Sermon: Does the Gospel challenge us, or someone else?
When the chief priests and elders in today’s Gospel utter this harsh but entirely just condemnation, you have to wonder if they did not hesitate just a little, realizing the trap that Jesus has set for them. The wretched men to be put to a wretched death, after all, are they themselves.
No one hearing Christ’s parable of the vineyard would have mistaken what he was about, especially not a religious leader or scholar of the law. The nation of Israel as God’s vineyard is a prominent theme in the Old Testament, as we heard from Isaiah today. To anyone hearing the parable, that the tenants of the vineyard were the contemporary leaders of the people of Israel would have been quite obvious. So why do they still fall in his trap?
I suspect that the chief priests and the elders want to think that Jesus is talking about the political leaders, since they tended to see the Kingdom through a political lens. But this is the fundamental misunderstanding of the Jewish religious leaders, who rejected the Messiah – the Son of the vineyard owner – because he was not the political leader they hoped for.
Like the chief priests and elders, we too often read the Gospel as challenging someone else rather than ourselves. Under the guise of being passionate about an important issue, we want the Church to speak more boldly or in a particular way about a particular topic – unborn life, the poor, embryonic stem cell research and vaccines, the environment – but really, what we are sometimes really are after is for the Church to affirm our own self-righteousness. Rather than allowing the Gospel to challenge us, we want the ministers of the Gospel to use it to affirm us and condemn someone else under the guise of a concern for truth.
For the self-righteous Jewish chief priests and elders, this assumption that someone else is being challenged by Jesus’s preaching rather than them is dangerous, and even deadly. If we imitate their self-righteousness, their end will be ours as well.
In the current political environment, two interesting trends have emerged regarding how people expect the Church to speak on political matters. One side wants the Church to condemn the opposing party and declare that no Catholic could in good conscience vote for anyone associated with that party. (Ironically, this position tends to condemn any other move by the Catholic hierarchy against what they see as their side as being motivated by a secret political agenda, whereas confirmations of their own position are seen as great moral courage.) Another side does not actually want the Church to do the converse and condemn the other party, but rather seems to believe that the Church should be silent on political matters because of the separation of Church and State in liberal democracy. (Ironically, this side does not seem to object to its politicians continuing to use Christian faith and symbolism as arguments for their own moral integrity, despite thinking that the Church should be silent because of “separation of Church and State.”)
Both of these tendencies are fundamentally flawed. Separation of Church and State does not mean that the Church has no right to speak on the intersection of politics and morality. The Church has a legitimate voice in society and must speak up to form the consciences of the faithful in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, to wed Herself to one political party, politician, or platform has never turned out well in the Church’s history of interacting with the modern world. This is not true only because of the imperfections of the platform of any American political party. It is because the nature of the Church necessitates that She be above partisan politics.
Why, then, is there so much of a desire for the Church, or the Church’s present hierarchy – to take our side of an issue, and such a lack of willingness to be challenged by the Church’s prophetic office? Surely we would not waste our time every Sunday merely coming to be affirmed in what we already believe?
Well, actually, I think there is a decent of that. You see, you and I tend to spend a lot of time every week being affirmed in whatever we already believe. This happens by the way that media are curated. Your Facebook feed shows you the things that you are likely to like, not to dislike. Google News (or any other news aggregator that you use) shows you articles from sources that are likely aligned with your political interests. Further, Americans spend less and less time each year with people who are unlike them. We are increasingly sorted into neighborhoods, occupations, friend circles, even different regions of the country, and even different churches into ways that ensure we will not have to interact more than necessary with people of different ideological persuasions. We spend more and more of our time with people who are just like us. These are not my grand musings – these are demonstrable facts that have been well researched by social scientists. Despite the impression that American society is more diverse than ever, most people experience very little of that diversity on a regular basis.
This explains the increasingly acerbic nature of political discourse. We are quick to believe that people of an opposing political persuasion are ruining our country or are community. Consequently, we can be convinced that people who do not agree with us on entirely debatable points of political, pastoral, or theological prudence are ruining the Church as well. When we are so quick to condemn others we run the risk of being the tenants who think that the vineyard is theirs rather than the landowner’s, or the chief priests and elders who sign their own death warrant.
Very different than this contemporary attitude is the exhortation of St. Paul today, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Rather than focusing on how terrible the leader of an opposing party may or may not be, Christian discourse is called to be positive – not just in the sense of saying nice things about other, but in building up God’s kingdom by pursuing His righteousness.
Today, throughout the country, the Catholic Church celebrates Respect Life Sunday – and really, the entire month of October is Respect Life Month. In the spirit of St. Paul’s exhortation to think of whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and gracious, rather than using the Church’s teachings as a bludgeon to compel support of one political party or another, let’s focus on the many people who uphold the Church’s teachings on the dignity of human life whom we should celebrate.
Today we celebrate the families who generously welcome new life, who sacrifice material well-being and comfort to recognize the greater good of children. We celebrate the couples who respect the ordering of the human body and human sexuality by living in chastity both before and after marriage – by practicing abstinence before marriage, and abstaining from the use of artificial contraception within marriage.
Today we celebrate the doctors, nurses, midwives, and other medical care professionals who stand up to the medical establishment and refuse to be involved in any procedures that would harm an unborn child or deform human sexuality. We celebrate the fertility care practitioners and natural family planning instructors who help men and women to appreciate the God-given gift of fertility and to responsibly plan their families in a way that respects the natural ordering of human sexuality.
Today we celebrate the couples experiencing infertility, who long for the gift of a child, and have not turned to infertility treatments like in-vitro fertilization or surrogacy, which harm unborn children and disrespect marital chastity. We celebrate the medical professionals, counselors, and supportive family members and friends who assist these couples in their journeys and provide treatments for infertility in accord with the natural law.
Today we celebrate the families who have adopted children in need of a loving home, and the courageous men and women who have chosen life for their sons and daughters in difficult circumstances and entrusted them to others through adoption.
We celebrate the pro-life advocates who assist women experiencing unexpected pregnancies who through counseling, friendship, material support, and medical services help them to choose life for their children and support them through the journey of motherhood and fatherhood.
We celebrate those too who recognize the face of Christ in the poor, the immigrant, the sick, the elderly, and all those discarded by our materialistic society, who recognize that the infinite value of the human person lies not in his or her economic output but in the inherent dignity that comes from being a son or daughter of God.
We celebrate the devoted loved ones and friends, medical personnel, and hospice teams who support those who are dying, who assist them in offering their sufferings to the Lord for the salvation of the world and provide hope rather than the despair of assisted suicide or euthanasia. We honor those who have shown us the dignity of a holy death, united with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
These things, these people, are indeed true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and gracious. Today we honor them, and we pray that more people will be dedicated to the cause of preserving the God-given dignity of every human life, in every stage of development, whatever the cost.
Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XXVII Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXX