Amazing Faith or Amazing Lack of It?, 4th Wednesday (II), January 31, 2018

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Wednesday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of St. John Bosco
January 31, 2018
2 Sam 24:2.9-17, Ps 32, Mk 6:1-6


To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click here: 


The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • At the end of today’s Gospel we have an amazing declaration by St. Mark. He says that Jesus was “amazed at their lack of faith.” We’ve seen him elsewhere be amazed at the faith of the Centurion about whom he said that he had found no one with such faith in Israel, or about the Syro-Phoenician woman in Tyre to whom he said, “Woman, great if your faith.” But today Jesus had the opposite reaction. He was amazed that his fellow Jews from Nazareth, present at the Synagogue during the Sabbath, lacked faith. This expression means, I think, not that they needed to grow in faith, but more that they had none. Jesus was amazed that they had no faith. In many other circumstances he found some faith and said that even if someone had faith the size of a mustard seed you could move mountains into the sea. He didn’t even find a mustard seed’s worth of faith in his hometown. Let’s enter into the scene to find out why.
  • Return to his hometown synagogue where he for more than two decades had worshipped every Saturday, Jesus already had earned an almost unbelievable reputation for the miracles he had done elsewhere in Galilee. When he began to preach — St. Luke tells us it was on Isaiah 61, that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, the prophecy about the traits of the coming Messiah, a Scripture passage Jesus said was fulfilled as they were listening to him — they were all initially amazed, just like so many others were astonished when Jesus taught. But unlike the others who would normally begin to glorify God, those in Nazareth took offense. “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?,” they asked. They probably remember his playing with some of their kids when he was younger. They probably had some chairs or tables or beds he had made in their house. They thought they knew him. They had him boxed into their own categories and were unwilling to have those categories changed or expanded. In St. Luke’s version, they tell him, “Do for us here what we heard you do in Capernaum.” They wanted him to put on a show. In a sense, they thought they deserved one. They thought that because he was a fellow Nazarene they had rights over him. Eventually when he would tell them that no prophet is accepted in his native place, when he would remind them that God doesn’t play the game of geographical nepotism but rewards his favors to those with faith like the widow of Zarephath or Naaman the Syrian, in a rage they sought to murder him by throwing him off the precipice on which Nazareth had been built. They not only believed they had the right to play him like a genie but also believed they had the right to dispose of his life. They believed they owned him. They wanted to control him, not follow him. They had no faith in what God was doing in him and that lack of faith led them, on the Sabbath, to try to kill him.
  • We see a similar dynamism in today’s first reading and the census David ordered to be taken of Israel and Judah. Because we’re used to censuses being taken every ten years and because we know how God used the census of Caesar Augustus to bring about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem according to prophecy, it’s initially hard for us to grasp why taking a census would be considered a sin at all by King David and why the punishment for doing so would seem so severe. But there were two reasons. The first reason is because David stopped looking at the people as a gift of God, but he wanted to know how many there were and where they were, because he had begun to think of them as their own, he could begin to tax them, he could begin to control them. The second reason, which is clear in the passage is because he wanted to know how many soldiers he would have. They reported back to him 800,000 in Israel and 500,000 in Judah. Prior to this, from the time he fought Goliath to the time his troops defeated his son Absalom’s insurrection, David was always certain that the battle belonged to the Lord. He was convinced he would defeat Goliath not because of his slingshot and five smooth pebbles, but because he was going into battle not with armor but in the name of the Lord. When Absalom was hunting him, he had entrusted himself to God as well. To take a census was to take a totally different approach. It was to begin to count on human resources rather than on the Lord. It wasn’t a total lack of faith, but it clearly was not living and thinking by faith. God’s punishment was medicinal, meant to help him and all of his people —  because his people wanted an earthly king even though God had warned them about the abuses that would follow, including using their sons as pawns in war (1 Sam 8) — to learn anew how to entrust themselves totally to the Lord, which is the essence of faith. Either three years of famine, or three months of persecution, or three days of pestilence, all of which would occasion everyone’s turning anew to the Lord. David, as we see, chose the latter, but when he appealed to God, God relented, because the medicine had worked. David’s words at the end “It is I who have sinned; it is I, the shepherd, who have done wrong. But these are sheep; what have they done? Punish me and my kindred” would likewise be fulfilled when David’s kindred, his 28th generation grandson would be punished for his sin and for the sins of the whole world. David needed to learn how to entrust himself to God again, rather than seek to control every situation with human means. He needed to learn once again to be faithful.
  • There’s a similar risk for us, of course. We’re susceptible to the same spiritual cancer as the Nazarenes and the same presumption as David. Like those in Nazareth, most of us have grown up with Jesus since our earliest days when we were baptized. We’ve heard his words. We have his pictures and statues throughout our house. We’re “familiar” with him, being real members of his spiritual family. But sometimes that can lead us to take him for granted, to try to domesticate him, to try to control him. We can stop being filled with awe at him and reverence for everything he asks. And we can even choose to kill him within ourselves, which is what happens when we commit serious or “mortal” sin. Just like with the Nazarenes, our familiarity with Jesus, rather than making us more like Jesus, rather than leading to an increase in faith, can often make us take him for granted, try to control him for our own interests, even take offense at him rather than allow him to take away our offenses. We can try to eliminate him from our life in particular choices rather than die to ourselves so that he can truly live within us. Like the Nazarenes, who had the routine of the practice of their faith each Sabbath at the Synagogue, at the Temple, at home, we, too, can start going through the motions of faith and living practically like those without faith live.
  • There’s another way and that’s what we celebrate today on the feast of St. John Bosco, the patron saint of school children, young people, street kids and juvenile delinquents. His faith continues to amaze. In 1815, he was born in a small village of Becchi close to Turin in northern Italy. When he was just two, his father died leaving his mother Margherita to care for the three young boys as a peasant farmer during a time of great drought and social unrest. She was a woman who passed on to her boys her great faith. In other areas, Margherita did all she could, but even at a young age he needed to be apprenticed to an uncle. And he was one of the lucky ones that he had an uncle to whom he could be sent when his mother no longer could feed him. When he was nine, he had a dream that changed his life. In it, he was surrounded by a group of children who were fighting, swearing and blaspheming. He tried to calm them down, first by reasoning, then with force, but to no avail. Finally a lady appeared to him — whom he later concluded was the Blessed Mother — and said, “Softly, softly, if you wish to win them! Take your shepherd’s staff and lead them to pasture.” As he gently invited and encouraged them to follow him, he saw them transformed from wild beasts into lambs. When he awoke, he knew that his duty was to help poor boys, beginning with those in his own village, to undergo such a transformation. He first sought the kids who were hanging out and causing trouble in the city squares. He did his best to teach them the catechism and invite them to Church, but there were initially few takers. He noticed, how much they were fascinated, however, by the various jugglers, magicians and gymnasts who would come through town seeking their adulation and money. So he began to learn those arts — and master them. Soon he was challenging the other jugglers, conjurers and acrobats to competition and beating them. His prize was the attention of the young ruffians, whom he promised to teach them his newfound skills after they had a catechism lesson or came to Church. But he readily saw that there were limits to what he could give them as a poor and poorly-educated shepherd boy. He desired to become a priest. Eventually a priest, too, recognized in him signs of a priestly vocation. He was taught how to read so that he would be able to go to school and seminary. His upkeep and his clothes were provided by charity, the mayor paid for his hat, the pastor his coat, one parishioner his cassock another a pair of shoes. During Seminary he would continue to go out on Sundays to draw the boys to Mass and make sure these waifs would be taken care of. It was during Seminary that St. Joseph Cafasso, the seminary rector just a few years his senior, recognized his vocation to give his entire life to the care of these abandoned, lost sheep, seeking to love them with the love of Christ and bring them to live by faith truly Christian lives. St. John Bosco organized activities on Sundays but very few people wanted hundreds of street kids around them, and so he struggled to find a permanent place. Eventually he got a big barn and began to build it up. He founded schools to train them as shoemakers, tailors and printers. He began to give them accommodations so they weren’t sleeping on the streets and entrusted their care to his mother Margherita who came to live with them. His orphanage would grow to house more than 800 boys for whom he would beg for food. Some of the bright boys he would eventually begin training to be priests to serve young people like these in the Salesian order God would lead him to found. And the work of Salesians continues to this day. It’s a work of Good Samaritans, sacrificing one’s whole life to improve the life of those who would otherwise be lost and abandoned. It’s a work geared toward helping people learn how to love God with all they’ve got and to love others with their energy, their work, their time and all God has given them. It’s a work geared toward helping people live by faith and receive Jesus into their hopes. On May 30, 1862, when he was 46 years old, he told all the orphans he was housing a dream he had had a few nights before in which he had seen a huge naval battle in which a big ship guided by the Pope with a flotilla of other boats led by bishops, was being attached by so many opposing forces, who were trying to ram and sink the barque of Peter. The winds and the ferocious waves were against the papal fleet. But then he saw two huge pillars coming out of the sea. At the top of one stood Mary, Help of Christians, and at the top of the other was a huge Host underneath which was the inscription “Salvation of the Faithful.” Don Bosco saw in his dream that the Pope and the boats in his flotilla labored to anchor themselves to these two pillars and once they did, the opposing ships were scattered and broken to pieces. St. John Bosco interpreted the dream as an indication of the types of attacks, the opposing winds and seas, the salvos of enemies that would try to sink the Church, but he also saw the remedy: anchoring oneself to Jesus in the Eucharist and to the Mother who gave us that blessed Fruit of her womb and shows us how to relate to him in faith. And he would preach about the Eucharist and Mary often. He would tell the boys, “I want you to make use of two spiritual wings – devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and devotion to the Blessed Virgin. These two wings, these two devotions, you may be sure, will soon help you raise yourselves toward heaven.” These were the ways to grow in amazing faith, by relating to our Lady who breastfeeds us on her own faith to help us allow our own life to develop according to the Lord’s word like her who was praised by St. Elizabeth for her faith that the Lord’s word to her would be fulfilled. The second means was to relate to Jesus in the Eucharist with faith. In the Eucharist we encounter the same Jesus who visited the Synagogue of Nazareth. He would encourage the orphans he had brought from the streets, taught trades and sought to inspire toward holiness, that “there is no greater happiness in this world than that which comes from a communion well received.” He would add, ““My dear boys, love Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and you shall be truly happy.” And he would help them to overcome spiritual blindness and keep their eyes fixed on Jesus and the treasure of himself he gives us. “If a well-known and trustworthy person,” he said to them, “were to go to a public square and tell all the idlers loitering there that on a certain hill they would find a gold mine and could take all they wanted, do you think anyone would shrug his shoulders and say he did not care? They’d be dashing there as fast as they could! Well, now, doesn’t the tabernacle hold the most precious treasure ever to be found on earth or in heaven? Unfortunately, there are many who cannot see it because they are [spiritually] blind. Yet our faith unerringly tells us that endless riches are to be found there. People sweat and toil to make money, and yet, in the tabernacle dwells the Lord of the universe. He will grant you what you ask, if you really need it!”
  • And to help them receive Holy Communion with proper reverence, devotion and faith, he would help them to look at the Eucharist from a Marian perspective: “Imagine,” he said, “that it is no longer the priest but the most holy Madonna herself who comes to give you the Holy Host.” Once we are able to see the Blessed Virgin we would grasp far more easily that what we’re receiving is the same Son she gestated for nine months and gave to the world. She would help us to understand that at Mass we are receiving Jesus! And once we really take seriously that in the Eucharist we encounter Jesus Christ, then everything else becomes so much simpler, because we all readily grasp that there is nothing more important in the whole world than coming to be with Jesus, through whom all things were made, who made us, who died for us, who rose for us, who is here for us, who accompanies us through life, and who wants us to experience in this world forever all that God the Father sent him into the world to accomplish in us.
  • Today we ask the Lord, through St. John Bosco’s intercession, to help us entrust ourselves in faith to Jesus in the Eucharist in a similar way. To remain always astonished by his teaching. To never take offense at him and his teachings. To count on his support in good times and in bad. And to give courageous witness to him as we receive from this altar the same food that filled him with intrepid faith and holy audacity!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
2 SM 24:2, 9-17

King David said to Joab and the leaders of the army who were with him,
“Tour all the tribes in Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba
and register the people, that I may know their number.”
Joab then reported to the king the number of people registered:
in Israel, eight hundred thousand men fit for military service;
in Judah, five hundred thousand.
Afterward, however, David regretted having numbered the people,
and said to the LORD:
“I have sinned grievously in what I have done.
But now, LORD, forgive the guilt of your servant,
for I have been very foolish.”
When David rose in the morning,
the LORD had spoken to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying:
“Go and say to David, ‘This is what the LORD says:
I offer you three alternatives;
choose one of them, and I will inflict it on you.’”
Gad then went to David to inform him.
He asked: “Do you want a three years’ famine to come upon your land,
or to flee from your enemy three months while he pursues you,
or to have a three days’ pestilence in your land?
Now consider and decide what I must reply to him who sent me.”
David answered Gad: “I am in very serious difficulty.
Let us fall by the hand of God, for he is most merciful;
but let me not fall by the hand of man.”
Thus David chose the pestilence.
Now it was the time of the wheat harvest
when the plague broke out among the people.
The LORD then sent a pestilence over Israel
from morning until the time appointed,
and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beer-sheba died.
But when the angel stretched forth his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it,
the LORD regretted the calamity
and said to the angel causing the destruction among the people,
“Enough now! Stay your hand.”
The angel of the LORD was then standing
at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.
When David saw the angel who was striking the people,
he said to the LORD: “It is I who have sinned;
it is I, the shepherd, who have done wrong.
But these are sheep; what have they done?
Punish me and my kindred.”

Responsorial Psalm
PS 32:1-2, 5, 6, 7

R. (see 5c) Lord, forgive the wrong I have done.
Blessed is he whose fault is taken away,
whose sin is covered.
Blessed the man to whom the LORD imputes not guilt,
in whose spirit there is no guile.
R. Lord, forgive the wrong I have done.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
my guilt I covered not.
I said, “I confess my faults to the LORD,”
and you took away the guilt of my sin.
R. Lord, forgive the wrong I have done.
For this shall every faithful man pray to you
in time of stress.
Though deep waters overflow,
they shall not reach him.
R. Lord, forgive the wrong I have done.
You are my shelter; from distress you will preserve me;
with glad cries of freedom you will ring me round.
R. Lord, forgive the wrong I have done.

MK 6:1-6

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!
Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary,
and the brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon?
And are not his sisters here with us?”
And they took offense at him.
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 his hands on them.
He was amazed at their lack of faith.