HOMILY 11th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME CYCLE B June 17, 2012
When someone applies to enter religious life you have to undergo a battery of psychological tests. They want to know if you are crazy or not before they accept you. And so a long time ago when I applied to the Paulists I had to do all these tests.
Probably owing to the fact that this field of psychological testing was in its infancy 40 years ago - and so not very accurate - I came out mostly as normal. There were only two scores that were anomalous. One was some sort of proportional score of how you relate to people as basically good as opposed to basically evil. The average male candidate at that time scored in the 90’s, meaning they saw people as basically good. I scored a 07. I remember the psychiatrist commenting on this result, “This is very Lutheran.” Whatever.
The other anomalous score was for physical courage. Again I tested way low. Rather than lacking courage, I preferred to think of it as having a highly developed sense of self-preservation.
Now I bring up this curious story because of our second reading today. I was struck, even startled, by St. Paul’s assertion that “We are always courageous,…”. And just a few lines later he reiterates this: “Yet we are courageous, and we would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord.”
These statements struck me because, well, courage is not my thing.
So who are the “we” in these statements? Does St Paul mean all Christians? Undoubtedly some of you are courageous, and even a few of you are anxious to quit this veil of tears, and this physical body with all its ailments and limitations, and truly “would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord” right this very instant. But I suspect that I am not the only one who is in no great hurry to leave. At least not quite yet.
Or is St. Paul speaking in an imperial way, with a kind of royal “we”, meaning primarily himself? Certainly St. Paul was an exceptionally brave and courageous man, sometimes to the point of almost being foolhardy. In the 19th Chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we read about an incident that occurred in Ephesus. Paul’s preaching there was successful, so much so that it was cutting into the business of the silver smiths who made images of the pagan goddess Artemis, whose shrine was in Ephesus. So one of the silver smiths, a guy named Demetrius, got all the other silver smiths, and then the general populace of the town, all riled up over this threat to their livelihoods and the insult to their goddess.
A mob gathered in the theater in Ephesus, shouting “Great is Artemis!” and started to beat up on two of Paul’s companions. Paul immediately wanted to rush there to address the crowd, thinking he could change the mind of this mob. But the other disciples, more prudent in their approach, sat on Paul and would not let him go to the theater. They probably saved his life.
So was Paul speaking about himself? Well, St Paul was not used to saying “we” when he meant “I”. That was not his style. And Paul was not idly bragging when he said “We are always courageous.” So what does he mean?
I did some research. In the New Revised Standard Version translation of this passage, as well as the Greek Orthodox Bible, the Jerusalem Bible, and even the pre-1986 “unrevised” New American Bible, this is translated not as “courageous” but as “confident”. “We are always confident…”
Confidence speaks more – at least to me – about FAITH than does courage. Of course, it does take courage to live out faith, and given that the Greek word St. Paul uses in this passage can also be translated as “confident”, I think this is the kind of courage St. Paul is referring to. Not physical prowess or machismo, but rather the confidence to put our faith into action. More the courage of a Mother Teresa than the courage of a mountain climber or an extreme snow-boarder.
It takes courage to live out our faith: the courage to not participate in office gossip and petty politics. The courage to see all people as brothers and sisters, and not value them according to how much they make or what they own, or what they can do for me. The courage to resist the allure and blandishments of consumerism, to think that things can make me happy, or even worse, to value myself according to what I wear, or drive, or what kind of electronic gadget I have in my purse or pocket. The courage to tell the hard truth, to reach out to help the unpleasant person, to do what is right when everybody else is taking the easy way. The courage to resist a culture of death that says sex is just for entertainment and that unborn persons can be disposed of.
It takes courage based on confident faith to live this way. So, where do we get that confident faith that makes us “always courageous”?
It is a gift that God gives us. It is not a big, spectacular, shiny, powerful, impressive gift, especially at first. In fact, the gift is tiny, rather ordinary, kind of unimpressive, like a mustard seed.
God plants that very small, seemingly insignificant gift in our hearts. But once planted it can grow. If we give that tiny seed of faith the sunshine of worship and good living, and water it with the tears of repentance for our sins, and fertilize it with the sacrifices of letting go evil and of doing right, that seed, according to Jesus, “springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.” The Kingdom of God grows in our hearts through faith.
Then truly we will be always confident, always courageous. As St. Paul says, “We are always courageous”.