June 19, 2005 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Jeremiah 20:10-13) Reading II (Romans 5:12-15)
Gospel (St. Matthew 10:26-33)
In the Gospel reading today, Our Lord tells us something that all of us would like to take to heart, but which hardly any of us actually live. The first words of the Gospel today are Fear no one. Would that we would actually live the words of Our Lord. Most of us live in fear constantly. We are afraid of what people think of us. We are afraid of what somebody might do to us, what they might say about us. We are afraid that we might lose our job if we offend somebody. We are afraid of all these different little things, and we give people all kinds of power over us. But the Lord tells us that we are to fear no one.
Now, of course, if we look at the first reading, we would ask ourselves, “If we were in Jeremiah’s position, would we be saying that?” The first words from the first reading say, Terror on every side. Denounce! Let us denounce him! If we were in that position, would we be at peace? Would we not be afraid? Unfortunately, what happens for most of us is that when we are put in positions like that, in order to try to preserve our own self, we fight back with our own strength. We take our focus off of God; we remove our trust from God. Many of us stop praying when it becomes difficult like that because we think we have to do it all by ourselves – which is the most foolish thing in the world – and we give in completely to the fear.
Jesus says, Do not fear the one who can kill the body but can do nothing to the soul. If we really, truly had faith in what we profess, we would rejoice that someone might actually kill us because we could go to heaven. But most of us do not think that way. And if we really think about, it is not that we do not believe in our heads, it is that it has not gotten down to the heart. If we think about some of the martyrs, the saints of old, they rejoice that they have an opportunity to suffer and die for the Lord. They look forward to being able to be freed from all the problems of this life, to be able to have entrance to eternal life.
So the problem goes even a little further. If our focus is not on heaven, if we take our sights off of God when things become difficult, if we keep the focus solely on ourselves (which we know is only going to lead to despair), then we ask ourselves what follows. What follows is that we try to make friends with the wrong individuals because we are looking for the peace that the world gives rather than seeking the peace that Jesus gives, the peace of which He said the world cannot give.
And so Our Lord tells us in the Gospel that the one person we are to fear is the one who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people in our society seem to have made pretty good friends with the one who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna. He is the Father of Lies. He is the one who wants to destroy us forever. Of course, what he does is to lie to us and say, “In order to keep yourself from being hurt and destroyed, be my pal. I’ll give you all kinds of material things and I’ll take care of you. Oh, won’t it be fun!” And we give into it because we are afraid. But if we really trusted the Lord, it would be very different.
You see, what happens is laid out very clearly for us. Jeremiah, in the first reading, prays to the Lord and he says, To you I have entrusted my cause. Then he looks at the Lord and says, You who test the just. That is what Our Lord does for us: He tests us. And He tests us by putting us into situations where we are going to have to grow in virtue, where things are not going to be easy. The problem is that when the Lord does that to us most of us get angry. Again, we either quit praying or we get bitter and we start yelling at God and waving our fist at Him and calling Him names and we say, “Why do You hate me? Why are You doing this to me? I thought You were supposed to love me?” On and on and on our nonsense goes. But all we do over and over again is that every time the Lord gives us an opportunity to prove ourselves we do, however, in the wrong direction – we fall flat on our face. And so the Lord, in His mercy, gives us another opportunity, and another one and another one and another one, until we finally can learn to do what is right.
Now we might look at that and say, “It’s not fair. Why would God be so mean?” Well, let me put it into a different context. If you decided, as you looked in the mirror one morning, that your body was not looking quite the way you would like it to (your muscles are way out of shape) and you decided that you were going to try to get into shape, so you decide that the way to do this is to start jogging everyday, then, if you are like me, the first day you would probably go out and be huffing and puffing by the end of the block. And the next day you would go out and try it again. After a few days, maybe you would actually be up to two or three blocks. If we apply to ourselves what happens with God, we would say, “Why are you being so mean? If you go out and run, your muscles are going to hurt. You’re going to sweat. It’s going to be painful! It won’t be fun! And why do you keep making yourself go further? If it was hard yesterday, why do you want to go even further? Why do you want to run three miles when you could hardly make it one mile? Aren’t you mean to yourself? Why do you hate yourself so much?” You would say, “No, no, no. It’s not about that. It’s that I realize I am very weak. I’m completely out of shape and I want to try to get into condition, so I have to push myself this way to grow in strength.”
Well, the word virtue means “strength.” God wants you to grow in virtue, and the only way you are going to grow in virtue is to have to practice it. So He is not being mean when He gives us these opportunities. It is not because He hates us that He is doing these things. It is because He loves us! It is because when push comes to shove on the last day of our lives, if we do not have spiritual strength built up, if we are not accustomed to looking to God in the midst of fear and in the midst of difficulty, then what is going to happen? On the last day of our lives we are going to look at ourselves again, if we are not accustomed to looking at God. We are going to despair. We are going to think that somehow we have to do this ourselves. So God in His mercy gives us plenty of opportunities to realize how foolish that line of thinking is.
We cannot do it by ourselves. Now the real question we have to ask ourselves is how many times we have to go through this before we are convinced of it. We have proved it to ourselves literally thousands of times, and still we think (so foolishly!) that we can do this alone. We cannot. As we grow in strength, God, of course, is going to make things even bigger, more difficult, more painful, whatever it is. But that is so we can continue to grow; it is not because He does not like us. If you decide to take up your exercise regimen and say, “My goal is to be able to work my way up to three or five miles a day and be able to lift some weights and do this, that, and the other thing,” well, God looks at each one of us and says, “You know what, I have a spiritual exercise regimen for you and I want you to be a saint. My goal for you is to go to heaven, and in order to do this we’re going to have to push it. We’re going to have to push hard.”
Now think about what Our Lord says at the end of the Gospel, and think about what happens to us when we get pushed. Jesus says, Anyone who denies Me before men, I will deny before My heavenly Father. How many times have we denied Christ? out of fear? in order to be liked by others? in order to fit in? in order to be accepted? We deny what we know to be right. We wimp out, literally. How many times when things get hard, when we are put into various trials do we deny the Lord? Or if we do not deny Him, perhaps we scream at Him. We realize just how weak we are. If God were to call us home today, would we be able to look at the Lord and say, “I have not denied You, I have remained faithful”? Could we say with Saint Paul, I have fought the fight, I have run the race, I have completed the course, and I have remained faithful to what God called me to do? Most of us probably could not say that.
Therefore, God in His mercy gives us opportunities. And the opportunity, the choice is laid out very clearly in the second reading. We can do like Adam did, or we can do like Jesus did. The first Adam, who was in the state of grace, who had full knowledge of what he was doing, in the very first temptation of his life fell flat, and the rest of us have been dealing with it ever since. Jesus, on the other hand, was severely tempted and He rejected the advances of Satan. So we have it all laid out for us. We have the two ways that we can choose.
The difference is that we have the power, the grace, and the strength of Jesus Christ. We are not on our own. If it was just us, we have no ability to fight the devil. He is far more powerful than we are. He is exceedingly more intelligent than we are. We are told in Scripture that He was the most subtle, crafty, and deceptive of all the creatures that God had made. He is the Father of Lies and he is the one who brought death. We do not want to make friends with Satan – it is to make friends with death. To give into all the fears of life is to make friends with death.
If we are at peace, we have the fullness of life within us. And that peace can only come by rejecting Satan and keeping our focus on Jesus. But that is the lesson we have to learn, to learn to turn to Jesus, to learn to rely on the Lord, to learn to trust in the Lord. We know in our heads that He is perfectly trustworthy, and we also know in our heads that when things are difficult we ought to turn to Him. We also know that every single time it happens (or nearly every single time) we do not do it. We turn to ourselves and we try to rely on ourselves and we fail. So what is God going to do? He is going to give you more chances to try again.
We need to be convinced of our own weakness, of our own inability. We need to be convinced of His power and His strength, and we need to trust Him and all the promises He has made. That, of course, requires prayer. We need to be turning to Him daily in prayer so that when things are difficult the most natural thing in the world to do is to turn to Him because that is what we do always. And when we are united with Jesus Christ, we will fear nothing because all the power is His. Satan has no power over Jesus. All the human respect in the world has no power over Christ, and it will have no power over us either because we are united with the only One Whose opinion really matters. We will be united with the only One Who has overcome the world and Who has overcome Satan and all of his temptations and all of his lies.
Everything is there for us to succeed. We have only to choose it and to put it into practice. So we go back to what Our Lord has told us: to fear no one, except the one who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna. It is time that we break our ties of friendship with Satan, and that we unite ourselves perfectly to Jesus Christ, to learn to trust Him, to rely on Him, the One Who tests the just in order to make them saints.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.