Deacon Cornell's Homilies


Exodus 20:1-17
1 Corinthians 1:22-25
John 2:13-25


March 25-26, 2000, Third Sunday in Lent, Cycle B

Paul sums up the extremes that result from trying to read scripture without proper guidance and understanding. To some, the story of God's unfolding revelation becomes a stumbling block, to others it is foolishness.

"For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their father's wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation."  How do you react to that sentence we heard from Exodus? Or to the story of God demanding that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac that we heard last week? Or the story of God killing all the firstborn of Egypt the night of the first Passover that we will hear on Holy Thursday?

If we tend to think of scripture as divine dictation, where every description of God must be truth in the sense of being an accurate picture of God, we are in big trouble. I don't know about you, but I would find it difficult to give glory and praise and thanksgiving to a jealous God, let alone to a God who kills. How can we possibly reconcile this image of God with the one that John give us in his first letter, that God is love? I find the two most likely reactions to this kind of passage are: it is foolishness and so we are persuaded that all religion is foolishness if people believe in this kind of thing, or we push it down and try not to think about it, lest we lose our faith. But of course, if we do that, we will lose it at the first sign of crisis, just when we need it the most.

Alan Dershowitz, the lawyer who defended O. J. Simpson and Claus von Bulow has just written a new book, The Genesis of Justice, where his reaction to these kinds of images is that God was learning during the early years. But if we think of scripture the way the Church teaches us to, as a story of God's revelation written by human beings in the context of human understanding and culture, we start to see that it was the human race that was learning and deepening its understanding along the way, not God.

This description of the covenant between God and his people Israel was written by human beings who could barely distinguish between this God of theirs, and the hundreds of tribal gods of their neighbors. And think of the distortion works go through in translation. My homiletics teacher in formation used to say, "The translator is the traitor". The New Jerome Biblical Commentary says the word we have translated as jealous is more accurately translated as passionate: no small difference there. So what about this account of the Ten Commandments which was written some 600 years or so after the event happened? Think these were God's exact words as a TV reporter would have captured them on tape? Does this mean that the scriptures are not true?? Absolutely not! But the truth is not that this is exactly what God is like; the truth in this image of God is that this is exactly how the writers of the book of Exodus saw God, 600 years after their freedom from slavery, 600 years of journeying, and occupying the promised land, and being attacked by enemies, betrayed by their own kings and priests, and being exiled to a foreign land for 70 years.  It is one stop on a journey from dim awareness of God to the ultimate revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

It is also true for us, in the sense that each of us individually walks the journey our ancestors in faith walked over the generations. There is a biological maxim that says, Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Say that three times fast!

It means that the development of an individual retraces the steps of the development of the species. So the way the brain develops in a human fetus traces the steps of the development of the brain in the human species, first the stem develops, then the mid-brain, then the cortex. From my experience, the same is true for our faith development. Who cannot remember when we understood God as our God who would trounce all our enemies or who could be cajoled into favoring us over our arch rivals in a basketball game? Perhaps some of us see God exactly the way the authors of Exodus did, right now. Great place to start from, terrible place to end up. Scripture gives us a solid road map for journeying on towards deeper, more mature understanding.

This deeper, more mature understanding of God has to include the image we get from the Gospel we just heard. The author of John's Gospel is anything but subtle. Jesus was killed because he was a threat to the power structures in place. The other gospel writers put this story at the end of Jesus' public life but the author of John's Gospel puts it right at the beginning, to make crystal clear that Jesus's proclamation of God's kingdom was on a direct collision course with the powers that be. Fr. Justin Bailey who preached our parish mission said that "whatever Jesus was, he is today; whatever Jesus did, he does today." As true as that theological statement is about Jesus' healing, it is as true about his being a threat to the powers that be.

I just finished reading a book that looked at Generation X culture from a theological point of view. One of the things the author found in music videos and other popular media was many images of Jesus as an old, ineffectual man. His analysis of this was that it is a statement, not so much about Jesus, as it is a statement about how organized religion has domesticated Jesus. If we really understand who Jesus is, and who we are called to be as his disciples, we too would be on a collision course with the powers that be. We would be considered dangerous to those who would profit first by killing the unborn, then by selling fetal tissue; dangerous to those who are comfortably enjoying rising wealth while others right next door go hungry; dangerous to those who separate sex from love and use it for everything from selling cars to addicting people; dangerous to those who twist the meaning of the word compassion, which means to suffer with, to justify helping people in pain to kill themselves, dangerous to those who would break apart our families so that we become isolated consumers. 

At the end of Mass you will have the opportunity to watch a video describing one way we can enter into this call to radical discipleship in the support of life. The video is produced by the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the four diocese in Massachusetts, to heighten our awareness of the threat to end of life through doctor assisted suicide.

Our scriptures as a whole are a story of the unfolding of human awareness and understanding of our God, a God who is loving parent. Our God nurtures those who are in need, while challenging all of us to become more than we ever can imagine.

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