October 20, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Isaiah 45:1, 4-6) Reading II (1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b)
Gospel (St. Matthew 22:15-21)
In the Gospel reading today, Jesus says to us that we are to give to Caesar what is Caesar's but we are to give to God what is God's. Now we can ask ourselves, "What really does belong to Caesar and what belongs to God?" because, as we read in the first reading today, it is God Himself who raised up Cyrus. Cyrus was the king of Persia. He was a pagan, but Cyrus became the emperor of the known world at that time, at least in the area of the Middle East. He is the one who, through some sort of knowledge that God gave to him, sent the people of Israel (who were in exile in Babylonia at that time) back to Israel to rebuild the temple and to rebuild Jerusalem. He did not know the Jewish people at all, but somehow the message got through to him that his task was to send the people back.
The intriguing thing about the reading that we heard today in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah is that it was written over a hundred years before King Cyrus of Persia was ever raised up. So again, we see God, through the prophet Isaiah, giving very specific information about the person that He was going to raise up to bring the Jewish exiles back to their own land and to rebuild the temple. And He says of Cyrus, first of all, that Cyrus is the anointed one of God; secondly, He tells Cyrus that there is only one God and that there is no other, and that it is God who has raised Cyrus up for this purpose and that he is to do the work of God and the Will of God even though he does not even know God.
When we see it from that perspective, we can simply ask ourselves, "What is there that does not belong to God?" If God raises up even the pagans to do His Will, even though the pagans do not even know the Lord, we recognize then that there is very little we can say about any human being that we can take credit for this ourselves. What we can take credit for, of course, is our sinfulness - we cannot blame that on God. But everything else - all the ability that we have, all the grace that has been given to us to be able to do the things that we are to do - comes from God.
Now, for us, we are called in a very specific way. Cyrus was called as a pagan to send the people of Israel back to rebuild their temple. But we, like the people of Thessalonica, have been called by the Gospel. And Saint Paul said of those people that he remembers them in his prayers always because of their works of faith, their labor of love, and their endurance in hope. We can ask ourselves if Saint Paul would be able to say the same thing of each one of us. Have we put our faith into practice? Have we been laboring in love, out of love for God and love for neighbor? Are we enduring in hope, rejecting all of the infectious ways of the world that try to creep their way into our lives in order to endure in our hope for the Second Coming of Christ - that we will remain faithful to Him even though we do not see Him yet?
But even more than just that, in order for ourselves to be filled with faith, hope, and charity, something else has to happen first, and that is the point Saint Paul makes at the very end of the second reading today. He tells the people of Thessalonica that he knows how they were chosen, that the preaching of the Gospel was not a matter of mere words to them, but rather it was one of power and in the Holy Spirit. Now that is the point we really need to look at. Has the preaching of the Gospel that we have heard week after week and year after year proven to be a matter of power and the Holy Spirit in our lives? Or is the preaching of the Gospel a matter of mere words to us? Do we come to Mass week after week and day after day, do we read the Scriptures every day and set them down and walk away unchanged? Is it just a matter of words - at the worst, pious pablum that sounds real nice but does not really make any difference in our lives? Is the Gospel something that we keep at an arm's distance and somehow take on the attitude that it is impossible to be able to live? "It sounds nice, but it's not reality."
If that is the case, then the Gospel has demonstrated itself in us to be just a matter of mere words because we do not live it, we do not accept it, we keep it at an arm's distance, or even worse, push it away for whatever reason it may be: either because we do not believe that it is possible to live it or because we simply do not want to, because it convicts us and if it were a matter of power and the Holy Spirit we would have to change our lives to begin to live according to the words that we read in the Scriptures.
Now if God has called a pagan by name and given him a purpose and called him His anointed one, how much more has He called each one of us by name. He has anointed us and He has called us to Himself to do His work, and His work in us is one of power and the Holy Spirit. Are we demonstrating that work in our daily lives? Are we living it out in the world? It is the question that I have asked many times from this pulpit. When you go to work tomorrow morning, when you meet your neighbors on the street, when you go out to a restaurant, when you are in the grocery store, when you are at the shopping mall, would anyone know that you are a Catholic? And even if they did not know that you are a Catholic, would anyone know that you are a follower of Jesus Christ? I am not suggesting that you need to put placards on your front and back and carry that around. You do not need to wear a T-shirt that says "I'm a Catholic" - although those are rather wonderful. You need to live the faith that you profess. The world is so corrupt at this point that if people cannot tell you are a Catholic simply by the way you carry yourself there is something that is wrong. The power of the Gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit must not be able to work very well in us if people cannot tell, because the dichotomy of what it means to be a Catholic and the ways of the world today are so far apart that it should be a very easy thing to be able to tell a Catholic in this society.
If that is not obvious to people then we need to wonder why we have put a bushel basket over the light of the Holy Spirit that has been ignited in our hearts, why we have taken the power of the words of the Gospel and squelched it. It is sort of like having a great big, fancy stereo system in your living room and putting on some nice classical music and turning the volume all the way down to zero so that nothing comes out. Everything is there; you have got the best equipment and you have got the best music, and nothing comes out because you have squelched it. That is what has happened with us. God has given us everything. He has called each one of us individually by name. He has anointed us and made us His own. He has given to us His Holy Spirit. He has given us the fullness of truth. He has given us the sacraments. And where is the evidence? Where is the power?
It is one of the most frequently asked questions to me by the converts to the faith. They tell me that when they were in the evangelical churches they could see the power of the Holy Spirit at work. When they become Catholic - and the Lord is right here in the Blessed Sacrament and they have the sacraments and they have the fullness of the truth - they do not see any evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the vast majority of the people in the Church. That is a pretty sad indictment of the way we are living the Gospel. When people who have part of the truth and only two sacraments are able to show to the world the power of the Holy Spirit, and the people who have the fullness of the truth and all seven sacraments cannot demonstrate it very well at all, that is a sad indictment to each one of us that we have turned the volume knob down to zero so that the words of the Gospel do not come out of our mouths, so that the power of the Holy Spirit is not going to be demonstrated through us, so that even though God has provided for us the best equipment and all of the things that we need, we have decided not to turn on the power button so that the stereo cannot work at all.
Each one of us needs to look very seriously at what is happening within us. The times in which we live are extraordinary and the grace of God that is available to us is equally extraordinary, in fact, it surpasses it infinitely. But it is like having all of that equipment - and you can have a rack of the best CDs in the world - but if you do not turn the stereo on or you do not plug it in, nothing is going to happen. God has equipped us with everything and He expects that each one of us is going to give back to God what belongs to God. Are we living the faith? Could Saint Paul say to us today that he remembers us every day, and especially our work in faith, our labor in love, and our endurance in hope? Would he be able to say, "I have heard of the way that you are living your faith in the midst of a depraved society"? Would he be able to look at us and say that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not for us a matter of mere words but one of power and the Holy Spirit? Or would he look at us as he did to the Philippians and say to us, "As I have told you many times, and now I say it with tears, many of you are headed to destruction because the Gospel of God with the power of the Holy Spirit has been rejected and is not being lived"?
Each one of us needs to stand convicted before the Lord, and each one of us, then, needs to kneel before the Lord and repent because we have not lived the Gospel the way we are supposed to, because we have chosen the ways that are easier. We have chosen to be like everyone else instead of like Jesus Christ. We have chosen the spirit of the world rather than the Spirit of God. We have rejected God's choice and His anointing to be able to be just like everyone else. God's choice and His election are permanent; He has not rejected us. So even if we have not been living the Gospel up to this point the way that we should, God's choice of you individually by name, His anointing and His election, still remain valid for each one of us. We need to tell God today that we repent and that we will live the Gospel with power and in the Holy Spirit, that we will go forth from this place today and that we are going to do our best to try to give back to God what is His - that is, ourselves, our lives, and everything about them - that we will not reject His anointing, that we will not reject His Holy Spirit, that we will accept the words of the Gospel and that we will put them into practice. That is what we are called to do. Cyrus was a pagan who called the chosen people back to God. We are the children of God who are called to go into a pagan world and give witness to the power of the Holy Spirit by living the Gospel, by working in faith, laboring in love, and enduring in hope so that we will truly give back to God what is God's.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.