A Bad Day in the Pulpit for Jesus? A Homily for the 14th Sunday of the Year

blog 070415The gospel today portrays the Lord Jesus as preacher and prophet. But as we shall see, even the greatest preacher in the world, Jesus, can find His powerful and precious words falling lifeless on the rock hard surface of many a soul. Yes, even His words can meet with resistance and hostility, indifference and ridicule. Indeed, the gospel today shows forth the ruinous result of rejection.

My homily notes begin with the red text below. However, I’d first like to provide some background reflections that may be helpful.

We sometimes think that if Catholic priests were better preachers, all would be well. But that is only half the battle, for the Catholic faithful must also have ears to hear and hearts that are open and eager to receive the truth. A well known preacher and fine Protestant teacher, William Barclay, has this to say:

There can be no preaching in the wrong atmosphere. Our churches would be different places if congregations would only remember that they preach far more than half the sermon. In an atmosphere of expectancy, the poorest effort can catch fire. In an atmosphere of critical coldness or bland indifference the most spirit-packed utterance can fall lifeless to the earth (Commentary on Mark, P. 140).

Yes, of this I am a witness. I have preached before congregations that were expectant and supportive, and watched my feeble words catch fire. I have also preached in settings where “I couldn’t hear nobody pray!” And oh, the difference!

I have been blessed to serve most of my priesthood in African-American parishes and there is a deep appreciation that the preaching moment is a shared one, with shared responsibilities. The congregation does not consider itself a passive recipient of the Word, but rather an active sharer in the proclamation.

There is an air of expectancy in the Church as the faithful gather and listen and begin to sing and pray. This air of expectancy is sometimes called “the hum.” During the reading of the Word and the sermon there are nods, hands may go up, a foot may stomp, and an acclamation or two pock the air: Amen! … Yes, Lord! … Go on now! … Take your time! … Make it plain, preacher! … You don’t need to tell me! Ha!, My, my my!

And as a preacher, I too can call for help: Are you praying with me Church? … Somebody ought to say, Amen! …. Come on, Church! … Can I get a witness? … Kinda quiet in here today … Amen?! Yes, together we craft the message, as inspired by the Holy Spirit. And while it belongs to the priest to craft the content, it belongs to the congregation to affirm the truth and acknowledge the Spirit through prayerful attention and support.

How precious and necessary is the preaching task. But as today’s gospel affirms, the preaching task is more than just the preacher. Before looking at the text itself, here are a few more insights about both preacher and congregation from Pope (Saint) Gregory the Great.

First, on the obligation of the preacher and the solemnity of his task:

Pastors who lack foresight, hesitate to say openly what is right because they fear losing the favor of men. As the voice of truth tells us, such leaders are not zealous pastors who protect their flocks, rather they are like mercenaries who flee by taking refuge in silence when the wolf appears.

The Lord reproaches them through the prophet: They are dumb dogs that cannot bark. On another occasion he complains: You did not advance against the foe or set up a wall in front of the house of Israel, so that you might stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord. To advance against the foe involves a bold resistance to the powers of this world in defense of the flock. To stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord means to oppose the wicked enemy out of love for what is right.

When a pastor has been afraid to assert what is right, has he not turned his back and fled by remaining silent? Whereas if he intervenes on behalf of the flock, he sets up a wall against the enemy in front of the house of Israel. … [But] they [who] are afraid to reproach men for their faults … thereby lull the evildoer with an empty promise of safety. Because [such preachers] fear reproach, they keep silent and fail to point out the sinner’s wrongdoing.

The word of reproach is a key that unlocks a door, because reproach reveals a fault of which the evildoer is himself often unaware. That is why Paul says of the bishop: He must be able to encourage men in sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. For the same reason God tells us through Malachi: The lips of the priest are to preserve knowledge, and men shall look to him for the law, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. Finally, that is also the reason why the Lord warns us through Isaiah: Cry out and be not still; raise your voice in a trumpet call.

Anyone ordained a priest undertakes the task of preaching, so that with a loud cry he may go on ahead of the terrible judge who follows. If, then, a priest does not know how to preach, what kind of cry can such a dumb herald utter? It was to bring this home that the Holy Spirit descended in the form of tongues on the first pastors, for he causes those whom he has filled, to speak out spontaneously [Gregory the Great, Pastoral Guide].

Second, on the reason for poor preaching:

Beloved brothers, consider what has been said: Pray the Lord of the harvest to send labourers into his harvest. Pray for us so that we may have the strength to work on your behalf, that our tongue may not grow weary of exhortation, and that after we have accepted the office of preaching, our silence may not condemn us before the just judge.

For frequently the preacher’s tongue is bound fast on account of his own wickedness; while on the other hand it sometimes happens that because of the people’s sins, the word of preaching is withdrawn from those who preside over the assembly.

With reference to the wickedness of the preacher, the psalmist says: But God asks the sinner: Why do you recite my commandments? And with reference to the latter, the Lord tells Ezekiel: I will make your tongue cleave to the roof of your mouth, so that you shall be dumb and unable to reprove them, for they are a rebellious house. He clearly means this: the word of preaching will be taken away from you because as long as this people irritates me by their deeds, they are unworthy to hear the exhortation of truth.

It is not easy to know for whose sinfulness the preacher’s word is withheld, but it is indisputable that the shepherd’s silence while often injurious to himself will always harm his flock [Ibid].

Note well, then, the shared responsibility of the preacher and the people. And let these texts serve as a worthy background to what is now to come in today’s gospel, which we can see in three stages.

I. Real Rejoicing – The text says, Jesus departed from there and came to his native place, accompanied by his disciples. When the sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given him? What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!”

Thus, the initial reaction of Jesus’ hometown crowd is positive. They are filled with amazement and joy. And the text sets forth two sources of their joy:

1. His wise words – Many who heard him were astonished. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given him?” Yes, what a blessing it must have been to hear Jesus preach. And boy, could Jesus preach! Scripture says of His preaching,

And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes (Mat 7:28).
Sent to arrest him the temple guard returned empty handed saying: No one ever spoke like that man (Jn 7:46).
And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth (Luke 4:22).
And the common people heard him gladly (Mark 12:37).

2. His wonderful works – They also say, “What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!” Yes, Jesus had worked many miracles up to this point. He had

cast out demons,
turned water to wine,
raised up paralytics,
cured the man with a withered hand,
cast out blindness,
healed deafness,
multiplied loaves and fishes,
calmed storms, and
raised up Jairus’ daughter from the dead.

And so we see that the initial reaction to Jesus preaching is good. Their remarks and rejoicing are a sign that the Spirit is working and prompting them to belief.

Yet as we shall see, things are about to turn sour. For it remains a sad but prevailing truth that the word of God can fall on the rocky soil of some hearts, where it springs up but soon withers because the soil is so shallow. Or the Word of the Lord can be sown on the paths of some hearts where the birds of the sky come and carry it off. Or the Word of the Lord can fall on divided hearts, where the thorns of worldliness and the anxieties of the world choke it off. And yes, sometimes it falls on good soil, where it yields thirty, sixty, or a hundred fold (cf Matt 13:1-9). Sadly, things are heading south.

II. Rude Rejection – The text says, [But some began to say] Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

Notice how sudden their change is. There is an old spiritual that says, “Some go to church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out!”

They harden their hearts. Yes, the tide mysteriously and suddenly turns against Jesus. Sin has set in and hearts have hardened; the joy has been jettisoned. Though the Holy Spirit prompts them to faith and to call Jesus, “Lord,” they harden their hearts. It is a grim and tragic sin.

They also exhibit a kind of prejudice or unjust discrimination, dismissing Jesus as a mere carpenter and a hometown boy. It is an odd kind of thing that the poor and oppressed sometimes take up the voice of the oppressor. And thus these simple people from a small town of only 300 take up the voice of the Jerusalemites, who regarded Galileans as “poor backwoods clowns” and as unlettered people. Yes, Jesus’ own townsfolk take up the voice of the oppressor and say to Him, in effect, “Stay in your place. You have no business being smart, talented, wise, or great. You’re just one of us and should amount to nothing.” It is the same sort of tragic rebuke that sometimes takes place among minority students who excel in school. Some of their fellow minority students accuse them of “going white.” Tragic and sick. And likewise for Jesus; they ignore His words and His works, focusing instead on appearances and background.

They also exhibit the sin of envy. Envy is sadness or anger at the goodness or excellence of another person because we take it as diminishing our own. The text says here, And they took offense at him. St. Augustine called envy THE diabolical sin. This is because it seeks not to posses the good of another (as jealousy does), but rather to destroy what is good in others so that the destroyer can look better.

The result of these sins was that Nazareth was NOT a place where excellence was known, even among its own! Indeed, John 1:46 records Nathanael saying of Nazareth, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” It would seem that even the townsfolk of that place would agree. (But Philip, who surrendered his prejudice, said to Nathanael, “Come and see.”)

But an even more awful result of these sins ensues.

III. Ruinous Result – The text says, Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.” SO HE WAS NOT ABLE to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.

So as we see, because they judge Him to be nothing, they get nothing. They have blocked their blessings.

Jesus says, He who receives a prophet because he is a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward, and he who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward (Mat 10:41). But they will get nothing. When we banish or discredit God, we should not expect to see many of His works. These things come only from faith.

Miracles are the result of faith, not the cause of it. Thus the text says, So [Jesus] was NOT ABLE to perform any mighty deed there … He was amazed at their lack of faith.

There are some things that even God can’t do, not because He has no power but because He respects our choices. Pay attention. The Lord is offering us salvation and the Kingdom of Heaven. And either we reach out to take it or we don’t. But the choice is ours. If we take it, He’ll go to work. But if we refuse, He respects our freedom and will “not be able” to perform any mighty deeds.

And what a ruinous result for Nazareth and all who reject the prophetic utterances of our Lord and His saving help. Scripture says,

I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it. “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would have none of me.  So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels. O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! I would soon subdue their enemies, and turn my hand against their foes. Those who hate the LORD would cringe toward him, and their fate would last for ever. I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you” (Psalm 81:10-16).

Either we accept God’s word and yield to its healing and saving power or we can expect little or nothing but ultimate ruin. It is as if we were in a raging stream heading toward the falls and almost certain death. But then a hand is stretched out to save us, the hand of Jesus. Mysteriously, we reject that hand and ridicule its power. And the ruinous result of our hideous and foolish rejection is our death. The text says, He was amazed at their lack of faith.

Pay attention! God is preaching the Word to you every Sunday, every day in fact. Will you heed and be healed? Will you receive and be rescued? Or will you reject and be ruined? Will the Lord be able to do mighty deeds for you? Or will He be amazed at your lack of faith? The choice is yours; it is all yours.

And what of our nation, once steeped in the Word of God? The Founding Fathers once wove Scripture freely into their discourse. But in recent decades a hostile secularism has insisted on marginalizing all references to God and scoffing at biblical morality. They talk “tolerance” yet file lawsuits against those who would transgress and speak of God, display a nativity, or call something a sin. There is no room here to recite statistics that show our blessings ebbing away, but it is clear that as our families disintegrate, a nation that once led the world in almost every respect is now well back in the pack and fading fast. To forsake the preaching of Christ though His Scripture and Church is to forfeit blessings. He can work no miracles here because of our lack of faith.

Even Jesus can have a bad day in the pulpit. But it is not really His bad day; it is ours. If we sinfully reject the Word of God, it is we who will forfeit blessings and miracles because of our lack of faith.

6 Replies to “A Bad Day in the Pulpit for Jesus? A Homily for the 14th Sunday of the Year”

  1. Msgr. Charles, thank you for enlightening today’s Gospel for me. I many times go to church tired and not in the best of mood. I attend Mass, but not really attend. I don’t sing with the congregation, recite the prayers and I fail to listen to the priest’s homily. I spend an hour in church and I leave empty. It is my fault that I wasted that hour and I lost the chance of being enriched and increasing my belief in God. It is a two-way street. If I want to be closer to God, I must spend more time at home in prayer and less time watching television (which really sends out poor messages). I must attend Mass with a desire to be closer to God. Thank you again for today’s homily.

  2. As a deacon candidate getting ready to enter our final year of formation, I was hit how it will take courage and strength on occasion to speak the sometimes unpopular truth from the pulpit or in other areas of ministry. Thank you for reminding me.

    On a side note. Having completed a week-long homiletics course in our formation,I don’t know how you write such well-crafted and researched reflections on a daily basis. I may not read it every day, but I check your blog every day. God bless you and your work.

  3. How i wish there were more priests like you Msgr. Pope. You nailed this issue squarely on the head. i have attended revivals and services at the oldest African American church in Sacramento, Williams Memorial Church of God in Christ. The first thing that struck me, was the air of expectancy among their congregation. They came in expecting and needing to hear a Word. And they got it!

    They would shout amen! Jump up and give a Halleluia during sermons, often with tears running down their faces. They let their pastor know how much they needed his help and guidance. i find it sad that we lack that ardent need and desire to be fed. i know i do badly. This world is so twisted and deceptive that we need a good healthy dose of spiritual medicine to keep us walking the path of the Christ. It is also hurtful to watch a good priest give his heart and soul during a sermon and intuit how deaf most of his congregants are. i pray daily that the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf, shattering chains and leading many souls to the light of the mercy and graces of Jesus Christ.

  4. Thank you, Monsignor, for reminding us to be supportive of our priests *during* celebration. A couple of years ago I realized that I shall be more attentive and responsive during homilies looking at the priest and nodding; overall I have improved but I can certainly do better, because I still get distracted and my mind and eyes wander a lot.
    Also, once at Mass a man close to me recited the Our Father as if he totally believed and meant it. I thought that this should be the *only* way to recite a prayer – I can do better at this, too.
    I am keeping you in my prayer.

  5. You are correct that good preaching is only half, if that much. What really seems to be the problem is lack of enforcement. If practices against the faith go unpunished, no consequences, then you can’t expect much. Like kids who constantly hear “you will be grounded ” but the grounding never comes, you learn to ignore the admonitions.

  6. Wonderful essay, thank you, Monsignor! I just read a great article yesterday about listening to God (Three Hints on Getting More From the Homily, by Jeannie Ewing, July 8, 2015 at Catholic Exchange, http://catholicexchange.com/187042), and one of the pieces of advice was to ask God for a word or phrase He wants you to remember and think about from the priest’s homily.

    I and so many others TRULY appreciate the hard work of our priests in preparing the sermon, and we’re really listening!

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