people. There was a strong emphasis on how, in the face of drenching rain and primitive conditions, participants reached out to one another in cooperation and mutual assistance. What was rarely mentioned was the fact that, at the time of Woodstock, our nation was all but torn apart by conflict. The Viet-Nam War was the flashpoint for demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, arrests, imprisonments, and – as happened at Kent State University – even the loss of human life. At the heart of the conflict lay profoundly important questions about morality and national policy, much of it mixed in with religious convictions. In that respect, America in 1969 was not so far different from America in 2019.
The liturgy today raises questions about conflict, especially conflict that grows out of the interaction of religious convictions and politics, about how disciples of Jesus should react to critical voices in the public square, coexist with people with whom we disagree, and access the resources of our religious tradition to promote civil discourse and the common good.
The first thing that the Scriptures teach us is that conflict is unavoidable. Yes, it would be wonderful to live in the Age of Aquarius, a society of Flower People and revelers at Woodstock; but that is simply an illusion, a pipe-dream. We live as the playwright, Arthur Miller, once remarked, “After the Fall.” Original sin makes conflict inevitable; and if we profess values that run counter to popular culture or that challenge prevailing ideologies, be they the right to abortion on demand or the perceived threat from migrants, conflict can be extremely bitter. Jesus today declares, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” If we Catholics simply blend in to the society in which we find ourselves and never encounter opposition, we run the risk of betraying the Gospel.
That being said, how do we conduct ourselves in such conflict? The first warning that the liturgy gives is to avoid impugning or questioning the motives of those with whom we disagree. Jeremiah delivered a message that outraged the power structure of Jerusalem. So, the princes sought to get him condemned to death by accusing him of bad faith. “He is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin.” The fact of the matter is that Jeremiah cared very deeply about the welfare of the holy city and its people, cared enough to put his life at risk by delivering a warning about the future.
Secondly, we must give a fair hearing to people who challenge us. The political and religious leaders were not really listening to Jeremiah’s message. The prophet was not saying that this city will surely be destroyed, but that, if you do not turn away from your injustice, your violence, your greed, your idolatry, your indifference to the poor, this city cannot survive. We need to listen to what other voices are actually saying, especially when their message is critical or challenging, or unwelcome, because those voices just might be telling us something that is vital for our welfare. Catholics once again find ourselves listening to voices that are telling dark and disturbing truths about clerical sexual abuse. It is extremely painful to hear the stories that they are relating; but we can never repent, heal and move forward unless we are willing to listen, as difficult as that may be.
Jesus was not afraid to speak strong words when he believed they were called for. For example, hypocrisy was the one sin that seemed to outrage him the most; and he did not hesitate to call out the religious figures who engaged in it. But Jesus did not demonize other people. His manner of engaging his opponents was at once more subtle and more effective. He asked questions, “Whose image and inscription is this?” “Which of them proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell in among robbers?” He drew attention to what makes like one another, “Let the man among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her?” But mostly, Jesus told stories that challenged his hearers’ presuppositions and encouraged them to rethink their opinions. The parables are masterpieces of persuasion, as well as religious teaching.
Admittedly, we can grow frustrated when we feel that we are not being heard or understood. In those instances, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that we must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. “Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you might not grow weary and lose heart.” In the end, Jesus’ opponents believed that they had silenced him once and for all; but his most eloquent teaching was given from the Cross. And ever since then, the blood of the martyrs has been the seed of the Church.
The Psalms are chock full of complaints to God of being caught up in seemingly unresolvable conflict. And intractable conflict must, finally, be brought to God in prayer. So, today we pray with the Psalmist, “You are my help and my deliverer; O my God, hold not back.”