Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Monday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time, Year I
Memorial of St. Apollinaris, Bishop and Martyr
July 20, 2015
Ex 14:5-18, Ex 15, Mt 12:38-42
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Today the Scribes and the Pharisees — those who as we saw a few days ago had begun to conspire to plot Jesus’ death, those who had said in the previous scene that he did exorcisms by the power of the devil — come up and hypocritically call him “Teacher” and ask him for a sign. A sign was a miracle that pointed to something else, namely Jesus’ authority to preach and do what he was saying and doing. But we know that Jesus had been doing nothing but miracles: he had immediately before cured a man with a withered hand and had expelled demons, he had cured everyone who had been brought to him, he had multiplied bread and fish to feed a multitude, he had cured lepers, made lame people walk and so much more as signs pointing to the fact that he was speaking and working with the authority of God. But the Scribes and Pharisees didn’t want to accept what those miracles signified. So they kept asking for other ones. Perhaps they were waiting until a supposed miracle attempt failed so that they would be able to feel justified in their rejection of Jesus. What they failed to grasp was that Jesus himself was the sign of God, he was the one pointing to God’s presence because he was the sign and signified all at the same time. Jesus cut to the core of why they were asking for such a miracle, saying, an “evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign.” If they were of a good and faithful generation, they would have already taken seriously all of the miracles and words that Jesus had already done and grasped that he himself was the sign for which the Jews should have been looking. The reason why they failed to grasp the meaning of the sign of Jesus and all the other signs he was doing that pointed toward him was because they were obstinate in what we could call their “religious idolatry,” in their worship not of God but of the religion they had made around the God of Israel, all their man-made precepts and interpretations that were leading them to seek to break the fifth and eighth commandments to murder Jesus. No matter how many signs Jesus worked, no matter how many times he spoke with authority, no matter how many times called them to conversion, they just refused to budge.
- Obstinacy is perverse adherence to an idea despite all arguments and signs to the contrary and we see the classic sign of obstinacy in today’s first reading. Pharaoh and the Egyptians were obstinate in their treating the Jews as their slaves. And despite Pharaoh’s finally giving the Israelites permission to leave to go to worship God in the desert, when the Egyptians saw them leaving, they gave up mourning their first born sons, and came in pursuit. None of the plagues God had worked convinced them to change course. And when God opened the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to pass through on dry ground, not even that miracle could convince the Egyptians that God was giving a clear sign that he was on their side and was helping them to flee. “So obstinate had the Lord made Pharaoh that he pursued the children of Israel even while they were marching away in triumph” and they were so obstinate that they foolishly pursued the Israelites into the Red Sea, where, as we will see tomorrow, they all perished. Nothing could persuade them to stop, review their behavior, and possibly change course. This is the same thing we see in the Scribes and the Pharisees. Not even Jesus’ resurrection would be enough to convince them that all signs were pointing to his divinity, to the truth of everything he was saying.
- It’s important for us as believers to confront the question of obstinacy, in sin, the stubborn resistance to change one’s behavior or even to consider seriously calls for us to do it. We can often see it in the faithful, when they hold a grudge so tightly that it doesn’t seem that Jesus himself and his call to be as merciful to others as he is to us could loosen their grip. You see it occasionally in the priesthood and religious life when someone becomes so obsessed about a given point that no one can break through. You see it with the category of people whom the code of Canon Law describes as “obstinately persistent in manifest grave sin,” who must be refused Holy Communion: people who refuse to change their support for intrinsic evils like abortion, euthanasia or same-sex marriage, people who refuse to end sinful relationships or other public behaviors that are contrary to God’s law. Not even the Pope, it seems, could persuade certain Catholic politicians, judges or citizens that they’re morally wrong in supporting the certain intrinsic evils they do. Others are obstinate in their xenophobia to such a degree that the Pope can’t change their hearts with regard to immigrants. Just like the Scribes and the Pharisees had taken on “religious idols,” their own versions of the practice of faith that were trumping the one God himself had revealed, so people today can give into the same idolatry. We need always to be aware of it.
- But obstinacy — the refusal to convert to what God is asking — is different from the holy stubbornness that should characterize Christian perseverance. We see what this sacred persistence looks like in today’s first reading as well. When the Israelites begin to fear seeing Pharaoh, his armies and charioteers in chase and cry out — in one of the classic lines in the Old Testament — ““Were there no burial places in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die in the desert?,” suggesting that they just turn back and serve as slaves once again in Egypt (as if that were even possible, that they wouldn’t be slaughtered), God tells them through Moses to go forward in faith, not backward. They hadn’t really gotten the lessons of the ten plagues. They hadn’t realized that God who had done all that was still on their side. His greatest miracle awaited them. But they needed to go forward not regress, they needed to put their hands to the plow and plow, not turn back. We, too, need that holy stubbornness not to turn back on faith. Because the same Lord who worked to free them works in our lives!
- And the area we need most to persevere is in faithful accepting Jesus, the Great Sign of God’s saving presence he is. The two examples he chose to share with those challenging him demonstrate the summons to conversion and perseverance. The first one is Jonah, who not only is a sign of the Resurrection, but a great example of conversion who then was able credibly to preach conversion. We know that at Jonah initially refused God’s call. He ran in the opposite direction of Nineveh. He tried to escape on a boat from Joppa, but that’s when he was thrown overboard and experienced the miracle of being saved. Afterward, having learned the lesson, he went to preach conversion and God blessed his efforts. He could incarnate what conversion was. And even though at the beginning he didn’t persevere faithfully in doing what the Lord was asking, he did at the end. Jesus was able to use him as a sign for his interlocutors: that just as conversion was possible for Jonah, it, too, was possible for them. And in terms of preaching conversion, Jesus, as the Messiah, was giving an even greater summons. At the message of Jonah, the Ninevites all repented, from the king down to the pets, who all fasted in sackcloth and ashes. Jesus told them that he was greater than Jonah and a greater sign of conversion. If the pagans of Nineveh had changed their ways at the preaching of Jonah on the first day, then the supposedly religious Jews of his day should have much more readily changed when they heard Jesus preaching “Repent and believe in the Gospel” and working all the signs to back up his message.
- Likewise with Solomon we get a message not merely of wisdom but of the wisdom of perseverance. Jesus says that the Queen of Sheba had traveled a great distance with many caravans in her retinue in order to hear Solomon’s wisdom — she had in fact traveled 1660 miles or, at a pace of 15 miles a day, over three months each way — but that his wisdom, God’s teaching about how to live, die and live forever, was greater than Solomon’s and he was saying that the Scribes and Pharisees weren’t willing to travel any intellectual or moral distance. But there’s a deeper reason, I think, for invoking Solomon. He is a terrible sign of the lack of perseverance. As an 18 year old assuming the throne of his father David, he pleased God very much, when God gave him the ability to ask for anything whatsoever, that he asked for an understanding heart, a wise heart like God’s, to judge and lead his people as God would want. So pleased was God that he gave him a heart so wise and understanding that no one had ever had such gifts, and we see in his early days how he used those gifts. He used them in such a way that the Queen of Sheba was willing to come such distances just to hear him. But then the one who built the temple of the Lord began to build pagan temples. The one who spoke with God’s wisdom began to live in violation of it. It happened through pride and lust. He eventually surrounded himself by 300 wives and 700 concubines and began to build pagan shrines to some of his lovers. He who had started out so strongly, started out on the road of true wisdom, didn’t persevere and became thoroughly corrupted. That, too, is a warning to the Scribes and Pharisees, that they who initially started out with zeal for God were forsaking the true religion for one of their own making, and were plotting to use the fifth and eighth commandments to murder Jesus.
- St. Apollonaris whom the Church celebrates today is someone who faithfully persevered. He was a first century saint who may have been ordained by St. Peter in Rome. He planted the seeds of the Gospel in Ravenna, where eventually a thriving Church developed and one of the great cultural centers in early Christianity as seen in the tremendous mosaics that remain. Even though he suffered a great deal for proclaiming the Gospel, being exiled multiple times, tortured and eventually martyred, with a holy stubbornness he remained faithful to the Lord. And we ask him to intercede for that grace for us today.
- We finish with the Sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah spent three days in the belly of a sea creature in the ocean — and the ocean was a sign of death — before being spit out onto the shore “risen from the dead,” so Jesus would spend three days in the belly of the tomb before likewise being spit out risen. That is the great sign Jesus himself would give, his own resurrection. And we enter that sign, and what it signifies, every Mass. I’ve always been moved that in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, right over the altar where the Popes celebrate Mass (now on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord each year and in the Mass the day after their election), Michelangelo has depicted Jonah. Not only is Christ the fulfillment of the Sign of Jonah, but at Mass, we enter into Christ’s Passion, death and resurrection. We enter with him into the tomb and at the end of Mass he spits us out to the world, to be through, with and in him, new Jonahs, new Solomons, living and preaching the conversion and wisdom with which Jesus has enriched us.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 Ex 14:5-18
that the people had fled,
Pharaoh and his servants changed their minds about them.
They exclaimed, “What have we done!
Why, we have released Israel from our service!”
So Pharaoh made his chariots ready and mustered his soldiersB
six hundred first-class chariots
and all the other chariots of Egypt, with warriors on them all.
So obstinate had the LORD made Pharaoh
that he pursued the children of Israel
even while they were marching away in triumph.
The Egyptians, then, pursued them;
Pharaoh’s whole army, his horses, chariots and charioteers,
caught up with them as they lay encamped by the sea,
at Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.
and saw that the Egyptians were on the march in pursuit of them.
In great fright they cried out to the LORD.
And they complained to Moses,
“Were there no burial places in Egypt
that you had to bring us out here to die in the desert?
Why did you do this to us?
Why did you bring us out of Egypt?
Did we not tell you this in Egypt, when we said,
‘Leave us alone. Let us serve the Egyptians’?
Far better for us to be the slaves of the Egyptians
than to die in the desert.”
But Moses answered the people,
“Fear not! Stand your ground,
and you will see the victory the LORD will win for you today.
These Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again.
The LORD himself will fight for you; you have only to keep still.”Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me?
Tell the children of Israel to go forward.
And you, lift up your staff and, with hand outstretched over the sea,
split the sea in two,
that the children of Israel may pass through it on dry land.
But I will make the Egyptians so obstinate
that they will go in after them.
Then I will receive glory through Pharaoh and all his army,
his chariots and charioteers.
The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD,
when I receive glory through Pharaoh
and his chariots and charioteers.”
Responsorial Psalm Exodus 15:1bc-2, 3-4, 5-6
I will sing to the LORD, for he is gloriously triumphant;
horse and chariot he has cast into the sea.
My strength and my courage is the LORD,
and he has been my savior.
He is my God, I praise him;
the God of my father, I extol him.
R. Let us sing to the Lord; he has covered himself in glory.
The LORD is a warrior,
LORD is his name!
Pharaoh’s chariots and army he hurled into the sea;
the elite of his officers were submerged in the Red Sea.
R. Let us sing to the Lord; he has covered himself in glory.
The flood waters covered them,
they sank into the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, O LORD, magnificent in power,
your right hand, O LORD, has shattered the enemy.
R. Let us sing to the Lord; he has covered himself in glory.
Alleluia Ps 95:8
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
If today you hear his voice,
harden not your hearts.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel Mt 12:38-42
“Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.”
He said to them in reply,
“An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign,
but no sign will be given it
except the sign of Jonah the prophet.
Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights,
so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth
three days and three nights.
At the judgment, the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation
and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah;
and there is something greater than Jonah here.
At the judgment the queen of the south will arise with this generation
and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth
to hear the wisdom of Solomon;
and there is something greater than Solomon here.”