Rev. Mr. Roger J. Landry
Domus Sanctae Mariae Guadalupensis, Rome
Saturday of the 8th Week of OT, Year I
May 29, 1999
Sir 51:12-20; Ps 19; Mk 11:27-33
In today’s readings, the Church presents to us two different attitudes of approaching knowledge. In Sirach, we see knowledge praised for its beauty and for the wisdom that results when this knowledge is interiorized and properly understood. Such knowledge builds up a person. In the Gospel, we see an attempt to get knowledge in order to manipulate it in order to tear others down. Because I’m confident that in this time of preparation for exams, you are already recognizing the beauty of learning, “meeting with great instruction in the short time [you] pay heed,” and “giving your teachers grateful praise,” I would like rather to focus on the Gospel and what we can learn from Jesus’s behavior when questioned by the Pharisees.
This scene with Jesus is a very hard one to preach on. Perhaps that’s the reason why Holy Mother Church has cut it — and its parallel accounts — out of the entire three-year Sunday rotation. The passage is hard because no one who confronts it can avoid the pure, simple, and unappealing fact that the chief priests, scribes and elders who approached Jesus were wicked, and evil is so hard to preach on well. Jesus, who time and again, as the Evangelists tell us, knew what was in men’s hearts, knew that they were wicked. His reply was not some political stunt to evade their question, but an attempt to get them to come to the light by acknowledging some truth — for without truth, authentic communication is impossible. Instead we see their machinations about the identity of John the Baptist. They showed that they could care less about the truth and about whether John’s baptism was from God; they just wanted to give the best “policy position” that would keep them in the favor of the crowd. They discovered that neither posture would keep them out of trouble so they simply feigned ignorance. Jesus, hence, told them nothing because they were not looking for the truth.
We can we learn quite a bit from Jesus’ interactions with these scribes, chief priests and elders. Jesus, who sent out his disciples into the world with the instruction to be “as wise as serpents but as pure as doves,” did not fail to leave them an example of what being as wise as a serpent really means. Pure as a dove himself, he saw evil, the evil too often we would like to pretend doesn’t exist. He saw that sometimes people don’t seek the Truth, but seek to destroy or manipulate it, and on these occasions, Jesus followed his own command given at the Sermon on the Mount not to “give what is holy to dogs or throw pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” He did it here with the Pharisees. He did it again with Pilate, who really didn’t care at all what the Truth was. He did it again, in silence, with Herod, who sought a magician not a savior. He did it with Caiphas until the High Priest abjured him to answer in the name of God. Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, would only speak that Word to those who really wanted to listen.
Today there are still many scribes, priests and elders. Jesus has indeed sent us out as well as sheep in the midst of these ravenous wolves. Almost our whole culture — as Pope John Paul II has repeatedly stressed — is becoming a culture of death, a culture ruled by the father of lies. To see this clearly, we don’t have to look very far. Take the abortion decision Roe v. Wade in 1973 which so much characterizes our age. We see in the stratagems of Justice Blackmun and those who agreed with him similar machinations to those of the Jewish lawyers in the Gospel: “If we say human life begins at conception, then how could we possibly allow abortions? If, on the other hand, we say that it doesn’t begin at conception, how can we possibly defend ourselves against the biologists, philosophers and photographers all of whom see human life in the womb at the earliest stages? Therefore, let us say we don’t know when it begins…” — which is exactly what they ended up writing, and Jesus will be killed in the womb 28 times in America alone during the time it takes to deliver this short homily. They did not care about what the truth was. Like the worst sophists, they merely manipulated language to justify something intrinsically wrong. And we see similar types of systematic wickedness and deception occurring today in China, in Belgrade, in certain US and UN government offices, and countless other places closer to home.
But none of us should be surprised at this. Jesus told us it would happen, that he was sending us out into a world that would hate us, because it hated him first. But he also told us: “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.” He told us to do good to those who hate us, to love our enemies and pray for those who curse us. And these weren’t empty words. Jesus died for those Pharisees out of love, even though they were wicked. We should do the same.
This again is a hard Gospel. Indeed, it sounds like Bad News rather than Good News. All of us would rather live in a world in which everyone loved each other, according to the cool, soothing lyrics of a John Lennon melody. But while “imagining” such a world, Lennon himself was shot. What does all of this mean? Should we be afraid or anxious? No. Jesus tells us 16 times in the Gospel not to be afraid — that he would strengthen us — and not to fear, for he had overcome the world. But what if we’re not as agile with the quick comeback as Jesus was time-and-again against the Pharisees? He told us “do not worry about how we are to speak or what we are to say; what we are to say will be given to us at the proper time; for it will not be us speaking, but the Spirit of our Father speaking through us,” just like the Father and the Spirit were speaking through Him as well. Jesus ultimately tells us to be realistic disciples, to recognize that there’s evil, but to realize as well that he has overcome evil and has given us the opportunity to share in his salvation of the world and victory over death. So on the eve of the celebration of the Feast of the Holy Trinity, let us ask the three divine Persons to make us realistic disciples, as wise as the Serpent lifted on the Cross for our Salvation, and as pure as that Dove he promised to send us to strengthen us and lead us into all truth, as we lift up to the Father that very sacrifice that overcame sin and death once and for all.