Homily for the fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Today’s readings are not for the conflict-averse. Today’s world is not for the conflict-averse, either. Within our communities and families, we experience conflict over vaccines and politics. Irresponsible political and media actors seem intent on increasing racial conflict. In the Ukraine, armed conflict threatens. But, as even the Bible demonstrates, the world has never been a conflict-free zone.
Conflict is a part of the human reality Jesus entered into. Conflict is not always bad, either. Political conflicts between big states and small states produced the checks-and-balances of the American Constitution. Theological conflict has led to doctrines that give us deeper insight into the nature of God. We wouldn’t have a Creed if there hadn’t first been disagreements about the Trinity. The fact that sometimes we disagree doesn’t make us bad Christians.
But conflict is like fire—a powerful source of energy, elemental for human progress—but destructive when it gets out of hand. We’ve been reading Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians over the past several weeks, a letter provoked by division within the Corinthian community—specifically, jealousy over who had the best spiritual gifts. Paul reminds the Corinthians that the Church is one body, guided by one Spirit, with many parts and many gifts. One way to prevent conflict from becoming a forest fire is to rejoice in the gifts of others. This helps us keep our eye on the common good of the whole body, not just our own personal turf.
Today the letter to the Corinthians continues, and we add the examples of Jeremiah and Jesus. Putting all these examples together, leads to a fundamental rule for fire-management. We must never allow our human disagreements to weaken our commitment to either truth or love.
Let’s look at each example. The first reading is about Jeremiah’s vocation, his mission as a prophet. If you know anything about the biography of Jeremiah, you know that he didn’t begin his prophecy by saying, “I’ve got good news and bad news.” Jeremiah says, “I’ve got bad news, and more bad news.” Jeremiah did get to the good news eventually, but it was of news of a hope that would unfold generations in the future. In the short term, Jeremiah’s message to the kings and princes of Judah was that they would soon be overwhelmed by the Babylonian Empire; if they didn’t give in to the Babylonians’ demands, he warned, Jerusalem would be destroyed. This was not a message Jerusalem’s leaders wanted to hear, so they paid other prophets to deliver a more optimistic message. Those prophets died, the Babylonians came, Jerusalem was reduced to rubble, and those few who survived were sent into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah was a prophet of gloom, but he spoke the truth. It was a truth nobody wanted to hear, which is why God promises him in today’s reading, I will make you “a pillar of iron, a wall of brass […] against Judah’s kings and princes, against its priests and people.”
Jeremiah needed to have iron determination to remain faithful to a message that was unpopular, but true. But because that message was true, it was—perhaps surprisingly—more loving than the cotton candy has opponents were offering. Because the leaders of Jerusalem chose “their own truth,” as people say today, instead of the reality Jeremiah preached, they turned a crisis into a catastrophe. Even though it would have required sacrifices, Jeremiah’s message would have spared Jerusalem from destruction.
In the Gospel, Jesus too speaks a truth about who he is—that he is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies; he is the long-long-term hope that Jeremiah offered. In this case, it’s a message of hope fulfilled, but it’s still a message people don’t want to hear. Perhaps they’ve gotten used to the way things are. We can get used to pessimism as surely as we get used to cheap optimism, and sometimes fear can be as addictive as opioids and as difficult to let go of. In any case, the people of Nazareth are not prepared to believe that a carpenter’s son is the Messiah. Jesus does not do anything to deescalate the situation, and ends up being chased out of town. Again, denying or hiding his identity as Messiah would not have been true and it would have denied the love God was offering.
Today’s installment from first Corinthians is one you’ve probably heard at weddings. Most couples who pick this passage, however, don’t realize that Paul wrote these words about love in response to the Corinthians’ in-fighting. After the parts of his response we’ve already seen—one Spirit, many gifts; one body, many parts—here he sums it all up, quite eloquently, by saying it doesn’t matter what gifts you have; if you don’t have love, you’re lost. The background of the reading explains why Paul emphasizes love’s kindness and patience instead of jealousy and self-interestedness. He finishes by saying that love “rejoices with the truth.” Since the truth is objective, it belongs to all of us; truth is a common good. Imagining that we can love without the truth is co-dependency. The truth without love is know-it-all-ism or just data. The most perfect expression of both truth and love is one and the same, Jesus Christ. He holds truth and love together in our conflicted world. Doing so, I think, is what we mean by Christian integrity. And integrity is the word I want to leave you with this morning, as the key to salvation in a conflicted and fragmented world in which we’re pulled in many different directions and many of us are pulled apart. Integrity means possessing the strength of Jeremiah’s pillar of iron and wall of brass, without clanging like a gong or a clashing cymbal. It means refusing to divide the truth from love. No small task, loving truly and truly loving. As Paul would tell us, doing so is the still more excellent way and the greatest gift.
Readings: Jer 1:4-5, 17-19; 1 Cor 12:31-13:13; Lk 4:21-30
St. Isaac Jogues, Rapid City
January 30, 2022