Sunday June 23, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Jeremiah 20:10-13) Reading II (Romans 5:12-15)
Gospel (St. Matthew 10:26-33)
At the beginning of the Gospel reading today, Jesus instructs us to fear no one. Now that is something that is not normal for us; it is not natural. Most of us live in fear. We have been conditioned that way. There are many people who are afraid even to go out of their house; they are afraid of all the things that might befall them. But what Our Lord is telling us is that we need to trust in God. He tells us that we are worth more than any sparrow, but God takes care of the sparrows. He tells us that every single hair on our head is counted. God knows everything and He knows it perfectly. He knows what is the best for us; and if we trust in the Lord, then He is going to provide for us.
That is difficult for us because most of us do not really trust the Lord. For instance, Our Lord tells us that we are not supposed to worry about what we are going to eat or what we are going to wear - God feeds the birds; He clothes the flowers of the valley. Yet, we do not trust Him. The Lord says, "If the grass, which springs up and flowers today and is thrown in the fire tomorrow, is arrayed with such beauty, why do you not trust that God will take care of you, who are worth so much more?
Of course, we could look at some other things. In the second reading today, for instance, Saint Paul speaks about sin and he tells us that through one man sin entered the world and through sin, death. Therein lies probably the greatest fear that most people have: death. But even beyond that, with just sin by itself, we know there are many people out there who have given themselves over completely to sin. We know they will swindle us, that they will lie and cheat and steal, that they will try to do whatever they can to get what they want. It does not matter to them what they have to do to us. And so, we do not trust because we see these kinds of people and we begin to think that we have to do everything ourselves, that we have to be in control, that we are the ones who have to determine what is going to happen and make sure that we are not hurt.
Now I grant that there is a point of prudence. We cannot put ourselves into a bad situation and then tempt God and say, "Now that I'm in this bad situation, You get me out of it," doing it on purpose. Yet at the same time, we all know there have been times when we have been innocent and we wound up in bad situations, just like Jeremiah in the first reading. He says that he hears "the whisperings of many: 'Terror on every side! Denounce! Let us denounce him!'" Then he even goes on to say, "All those who were my friends…" - the ones closest to him, even they are on the watch for any misstep of his, looking to prevail and take vengeance on him.
When we look back over the last century and realize that more Christians died as martyrs in the 20th century than in the nineteen centuries of Christianity combined, we say, "But how can we trust the Lord when He allows such things to happen?" Sin and death are everywhere. We have lots of people who do not care about us at all and would trample on us if they were given the opportunity and if they thought they could get ahead. Therefore, [we think], "I need to take care of myself." That is the way we tend to think. Others, even worse, think things like: "Well, since God is not doing it, I'm going to have to do it myself."
It comes right back to that point, again, of the trust that God will only want what is the best. When bad things happen, we do not see how it can be the best. But when someone is martyred, for instance, they go directly to Heaven; and so, God delivers them from all of the perils of this world. Because they were willing to say yes to Him - and even to put their own lives on the line and give their lives up for Jesus Christ - then they find eternal life; they have a direct line to Heaven. Our Lord told us, "Whoever will lose his life will save it." And whoever will lose his life for the Lord's sake and that of the Gospel - whoever will give all these things up - will receive a hundredfold.
Now we all know that we are going to die anyway. Does it really matter that much if we died when we were eighty, ninety, or one hundred - or if we died when we were twenty, thirty, or forty? It seems a shame when a young life is snuffed out; yet if that life is given to God, and if that person has done in this world everything that God intended for that person to do, then, in fact, it is not a shame but it is fulfilled. One can look at the number of canonized saints who were very young people; some were even children. Our own little Saint Agnes, the patroness of our parish, was just thirteen years old. We celebrate these people. Naturally speaking, it is a tragedy; spiritually speaking, however, it is something which is great and wonderful and something which we celebrate. These people trusted in God. The martyrs of all twenty centuries trusted in God and they have received the reward for their fidelity. They acknowledged God before others. And Jesus promised that if we acknowledge God before other people that He will acknowledge us before His heavenly Father.
One of the greatest fears that people suffer from beyond death is rejection, not fitting in. They want to be liked; they want to be like everyone else; they want to fit in. And if that means denying their faith - denying what is right, even to the point of denying the Lord just to be accepted - they are willing to do that. We think, oftentimes, of teenagers along these lines; but if we are honest with ourselves, we know it is far more than just teenagers - it's most everybody. Whatever group it is that we think we want to fit in with, whoever it is that we want to impress, when we are embarrassed of the Lord so that we do not tell people we are Catholic and we do not act like Catholics because we do not want people to get the wrong impression, we really need to ask, "What impression do we want them to get? Do we want them to think that we are bad people?" What we really want is for them to think that we are like them. It is pretty sad that we are willing to deny Jesus in our actions, and perhaps even in our words, in order to be accepted by another human being.
I always point out to the young people that when they get themselves into trouble and are asked about it and they talk about how all their friends were doing this so they felt like they needed to do it too just so they could fit in is that on the Day of Judgment they are going to stand before Jesus alone; their friends are not going to be with them. Their friends are not going to speak up for them and say, "But this person was courageous and was willing to do what was necessary to be accepted and to fit in with us." Nor are they going to stand there and say, "But, Lord, it was really our fault; we're the ones who talked this person into it." No, each one of us is going to have to stand before the Lord alone. And each one of us is going to be judged according to our actions, Scripture tells us. The Lord tells us that we are going to be responsible for every word that comes out of our mouths. For some of us, we need to be in fear and trembling with the way the mouth flaps. But Our Lord is very clear: Whoever denies Him before others, He will deny before His heavenly Father; but whoever acknowledges Him before others, He will acknowledge before His heavenly Father.
What we need to do is to put our fears aside. We do not need to fear death because we are all going to enter it one day anyhow. What we need to do is look forward to life. If our focus is on Jesus Christ and on Heaven, we do not need to fear death. And we need to put aside our fears of other people. Jeremiah recognized very clearly, in the first reading today, that the Lord will rescue the life of the poor from the power of the wicked. He says, "The Lord is with me, like a mighty champion: my persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph. In their failure they will be put to utter shame, to lasting, unforgettable confusion." Even if that does not happen until after death, we know that the victory is Christ's and we know that Jesus' victory was specifically in His death and in His resurrection. We simply need to keep our focus where it belongs. We do not need to be afraid of anybody. The Lord is with us like a mighty champion and He will not allow our persecutors to prevail.
He may allow it in the immediate because He wants to teach us something, because there is a lesson of some kind that we need to learn. Most of us, when the Lord allows that, get very angry and we turn to Him and say, "Where were You? I thought You were supposed to be with me. Why did You let me down?" That is the very reason why most of us think we have to do everything ourselves: because it does not seem that the Lord is taking care of us. But I would recommend that any of those difficult times that you have had in your life - they are back a way - take those to prayer now. As awful as they were, and even though you would not wish them on anybody, you will see that God has brought about great things in your life because of them. Some of the most important lessons we learn, some of the best insights that we have, come from these awful things. The growth in the spiritual life and the trust in God often come from exactly these things. Would we say to God, "I would rather have not had that happen and remain with little faith and little trust, without the wisdom and knowledge that I've gained," or "I prefer to have that happen - even again - in order to have that deeper union with You, Lord"? Those are hard things for us to look at, but when we can see it this way then we can understand that God allows bad things to happen to us in order to bring about a greater good.
He is with us; He is always with us. And He will be the champion. It may not be that He is going to send lightning to strike the person who is trying to do evil to us; but rather, the victory is going to take place within us. Even if the person steals everything that we have, it does not matter because he cannot take Jesus Christ from us; he cannot take life from us. So what we need is simply to make sure that our focus is correct, make sure that our focus is on Jesus Christ, that we are absolutely firm in our faith in Christ, unswerving in our commitment to Him. We need to be detached from all the things of the world because that is where our fear comes from most of the time: We are afraid that life might be taken from us, or afraid that our things might be taken from us, or afraid that our reputation might be taken from us. If we just let go of it all and say, "Lord, it is Yours. If You want to take all these things, they're Yours. If that's what it's going to take for me to get to Heaven, then take it all!" The beautiful thing of that is that if we are willing to do that and remain faithful to Him, remain firm in our commitment to Him, then we have His absolute promise that by living our faith in this life and acknowledging Him before men, He will acknowledge us before His heavenly Father. What we will have, then, is life eternal. And there is no snatching out of God's hand, Jesus said, so we will have nothing to fear forever. But that does not start in eternity; eternity has already started within us on the day we were baptized, and as long as we are faithful that cannot be taken from us. We have nothing to fear. So the choice then, once again, is entirely ours. In the way we live and in the way we speak, we can deny God in this life and Our Lord will deny us in the next; but if we acknowledge Him before men, He will acknowledge us before His heavenly Father.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.