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Homilies by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton

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By special arrangement, The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company is able to make available Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton's weekly Sunday homilies given at Saint Leo Church, Detroit, MI.  Each homily is transcribed from a tape recording of the actual delivery and made available to you as an NCR Web site exclusive.  You may register for a weekly e-mail reminder that will be sent to you when each new homily is posted.  From time to time, Bishop Gumbleton is traveling and unable to provide us with the homily for the week.
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 First Sunday of Lent
February 17, 2002

Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese
of Detroit, Michigan *


This week's readings **

Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7

The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. 

Then the Lord God planted a garden eastward, in Eden, and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made every tree to grow that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; with the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Now the serpent was more subtle than any animal of the field which the Lord God had made. The serpent said to the woman, "Yes, has God said, 'You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?'"  The woman said to the serpent, "Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat, but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, 'You shall not eat of it, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'"  The serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die, for God knows that in the day you eat it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."  When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit of it, and ate; and she gave some to her husband with her, and he ate. Both of their eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked. They sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. 
 

Romans 5:12, 17-19

Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned.

For if, by the transgression of the one, death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification
come to reign in life through the one Jesus Christ. In conclusion, just as through one transgression 
condemnation came upon all, so, through one righteous act, acquittal and life came to all. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous.
 

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. When he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was hungry afterward. The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread."  But he answered, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.'"  Then the devil took him into the holy city. He set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, 'He will give his angels charge concerning you.' and, 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you don't dash your foot against a stone.'"  Jesus said to him, "Again, it is written, 'You shall not test the Lord, your God.'" Again, the devil took him to an exceedingly high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and their glory. He said to him, "I will give you all of these things, if you will fall down and worship me."  Then Jesus said to him, "Get behind me, Satan! For it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'"  Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him. 
 

* A longtime national and international activist in the peace movement, Bishop Gumbleton is a founding member of Pax Christi USA and an outspoken critic of the sanctions against Iraq.

He has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, and has published numerous articles and reports.
 
 

** Scripture texts in this work are in modified form from the American Standard Version of the Bible and are available as part of the public domain.

For your convenience, the Scripture texts, as they appear in the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States, second typical edition, Copyright © 1998, 1997, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C., may be found at the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCC).
http://www.nccbuscc.org/nab/index.htm

 

As kind of a background or context for our reflection on the scriptures today, I thought it would be useful to look in our little black book on what it says for the first Sunday of Lent.  Here we have a description of baptism:  Lent got started in the first place because of baptism.  It was an intense period of spiritual exercises for adults in their last stages of preparation for baptism.  The whole community prayed for them, fasted, gave alms, and spent time pondering the implication of their own baptism. 

     Lent is a time when we really think about what baptism means. 

     Then we read that during the time of Jesus the Jews practiced many kinds of water purifications.  Priests washed themselves ritually before exercising any sacred functions.  People had to be purified with water after they touched a corpse, bones, or a tomb.  Some Jewish leaders required a ritual washing before eating.

     But the first thing to note about baptism is that it is very different from any of those ritual washings or cleansings.  The Jewish washing rituals were self-administered and could be repeated many times.  Baptism, on the other hand, is administered by another person and happens only once in a lifetime.  And hereís the really important part -- most of all, baptism is not primarily a washing.  Itís not primarily a cleansing of ourselves or of our souls from sin, but rather itís an immersion into water. 

     The Greek words used to describe purification rituals mean to wash or to sprinkle.  On the other hand, baptism comes from a Greek word that means to plunge.  For example, plunging cloth into a dye or to become submerged in water and drowned.  At the heart of Christian baptism is dying, drowning to one way of living and then rising to a whole new way of life. 

     So it should be a very dramatic thing for us if we renew our baptismal promises and renew our baptismal commitment.  Itís like we died or drowned in this pool of water and we rise up to a whole new way of life. 

     Now if we turn to our scripture lessons, I think we can get some pretty clear ideas about what this new way of life should be for each one of us; what we need to do during Lent to deeply and profoundly renew our baptism; to be submerged, immersed totally, to drown, but then be ready to rise up again at Easter with Jesus. 

     When we turn to the first lesson today, a lesson Iím sure many of us find familiar because weíve heard the story of original sin many times before, but a lesson that is not really all that simple in a way -- how did sin really come into the world?  God didnít make anything evil.  God is only good and anything God makes is good.  So how did sin come into the world? 

     Well, the writer of that passage in Genesis devised this story to show that, somehow, human beings at the very beginning of creation made a choice and this all revolves around following the will of God or not.  Somehow, they were tempted because they had been told not to eat the fruit of a certain tree, but the temptation came to eat that fruit anyway.  And it all seemed so reasonable because the promise was that that fruit would give them wisdom and knowledge. 

     You wonder -- well whatís wrong with that; isnít wisdom or knowledge a good thing? 

     But what happens and why it is sinful in the story is because they chose something contrary to the will of God.  And if you choose against the will of God, then it will not be the wisdom of God that you receive.  Instead, it will be the wisdom that Saint Paul later calls the wisdom of this world, a wisdom that, in fact, is contrary to the depth of the wisdom of God. 

     Thereís a passage in Paulís letter to the Corinthians that brings this out so clearly when he is telling the church in Corinth, ďI was not sent to baptize, but to proclaim the good news of Jesus; the gospel, the good news, to proclaim that.  You cannot proclaim the message of Jesus in terms of human wisdom because it goes contrary to human wisdom.  The depths of the wisdom of God are so different from what seems so reasonable to us and seems to be common sense in a way. 

     Paul says, ďLook, I have to preach Christ crucified.Ē  Now you look at that cross and tell me that seems to make sense, that Jesus gave himself over to his enemies and didnít fight back, didnít try to overpower them.  He simply loved them, totally loved them and forgave them.

     In human terms that does not make any sense, but itís the wisdom of God.  In that passage, Paul tells how the foolishness of God is wiser that human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. 

     So Jesus on the cross is exhibiting foolishness, maybe from our ordinary perspective, but itís a kind of wisdom that if we followed could change our whole world, could change every one of us in very dramatic ways; change the world in which we live because what seems to be foolishness, Godís foolishness, is so much wiser that human wisdom.

     Jesus totally weak and helpless on the cross has a spirit power that is greater than any power on earth.  He declared about himself, ďI, when I am lifted up,Ē and he meant by that when I am raised on the cross seemingly helpless then I will draw all people to myself through love.  And thatís the only thing that can heal, that can change our world.

     When you look at the temptations that are described in Matthewís gospel, you can get some specific examples of how what seems to be wise from a human perspective is ultimately foolish and what seems to be foolish could be extraordinarily wise is Godís way. 

     These temptations that are described in Matthewís gospel, which was written about 60 years after Jesus died and so it was written for the church at that time, are temptations that the church, the community of disciples was experiencing.   So the gospel was a way of trying to show how we overcome these temptations that confront us right now. 

     The first temptation is what?  To attach yourself to the things of the earth and to think that is all you need.  Multiply these stones or change them into bread.  Have everything you need, all wealth and resources right there at your disposal and keep getting more and more. 

     But Jesus reminds the tempter, ďLook, you cannot live on bread alone.Ē  Material things will never bring you fullness of life.  You will never become a full human person simply through accumulation of wealth.  The more we are attached to that or cling to that, the less we are able to really deepen our spirit life.  You canít live on material things alone.  They have to be in a secondary place and give way anytime there must be a choice between strengthening my spirit life and accumulating more goods. 

     That doesnít seem very reasonable in the world in which we live because weíre encouraged all the time to get more, to accumulate and build up our wealth.  We see extreme examples of it in our news all the time.  People who have accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars and still itís not enough.  They want more.  They canít be satisfied with what they have no matter how much it is. Theyíre missing something, a spirit life.

     Isnít it strange, but I struggle for a word that I would say is almost obscene or grotesque, that when we face a crisis in our nation that we live in an economic system where our president tells us:  If you want to be really patriotic and support your country in this time of crisis, go out and spend more, consume more.  Thereís something so distorted in that when you live in a world where four-fifths of the worldís people donít have enough. 

     And so the way we serve our country is to buy more, get more.  Thatís foolishness, absolute foolishness, and it will never bring us what we long for, peace in our hearts or peace in our world.  We have to reject that way of the world and follow the foolishness of Jesus.

     The gospel describes him as being without a place to lay his head.  He had what he needed everyday, but he didnít accumulate, didnít hang on to, he didnít try to find his security in material things.  He let all that go.  Of course, that seems foolish, doesnít it? But somehow we have to move in that direction if weíre going to follow Jesus.

     The second temptation, which evidently faced the early church, too, was to become popular, do something fantastic so that you draw a lot of attention to yourself.  Thatís what the devil wanted Jesus to do:  Throw yourself down.  Everybody will think youíre an extraordinary wonder worker and theyíll come flocking to you.  But thatís not the way Jesus wants us to draw people to ourselves and to our community of disciples.  Not by becoming famous or doing wonders or extraordinary things. 

     Isnít this a very common temptation in our society?  The popular people, the famous people, are held up for us as being the really important ones.  Thatís so contrary to Jesus. The least person in his eyes has every bit as much dignity and worth as the most popular, most famous person.  We need to straighten out our sense of values on that too; to seek only to follow the simple way of Jesus, the ordinary way of Jesus and not to try to seek to do things that would draw attention to ourselves.

     And, finally, the third temptation, and this is one that did confront the early church and sadly enough, eventually, the church seemed to give way to this temptation -- to seek the power of the kingdoms of the earth, to act as a worldly power and to think that somehow through power, through force, through violence, through wars, through armies, and all of that, that you can make the reign of God happen -- which is what we should be about if we are the disciples of Jesus.  You canít.  Youíll never bring peace.  Youíll never bring the reign of God into the world through armies, through violence.

     I find it so striking that here we are 11 or 12 years after we went to war in Iraq and thereís an analysis that I read recently that says back then in 1991 we had hoped to overthrow the government of President Hussein.  But we chose not do it with military force and that we had already done enough harm and killing in that country and his regime would simply collapse.  But then we wanted to do something to make sure to put pressure on him.  So we imposed an embargo.  We keep that in place and thatís a form of power and violence against the people of Iraq.  And now this analysis that is obviously true.  President Hussein is more firmly entrenched in power than he ever was. 

     So all of our military force and embargo has not done any good toward achieving the goal that we set before ourselves.  It certainly has not done anything to bring peace to that area.  It has only brought suffering and death.

     The ways of the world are not the ways of Jesus.  He rejected those temptations.  And when the early church in Matthewís community wrote about them, they rejected them also.  But the temptations keep coming back.  In fact, in the gospel, the writer says, ďThe devil left Jesus for a time.Ē  So those temptations keep coming back to you and me and to the community of disciples that follows Jesus.  And we have to keep on rejecting them. We have to keep on trying to be a community that is different, that rejects the so called wisdom of the world.  And thatís why we want to enter profoundly into this season of Lent so that we really can be drowned, immersed into the death of Jesus and rise to new light. 

     At the very end of the passage for todayís section in the black book it says:  It would be interesting to list the ways in which, because I am a disciple of Jesus, my way of life is different.  Now suppose each of us throughout Lent began to try to reflect how my way of life is different because I follow Jesus -- or maybe we find it isnít different because Iím following the ways of the world. 

     Certainly, if all of us enter into this season of Lent with great fervor, we will begin to be immersed into the death of Jesus and we will change the way in which we live.  We will become much more faithful disciples of his and through that conversion of each of us and of our whole community, we will begin to extend the reign of Jesus, the reign of justice and peace to this world in which we live.

     So make that list, see how your way of life is different or not and through this season of Lent try to make sure that it becomes different -- that I live differently because I follow Jesus.

     In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 
 


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