Sunday, August 30, 2020

Prophets True and False

Sometime in the summer of 1975, I was  the library having coffee with a classmate. We were looking at the newspaper, and one of us noticed that the advertised “sermon topic” at a major NY synagogue that weekend was “The Theology of Jaws,” referring, of course, to Steven Spielberg’s summer blockbuster, then showing in all the major theaters. My friend asked whether the lines to get in the synagogue would be as long as those to get into the theaters! This year Jaws has enjoyed a certain revival because of the pandemic, with the obvious parallel between present-day public figures and the character of the person in public office in the movie, the Mayor, who fails to take proper precautions and downplays the danger to the public. In the film it is the police chief, who keeps trying to alert people to the danger and persuade the mayor to act accordingly. 

The prophetic truth-teller, who is ignored or even persecuted, is a familiar image. That was the role of Jeremiah, whose lament we just listened to in our first reading. Violence and outrage is my message, he said. Maybe he shouldn’t have been so surprised that it got him derision and reproach all the day.

The reference to Jeremiah, reminds me of an academic conference I attended as a grad student sometime in the mid-1970s – again right about the time of the movie Jaws.  At question time, someone challenged one of the speakers whether he was sounding a bit too Jeremiah-like. The speaker responded with the reminder that, well, Jeremiah wasn’t just talking to hear his own voice, and that the problem he was warning about was real. Jeremiah wasn’t just talking to hear his own voice, but out of the greatest sense of urgency – like a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones, he said. I grow weary holding it in.

Jeremiah stood out because sadly there were also false prophets in ancient Israel, who supported the rulers regardless, with disastrous long-term consequences. They remind me of Chesterton’s famous warning:  “When someone concludes that any stick is good enough to beat his foe with—that is when he picks up a boomerang.”

We are now nine weeks away from a General Election – actually less than that for those of us who will be voting early or by mail.  What would Jeremiah say to our society?

The biblical view of the world, which inspired Jeremiah and other prophetic truth-tellers, highlights the essential solidarity of the human race. It reminds us, for example, how in the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of all, an original gift to all, which no private claim can do away with. Thus, Pope Francis, when he spoke to Congress just five years ago, described “the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good” as “the chief aim of all politics.”   Such solidarity is at the heart of a Catholic conception of life. It means more than just some vague feeling of caring about other people. “It is,” as Saint John Paul II said, “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.” [Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 38.]

Election year inevitably focuses our attention on Washington. But we need not look so far to find challenges to solidarity and to our commitment to the common good. The pandemic we have been living through this year has certainly done that. It has both tested our sense of solidarity and, sadly, illustrated how fragile is our commitment to the common good. Medical science suggests, for example, that, if everyone wore a mask all the time, the spread of infection would be radically reduced, and we would be able to resume many of the normal activities this pandemic has so brutally interrupted. And yet how many people resist doing something so simple as wearing a mask all the time?

As Pope Francis has reminded us, “we are related to all our brothers and sisters, for whom we are responsible and with whom we act in solidarity. Lacking this relationship, we would be less human. We see, then, how indifference represents a menace to the human family.” [Message for 49th World Day of Prayer for Peace, January 1, 2016]

The example of Peter in today’s Gospel illustrates how easy it is to get it all wrong. The apostles, after all, were Jesus’s closest collaborators, those he had handpicked to be his Church’s first bishops. But, when it came to understanding what was most important for Jesus, they got it wrong – a warning for all of us, how easy it is to think not as God does.

Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 30, 2020.

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