Perseverance in Faith rather than Allowing the Gift to be Corrupted, 5th Thursday (II), February 8, 2018

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Mission of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Thursday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
February 8, 2018
1 Kings 11:4-13, Ps 106, Mk 7:24-30

 

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

 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • Today there is a huge contrast in the readings between perseverance and growth in faith on the one hand and the lack of perseverance, corruption and the idolatry to which it leads on the other. Insofar as there are no plateaus in the spiritual life, that we’re either going up hill with Jesus following the Way of the Cross or sliding downhill, it’s key for us to understand both paths. St. Paul once told St. Timothy that the real choice in life is between perseverance and denial, between faith each day and infidelity (2 Tim 2:12-13). Today we can enter into what God reveals to us in Sacred Scripture so that we may more resolutely walk the path of faith.
  •  The scene in the Gospel is one of the most touching in all of Sacred Scripture. Jesus went into the heart of pagan territory to escape from the crowds. But a pagan mother got word that he was there and came to beg him with desperation to exorcise the demons from her daughter. St. Matthew’s version of the scene gives us the most details.  She first fell at his feet and begged, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus at first gave her no answer at all. But she didn’t quit. Second, as she turned to the apostles and begged for their intervention, they came came and told him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” So he said to her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she still didn’t quit. She came to him now that he was speaking to her, fell down before him in homage, and said, “Lord, help me!” And Jesus, to help her to continue to grow in faith, told her with the typical vocabulary with which Jews and Gentiles would refer to each other, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” But she still didn’t give up. She reminded him that he was the Good Shepherd even of puppies. “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Jesus was amazed at her persevering faith and gave her the greatest compliment in Sacred Scripture: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish!” And at that moment her daughter was healed. She had been helped to become great in faith precisely by Jesus’ testing.
  • That perseverance in faith is contrasted with what we see in the first reading with King Solomon. Solomon, as we saw last Saturday, had been blessed by God with the gift of wisdom, of an understanding heart so that he could properly discern, judge and guide his people. He became famous across the ancient world for the wisdom with which he had been blessed. But eventually his  understanding heart became a lustful heart, then a corrupt heart and finally an idolatrous one. It began with his entering into political alliances, which in the ancient world was normally sealed by intermarriage. The Lord had precisely forbidden the Israelites to intermarry because, he said, they would “turn your hearts to their gods.” But Solomon not only intermarried, but fell in love with them, as we see in the verse immediately before today’s first reading begins, “he had seven hundred wives of princely rank and three hundred concubines, and his wives turned his heart.” He basically had 1,000 wives (in the ancient world concubines were not mistresses as they were wives of a lower social class) who served his vanity and turned his heart from one that sought to please God to one that sought to please them. And then the great builder of the Temple of Jerusalem — the one who had so praised God for his presence in the Temple — then began to build temples to pagan gods, including as we see the god of Moloch, before whose image innocent babies would be sacrificed.
  • What happened? Pope Francis described it very well in a homily four years ago. Solomon lost his faith due to his vanity and lust. When he began to sin, he didn’t repent of it like his father David did; rather he pressed on the gas pedal and became “corrupt,” an unrepentant sinner. And that led to his idolatry. “He began to take so much pleasure in his pagan wives and concubines that they diverted his heart to others gods,” Pope Francis said. “These women weakened Solomon’s heart slowly. His heart no longer remained wholly with the Lord, like David’s, his father’s. His heart weakened so much that he lost the faith. He lost the faith! The wisest man in the world let himself be led away by indiscreet, indiscriminate love; he let himself be led astray by his passions.” To be faithful is not a thing merely of the mind, but of one’s whole life. To be faithful means to seek to love God with all one’s heart, mind, soul and strength. Solomon had lost faith while retaining knowledge because his heart had been weakened by sin. But it didn’t stop there. Pope Francis continued, “He was a sinner, like his father David,” but then he went astray even further and was converted from a sinner into someone who was corrupt [an unrepentant sinner]. His heart was corrupted through this idolatry. … His vanity and passions let him to corruption. It’s in the heart where one loses faith. The evil seed of his passions grew in Solomon’s heart and led him to idolatry.”
  • What happened to the Syro-Phoenician woman and to Solomon can happen to each of us. I’ve had the joy many times in my priesthood to see people come to Christ late in life, those who came the Lord in prison, those who were once drug addicts and philanderers, deadbeats and even involved in the modern Moloch worship of the abortion industry. Something makes them come to recognize they need the Lord. In some ways the most important thing that happened in the life of the Syro-Phoenician woman was that her daughter got possessed by a demon, probably because of the context in which she was being raised. But that terrible event in the life of her family led her to seek out Jesus, to place persevering faith in him, and to have her life changed forever. On the other hand, I have seen seen many people go the way of Solomon. How many Catholic politicians, to take just one class of people, say that they were once altar boys, that they went to Catholic school for 12 or 16 years and then they begin to use their office to advance the destruction of human life, attacks on religious freedom, false ideas of marriage, policies truly injurious to the poor and needy in favor of special treatment for friends. They can go from people who once sought to please God to those who have been thoroughly corrupted. We’ve seen the same thing with some priests, including those who were blessed by God with enormous abilities to teach the faith and bring people to God. Even though they knew the truth, they gave themselves over to vanity and to lust, lost their faith, betrayed their vocations, God and their people, and now live a life of sin. We have seen the same thing happen with faithful Catholic husbands and wives. They’ve been great Catholics for decades, but slowly give in to tepidity, give in to temptation, and before you know it, they’ve gone from happily married faithful spouses to adulterers, destroying their marriages, their families, their careers and their souls in the process. We’ve seen the same thing with religious, when those who were once considered models of the faith become tepid and eventually lose their vocations. Faith isn’t a once-and-for-all gift that just grows on its own. It’s a gift of God that grows also in response to acts of faith in response to tests, like we see with the pagan mother today. We need to persevere in faith, to continue to live by God’s wisdom, to continue to inform and follow a conscience well-tuned to God’s voice. We need to recognize that but for the grace of God, we can go the path of Solomon.
  • Today we’re celebrating the feast of a woman great in faith like the Syro-Phoenician woman, one of the most compelling saints of modern times: St. Josephine Bakhita. She was born in the Darfur region of Sudan about 1869 (there were no records and no one knew for sure). When he was only 7, she was kidnapped by Arab Muslim bandits, forced to convert to Islam, and then sold into slavery on five different occasions. As was the custom with Sudanese slaveowners at the time, she was repeatedly beaten as a little girl even if she was prompt in doing what was asked. On one occasion, one or her masters showed up with flour, salt and razor blades to brand her. With the flour, the owner sketched on the black skin of her breasts, belly and arms 114 intricate designs and then with the razor blades cut into her skin according to those patterns. While she was bleeding and in enormous pain, the master then poured salt into the wounds so that they would never heal and she would always be branded. Eventually she was sold to the Italian consul in Khartoum. This was the first time she wasn’t beaten when she was told to do things. When the political situation destabilized, the consul needed to leave the country and he took Bakhita — a name that means “fortunate,” given to her by one of her owners, because she couldn’t remember the name her parents had given her, so great was the trauma of her capture and her beatings — with him. He gave her to the service of friends having arrived back in Italy, where she helped to raise a baby as a nanny. When this family was preparing to return to the Sudan after the political situation had improved, they entrusted Bakhita and the little girl to the care of the Canossian Sisters in town.
  • It was there that Bakhita was really exposed to Christianity for the first time. Her reaction to seeing a bloody Italian crucifix was unforgettable. She recognized that the one whom Christians adored as Lord and Master understood her pain, because he had been lacerated in his scourging just as severely as she had been repeatedly whipped and then sliced up with razor blades. When the family returned from the Sudan to take Bakhita and their daughter with them to Africa, Bakhita refused. A lawsuit followed that both under Italian law and a Sudanese liberation of slaves found her to be free and insofar as she was now over 18, she could stay. She was baptized with the name Josephine Margaret and Confirmed, made her first Communion from the hands of the future St. Pius X, and was eventually accepted as a Canossian Sister, where she served for the next 44 years as a cook, sacristan and portress. She was always so grateful for the teaching of her new true Parón or Master and always sought not only to live according to that wisdom by to pass it on to others. Even though she had never received much education, the school girls used to line up at the door of the school just for her to pat them on the head. When people would ask her how she was doing, particularly in times of severe illness and pain, she’d simply respond with a smile, “As the Master desires.”
  • Pope Benedict wrote about her as as an example of hope-filled persevering faith in his 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi. “To come to know God—the true God—means to receive hope. We who have always lived with the Christian concept of God, and have grown accustomed to it, have almost ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God. The example of a saint of our time can to some degree help us understand what it means to have a real encounter with this God for the first time. I am thinking of the African Josephine Bakhita, canonized by Pope John Paul II. She was born around 1869… in Darfur in Sudan. …She was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life. Finally, in 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant for the Italian consul Callisto Legnani, who returned to Italy as the Mahdists advanced. Here, after the terrifying ‘masters’ who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of ‘master’—in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name ‘paron’ for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ. Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a ‘paron’ above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme ‘Paron,’ before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her ‘at the Father’s right hand.’ Now she had ‘hope’ —no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: ‘I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.’ Through the knowledge of this hope she was ‘redeemed,’ no longer a slave, but a free child of God. … Hence, when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated again from her ‘Paron.’ On 9 January 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. On 8 December 1896, in Verona, she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and from that time onwards, besides her work in the sacristy and in the porter’s lodge at the convent, she made several journeys round Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people. The hope born in her which had ‘redeemed’ her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody.” She wanted to help others to learn to live by faith too.
  • The Canaanite woman begged Jesus just to let her and her daughter eat the crumbs that fell from the Master’s table. Today Jesus is going to let us have far more than crumbs, he’s about to give his whole body, blood, soul and divinity, in order to build us into a temple where the one, true God is worshipped rather than any idols. This is the means by which we will be able to grow into the types of persons like St. Josephine who today, tomorrow and increasingly each day, he will be able to say to us, O Woman, O Man, “great is your faith!”

 

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
1 KGS 11:4-13

When Solomon was old his wives had turned his heart to strange gods,
and his heart was not entirely with the LORD, his God,
as the heart of his father David had been.
By adoring Astarte, the goddess of the Sidonians,
and Milcom, the idol of the Ammonites,
Solomon did evil in the sight of the LORD;
he did not follow him unreservedly as his father David had done.
Solomon then built a high place to Chemosh, the idol of Moab,
and to Molech, the idol of the Ammonites,
on the hill opposite Jerusalem.
He did the same for all his foreign wives
who burned incense and sacrificed to their gods.
The LORD, therefore, became angry with Solomon,
because his heart was turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel,
who had appeared to him twice
(for though the LORD had forbidden him
this very act of following strange gods,
Solomon had not obeyed him).
So the LORD said to Solomon: “Since this is what you want,
and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes
which I enjoined on you,
I will deprive you of the kingdom and give it to your servant.
I will not do this during your lifetime, however,
for the sake of your father David;
it is your son whom I will deprive.
Nor will I take away the whole kingdom.
I will leave your son one tribe for the sake of my servant David
and of Jerusalem, which I have chosen.”

Responsorial Psalm
PS 106:3-4, 35-36, 37 AND 40

R. (4a) Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.
Blessed are they who observe what is right,
who do always what is just.
Remember us, O LORD, as you favor your people;
visit us with your saving help.
R. Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.
But they mingled with the nations
and learned their works.
They served their idols,
which became a snare for them.
R. Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.
They sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to demons.
And the LORD grew angry with his people,
and abhorred his inheritance.
R. Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.

Gospel
MK 7:24-30

Jesus went to the district of Tyre.
He entered a house and wanted no one to know about it,
but he could not escape notice.
Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him.
She came and fell at his feet.
The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth,
and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter.
He said to her, “Let the children be fed first.
For it is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs.”
She replied and said to him,
“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”
Then he said to her, “For saying this, you may go.
The demon has gone out of your daughter.”
When the woman went home, she found the child lying in bed
and the demon gone.