Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Wednesday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of St. Agatha, Virgin and Martyr
February 5, 2014
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:
- In today’s Gospel, we enter the dramatic scene of Jesus’ return to his hometown Synagogue. He 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.
- We see a similar dynamism in today’s first reading and the census he 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. 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 to the Lord. 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.
- 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 begin to think we have rights over him. Just like teenage grandchildren can go to their grandparents to try to ask them for money, thinking that if their grandparents “really loved them” they’d give them whatever they ask, we can be similarly manipulative with God, thinking that every time we ask him for anything, he ought to give us what we ask, and we resent it when he has us wait or says no. We can go off and do our own thing, far from him and his holy word, but then if we get sick, we expect him to answer our prayer immediately, and even if he does, we don’t really change our lives to live more in conformity with him.
- And so many Catholics begin to presume to tell Jesus what he and his Church should or shouldn’t teach. We tell him that his teaching about marriage is unrealistic and should change to allow divorce and remarriage and homosexual unions and premarital flings. We tell him that he and his Church are chauvinist and should change to allow women to stand in his place as Bridegroom of the Church as priests, bishops and Popes. We tell him that we “own” our land and therefore we have a right to kick out immigrants even though he says “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” We tell him that we don’t like the Sacrament he established to forgive our sins and that instead of confessing our sins to a priest he’s chosen, ordained and sent forth with the power of the Holy Spirit to absolve sins in his name, we’ll just confess our sins directly to God in private. We tell him that even though his Church in his name says that to receive Him in Holy Communion worthily we must live a life of Holy Communion with Him, we tell him that we believe that we should have the right to receive him whenever we want, under whatever conditions we want, regardless of what the Church he founded says. We can, of course, multiply the examples. The central point is that, just like with the Nazarenes, our familiarity with Jesus, rather than making us more like Jesus, can often make us believe we can control him. We can 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.
- There’s another way and that’s what we celebrate today on the feast of St. Agatha, the young virgin martyr who was killed for the faith in Catania, Sicily, in 251. She was pursued by one of the local leaders Quintian and refused his advances, something that led him to think he would teach her a lesson. After all, he was the local leader and he believed he should have the right to have sex with any virgin he wants and if she refuses he’d use the power of the state to force her compliance. He threatened her with being sent to a brothel, to prison, to being tortured, to being killed. She replied, in words that are significant, “Jesus Christ, Lord all, you see my heart, you know my desires. Possess all that I am. I am your sheep: make me worthy to overcome the devil.” She knew she was the Lord’s. On Sunday we celebrated the feast of the Lord’s presentation and we pondered the meaning of our own consecration. Pope Benedict said that consecration is first and foremost a “change of ownership,” we give the “title” of our life over to God with freedom and love. We say we are not our own but belong to the Lord. We don’t seek to control him. We allow him to control us, knowing that he respects our freedom and always not only wishes us well but wants the eternal best for us. Quintian followed through on all his threats, but it didn’t shake Agatha’s trust in him. He answered her prayers and now all that she is is possessed by him in heaven.
- Today we ask the Lord, through St. Agatha’s intercession, to help us entrust ourselves in faith to God 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 when people seek to do to us what they did to him, as we prepare to receive from this altar the food that filled her with holy audacity!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
2 SM 24:2, 9-17
“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.”
PS 32:1-2, 5, 6, 7
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.
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.