One of the most challenging things for me in my first weeks in college was taking a mandatory course, Introduction to Philosophy. Just hearing that area of study, “Philosophy” was intimidating. Add the fact that our professor was a Catholic Priest who was the head of the Philosophy department – that was strike two already going in on my first day. Quite shockingly, that first meeting, rather than simply handing out the syllabus, going through it, and dismissing us like practically every other class had done to this point, this professor actually ended up talking the entire hour session we met. Strolling around the room asking questions about what we knew about this field of study or thought the course was about. Up until that point, I didn’t know much about who Socrates was (although I did know it wasn’t pronounced “So – crates” as the fellow freshman next to me said in an answer that obviously was memorable 30 years later, so I felt I was at least in a little better position then he was). But that first hour, as Fr. O’Connor walked around and asked questions and would simply stop in front of a desk and look for an answer – you could tell he was a brilliant and dynamic professor. It also was one of the most bizarre experiences for me because truth be told I was never a great student. I had struggled and had to work pretty hard just to keep my head above water academically through high school and was pretty anxious starting out as a college student somewhat convinced I was going to fail. Yet at the same time, this first hour of one of my first college courses, I can only describe as feeling like my brain had been playing gymnastics for the entire hour. Despite my A.D.D. I was completely focused, and enthralled in the back and forth q & a and dialogue that went on for that hour – I knew that Fr. O’Connor would be one of my favorite professors then and there. He concluded by saying how exciting a journey this was going to be as he handed out our syllabus that laid out everything for the whole semester: all the assignments, papers, quizzes, exams, debates, critical-thinking exercises (which were basically having a mini-oral exam with Fr. O’Connor for about 5 minutes in front of the entire class, which was videotaped and you had to go back and review). And he laid out a “point” system for every single thing we were doing. So for a weekly quiz, would be 10 questions worth 10 points – a term paper 20 or 25 – midterm or final exams 35 or 40. And then he had a guide with the total points available for the entire semester and a breakdown of what translated into an A/ A- ; B/B- and so forth.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read this, my homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time -October 3, 2021, for sharing it on your 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
My eyes focused on what was the minimum I needed to get a “C.” Figuring that would be high enough to pass and do admirable enough that my parents would find it acceptable. It was tough. Those weekly assignments were challenging. I remember one of the times having to go up for that critical thinking exercises – one on one with Fr. O’Connor and his question to me “What would you say if I said that there is no God, that God didn’t exist” and blanking for a minute, trying to deflect with an easy laugh “well, for one thing, you’re in the wrong business for sure, FATHER.” But as the semester moved on, and the points were accumulating, I actually was doing pretty well. I looked forward to the class and Fr O’Connor really motivated me to study and work hard. When I survived the Mid-term and more than survive, I actually did pretty well on it that a “C” seemed to be a lock, I remember having a conversation with Fr. O’Connor where I explained my new sense of “freedom.” That I could pretty much coast through at that point till the end of the semester and get the “C” that I had anticipated and expected. And I remember he just chuckled at that and said “I didn’t know you were aiming so low, here I thought you wanted to be a philosopher, a true thinker.” I kind of shrugged it off at first saying “Father, I’m neither of those things” and he said, “could’ve fooled me.” It was a pivotal defining moment for me as an 18-year-old Freshman and completely changed my perspective from that point on… where I strived to do as best as I could rather than getting hung up on a particular grade.
How often do we sell ourselves short? Diminish ourselves? Tell ourselves how difficult something is in life to achieve. Allow ourselves to believe false narratives about our abilities – have these lies in our head about our potential that we yield to? Even speaking words of defeat where we think or say that it’s best not to get our hopes up or expect too much.
In some ways, that’s what is going on with the Pharisees in today’s back and forth with Jesus. Often times when this Gospel is proclaimed we can get laser-like focused on Jesus’ rejection of divorce. And this isn’t meant to discount the importance of what Jesus teaches on the importance of marriage and how divorce is something that God “hates” as He is described as saying from the mouth of the prophet Malachi (2:16). And you know what a majority of people who’ve suffered through a divorce hate it as well. They hate that it happened… They hate why it happened… They hate the hurt and pain and blame that comes from it. Knowing Jesus as I hope I do, the last thing I can imagine is that He’s using this as an opportunity to make divorced people feel worse about themselves and their situations.
This is why it’s good to get to the root of what this debate is all about. And that is: the difference between striving for holiness or simply asking what are the minimum requirements to appease God and keep in His good graces… what’s the least we need to do to “pass” the course of “life.” The key to this Gospel is to focus on what most troubles Jesus – the “hardness of ones heart” in response to God’s hopes, dreams and desires for each one of us.
The Pharisees had forgotten or ignored what was the importance, the ideal of marriage that we heard in beautifully poetic ways in the first reading from Genesis. That God created marriage as a way to demonstrate His desire for humanity never to suffer from aloneness. For us to see in the union of a man and a woman in becoming husband and wife a dynamic relationship of sacrifice and service to one another that is so powerful that the love they share allows them to participate in the divine work of creating life (a.k.a having children!) That’s hard work. That’s tough. You don’t have to believe the celibate priest saying this. Ask any couple whether they’re married a few months or decades – it’s a roller coaster of ups and downs that is hardly predictable. But as they remain faithful to each other and their covenant, as they recognize how Jesus is made real and visible through these imperfect people striving for holiness in this unique vocation – they experience new dimensions of love they could never have imagined on their wedding days.
The Pharisees in this instance though are trying to “test” Jesus as the Gospel puts it. In reality, they’re trying to embarrass Him and put Him in the midst of another debate that was going on at the time. John the Baptist had preached against divorce so if Jesus had agreed with the Pharisees with what was accepted as a norm at the time for Jews – that it was permissible, Jesus would’ve seemed to have agreed with John having been executed. If Jesus disagreed they thought they could say Jesus was rejecting Moses (another big “no no”). But these Jewish leaders don’t realize how twisted their understanding of what Moses had said had become. That Moses allowed in some cases for the health and safety of people, that they needed some protection that he said divorce was permitted – to this extreme of saying “Moses says it’s okay.” Permission doesn’t equal approval. But as they demonstrate with this one example, when people are suffering from the hardness of heart, things can go from bad to worse – and have even bigger difficulties at stake.
This is why this is more than just about marriage and divorce. What’s at the heart of this is that the Pharisees, the religious leaders of that day and age weren’t considering God’s plan as something to strive for – as something that needed to be nourished and encouraged and talk about how as a community they could support the husbands and wives in their covenant, how they could see the blessing of children as precisely that – a blessing. That they could be honest about how hard it is and try to help and support one another as a community striving to be attentive and obedient to God’s law and His vision. These religious authorities instead had accepted the premise – – the lie that “this isn’t possible for everybody.” They bought into the false narrative that said “we need to have a plan for if or rather when people fail” rather than “what can we do to help them avoid that painful situation?” The hardness of their hearts made them believe more in themselves than in God’s desire for us to strive for and for each of us to encourage and assist each other to go beyond what we imagined was ever possible for us.
How true is that in so many other things when it comes to our faith lives? Because we can easily swap out “divorce” for any number of things that people struggle with and hear and find how this idea of what’s the minimum we need to do affecting people in all sorts of ways. “Jesus is it lawful to miss Mass on Sunday?” Well, if your sick, obviously you’re not obligated to go to Mass – well how sick – if it’s COVID, well if it’s COVID you’re not allowed to look at anyone so, maybe that’s not a good example… if it’s the flu – you shouldn’t go… what if it’s bronchitis and you’re on an antibiotic so you’re not contagious? What if it’s just I’m physically exhausted from the week? -or – “Jesus is it permissible for me to talk about that person who really annoys me?” Uhm no… “what if it’s just venting to one friend so that I can get it off my chest to someone I trust?” “Jesus, how drunk is too drunk?” “Jesus, is it really cheating if everybody is doing it?”
Whatever the situation is, as human beings who are very much aware of our brokenness and weakness – especially as we’re living in a world that is hell-bent (literally and figuratively) on trying to remove God, His word, His law, His commands out of even consideration for people, let alone trying to help one another to remain responsive to the high calls of being Jesus disciple – we’re surrounded by our own modern-day Pharisees who are constantly looking for loopholes and proposing them as “good enough.” When we’ve accepted that as our premise, we’ve allowed the devil in to continue to sow doubt, encouraging us to “lighten up,” “just do the best you can” rather than pushing ourselves to strive for holiness.
Striving for holiness is difficult and every one of us will encounter failure along the way. That’s why this second part of the Gospel, which seems initially disconnected from the first is so important. It seems disjointed to go from this debate over divorce to a scene where the disciples getting annoyed with children they think are a distraction to Jesus and this important discussion that’s taking place. But the reason they’re coupled together like this is that it allows Jesus to highlight once again the importance of the roots of the debate and get us to go back to basics. Where He has talked about the importance of being “childlike.” One of the reasons Jesus is constantly highlighting the importance of children is not because children are sinless – most parents can explain how their not. But that children are more transparent, they’re more willing to ask for help – they’re more willing to admit that they’ve messed up. Children are (for good and bad) very attentive to what their parents say about them and allow their lives to be defined by that, try to live in response to that.
What does God say about us? That He knows everything about us – including the numbers of hairs we have on our head (as dwindling for some of us as those may be) (ps 139 & Matthew 10: 29-31); That every good gift we have, comes from His hand (James 1:17) That we are His cherished possession (Exodus 19: 5) That He knit us within our mother’s womb (ps 139); That if we seek Him with all of our hearts, we will find Him (Deuteronomy 4: 29). Those are all verses from the Old and New Testament and are only scratching the surface of what our Loving, Heavenly Father says to us… to you.
In light of that, this Gospel is more than about Jesus rejecting divorce and raising the dignity of children. Jesus is speaking of something of far greater importance for everyone of us. How responsive are we to this call to holiness? How does His love for us change our identity where we strive to live as God’s sons and daughters rather than treating Him as a professor whose class we are simply looking to pass?