Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Monday of the Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome
June 30, 2014
Amos 2:6-10.13-16, Ps 50, Mt 8:18-22
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Today there’s a dramatic scene in the Gospel. It might seem dramatic at first glance but once we ponder what’s really happening we’ll see that it’s a drama that also involves us. The eight chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel is fundamentally a chapter about miracles. Jesus heals a leper, the servant of the centurion, Peter’s mother-in-law, and many of those who were possessed. We’ll see later this week how he’ll calm a storm, work more exorcisms, and watch a whole herd of swine cast itself into the sea. And in the middle of this chapter St. Matthew places something else that he evidently treats as miraculous: a scribe comes up to Jesus and promises to follow him wherever he goes. We’ll see why that’s such a big deal shortly.
- But the Gospel scene begins with Jesus’ giving orders to his closest followers to cross over to the other shore. The actual Greek expression is he told them to put out “into the beyond.” He wasn’t giving a clear destination. Just like God with Abraham told him to leave Ur of the Chaldeans at 75 and go to a place he would show him eventually, so Jesus here was telling his disciples trustingly to go “beyond” their own limited horizons in their discipleship. Having heard those words, then the scribe approached Jesus and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go?” Why was this so surprising, almost “miraculous?” Because the scribes were among the most arrogant class of Jews. They normally were condescendingly criticizing Jesus. They were the scholars of the Mosaic Law, they had studied Sacred Scripture inside out and were the definitive commentators on what God had revealed. They were among those who comprised the Sanhedrin. This scholar came to Jesus and said that he was willing to go with Jesus into the beyond, to follow him wherever he went. This is a beautiful availability, a beautiful willingness.
- But Jesus wanted to make sure he knew what the cost would be. “Foxes have dens and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” There’s a lot in that sentence. First, Jesus uses the expression “Son of Man,” which was a Messianic phrase, something that the scribe would readily have grasped. He was probably willing to follow Jesus wherever he went because he had surmised based on his knowledge of Sacred Scripture that Jesus was already doing all of the works of the Messiah and was about to bring about the long-awaited Messianic kingdom. But Jesus wanted him to grasp that his kingdom would not involve palaces and earthly power. As Messiah, Jesus wouldn’t even have a pillow to call his own, he wouldn’t even have what birds and foxes take for granted. Was the scribe willing to sign up for that? We don’t know what his answer was, whether he continued to follow Jesus into the “beyond.” Jesus leads us not so much to a place but to a union with him and we don’t know whether the scribe would unite himself to Jesus’ personification of the Messianic kingdom. We hope that he did, but the lesson for us is the same. Jesus asks us to go with him into the beyond, to follow him wherever he goes even if it means giving up in this world fame, fortune, and family. But we need to be willing to center our entire existence on him.
- We see that illustrated very powerfully in the second dialogue from the Gospel scene, when one of the disciples, hearing Jesus order everyone with him to the beyond, said, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” Jesus’ response at first seems a little brutal: “Follow me and let the dead bury the dead.” We have to grasp what was really happening in the scene, however. Jesus had affirmed the Fourth Commandment, to honor one’s father and mother and to allow a parent to go unburied would be an incredible disgrace and dishonor. Burying the dead has always been considered a spiritual work of mercy not just for family members but even for strangers. The Book of Tobit is all about God’s rewarding Raguel for his courage in burying a dead man whose body was left in the open. So Jesus was not saying that filial piety is somehow not a good thing or important. But there is absolutely no sign that this disciple’s father had died and was about to be buried. He wasn’t saying, “Jesus, my dad’s funeral is this afternoon. Let me go to the funeral and I’m catch up with you tonight.” His father seems to have been very much alive and he was saying to Jesus, “Jesus, my familial duties are more important than my following you. Let me fulfill those duties first and after my dad has died and I’ve buried him, then I can come and follow you to the beyond,” whether that would take months, years or even decades. That’s why Jesus responded as he did. Our task is to follow him who is the Source of Life and allow those who are drawing life from other sources to bury those who don’t have his life in them. We can’t really be his disciple unless we’re willing to follow him wherever he goes, unless we’re willing to relativize everything else — a home of our own, a bed, even our beloved family members, friends and careers — to be with Him wherever he is.
- Yesterday we celebrated the Solemnity of SS. Peter and Paul. We remember what happened at Peter’s calling. After Jesus’ miracle led to the biggest haul of fish in his life, Jesus called him to follow him and become a fisher of men and that’s exactly what Peter did, leaving the fish, nets and boats behind, leaving his house in Capernaum behind, leaving his mother-in-law (and possibly his wife if she were still alive) behind, in order to follow the Lord wherever he would go. St. Paul did the same thing. Once Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and identified himself, he asked what he should do. Jesus told him, “Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.” That’s precisely what he did. He was baptized, he recovered his sight, and from that point forward gave his entire life to the Gospel.
- This following the Lord into the beyond is what we also celebrate today in the first martyrs of the Roman Church, the “vast multitude” of ordinary Christians who died with Peter in the persecution of Nero as scapegoats for the fire Nero set that destroyed most of Rome. They had been following the Lord up until then in their daily life, in Sacred Scripture, in the liturgies celebrated in their living rooms. But during the persecution they were asked to follow him far more intensely: to follow him into suffering so as immediately to follow him to the other shore of heaven. And they left all they had in this world to follow Jesus all the way. We have an eye-witness account of what they suffered from the Roman pagan historian Tacitus, who was a 7 year old boy when they perished. A few decades later, he wrote down what happened: “To get rid of this rumor, Nero set up [i.e., falsely accused] as the culprits and punished with the utmost refinement of cruelty a class hated for their abominations, who are commonly called Christians. Christ, from whom their name is derived, was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. Checked for a moment, this pernicious superstition again broke out, not only in Judea, the source of the evil, but even in Rome…. Accordingly, arrest was first made of those who confessed [to being Christians]; then, on their evidence, an immense multitude [elsewhere in his writings he used this expression to refer to 3,000 to 5,000 men] was convicted…. Besides being put to death they were made to serve as objects of amusement; they were clothed in the hides of beasts and torn to death by dogs; others were crucified, others set on fire to serve to illuminate the night when daylight failed. Nero had thrown open his grounds for the display, and was putting on a show in the circus, where he mingled with the people in the dress of charioteer or drove about in his chariot. All this gave rise to a feeling of pity, even towards men whose guilt merited the most exemplary punishment; for it was felt that they were being destroyed not for the public good but to gratify the cruelty of an individual.” With Peter, they followed the Lord Jesus as others stretched out their hands and dragged them to places where according to the flesh they would never want to go. And immediately after the torture of their last few minutes, they had followed Jesus to eternal joy on the heavenly shore.
- The type of journey to which Jesus is calling us in faith, at least today, is small compared to theirs, but that doesn’t mean easy. It’s the journey of true conversion, which doesn’t mean merely the exodus from our sins, but means literally “turning with” (con-vertere) the Lord wherever he goes, thinking as he thinks, willing as he wills, loving as he loves. He speaks about it in the first reading through the Prophet Amos. The people of Israel, rather than following the Lord, were doing the opposite, selling out just men for bribes of silver and taking the clothes he needs to survive, sacrificing the poor for their sandals, giving in to sexual debauchery young and old, and getting drunk in God’s temple. The list continues in Psalm 50. People were reciting his covenant on their lips, but casting his words behind them, hating discipline, ripping people off, admiring adulterers, engaging in gossip and lying, spreading rumors about blood brothers and spiritual siblings. “When you do these things,” God asks, “shall I be deaf to it. Or do you think that I am like yourself?” God says, “I will correct you by drawing [your sins] up before your eyes,” so that they will know precisely how they need to leave their sins behind and follow him along “the right way I will show you.”
- During this Fortnight for Freedom, it’s key for us to grasp the timeliness of Amos’ and the Psalmist’s words, because we’re living in a time that is increasingly forgetting God. Through Amos, he reminded the Israelites that he had destroyed the Amorites for them, he who had brought them up from the land of Egypt and led them through the desert to occupy the Amorites’ land. Likewise, for us, it has been our religious faith and the morality flowing from that faith that has made our nation great. As people were not only allowed but encouraged to follow God, they appreciated what they had, they worked hard, they were honest and sacrificial, they defended the innocent even in foreign countries, as we marked on Saturday with the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. But if we forget God, if we cease to walk in the “right way” he shows us, if we give ourselves over to injustice, to debauchery, to neglect of the poor, to a lack of discipline, to getting in with thieves and adulterers and blasphemers, we’ll eventually suffer just as the Israelites did, not because God will cease to punish us but because an impious nation has no glue, a vicious people doesn’t have the virtue required to build something beautiful and defend itself. Today’s Responsorial Psalm, “Remember this, you who never think of God,” needs to resonate from coast to coast. And we are the people who are supposed to set the example of those who remember God. We are those who live with this memory of all God has gone, all he has taught, and everything to which he calls us.
- “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go!” Today, we have followed Jesus here, where he continues to teach us with the words of eternal life and seeks to have us nest ourselves in him, resting our head on his breast. It’s here where we cease to be walking cadavers but men and women fully alive in him. It’s here where we’re strengthened to follow him beyond. Through the intercession of the first martyrs of the Church of Rome, we ask him to give us all the grace he knows we need to follow him in the “right way” he shows us all the way through life and through death to the place where the martyrs and all the saints rejoice forever.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
AM 2:6-10, 13-16
For three crimes of Israel, and for four,
I will not revoke my word;
Because they sell the just man for silver,
and the poor man for a pair of sandals.
They trample the heads of the weak
into the dust of the earth,
and force the lowly out of the way.
Son and father go to the same prostitute,
profaning my holy name.
Upon garments taken in pledge
they recline beside any altar;
And the wine of those who have been fined
they drink in the house of their god.Yet it was I who destroyed the Amorites before them,
who were as tall as the cedars,
and as strong as the oak trees.
I destroyed their fruit above,
and their roots beneath.
It was I who brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and who led you through the desert for forty years,
to occupy the land of the Amorites.Beware, I will crush you into the ground
as a wagon crushes when laden with sheaves.
Flight shall perish from the swift,
and the strong man shall not retain his strength;
The warrior shall not save his life,
nor the bowman stand his ground;
The swift of foot shall not escape,
nor the horseman save his life.
And the most stouthearted of warriors
shall flee naked on that day, says the LORD.
PS 50:16BC-17, 18-19, 20-21, 22-23
“Why do you recite my statutes,
and profess my covenant with your mouth,
Though you hate discipline
and cast my words behind you?”
R. Remember this, you who never think of God.
“When you see a thief, you keep pace with him,
and with adulterers you throw in your lot.
To your mouth you give free rein for evil,
you harness your tongue to deceit.”
R. Remember this, you who never think of God.
“You sit speaking against your brother;
against your mother’s son you spread rumors.
When you do these things, shall I be deaf to it?
Or do you think that I am like yourself?
I will correct you by drawing them up before your eyes.”
R. Remember this, you who never think of God.
“Consider this, you who forget God,
lest I rend you and there be no one to rescue you.
He that offers praise as a sacrifice glorifies me;
and to him that goes the right way I will show the salvation of God.”
R. Remember this, you who never think of God.
he gave orders to cross to the other shore.
A scribe approached and said to him,
“Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,
but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”
Another of his disciples said to him,
“Lord, let me go first and bury my father.”
But Jesus answered him, “Follow me,
and let the dead bury their dead.”