- Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown for the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jesus continues with the manifesto for the Kingdom of God. After this Sunday, we take a break from our journey with Saint Luke’s Gospel, and we enter the time set aside for a focus on Lent and Easter. It will be the end of June before we return to the Sundays in Ordinary Time. So, what does Jesus leave us with as we prepare for our Lenten journey?
Firstly, as ever Jesus uses simple images – about a teacher and the pupil, about speck in your eye and about a rotten tree. But he is not talking in a patronising way to uneducated people. Jesus can say profound things in a language that makes sense to people of all backgrounds. What he is talking about today is not laws but about a way of living with integrity. He is talking about his followers developing, not compliance with the rules bur rather virtue. There are those who look back on the past and point out that people lived better lives than they do today. But keeping the laws was not a guarantee of virtue. Virtue and goodness come from the heart and not just from playing by the rules. Church attendance and behaving well were not necessarily the same as holiness. Catholic Ireland may have had many strengths in terms of community and generosity. But it was also blind to its own failings and it was often unforgiving of those who broke some of the rules. There is no future unless we acknowledge where earlier generations were more aware of the speck in the eyes of others than of the plank in their own eyes.
Similarly, there will be renewal and synodality in the church if everyone is prepared to acknowledge our own mistakes before we damn the other. Sound fruit will be borne only by a healthy tree. Unless there is a store of goodness in our hearts, Jesus says, we will not be people of virtue. There is no grace, beauty or love in heartless law-keeping. We have only to look at the saints to see virtue blossoming in loving hearts.
Secondly, Christ’s teachings also speak into our secular world. The horrible events in Ukraine ask our western states what is it that they stand for. Amongst the threats to our society is not just a rampant Russian war in Central Europe, but the fact that liberal democracies look like little more than economic or industrial entities. Does Europe have any pretence at virtue or at generosity that goes beyond self-interest?
In the last half century, consumerist culture has produced little beauty or ideals to inspire young people. There are many wonderful charities – but the economic priorities keep talking as if we were merely economic units. There is little to nourish the human spirit, little to inspire hope. A widespread emphasis on entitlement and on victimhood generates a corrosive blame culture. It is unhealthy when we demand that something impersonal called the ‘State’ should pick up the pieces of every mess that we make. A dependency culture weakens us individually and communally. Virtue and responsibility will build hope and healing.
There is also a growing hint in some quarters that new human life can be a burden and that they should not be allowed to cramp our lifestyle. That has led to a continent where many countries have more deaths than births. A market-driven, me-centred culture, is sick in many ways. And there are those who want to crush out space for any voices that criticise the dominant ideology.
Schools and groups that do not bend the knee to the blinkered agenda of the powerful will always be damned for other reasons. Sometimes, however, it is just because they dare to speak uncomfortable truths. Thus, Jesus speaks into this concrete lived reality. The Kingdom of God will be made up of people who are freed from the slavery to self and enabled to build a society based on virtue.
If western countries are unable to offer the world more than consumer goods and mind-numbing entertainment, then we have nothing to boast of except our hollow economic power which struggles to drown out our nightmares. No wonder so many young people are disorientated and disillusioned.
Thirdly, all of this challenges us as we hear Jesus’ words and acknowledge the glaring failures of our societies. There is the temptation to smugly and angrily condemn. There is also the temptation to be blinded by the cultural bling that flatters us. Jesus invites us to build parish communities who can speak the truth in love with a smile on their face. If we are going to challenge others to live with integrity, we have to be living examples of that ourselves. Young people will be drawn by those in all age groups who live an inspiring lifestyle. Those who inspire can be family members, or priest/religious, or colleague, or teacher or sports trainers.
In history there have always been bursts of generous individuals who chose to love in communities, dedicated to Christ and to address some obvious need of their time. Francis of Assisi, and Mother Teresa, are just two of the innumerable examples of people whose faith drove them to live with integrity and to encourage people who felt overwhelmed by the needs of their society. Virtue always seeks to burst out. The human hunger for holiness and wholeness cannot be completely crushed by the problems that we human beings have created in our world. Great saints knew that they could not change everything for everybody. So, like Jesus, they set themselves to do something for somebody – and that made all the difference.
This week we face into Lent. Today’s readings set us a Lenten challenge.
What self-indulgence do we need to do or to give up so as to live with more integrity? What planks do we need to take out of our own eyes before we take the speck out of somebody else’s? What can we do to tackle the angry words that come out of hearts? Where do we need to remove a poisonous complaining spirit from our lives and make space for life-giving virtue?
Lent is about the hard work of tilling the soil in our hearts so that they will bear rich fruit in God’s own good time. Lent is a time for us to let the Lord make us more like powerfully salt to the earth and a guiding light to the world.
Take today’s Gospel as a companion through Lent 2022. In the next seven weeks, allow Christ’s grace to purify you. And then at Easter we will see stirrings, not just of nature but of Christ’s Church as it offers a new wave of virtue and integrity in the face of present realities and future fears.
Saint Paul talks about our perishable nature putting on a crazy disciple of Jesus. Some will laugh at us – but there is nothing to be ashamed of in being a crazy disciple of Jesus.
- Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry. The homily was preached at Mass today in the Cathedral of Saint Eugene, Derry.
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