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Poor Preaching Isn’t Only Due to the Preacher – A Homily For the 14th Sunday of the Year

July 7, 2018 4 Comments

The gospel today portrays the Lord Jesus as preacher and prophet, but 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 the ruinous result of rejection.

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

We sometimes think that if only Catholic priests were better preachers, all would be well, but that is only half the battle. 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 saw 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, where 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 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 fill the air: Amen! Yes, Lord! Go on now! Take your time! Make it plain, preacher! You don’t need to tell me! My, my, my!

As a preacher, I too can call for help: Are you praying with me Church? Somebody ought to say, Amen! Come on, can I get a witness? It’s kinda quiet in here today; can I get an Amen? Yes, together we craft the message, as inspired by the Holy Spirit. 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.

The preaching task is both precious and necessary, but it involves more than just the preacher.

Before delving into the text of today’s gospel, I’d like to share a few more insights from Pope St. 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 laborers 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. 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. The text sets forth two sources of their joy:

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).

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.

Things are about to turn sour, however. The Word of God can fall on the rocky soil of hearts, where it springs up but soon withers because the soil is so shallow. Or His Word can be sown on the paths of 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 sometimes it falls on good soil, where it yields thirty, sixty, or a hundred-fold (cf Matt 13:1-9).

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 odd that the poor and oppressed sometimes take up the voice of the oppressor. 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, when some of their fellow minority students accuse them of “going white.” It’s tragic.

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, And they took offense at him. St. Augustine called envy the diabolical sin. This is because it seeks not to possess 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 Nazareth 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.

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). When we banish or discredit God, however, 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 lacks the power but because He respects our choices. Pay attention. The Lord is offering us salvation and the Kingdom of Heaven. 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.

What a ruinous result for Nazareth and for 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 are 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. 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.

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 dare speak of God, display a nativity, or call something a sin. There is no room in this post to present 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 His 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.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Israel B says:

    Amen!
    Yes, Lord!
    Go on now!
    Take your time!
    Make it plain, preacher!
    You don’t need to tell me!
    My, my, my!

  2. Fr. Chip Hines says:

    This was excellent. I’m laid up right now with a leg injury and this was a joy to read. Thank you.

  3. Ben says:

    I don’t buy it. Priests can blame the laity for a lot of things that have gone wrong in society, but bad preaching is the priest’s fault. Priests learn in the seminary to preach for 7 to 10 minutes without saying anything. Perhaps some historical-critical analysis of the text that has no relevance for today, or perhaps an amusing anecdote that happened the week before. They have also been strictly warned to restrict their comments to the scriptures for the day, and since the scriptures don’t cover homosexuality, abortion or contraception they are in the clear on tackling difficult subjects. Divorce occasionally comes up in the Gospels, but on those Sundays they can they can talk about the Annual Fund Drive instead.

    Then you add in the facts of what bishops like McCarrack have been up to, and the other shenanigans in the chancery office and the priests have to worry about retribution from all angles if they speak against the cultural norms of today.

    • Msgr. Charles Pope says:

      Something tells me you didn’t read the column; especially the remarks of Gregory the Great. Or alternately, you have absolutized the point made and then refuted the absolutized straw-man version you have created.

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