HOMILY for 28th Sunday per annum (B)
I want you to be sad, sorrowful, like the man in the Gospel! Now, before you dismiss me as crazy or perverse (and you may have many other reasons to do this), let me explain what I mean, and why.
Quite often, I hear people say that so-and-so is “basically good”, or that they haven’t done anything majorly sinful. By which they mean they haven’t become suicide bombers, or mugged anyone, or have several wives. In a sense, this is what the man in the Gospel is like. He boasts that he’s kept the commandments; he thinks he’s basically a good guy. But here’s the danger of complacency, of a certain smugness and contentment with who we are, and how we live. Each of us are prone to finding ourselves there, thinking ourselves ‘basically good’ because we’re not as bad as Hitler. Except we’re not meant to compare ourselves to the most heinous person around. Jesus challenges this by saying: “No one is good but God alone”.
So, God is our standard; he is the good we’re called to reach. And of course, none of us will – not by our own efforts anyway. And Jesus knows this. For he is the Word of God that the Letter to the Hebrews refers to. Jesus is the Word that can sharply challenge us and pierce our conscience. He is the Word who discerns the thoughts and intentions of our hearts. He knows our weaknesses, our addictions, and our pretenses; he knows we’re not perfect, and that our wills are weak. But do we? Or do we still think we’re ‘basically good’ and therefore we’re quite content with who we are, and don’t need God, thanks very much?
On the other hand, maybe we’re just too aware of our own failings, but we’re afraid to let anyone else find out in case they might like us less, or think badly of us, or maybe, even, sack us. And so, we pretend everything is fine, and we bluster confidently: “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth”. Really? But God already knows who we are, how weak and vacillating we are, and what we value most. He just wants us to be honest with ourselves, and to admit we’re sinners, with a typical sad human tendency to mess things up. Because until we recognize this and admit this to ourselves, we’re not ready for God’s grace. Until we admit that we’re sitting in darkness, how will we even begin to search for light? Until we are saddened by our sinful human state, and have contrition – sorrow for sin – how can we even want forgiveness, or desire healing and happiness. Do we even need Jesus as our Redeemer?
Sometimes people talk about “Catholic guilt”, as if this were a bad thing. But it’s only bad if we’re abandoned in a state of sorrow, guilt, and distress. That would be hell. But Catholic guilt is never just guilt. Because God doesn’t abandon us but always comes in search of us, to call us to repentance, and offer his mercy and forgiveness. This is why we believe that God is love. So, in today’s Gospel, Jesus Christ, who is the visible face of the invisible God, looks upon the man, who represents all of humanity. And Jesus simply loves him. For God has looked on us, he has seen the sorrow and self-harm caused by sin, and he sees who we need, and what we long for. And he loves us. Which is why God sent Jesus, his Love incarnate, to show us the depths of God’s love and mercy. We don’t have to reach up to God’s goodness; he reaches down in Christ to fill us with his goodness.
Now, because of Jesus Christ, guilt and contrition – sorrow for sin – is always met by God’s unshakeable healing love, which is more powerful than sin, which gives us God’s peace and joy. This is why I said I want you to be sad. Because sadness – or at least, knowing our incompleteness, being restless and dissatisfied with our current state in life – can be a grace-filled opportunity for conversion. It prepares us to receive God’s love and forgiveness; it drives us to seek happiness, joy, goodness.
But we need to be sure we’re looking in the right places. Very often, we try to escape from our sadness and feelings of inadequacy through pleasure – drink, drugs, porn, sex. Or we think that money, status, power and material possessions can buy us security and happiness. But none of these truly satisfy us for ever. They merely bring a temporary happiness, they’re a lesser good that do not give us lasting joy. What does?
When Jesus is asked this in today’s Gospel, he says to give up material wealth, to give to the poor, and to follow him. In other words, Jesus wants him to learn to seek happiness in the right places. Because if we desire lasting happiness, and seek authentic joy, then we’ll only find it in love, in giving ourselves totally to God, and to our neighbour. Because this is how we’re made. As Vatican II taught: Man “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” in love (Gaudium et spes, 24). So, the man in the Gospel is asked to give himself entirely to God and neighbour, he’s asked to follow Jesus, who is Love incarnate, and so, he called to be loved and to love.
We often assume that the man in the Gospel went away sad and didn’t ever change his life; that he just wasted this opportunity for conversion. But we don’t know this. What we do know is what Jesus tells us: “All things are possible with God”. And so, God’s grace can soften even the most hardened hearts, and change even you and me; God’s patient love and mercy can bring new life out of death, and shine in the darkness. But only when we’re ready for this grace. Only when there’s a recognition of the darkness, a sorrow of who we are as sinners, and a discontent that drives us to look for more, to seek genuine happiness. This is why I said I want you to be sad, because its pain can shake our complacency and self-satisfaction, and present us with an opportunity for conversion to Jesus Christ, for deepening our friendship with him.
A story told last week in Rome by a Nigerian bishop illustrates this truth. Bishop John Onaiyekan once visited a prison. The conditions on ‘death row’ were appalling – dark, dirty, stinking and over-crowded. But as soon as the prisoners saw him, they began singing joyful hymns of praise. The bishop noticed that they were almost all wearing rosaries around their necks. He was a little taken aback, since Nigeria is fairly evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. “How come you are all Christians in here?”, he asked. The inmates replied: “Many of us were Muslims but when we saw the Christians singing – even in a place like this – we asked for the secret of their joy and discovered how Jesus can bring peace out of even the deepest places of pain and suffering”.
So, whenever we may be sad, in pain, or feeling guilty, let’s not wallow in misery but seek mercy. Turn to Christ, and invite him into our lives; allow God’s Love into your hearts, and discover what those Nigerian prisoners did. That God, in his goodness, turns our mourning into singing, our suffering into sacrifice, and our sorrow into a deeply attractive joy.