Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life
Thursday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
July 28, 2016
Jer 18:1-6, Ps 146, Mt 13:47-53
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- At the end of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus asks the disciples and us, “Have you understood all these things?” The Greek means “Have you put all of these things together?,” indicating, like we’ve discussed before when we’ve pondered Mary’s contemplative heart, putting new truths together as the pieces of a mosaic with the other tesserae to form a whole. It’s not enough merely to hear Jesus’ parables and ponder the images. It’s not enough for us to have him solve the riddle of the images used in the parable. It’s to grasp the truths pointed to by Jesus’ unforgettable illustrations using similes from daily life and grasp them in such a way that it helps us to live with increased faith in that kingdom.
- And so in today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us the last of seven images of the kingdom in this 13th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. In the image of the Kingdom of heaven as a dragnet thrown into the sea, we can see two great lessons: The kingdom seeks to draw everyone in, but not everyone is fit for the kingdom. The net will collect fish of every kind, but the good — literally the “beautiful” in Greek — will be retained and the bad — literally the “rotten” — will be thrown away after the haul. So there is a universal will for salvation but there’s also a judgment and not everyone will make it.
- This is one of the main points Jesus makes in his parables of the kingdom. He makes the same point in the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat, that both good seed and darnel will grow in his field, but at the end they will be separated and those not fit for the kingdom will be separated by angels and thrown into the fire where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. Likewise he makes the point when he describes the kingdom as a banquet. His servants go into the highways and by-ways to “compel” everyone into the banquet, but those who are improperly dressed for the feast, those who have not maintained their baptismal garments properly cleaned and pressed for the feast, will be cast out to the same dark place of teeth-grinding and wailing. He reiterates it yet again in response to the faith of the Centurion. He says that many will come from the east and west — i.e., non-Jewish lands — to recline with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at the banquet, but many of the children of the kingdom will be cast into the outer darkness, where there’s tear-filled dental destruction. Perhaps the most famous image is Jesus’ description that at the last judgment he will separate us as a shepherd distinguishes the sheep from the goats on the basis of faith working through deeds of love for him in the image of those in need; the goats who fail to do this will be forced to depart from him into the eternal fire of punishment.
- To understand this means to understand the incredible stakes of our freedom, to respond with faith and live according to what God has revealed to us, to make the kingdom the precious pearl or hidden treasure worth losing our life for in order to gain it forever. Today there are many who are universalists, believing basically in the ancient heresy of apocatastasis, which teaches that basically everyone goes to heaven, no matter what one does. Theoretically, of course, we can fathom that Judas, Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, serial killers, and all the people who don’t like us might end up in hell, if there is a hell; but we can’t envisage ourselves, any of those we care about, or a sizable chunk of ordinary people ever ending up in Gehenna. How could a God Who is full of compassion, slow to anger, and rich in kindness ever set up an eternal, infernal dungeon in which He mercilessly punishes people for disobedience? How could God Who is love ever establish an everlasting Abu Ghraib for anyone, not to mention His beloved children? And if it’s the case that only those with post-doctoral degrees in Satanic wickedness are candidates for the eternal hall of shame, then, at a practical level, we can all just calm down, because very little now matters to our or others’ eternal destiny. It doesn’t matter if we spread the faith, because everyone gets to Heaven whether or not they know Jesus Christ. The Sacraments don’t matter. The Word of God doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if we pray or play, if we keep or break promises, if we steal or sacrifice, if we come to Mass or sleep in, if we’re faithful to our spouse or cheat, if we provide for or neglect our family, if we forgive or settle scores, if we love or abuse the poor, or if we welcome or abort the littlest of Jesus’ brethren. None of this matters — or at least none of it matters much. Since almost everyone in the class is going to make the eternal honor roll no matter what they do, while we may still admire those who study hard, the really wise ones are those who eat, drink and be merry and still get their easy A.
- But Jesus says otherwise. He says that those who live by faith working through love and those who don’t will be separated. He says that those who choose the kingdom and those who reject it won’t end up together. He takes our freedom seriously and so must we. To ask us if we understand these things means to ask us whether we grasp the incredible stakes of our choices. Jesus said that He had come into the world not to condemn the world but to save it, but He added, “The one who rejects Me and does not receive My word has a judge, and on the last day the Word that I have spoken will serve as judge” (Jn 12:47). Those who reject Jesus’ words of eternal life, who prefer to walk in the darkness instead of the light, who fail to live by faith and enter the kingdom, become their own judges by the way they respond to the truth God has revealed. “There are only two kinds of people in the end,” C.S. Lewis once famously wrote. “Those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell choose it.” Hell exists not despite God’s love but precisely because of it, in order to honor the desires of those who don’t want to live in loving communion with Him and others. It is the state, as the Catechism calls it, of “definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” It is the tragic possibility of human freedom for those who, in voluntarily choosing sin, separate themselves from God and others.
- And so we ought to draw some moral lessons. There’s both good and bad fish in the net of the Church, like wheat and weeds in the field of the Church. We shouldn’t be shocked that we find in the Church people who are sinners, even occasionally people who are corrupt, unrepentant sinners. There are people within the Church, not to mention within society, who are living the type of life in which they’re being prepared to be tossed out where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth, who are the weeds fit for burning at the end. But Jesus preached this parable not fundamentally as an image of predestination, but of conversion, to awaken us and everyone to the fact that just because we’re in the Church doesn’t mean necessarily that we’re guaranteed heaven. It’s not enough to practice the faith on the outside. We have to be living it on the inside. We need to be seeking total communion with Christ. God gives us a consoling image of the type of conversion to which he is calling us in today’s first reading. He sends Jeremiah to see the work of the potter, fashioning and refashioning the clay and says that that is what he wants to do in us. He wants to form us more and more into his image and likeness. Even if we’re not happy with who we are right now, even if we know he’s not happy, the potter’s wheel is still spinning and God with his master hand wants to shape us more and more into the persons he created us to be.
- At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus mentions that the scribe instructed in the Kingdom is like the head of his household who takes from his storeroom both old and new. What it means is that when we truly convert to Christ, it’s not like we lose whatever was authentic in our lives before, but find the fulfillment of all of those things. For the scribes, the scholars of the Old Testament, once they learn about the Kingdom, about Jesus’ fulfilling their messianic hopes, they are able to take from their storeroom of prayer and study both “new and old” to live by and help others to live by. The Lord wants to transform us in the same way. He doesn’t throw out our own experiences, but reforms them in the new clay pot that he continually seeks to perfect in us with our permission.
- Today as we approach the Master Potter in this Mass, he wants to help us to “put things together” in such a way that our life will change. We know that the choice between the good and the bad fish, between the beautiful and the rotten, takes place according to a very straightforward criterion. The Jews weren’t spending all-nighters on the Sea of Galilee trying to catch fish for aquaria. The good or beautiful fish that are saved are those that are fit for eating, who are capable of making themselves a holocaust for others. To use the famous acrostic of the early Church, in which the Greek word for fish, ichthus, was understood to signify by its letters “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior,” the good and beautiful fish are those who, like Jesus, are able to say, “This is my body … given for you,” given to nourish you, given to help you live. The rotten fish are those who have been corrupted by interior selfishness, who by their own choices have made themselves unfit for this type of total service. To live in the kingdom means to imitate the King in humbly serving all his subjects, giving oneself totally for others, losing one’s life for the sake of advancing the Kingdom so as to save it. This is what Jesus wants to help us to put together. This is the “ever new” that he wants to combine with everything else he from his divine storehouse has given us up until now. This is the way the Divine Potter makes us ever more fit to contain the treasure he places in our earthen vessels.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Rise up, be off to the potter’s house;
there I will give you my message.
I went down to the potter’s house and there he was,
working at the wheel.
Whenever the object of clay which he was making
turned out badly in his hand,
he tried again,
making of the clay another object of whatever sort he pleased.
Then the word of the LORD came to me:
Can I not do to you, house of Israel,
as this potter has done? says the LORD.
Indeed, like clay in the hand of the potter,
so are you in my hand, house of Israel.
PS 146:1B-2, 3-4, 5-6AB
Praise the LORD, O my soul;
I will praise the LORD all my life;
I will sing praise to my God while I live.
R. Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob.
Put not your trust in princes,
in the sons of men, in whom there is no salvation.
When his spirit departs he returns to his earth;
on that day his plans perish.
R. Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob.
Blessed he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD, his God.
Who made heaven and earth,
the sea and all that is in them.
R. Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob.
“The Kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea,
which collects fish of every kind.
When it is full they haul it ashore
and sit down to put what is good into buckets.
What is bad they throw away.
Thus it will be at the end of the age.
The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous
and throw them into the fiery furnace,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”
They answered, “Yes.”
And he replied,
“Then every scribe who has been instructed in the Kingdom of heaven
is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom
both the new and the old.”
When Jesus finished these parables, he went away from there.