Prophecy & evangelism in a traumatized world: a homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Preached on 09/10/23.

Introductory Reflection: Our readings today are a hodgepodge of strikingly different worldviews, brought to us as one. Jeremiah the doomsday prophet. Paul the hope-dealing politician. Matthew the Judean Evangelist. And Jesus the Exasperated. Didn’t expect that last descriptor did you? Listen, and see what you think. Whose voices stand out to you? What do you feel to be most true? What do you feel drawn to, and what creates discomfort for you? As you listen, allow yourself to notice which storyteller connects with you the most, and which the least. Or, if they all weigh the same. There are no wrong answers! No good or bad, just an exercise of honest self-reflection. In the homily, I’ll share some extra context behind each of the readings, and we’ll chat about what you noticed.

Readings: Jeremiah 22:13–16; Psalm 37; Romans 13:8–10; Matthew 17:14–27 (Catholic Comprehensive Lectionary)

Man Holding His Face by Craig Adderly, Pexels, CanvaPro

Homily: Reading the Bible is like being in a relationship, and though we are committed to the process and the person, it doesn’t make everything that’s said or heard right! When we engage the text, we need to think about who we are, what we value, how we process what we hear, and what we want from it. Let’s dive in.

Jeremiah writes as a Judean experiencing the trauma of political upheaval, subject to Babylonian rule and the tyrant King Nebuchadnezzer. When we hear his voice, we hear one who cries out for justice, but also one whose voice in his own lifetime was not heeded:

“Woe to those who build their house upon exploited labor, who build their upper rooms with injustice!” “Intercede for those who work hard, yet hardly eke out a life.”

Jeremiah’s words are a call to consciousness for all time. Tragically, they were not words his people wanted to hear. Though his angst rang with important observations, they only saw him as a problem. They beat him, threw him in a pit, and when he dared predict the fall of Jerusalem, the King of Judea exiled him to Egypt. After his exile, Jerusalem indeed fell to Babylon, and King Nebuchudnezzar destroyed the Temple of Solomon. I cannot bear to fathom the depth of despair and depression and loneliness that Jeremiah must have faced; yet, he did all he could do by speaking his truth — a truth that lives on thousands of years later.

Today, we have our own Babylonians, Judeans, tyrants, kings, and prophets. Which of their plights do we resonate with? Are we desperate to be heard? Desperate to quell the unpleasant truths that others bear witness to? Who is suffering and needs our attention? If Jeremiah is in our midst, how do we care for him as a community?

By contrast, Paul’s tone is hopeful. Scholars generally believe he wrote this letter around 57CE, twenty-some years after Jesus was crucified and thirteen years before Rome destroyed the second temple in Jerusalem. Paul isn’t writing as a prophet predicting doom. He is writing as one transformed by his encounter with Christ, traveling across cities and nations, energized by ideas of good governance and deliverance for first generation Christians. His letter outlines ideas of salvation that have become the foundation of organized Christianity and its politics. Paul wasn’t just making sense of theology, he was making it securely fit into an existing Roman world order. He has some messy ideas that have not been good to the long course of human history — like his insistence that rulers have divine right. Think about Jesus’ ideas of Caesar. Can you imagine Jesus and Jeremiah’s response to that? And, Paul is an important part of our canon. A voice in the patchwork.

All we hear today is a simple echoing of Jesus’s greatest commandment:

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to others. Therefore, love fulfills the law.

I would be happy if that was the full epistle, but he was going for a treatise, not a tweet. Paul was complicated, like us. We have great thinkers, community-builders, paradigm entrenchers, and hope-bearers among us today, too. Sadly, our Bible doesn’t reveal to us letters from the Romans, Galatians, Corinthians, Philemon, or others. We receive Paul’s words in a static state, and they have formed cornerstone truths, rather than a sketch of human collaboration.

How might we love our neighbors by seeking to see the world through their eyes, too?

Finally, we have a challenging excerpt of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew, which was likely written 10–15 years after Rome destroyed the second temple in Jerusalem. Matthew was writing in an era of reconstruction, voicing support for Jewish customs in the struggling Judean Christian community. So, not only do we need to consider Jesus’s voice as one of resistance to Roman authority, but also the voice of Matthew curating Jesus’ voice, after Romans destroyed Jerusalem. A lot is happening here, and some of it is odd!

This is not a kumbaya kind of Jesus. Yes, Jesus is a healer, but his behavior in this passage is unexpectedly impatient and unkind. I’m not sure what to do with this side of Jesus. I would not tolerate anyone telling me or my loved ones: “you perverse generation, how long will I endure you?” But that’s my privilege and contemporary context talking.

How can we make sense of his exasperation? His death is imminent, and he has been trying to pass along all the skills his disciples need to carry forward. Do you think it’s a projection of his own fears of failing? Perhaps his rough reaction might be translated, “OMG, WHY?? You could do this, but you keep turning back to me. When will you get it? I’m not always going to be here. You could move mountains, but you stand back and wait for me! I need you to believe in yourselves! There is nothing you cannot do, except that which you will not even try. Oh ye of little faith.” Perhaps this is Jesus who doesn’t want healing and liberation for his people to die with him.

After this lamentation, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection. I’m not sure about you, but I wouldn’t be feeling great if people were asking me to do big labor, knowing I was doomed to die a violent death at the hands of the state in just a few days. It makes me wonder if Jesus felt invisible as a human being.

Maybe that’s why he shows more attitude in his interaction with Simon, who he confronts for having agreed to pay temple taxes. Jesus demands: who do rulers extol taxes from? From their own children, or from others? When Simon replies, “from others,” Jesus points out that they should be exempt. As Judeans, they are the children, the rightful inheritors.

Now, interpreters tend to believe that Jesus’ subsequent fish and coin command is proof that Jesus believed in keeping in good relationship with the authorities, but that doesn’t really add up. I think it’s more likely he was being snarky. Like:

But go along, Peter. Let’s be careful not to offend them (insert massive eye roll). You go pay the tax after you pull it from a fishes’ mouth.

Since we are used to Jesus performing miracles, we tend to expect that Peter will perform a magic trick, but in reality, we don’t know what happens. And we don’t get Peter’s side to the story.

I’m just saying, if Biblical authors had emojis, their sarcasm might be easier for us to recognize. As for Matthew, I think he was trying to emphasize how much Jewish tradition belonged to early Judean Christians, too. Christianity wasn’t just for gentiles. Jesus knew himself as Jewish, and so should they.

Deep breath.

So what do we do with this mess?

Doomsday prophet. Hope-dealing politician. Judean evangelist. Snarky Jesus. Us.

It’s nice to have easy answers and clear direction, but the Bible is complicated. If we aren’t careful, it becomes a tool for enforcement rather than a source for reflection and transformation. This is why tyrants and peacemakers can invoke the same scripture and come out with very different justifications. So we have to know and claim for ourselves what we are looking for. Why are we turning to this text?

Personally, I look for wisdom, liberation, and love.

Today, I hear Jeremiah loved the poor and exploited, the invisible laborers building up wealth for others. He shouted “I see you!” and he clamored to those in power, “Look! To consider those in need is to know God!” I feel Jeremiah’s urgency in my soul.

I hear from Paul that love is an action word. It is what we do in the best interest and collective care of one another.

I hear from Jesus that love can be exhausting sometimes, and yet love is the greatest miracle of all. I hear his plea: stop waiting to be rescued, and believe in yourselves. Love is the mustard seed, the energy that moves mountains. And it’s ours, if and when we claim it.

But there are many ways to hear these stories. Each of us has our own lens of life experience through which we experience them. The big question is: what do you hear? No wrong answers. Let’s talk.

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Angela Nevitt Meyer
Brownsburg Inclusive Catholic Community

Catholic priest (RCWP) all about Love & Belonging | Reproductive Dignity | 🌈 | Evolving Church | Healing Work | She/her