Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Parish, New Bedford, MA
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
February 4-5, 2006
Job 7:1-4,6-7; 1Cor 9:16-19,22-23; Mk 1:29-39
1) In today’s readings, we encounter a lot of suffering. In the first reading, Job is tossing and turning at night, complaining about the “months of emptiness and nights of misery.” He has lost most of the members of his family, all his livestock, even his own health, and as he lay with boils all over his skin, the emotional pain overwhelmed him. God would soon come to his aid. In the Gospel, we see that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law had a bad fever, which Jesus cured. Then, after sundown, they brought to Jesus “who were sick or possessed with demons.” St. Mark tells us that the “whole city was gathered around the door.” Jesus cured the sick and cast out demons. It was likely very grueling work, because in no part of the Gospel did Jesus ever do “general healing services,” but cured the ill or the possessed one-by-one. It was probably close to midnight by the time he finished. He arose early the next morning, “while it was still very dark,” and went to a deserted place to pray. St. Mark tells us that Simon and his companions “hunted” for Jesus, and when they found him said, “Everyone is searching for you.” Doubtless the hordes had brought many other of the sick and the possessed from surrounding regions to Jesus.
2) “Everyone is searching for you.” We might expect that Jesus’ response would have been one of great joy. After all, he would later say, “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will refresh you” (Mt 11:28 ). He wanted people coming to him with their burdens. He wanted to give them refreshment. But Jesus, when told that everyone was looking for him, didn’t respond by saying, “Great! Our strategy is working.” Rather he said, doubtless to their surprise, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came to do.” Jesus had come to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. He realized in prayer that the people were coming him not so much to receive what he wanted to give them, but to obtain from him what they themselves wanted. The crowds looked at him as a wonder-worker, as the great doctor, as the famed exorcist. But Jesus had a different set of priorities than the crowds. He wanted them to accept him on his own terms, not theirs. He wanted them to come to him not principally as the doctor of their mortal bodies, but as the Savior of their immortal souls.
3) We see these same priorities of Jesus at work in other episodes of the Gospel. After he had fed the 5,000 families with five loaves and two fish, the crowds walked several miles along the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee to be with Jesus. Upon disembarking, when he saw the crowds, Jesus said to them with great candor: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, … because you ate your fill of the loaves” (Jn 6:26). They were looking more for a baker than a savior! Jesus again showed what his real priorities were when a paralytic was brought to him by friends, who, not being able to get him in through the front door, climbed up on the roof, opened it and lowered their friend down below. Jesus, when he saw the faith of the friends, turned to the paralyzed man and said, not, “I cure you. Stand up, take up your mat and go home,” but rather, “My son, your sins are forgiven” (Mk 2:5). The most important thing Jesus wanted to do was to cure him of his sins. In order to silence his critics who claimed he was blaspheming since only God can forgive sins, Jesus, responded by healing the man’s paralysis, so that they might realize that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Likewise, Jesus worked all of his miracles, not because that was the reason for which he came down from heaven, but to give divine authentication to the words that he was teaching. The miracles were the dramatic exclamation points to the sentences of his teaching.
4) Today all of us have come here to St. Anthony’s Church, but the question Jesus wants us to ask ourselves is why we’ve come here. Have we come here hungering for what he wants to give us or for what we want him to give us? Are we here trying to accord our priorities with His, or His with ours? It’s still common today that many people, like those in today’s Gospel, come to the Lord mostly as a miracle worker, as a benefactor who can pull strings to get us out of a jam, as a powerful friend who can provide a quick fix to a problem we’re facing. Jesus, however, wants more. As he said in today’s Gospel, the reason he came from heaven to earth was to proclaim the message of the kingdom. What he wants from us is to that message, embrace it, and live it. He wants us to respond to it with the same type of life-changing faith that we see in Mary and the apostles. That’s his priority.
5) Many of us might think that Jesus has his priorities mixed up. After all, imagine how full this Church would be if Jesus, through me or Fr. Blyskosz, were working tremendous miracles of healing. We could depopulate St. Luke’s and bring everyone here. People would come from all over the city and the state to be cured. The dramatic exorcisms would bring national and international media. All those with cancer, or paralysis, or back-pain, or emotional scars would bring them here and leave completely healed. Probably it would also bring some of the criminals and drug dealers who, in seeing this incredible divine power working through a man, might be brought to conversion. But that’s not the way Jesus chooses to do it. Instead, he sends a man ordained in his person, to preach the Gospel of the kingdom. From Jesus’ own divine — and therefore correct — perspective, the greatest gift he can give any of us, whether we’re ill and suffering or not, is his word! Jesus wants us here most to listen to his preaching, to embrace his word, and in consuming the Word-made-flesh in the Eucharist, to become so one with the word that we become living commentaries of life in the kingdom. In doing so, he’s not ignoring all our ills and problems, but trying to address them at their root. All of these sufferings and difficulties are symptoms of the same essential cancer: the cancer of sin. Physical pain comes as a result of the first sin of our parents at the fall. Our emotional pain and many of our illnesses come the wounds that our sins and others’ have caused. Jesus isn’t ducking any of those difficulties, but in his divine omniscience is trying to lead us to what is the cure for them all.
6) We see Jesus’ priorities at work in the lives of his first apostles. They stressed that proclamation of the kingdom was paramount. The first time Jesus sent them out, he gave the instructions first to preach that the kingdom is among them, and then to cure (Mt 10:7-8 ). In the time of the early Church, the apostles recognized that, because their first duty was to “prayer” and the “ministry of the word,” that they no longer had the time for other good works of service, so they ordained seven deacons (Acts 6:3-4). St. Paul even gave up baptizing — which others could do — so that he could travel more to preach God’s saving word: “For Christ did not send me to baptize,” he said, “ but to proclaim the gospel” (1 Cor 1:17). You may be surprised to discover that the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, in their document on the priesthood, said that “it is the first duty of priests… to preach the Gospel of God to all men” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 4). Preaching is a more important duty than even the celebration of the sacraments.
7) St. Bernardine of Siena, a great 15th century Franciscan preacher, was once asked a very interesting hypothetical by those who were wondering why he stressed so much the importance of preaching. They queried: “If a Christian community for twenty years could only have one thing or the other — either 20 years of good preaching with no access to the Mass and the Eucharist or 20 years of access to the Mass, but bad or no preaching — which would be better? Think of what your response would be to the same question. St. Bernardine’s answer, without any hesitation, surprised them: it was better to have 20 years of good preaching! He answered that way because he was convinced that after 20 years of the Eucharist with no and bad preaching, the people would no longer understand the importance of the Mass and would begin to take the Eucharist for granted; whereas, after 20 years of good preaching without the Mass, the people would be salivating for the Eucharist and the other sacraments. When you look at the recent history of Catholicism in the U.S., St. Bernardine’s point seems validated. There have been countless conversions from Evangelical Protestantism — including of many ministers — to the Catholic faith because their study and lengthy preaching on the Bible led them to the conclusion that the Eucharist really is Jesus and they’ve come into the Church trying to make up for lost time. On the other hand, Catholics, who have been complaining for decades about bad preaching or even no preaching, seem to take the awesome gift of the Eucharist for granted, as seen by rates of attendance at Mass and at Eucharistic adoration.
8 ) The point of preaching, as the Second Vatican teaches, is to lead the listeners to “conversion” and “holiness of life” (PO, 4). St. Paul, in today’s second reading, that the goal of all his preaching was to “win more” people for the Gospel, the “might … save some.” The most famous preacher in American Catholic Church history was Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, and he used to judge the effectiveness of a homily by how, not by how many people complimented him for eloquence after it, but by how many would make firm resolutions to change their lives because of it. Jesus, I think, judges the success of every homily in the same way, whether people hear the message of his first homily — “repent and believe in the Good news” — and convert and seek to live the holiness of the Gospel.
9) Why have we come here today? Jesus knows that we come here with our illnesses, needs and problems. He can cure us and he wants us to ask him with confidence to do so. But he doesn’t want these difficulties to distract us from an even more important gift he wants to give us today: his word.
10) Today at this Mass, we bring him especially our prayers to help us to recover from the horrible violence that occurred on Wednesday night at Puzzles’ Lounge, a mere five blocks from here. We pray for the recovery of the three people who were wounded by an eighteen year old madman. We pray for those Jacob Robida killed last night in Arkansas. We pray for healing and an end to violence on our streets. How does Jesus respond? Jesus responds with the gift of his word. He wants us to hear very clearly that God made each of us in his own image and likeness and that “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me!” (Gen 1; Mt 25:31-46). He wants us to hear what he said in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, “you shall not kill,” but I say to you that whoever hates a brother or a sister, will be liable to judgment” (Mt 5:21). He wants us to hear his message — however hard it is! — about forgiving our brothers “seventy times seven times” (Mt 18:22) and to make our own his prayer as he was being hammered to the Cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). He also wants us to give his message on the truth about human love and sexual morality. This is the greatest gift he can give us and the greatest path to healing.
11) One final point. Two-thousand years ago, Jesus left those who were seeking him in order to go to other villages to preach the Gospel of the kingdom. After his Ascension, he has changed his method of operation. He won’t leave you today to go to other neighborhoods or cities. Instead he will stay here and wants to sent you to the other villages, like he did his first disciples. He does this not because he is lazy, but because he loves, and he realizes that the greatest gift he could give you is the vocation to share in his mission of the proclamation of the kingdom for the salvation of the world. This is why Jesus has come here today. Why have you?