Why is there this viral pandemic? Why are there still all these shut downs – people having to wear masks, people losing their jobs, all the things that are causing our world to feel upside down from this virus? Why is there rioting, looting . . . all this anger and division? Why is there racism, discrimination and acts of injustice? Why are police officers being maligned and attacked? Why is there such widespread anxiety and fear?
Hi everyone here’s my homily for the 16th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – JULY 19, 2020. Thanks so much for stopping by to read this and even more for sharing it on your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and everywhere else people share social media posts and your feedback and comments! For the audio version you can get them at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. Thanks again… I hope you and yours experience all of God’s blessings today and always! In Christ – Father Jim
The question of “the problem of evil” – if God is so good, so loving, why does he allow bad things to happen is an interesting debate that theologians and philosophers love to engage, argue, challenge each other with. But when we’re not talking about evil things on a theoretical, hypothetical level, but experiencing them… when we see them on a very widespread level, when we can add our own personal items to that already lengthy list it loses some of it’s interesting qualities. It has the potential to undermine our faith. In fact, one of the main reasons people cite for doubting God’s existence – is specifically these issues, these questions.
Which is why even though this parable isn’t as popular or memorable as some of Jesus’ others like the Good Samaritan, or the Prodigal Son – in some ways this parable is one of the most important ones for us to reflect on. Because Jesus encapsulates all of our “Why do bad things happen” in the question the servants address to the owner of the fields when they ask – Why are there weeds in your garden?
There’s something comforting and frustrating at the same time as we reflect on this, which is why it’s probably not as memorable and popular a parable.
The comforting thing is that we hear Jesus’ acknowledging that all is not right. Quite clearly Jesus identifies there is evil in the world – that the devil is real… that this enemy does look for all kinds of ways and opportunities to continue to cause people to turn away from God and turn on one another. It’s reassuring to our longing for justice to hear Jesus not mince words in explaining that at the end of time, all sin, all evil doers will be dealt with as He explicitly talks of the realities of Heaven and Hell. The frustration comes with the followup questions of why – questions that aren’t ever fully, adequately addressed: Why does evil exist? Why doesn’t God take care of it now? Why does He allow it to still afflict and affect others…. Why does God allow this? Why are there weeds in your garden?
It’s not until I found myself going through this litany of questions… asking why this, why that – where I heard the Lord’s voice speaking in my heart asking “well, why do you allow it?” And not in some heady social-justice manner of thinking where I can philosophically look at the problems of the world and imagine I have the answers and I just need to convince other people they are wrong. But rather, on a much more personal level – why are there weeds in my garden? Why am I not vigilant of outside, negative influences that sow fear, and anger, and hatred in my heart? Why do I look for happiness and satisfaction in ways other than how God calls me too? Why do I give into selfishness and self centeredness? Why do I allow weeds in my own garden?
I don’t have a good answer for that. There are the sins that I commit that at the time I’m doing it I know it’s wrong and I don’t care – I’m just giving into the anger of the moment. For example, a few weeks ago, this guy is texting on his phone, smoking his cigarette and almost plows his car into me as I’m jogging (already frustrated that the gyms are closed and I have to run outdoors). I knew the anger in my heart on my lips and action were wrong, but in that moment my brain overruled my heart saying well he was wrong . . . so two wrongs . . . they don’t make a right but in that moment I kind of felt they cancelled each other out. That’s on me and I knew it a few minutes later when I realized “that was stupid… thank God you didn’t get hit, thank God there wasn’t an accident.” Those sins are somewhat easy to identify and repent of and hopefully learn from.
But I think of other things, other times when that self-awareness wasn’t so immediate. For example, over 14 years ago I was still assigned to my first priestly assignment at Our Lady of Lourdes in West Orange as a “parochial vicar.” That year, the decision was made to close the school. At the time, I saw things very black and white, Fr. Petrillo, the pastor, and I fought publicly and privately about it. I felt I was right fighting to keep our school open – But I also recognize now that I had anger in my heart about it, that I was arrogant, that I was uncharitable, that I sure as heck wasn’t praying about it. At the time I felt completely justified in my actions. Didn’t even register until years later my own responsibility in making this incredibly painful chapter in this parish’s history that much harder, the added tension that brought to the parish… it was another factor in my almost leaving the priesthood. I can’t explain where or when or why what started out as trying to fight for something that I believed was just, like wanting to help save this school turned into something that I see now got twisted and sinful. Why I allowed those weeds in my garden.
Which brings us back to the Gospel and this parable: Thank God, God is patient. He is loving. He is merciful. That’s the good news of this Gospel. That Jesus sees the potential within each of us to be a weed or abundant fruit… and keeps giving another chance, keeps waiting, He keeps reaching out to us to be mindful of His message – telling us in those closing words of today’s Gospel whoever has ears ought to hear. Because even when we’ve made a mess of things, even when our sins have caused a mess in our lives and hurt others, He is able to create something new. We are always just one confession away from being wiped completely clean and able to start afresh. When I left that parish 14 years ago I thought I was leaving the priesthood, I never imagined I’d be back there celebrating Mass every weekend, I never imagined Fr. Petrillo and I would reconcile and be able to talk and forgive each other – which I was so grateful happened months before his unexpected death. God was able to work a tremendous amount of healing on a lot of levels. I’m grateful for His gardening skills which turns out infinitely better than mine.
There’s so much that’s really messed up in our world right now. The Catholic in me knows I’m not supposed to be superstitious but the Italian in me says “don’t say it can’t get worse.” For example, the other night a friend shared this article about all the sex abuse scandals surrounding our former archbishop Theodore McCarrick from the NY Times and all my personal anger, and hurt and anger and discouragement and disillusionment and did I say anger came right back. I found myself lost in my own questions of why this happened, why it wasn’t excised, why the Lord didn’t protect His Church from it, His CHILDREN from it – why He allowed those weeds in His garden. When I started questioning God it’s then that I knew to stop. That’s not to say to excuse or ignore or dismiss any of these evils whether we find them in the Church, in society or in the world. We have a responsibility to call out the evil that we see in our midst. But before I let it completely unsettle me and going down unproductive rabbit holes where I start making judgments and suggestions to the Lord on how things ought to be, its then that I know I need to stop… And simply to come back to being grateful for example that that guy didn’t plow me down with his car… knowing that the Lord has given me more time myself – to be attentive to my own weeds in my own garden. And maybe that’s the Lord’s hope, His plan – how much better the entirety of His garden would look if we all were to do the same?