About 12 years ago, while serving as a chaplain in Illinois for a few weeks for a group of a couple of hundred recent college graduates, I had what I’ll call a delayed reaction of being insulted. I was introduced – this is Father Jim Chern, he’s the Chaplain and Director of the Newman Catholic Center at Montclair State University in New Jersey and the kids smiled and all and that was it. That wasn’t the problem. A few days later, they introduced a priest from Nebraska, and someone yelled out, “GO BIG RED” and a whole bunch of people started chanting stuff about Nebraska. The next day, the leaders welcomed another guest from Virginia, and people started hooting and hollering about that fact. So, my Jersey pride was taking a hit. I started to ask why there weren’t cheers and excitement over the fact that I was from New Jersey. It didn’t take long for the jokes to start flying – yeah, Father, we knew you were from Jersey the minute we met you; your accent gave you away – what accent? You must be a terrible driver; everyone from New Jersey is a terrible driver. Have you met Bruce Springsteen? You don’t know how to pump your own gas, do you?
Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 1, 2023. I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim
Being born and raised and lived my whole life here in New Jersey (apart from 4 years in college when I crossed the border into Pennsylvania), I was surprised how much Jersey pride I had and my reactions to all these stereotypes about this place we call home. Some not only didn’t I take offense over but helped give credence to – like when I excitedly explained with pride how the Sopranos was filmed practically in our neighborhood. Some I might get defensive like when I snapped, I’m not an idiot, I know how to pump gas, we’re not allowed to because it’s illegal, and I don’t know why. Some were true that I hated to admit, like – maybe we can be very frank, and that can be rude, like when I snap about the whole gas thing.
Stereotypes can be interesting. Sometimes, we appeal to them – like when I’m loud, talking with my hands, get emotional, and I say, “I can’t help it, I’m Italian.” There can be truth in these oftentimes over-simplified generalizations. But if we’re not careful, it can be really dangerous and problematic. Like when they give life to one being dismissive to a person, or even a whole group of people judging based on externals and determining their worth, their value. We see that in hateful extremes like racism. We hear it in the divisive rhetoric of political differences that are crippling and meaningful discourse in our country.
These kinds of attitudes can affect a person’s spiritual life and perspectives too. Where we write someone off as being damned because they’re not Catholic, or believe that we’re all good because we are. Today’s scriptures are all about confronting those thoughts.
In the first Reading, the prophet Ezekiel is speaking God’s words to the people of God. Maybe because so much of their call and identity came from being a part of this larger group – because God had entered into a covenant with a people whom He had called His own – they had developed this messed up mentality. Where personal responsibility wasn’t considered, but rather everything rose and fell based on what the overall group had done. So, in this particular instance – they had come to believe that now, because their parents, their parents parents, multiple generations had sinned, they were being punished for it. In part, there was truth in that. Things were not good at all for the people of God. The temple – which for the Jews was the holiest of places on earth, first experienced the “glory of the Lord” departing – where God’s very presence left the building… eventually, the temple was destroyed, the city of Jerusalem was conquered, and the Jews were exiled. The people Ezekiel was prophesying to would blame their families, their relatives, and their people, saying, ‘it’s not our fault – it’s their sins that have caused all of this.’ When Ezekiel comes on the scene and tells them to stop blaming others, to take personal responsibility for their situation, and, in short, to repent of their sin and return to God, they complain. That’s what we heard it in the opening words of that scripture reading: “You say, ‘The Lord’s way is not fair!’”
It was true – the temple was gone, they had been exiled. Those realities resulted from repeated sinfulness on the part of God’s people for some time – Even after other prophets had warned them to turn away from sin and return to God. Still, now that these awful things had happened, it’s like the people had decided to accept their misery and embrace the awfulness of the situation. Saying about themselves There’s nothing we can do, we’re cursed, we’re doomed because of who we are, what our parents did, so we might as well accept it as our lot in life. With that acceptance, they used it as an excuse not to stop sinning. Yes, the temple was gone, and the proper worship God called them to was no longer possible. The sins of the previous generations did have consequences, and some people who might have had nothing to do with that might feel the effects of those bad choices. But the prophet was saying God has not abandoned you. Hope is not lost. You don’t have to keep living like this. Too many of them were acting childish and immature – since we don’t have a temple, we don’t have Jerusalem, we don’t have what we had any more, what’s the point? Living in a tit-for-tat existence – not realizing that their brokenness and shame were getting worse and worse the further they remained obstinate.
The prophet was calling them to break the cycle. He was saying you don’t have to remain lost. You don’t have to remain in exile. There are things that you can do. You’re from a sinful family, a sinful nation – well, how about you stop sinning? How about you turn back to the Lord?
That’s what the psalm was all about today. When we sang “Remember your mercies O Lord” it’s not like God had amnesia and forgotten. It was a song of a people who had been estranged from God and who recognized their sins. But now, after hearing the voice of the Lord, they were experiencing conversion of heart. And they weren’t resisting out of pride any longer. And they weren’t afraid of God either. They were remembering His great mercy. They were trusting in Him, who would meet them in their humility.
Centuries later, this is something similar that Jesus dealt with in this parable. There was so much stereotyping where the chief priests, Pharisees, had this sense that they were in the right group, pedigree, and membership. At the same time, tax collectors and prostitutes were clearly not. And those attitudes had gotten to the point that the Pharisees believed they could do no wrong and that the tax collectors and prostitutes could do no right.
To be clear, lest we start doing the same thing they did – Being a Pharisee wasn’t a bad thing. And many virtuous Pharisees integrated their study of scripture into how they lived their daily lives. And being a tax collector and a prostitute were not good things. A tax collector was a Jewish man who had collaborated with the enemy Roman forces who had occupied their homeland and not only would collect unjust taxes from their fellow Jews but could even charge extra for himself. So, there was a reason they were excommunicated and seen as traitors. Being a prostitute, where sex was treated simply as pleasure and a commodity that could be sold, was equally sinful.
But what Jesus is highlighting is too often, people would allow themselves to be stuck in those “stereotypes.” That Pharisee thinking that simply being a pharisee meant he was good to go; Tax Collector and Prostitute- you’re doomed… whenever we accept that narrative, the devil is having a field day to the one group presuming God’s favor; to the other where they give into hopelessness. That’s not from God; those are lies straight out of the bowels of hell. Our stories are not determined by whatever classification we find ourselves in. And to emphasize that point, Jesus noted how some tax collectors and prostitutes heard the prophetic words spoken by John the Baptist and made a sincere repentance, meaning leaving that life behind and turning towards God. Some Pharisees still rejected them despite that conversion of heart. Missing at the heart of scriptures how often God had emphasized what He desired was a “humble, contrite heart.” Demonstrating that they were no longer studying and integrating the words of God but had started to act like God themselves.
The way to break group-think mentality and the acceptance of stereotyping occurs when one person breaks out of those preconceived patterns. I found that personally on one of my trips out to Illinois, when I had stopped at a Mcdonald’s for a quick bite to eat, and while on line, this lady in front of me turned around and said, “Hi, How are you doing today?” I immediately turned around, thinking, “Who’s she talking to?” and then sheepishly turned back, saying, “Fine,” as my mind was already thinking, “What does this woman want? Why is she talking to me?” It wasn’t till I walked back to my car that it hit me: “idiot, she was simply being nice… it’s something people outside of NJ do.” That stayed with me. How often do I give into some stupid stereo types about where I’m from myself? I’m also happy to learn from having kids from around the country who ended up at Montclair share how their deepest fears and the craziest of warnings that they had received about coming to NJ couldn’t have been further from the truth of their experiences.
Those things pale compared to what God is trying to tell us about our eternal identities. He’s clarifying that being baptized, confirmed, and receiving our first communion isn’t guaranteeing our reservations in heaven. God’s not impressed because we come from the most devout of families any more than He’s not put off by our having not been raised in any faith.
He’s our loving Father. He’s made each and every one of us and knows us better than we know ourselves. In one of my favorite scriptures from the Old Testament, the prophet Samuel, when sent by God to find the King of Israel he had picked from the sons of a man named Jesse, is introduced to 8 different men. He sees the ones the father thinks it must be: the oldest, the one he considers the smartest, the bravest, or the most creative. And as Samuel looks at all of them, God’s made it clear – nope, none of these guys. Samuel’s perplexed and says, “I know I’m in the right place – but it’s none of these guys – is this all of your sons?” And Jesse’s like, “Well, there’s the youngest who’s out in the field shepherding sheep… My son David.” Jesse had determined there was no way it could be David. Jesse, his own Father, thought he knew David, yet that was, in fact, the one whom God had chosen. And while the others might have been shocked, surprised, frustrated because of their judgments of God, their evaluations of each other, their expectations of what was called for to be a King, God had already expressed he wasn’t interested in any of those things. Telling Samuel He Himself would pick the future king – with the condition spelled out in a verse that is a favorite of mine from scripture:
“Not as man sees does God see,
because he sees the appearance
but the LORD looks into the heart.”
Thank God, He sees past the surface. Thank God, He sees past the outward appearances, past the Gabadost, the hard heads, and looks into the heart… that He sees the heart. He knows us and loves us. And He sees the complexity of who we are, the totality of who we are…
That’s what Ezekiel was telling his fellow Jews in the first Reading. That’s what Jesus is saying in the Gospel. God has never given up on us. None of the externals that people so often get hung up on, not even the worst of our sins and failures from the past, have to determine our present and future. If we hear His voice, remember his great mercy and turn to Him.