The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Thirty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time||November 20, 2005|
The Gospel today, of course, is one that is very familiar to all of us and usually when we hear this Gospel we think immediately of the final judgement, the moment when every one of us will face judgement before God. But if we remember, this is part of the final instruction of Jesus before he is put to death and then rises from the dead and sends his disciples out into the world to transform the world into the reign of God. This is his final instruction to them. Perhaps if we remember that we will hear this Gospel a little bit differently.
What Jesus is instructing his disciples about, and instructing us about, is how to imitate him as king, to carry out our kingly role as followers of Jesus. Now that may surprise us because obviously none of us think of ourselves as kings; however when we were baptized, everyone of us was anointed with Holy Chrism and these words were said: “God has freed you from sin, given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit and welcomed you into God’s holy people. God now anoints you with the chrism of salvation as Jesus was anointed priest, prophet and king so may you live always as a member of his body sharing his everlasting life.”
Each of us was anointed with Chrism to be priest, prophet and king.
I think most of us have reflected, perhaps not at great length but at some length, on how we are priests. Every time we celebrate this liturgy, the Eucharist, we say, “This morning, or today you have brought us together and asked us to do once more what Jesus did on the night before he died and so loving God we ask you to bless these gifts of bread and wine, make them holy, change them into the body and blood of Jesus Christ your son.” And we say later, “This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant.” At the Eucharist, Jesus is present among us as priest, the one who establishes that covenant between God and God’s people by the sign of his blood shared by him and by us. He brings us together as one people united with God. That is the priestly role of Jesus and every one of us is participating in that. Every one of us was anointed with the same chrism to be a priest as Jesus was priest.
We’ve also talked at times about how we are prophetic people, how we have to do what the prophets did: sometimes denounce evil and sometimes encourage people. We have to proclaim God’s word in the midst of our world wherever we are -- in our family, in our city, in our nation, in our world. We are called to be prophetic, to preach the word of God, the words that can transform our world into the reign of God.
But it’s not often, in fact maybe most of us have never thought about how we are a king as Jesus was a king. In fact maybe some of us would almost automatically reject that idea of being king and not like to think of Jesus as king, but that’s because we have, out of our culture and out of our history, an idea of kings as dominating, as being oppressive. Out of European history we find kings with “absolute power.” We learned about the “divine right of kings,” but that’s not the idea of king as it comes to us through Jesus. Jesus took on the role of king as that role was described and lived among his people. And from the very beginning, if you look in the book of Samuel, the first or second book of Samuel, were a king was first established for Israel, God insisted that if they were to have a king it was to be a king who would not have absolute power, who could not dominate, who could not oppress, a king who would not lead armies, but a king who would be a shepherd.
It’s a beautiful concept of kingship that we hear in today’s first lesson. The chosen people were in exile and Ezekiel promised that they would come back and when they come back God would be their shepherd. They had been scattered because their king, their shepherd, had failed, had in fact taken on some of the role of kings in the world around them where kings ruled oppressively. But God is going to bring them back. Yahweh says this, “I myself will care for my sheep and watch over them. As a shepherd looks after his flock when he finds them scattered so will I watch over my sheep and gather them from all the places where they were scattered in a time of cloud and fog.” But God cared about the people, is going to bring them back. “And I myself will tend my sheep and let them rest.” This is the word of Yahweh: “ I will search for the lost, lead back the strays. I will bind up the injured, strengthen the weak.” This is how a king is to act among God’s chosen people, a shepherd-king.
You find that described beautifully in the psalm that we sang after our first reading today: “The lord is my shepherd I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul. He guides me to the right path. Although I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil. When you are beside me your rod and your staff are there to comfort me. You spread a table before me. In the presence of my foes you anoint my heart with oil. My cup is overflowing. Goodness and kindness will follow me all the days of my life.”
God is our shepherd-king, and that is what Jesus came to be -- that shepherd who would bring goodness and kindness all the days of our life so that we can dwell in the house of the lord as long as we live.
In another psalm, psalm 72, the role of the king of God’s chosen people is also spelled out, “Oh God, endow the king with your justice, your royal son with your righteousness. May he rule your people justly and defend the rights of the lowly. And the king who is the shepherd delivers the needy who call on him, the afflicted with no one to help him. His mercy is upon the weak and the poor. He saves the life of the poor. He rescues them from oppression and strife for their life is precious to him.”
Again, if we reflect on this shepherd-king as it was developed among the chosen people and as Jesus came to fulfill that role, you begin to see the whole idea of the kingship of Jesus in a different light. The king, who is a shepherd, is there to protect, to bring justice, to bring mercy, to bring love to everyone, especially the poor and the afflicted, the oppressed. And surely Jesus, as we know from our understanding of the Gospel and from what we know of Jesus, was one who truly was the “good shepherd.” “I am the good shepherd. I lay down my life for my people.” There’s no limit to his love and his care for us.
And that’s really what this Gospel is about today -- our taking on that role of the good shepherd, reaching out to the poor, the hungry, the naked, visiting the sick, those in prison and discovering as we do that that Jesus is truly king and shepherd in an astounding way, because he not only reaches out to the poor, not only tries to clothe the naked and so on, he becomes one with them. If we’re going to follow the kingly way of Jesus, then we don’t just send things to the poor. We don’t just stay in our safe places and think about those in prison or those who are sick and afflicted. We go and we become one with them. Trying to be a king like Jesus is maybe the most challenging part of the whole call to be a follower of Jesus.
I’ve spoken these words before but to me they’re so powerful, the words of Archbishop Romero when he was talking about the leaders of the church in El Salvador who had finally become identified with the poor. Not just sending things to the poor or trying to be mindful of the poor but becoming one with the poor because they were being murdered. Archbishop Romero said, “What does it mean to be a poor person in El Salvador? It means to be disappeared, to be tortured and have your body found in the streets, in the gutters.” The church in El Salvador was becoming one with the poor, because that was happening to them.
Too often, I’m afraid, we as a church do not really understand what it means to be and to carry out the kingly mission of Jesus; what it means to be a king as Jesus was and to carry out that mission. When I think about this it becomes so obvious how wrong it is that we close our churches when they exist among the poor. You know, we have a perfect example of St. Dominic’s. Yes, we closed that church, but now the archdiocese, the archbishop promises, “Well, we’ll keep a social service center there. People, the church, won’t be there, but we’ll come in once in a while and give things to the poor.” That’s not enough. We’re supposed to be identified with the poor, one with the poor.
Another example that comes to my mind where we seem to be on the wrong side, not understanding how we’re supposed to be identified with the oppressed, those treated with injustice, those treated with violence: The bishop of Madison, Wisconsin, Bishop Robert Morlino, I’ve read this recently, has joined the board of the School of the Americas. The School of the Americas, you know what that is? That’s the place where our military train military from throughout Latin America to train their leaders. This past week, Nov. 16, was the anniversary of the six Jesuits and the two women who were murdered in 1989 by graduates of the Schools of the Americas. Yet here is a bishop who is going to be on the board of that school, accepting and condoning what they’re doing as they continue to train military leaders who carry out torture just as our military carries out torture. Where would Jesus be? He would be the tortured one, the murdered one not the one who’s doing it. That’s so obvious. How could we ever miss it?
I find it very distressing, on the front page of the Michigan Catholic this week, there is a picture of a military chaplain celebrating Mass dressed in an Army uniform, dressed as one going into combat. Can you think of Jesus being dressed in a military uniform of the Roman Empire or even being a chaplain to the military of the Roman Empire, condoning what they were doing? Yet that is what we do. That is all because we haven’t understood what it means to be a king according to the way of Jesus.
Today in the Gospel, he instructs us that he is identified with the poor, the oppressed, the neglected, the imprisoned, the sick, the naked, the hungry. He’s one with all of them and he’s also one with them because he is reaching out to them to heal them, to give them comfort, to give them life, to restore them to peace and joy and goodness.
You and I have been anointed with the Holy Chrism to be priests, prophets and kings. As we understand what that means in it’s fullness -- priest, prophet and king -- we have to ask ourselves, “Are we truly ready and willing to be baptized disciples of Jesus Christ?” Maybe we find ourselves somewhat afraid to say, “Yes!” But we can have confidence that if we are willing to say yes to Jesus and to all his call means -- to be priest, prophet and king -- Jesus will give us the courage and the strength to do it. Then as his disciples, we can join with him in that continuing path to transform our world into the reign of God.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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