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|The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton|
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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Hebrews 10:11-14, 18
* 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.
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).
** The Web link to Pax Christi is provided as a service to our readers.
Most of us probably are familiar with the fact that this passage from Mark's Gospel, and similar passages in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, are always read to us at the end of the church year, even sometimes on the first Sunday of the new year, the First Sunday of Advent.
I can remember, especially as a child, hearing these gospels and always being kind of afraid. They do sound somber, and it is frightening to think about the end of everything -- the end of the world. Moreover, Jesus uses terms that make it extraordinarily frightening -- wars, earthquakes, floods -- all kinds of violence and suffering. He describes a time of terrible evil.
Yet the message of these readings is not one that should make us afraid or cause us to feel sad and somber. Rather, the message is one of hope, if we listen deeply to what the scriptures are saying. The first thing we should remind ourselves is that the language of these readings is a special kind of language used in the scriptures -- apocalyptic language. It is a language filled with symbols. In the New Testament, the Book of Revelation is apocalyptic. If we always apply the symbolic language literally, we will misunderstand what is being taught. The symbols are almost like a code that the people use at times of oppression.
Apocalyptic language is in the first lesson today. Daniel is the book in the Old Testament with the most of this kind of language. In Daniel's time, the chosen people were in exile. They were dominated by foreign kings, and they used apocalyptic language as a kind of subversive message. They understood what it meant. Those who were oppressing them did not. They were foreseeing a time when they would be able to become free. The tyranny would be ended. The oppression would be over. They were looking forward to that with confidence and with hope. Prophets like Daniel would come into their midst to reinforce their confidence and sense of hope.
The same thing is true of the Book of Revelation (sometimes called the Book of the Apocalypse). It was written when the Christian community in Rome was suffering terrible persecution. Those early Christians understood the language as a promise that one day they would be free of oppression.
Jesus, in the Gospel today, spoke in similar terms -- in symbolic language. I think we have to understand that he was speaking out of his own fear of what was going to happen to him. Remember, this was the last week of his life, and he was aware that people hated him and were going to abuse him, torture him and kill him.
This could have been a time of despair for Jesus. But he spoke in apocalyptic terms, saying: Even though it seems that everything is coming apart, that earthquakes and floods will destroy the world, that violence, terrorism and war will destroy everything -- will destroy me -- I (Jesus) have hope because I have deep confidence in God that it will not be the end. "The Son of Man will return in the fullness of his glory," Jesus said. He was aware that God was going to be with him no matter what happened. He almost despaired; as he hung on the cross, he cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Deeper down, Jesus knew that God had not forsaken him. God would raise him up.
The message today is really a message of hope. We live in a time, don't we, when you could almost think that evil has triumphed. There is terrorism and war. There are famines and earthquakes -- extreme suffering in so many parts of the world. We might begin to lose hope. Thinking about the stockpiles of weapons that we have amassed here and throughout our world can give us a great sense of despair. Yet, we have to hear this Gospel. Jesus says that no matter the circumstances, no matter how much it may seem that evil is prevailing, God's goodness is still present, is still at work in our midst. And God's goodness will overcome the evil. The suffering will be transformed into the reign of God, with justice, peace, joy and fullness of life all present.
We might think: Well, that sounds good, but it is really pie in the sky. We have to go through all of this agony, suffering and death, and then at the end of time, God will make everything OK. So we just let ourselves suffer in agony and death. But if we read the Gospel carefully, we see that the message isn't just about the end of time. Jesus said we must be aware that this generation will not pass away before these things happen. He was talking about his own generation. He said, "This generation will not pass away until the reign of God begins to happen."
That reminds us of what Jesus said at the very beginning of his public life. We need to take his words seriously: "The reign of God is at hand. The reign of God is ready to break forth."
Again, remember, the reign of God is a time of the fullness of life: a time of joy and peace, a time of love and goodness. The reign of God is at hand. But Jesus continued: "Change your lives! When that happens, you will enter into the reign of God." The reign will begin when we change our lives and follow the way of Jesus. When we change, we will begin to know the peace, the joy, the love, the goodness of God in our own hearts and in our own lives. No matter what is happening around us. No matter what is happening to us.
And this generation will not pass away until these things begin to happen.
Today's lesson gives two clear guides as to how we must change our lives. They are foundational parts of the message of Jesus, and we have reflected on them before.
In the first lesson from the prophet Daniel, we are told: Those who acquire the knowledge -- that is, the knowledge to understand God -- will shine like the brilliance of the firmament, and those who teach people to be just will shine like the stars for all eternity.
Justice is one of the ways we begin to enter into the reign of God. When we teach justice; when we act justly; when we try to change our world and our own lives in pursuit of just actions, justice begins to prevail. There are many ways that you and I can begin to act for justice.
A week or two ago, you may remember reading in the press or hearing on the newscasts about federal law enforcement people going into Wal-Mart Stores* all over this country to pick up illegal aliens in order to deport them. What was behind all of this was one of the most terrible kinds of injustice.
People like to shop at Wal-Mart because everything is less expensive -- 14% less than any other place. So many people like to shop at Wal-Mart that it is a $240 billion business. But how do they keep the prices so low? They hire people, like those illegal aliens, who can't demand a just salary. A lawsuit filed against Wal-Mart says workers were made to work 56 to 60 hours per week, every day without a break, and for less than $8 per hour. That is a poverty wage for a family of three. You can't make it on $8 per hour.
Has any of us done anything about this? We have had programs here in the Detroit area about sweatshop labor and have had efforts to stop the use of such labor. But we forget so easily, and we allow the injustice to go on. If we are going to enter into the reign of God right now, we have to commit ourselves to act for justice. That means protesting what is happening, and not shopping at a Wal-Mart if they cheat and exploit workers.
It's a very ordinary thing, really. We decide that we are going to act more justly when we make our normal purchases every week. As we enter the Christmas season, when we will be doing a lot of buying, maybe we need to discover how to buy in a more just way. Or try to find more ways to change an unjust system.
That's an example of one kind of thing we need to do -- act justly -- to enter the reign of God.
The other guide for entering the reign of God is how we respond to violence.
Our reading from the letter to the Hebrews tells about what Jesus did on the cross. The writer speaks in terms of "the sacrifice of Jesus," which it is. But even more than that, Jesus is showing us how to respond to hatred and violence. You respond to evil with love. These words are echoed in our Eucharistic prayer: Jesus stretching out his arms between heaven and earth is the sign of the everlasting covenant of God's love.
We've used violence against violence all through human history. We've tried it in Afghanistan. We've tried it in Iraq. We've tried it everywhere. Yet, there is always more violence, isn't there? Maybe some time we will really hear what Jesus is saying. You transform hatred into love by loving. You make an evil situation good by bringing goodness into it -- not by bringing more evil.
That's what Jesus shows us on the cross. He responded to the hatred and the violence of his tormentors with nothing but love, so that the cross, the most ignominious form of torture and death the Roman Empire could devise -- that cross has become a symbol of love. The whole situation has been transformed. Jesus brought love where there was hatred, goodness where there was violence.
That's what you and I are expected to do if we are going to break forth into the reign of God right now. We can do it -- each of us individually and all of us as a community.
The reign of God is at hand. It will happen when each of us begins to act justly, and only with love. The reign of God will begin to expand within my own life, and I will know the peace, the joy and the love of Jesus so that I can carry that into the world wherever I go. Then reign of God will begin to break forth everywhere.
The message of today's scriptures, then, isn't really a message of somberness, sadness and despair. It is a message of hope, love and joy. I hope we can hear that message and live it from now on.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
*Editor's Note: Media reports related to this issue include, for example: "Wal-Mart Discounts Prices and Labor Laws" in The Virginian-Pilot, Nov. 12, 2003; "Illegal Workers Sue Wal-Mart for Hiring Them," Foxnews.com, Nov. 12, 2003; "9 Immigrants Arrested in Raid File Lawsuit Against Wal-Mart," The New York Times, Nov. 7, 2003; "Wal-Mart Targeted in Immigrant Probe," The Washington Times, Nov. 5, 2003; "Wal-Mart Profit Falls a Bit Short," The New York Times, Nov. 14.
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