Rev. Mr. Roger J. Landry
Pontifical North American College
Thursday of the 3rd Week of Lent
March 11, 1999
Jer 7:23-28; Lk 11:14-23
On this much awaited day of the official beginning of the NCAA College Basketball tournament — an event that rewards teamwork, creates heroes, and inspires so many — we are presented with an image of Jesus in the Gospel that raises the lessons of sports to the lessons of eternal salvation. And it is not only timely, but good for us, to focus on them, for too often we forget them. But even more important than these lessons is the portrayal of the God-man who gives them to us.
Jesus begins his defense against the Pharisee’s accusation that he casts out devils by the Devil’s power with a reminder of the simple truth of teamwork. No house divided against itself can stand. This was obvious to President Lincoln. This is obvious to every sports coach. This is obvious to every CEO, every father and mother, every Pastor, every Rector. Jesus reintroduces the Pharisees to this truth and implicitly draws the battle lines in the war between good and evil, between God and devil: Jesus can’t be on the devil’s team, because he gives the devil a certain credit that the conspiratorially-minded Pharisees had forgotten. The Devil is a cut-throat, win-at-all-costs coach and strategist — and he wouldn’t allow a player on his team who was scoring baskets for the other side.
And there are only two sides. In the final analysis we’re either going to have our jersey retired in the hall of fame or the hall of shame. That’s why Jesus declares that the man who is not with him is against him and that the man who does not gather with him scatters. Each day agents for Beelzebul’s team are offering every one of us all types of incentives — money, fame, flattery, stardom, sex and other types of sins — to leave God’s squad for the other side. And every day some of us accept the offer. But everyday, thanks be to God, we’re fortunate that Jesus offers us the chance to renew our contract with him.
But that’s only part of the drama we find in today’s Gospel. We also see a side of Jesus that is rarely emphasized nowadays. Like so many athletes, Jesus knew a little something about trash talking; the only difference between Jesus and modern athletes in this regard was that everything Jesus says is true. Listen to him again: “When a strong man fully armed guards his courtyard, his possessions go undisturbed. But when someone stronger than he comes and overpowers him, such a one carries off the arms on which the other was relying and divides the spoils.” Jesus clearly says he is that stronger man! Jesus is that eternal Tough Guy who beats up, no pulverizes, the strong man who no one else dares to take on.
Too often in our lifetime, we’ve been robbed of this image of Jesus. We’re presented with several of Jesus’ virtues — all of them true — but together only part of the picture. Catechists and teachers can focus so much on Jesus’s meekness, gentleness, compassion, kindness, and courtesy that oftentimes young kids, particularly young boys, can get an image of Jesus as a sort of soft cuddly Teddy Bear type of Savior. In the movies and in religious art, Jesus is often portrayed as a bony, effeminate, concave-chested, pencil neck geek whom you might question would even be able to lift a hammer not to mention use one as a carpenter for nearly twenty years. No. In addition to all of these above mentioned virtues, we also have to add that Jesus is simply the baddest, toughest person ever.
If we really have to become like little children to enter into the kingdom of God — and we do — then this understanding of Jesus, in my opinion, is very helpful. Think about your own early years. If yours were anything like mine, you would have had several conversations with the other boys in the neighborhood about whose dad was toughest, whose dad had the biggest muscles, etc. The fact that my dad was the toughest is besides the point… All of us, in the face of a big, scary world in which there’s obvious evil, needed some security, and we sought it in confident trust that our father was strong enough to protect us.
Well, we really do live in a world where a strong bully seeks to overpower us, enslave us, and ultimately kill us. Someone who sweet-talks his way into our lives often without our even knowing it. Someone who never sleeps he’s so obsessed with harming us and bringing us down. This is something that should scare us, but we have a recourse, to that stronger man, Our Father in Heaven and our tough big brother, Jesus, who has already defeated that bully and made it possible for us, when we confide in him, to live freely and unafraid. And the Church wants us to remember this truth during our Lenten struggles and battles.
I finish by returning to basketball. In the 1981 NBA championship, when the Boston Celtics were down two games to one to the Houston Rockets going into game four in Houston, a pretty-much unheralded player named Cedric Maxwell walked into the Celtics’ locker room and proceeded to tell his teammates, including Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, not to worry, stating, “Climb on my back, boys, I’m going to carry you.” And he kept his promise, became the series MVP and carried them all the way to the championship.
Jesus is saying the same thing to us this Lent: “Climb on my back, brothers, I’m going to carry you.” And we should waste no time in doing so. We should climb on the back of this good shepherd who will leave 99 others to come after us, hunt us down and bring us back. We should hop on the sturdy shoulders of this stronger man who has laid down his life to protect, rescue and save us. We should leap aboard that Cross on his back, as he journeys all the way to that one crown and championship that can and will never be taken away.
And who says we don’t have any heroes anymore?