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Homily - Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Bishop McKeown


Sunday, 5 February 2023

In these first weeks, Jesus has set out his mission - and each Sunday, he asks us to buy into it. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and he calls on people to repent because God's kingdom is close at hand. Last week in the Beatitudes, he listed the attitudes that would prevail when grace was in charge and sin defeated – gentleness, peace-making, patience in the face of opposition. Today he calls on his followers to be proud of those attitudes of heart, to be salt and light in a world that needs both. What might we take from today?

Firstly, those who take Jesus seriously have always been looked on as a bit odd. That does not mean that being awkward with people is a guaranteed sign of holiness! But the two images of salt and light say that Christ's followers should act and speak in such a way as to make the healing virtues of the Beatitudes visible and real. That is what the saints did. Our first question has always to be, not 'whom do we condemn for being a sinner?' but 'how much do we reflect the grace of Jesus in our lives and attitudes?' Thus, the Penitential Rite at the beginning of Mass is not intended to make us feel miserable. But it is directed at the core message of Jesus - we all have to change and grow to be more like Jesus; we all need to be fed by Jesus, and not just the people over whom we are tempted to feel superior. The first reading lists signs of God's grace in our lives – helping the hungry and homeless, avoiding anger and harsh words. Those will make our light rise in the darkness. This teaching of Jesus underlines the scandal of sin and abuse in church circles. If we act in Jesus' name, people have a right to expect higher standards from us than from society in general. Unless Christ's followers are exceptional in their care and generosity, then we are neither salt nor light.

Secondly, we also have a message that is awkward for secular society. Christ's defeat of sin and its consequences tells us that we are called to greatness. God has a dream for who we could be as individuals and as a society. And that message does not go down well in a culture without great dreams. We hear great emphasis placed on economic growth but carefully avoid any reference to moral growth or maturity. We have made huge advances in technology – but this has not been accompanied by peace or justice. There is a huge amount of wealth in the world – but obscene amounts of money and power lie in very few hands who have extraordinary influence on our choices and values. Politicians know that they have limited room for manoeuvre in the game that is not run by them. And so, we end up with too many political decisions that often are little more than electoral or ideological gimmicks and carefully avoid questioning the system that benefits the strong and crushes the weak. Speaking this weekend in South Sudan, Pope Francis challenged political leaders there to put the salt of pardon on the wounds of the country. It will burn, he says, but it will heal. Our own society in these islands is sick in many ways as we can see in the levels of distress and violence. Christians have the mission not just to feed the poor but to ask what is wrong with our rich society that is causing so much poverty and depression. The Second Vatican Council taught in 1965 that, without belief in the Creator, the human creature would lose any sense of its value and disappear through self-destruction (Cf Gaudium et Spes 36) Synodality is about looking inwards only so that we can re-energise ourselves to speak outwards in Jesus' name. Jesus wants to heal the broken world and to save it from itself. He asks us to be courageous in his name, even when his and our words are unwelcome. Blessed ate those who are persecuted in the cause of right, he said. That will be the cost for those who dare to be unwelcome salt and uncomfortable light.

Thirdly, that is tough. But we can see from the second reading just how St Paul felt when he arrived in Corinth. He said that he was 'full of fear and trembling'. He knew that what he had to offer was not his philosophical learning or his own power, but simply the news about the crucified Christ and the power of the Spirit.There has been the temptation for Church to be strong and to rely on its own power to build God's Kingdom. It is revealing that, when the church was politically strong in many countries, there was remarkably little reference to the power of the Holy Spirit. But the Kingdom of heaven is built by God, not by us.This is a period in history when in church we are called upon to let God be in charge, to allow the gentleness and peace-making of the Beatitudes to dominate and to see where our agendas and perceived wisdom are getting in the way of Christ's kingdom. Discernment means seeing the little signs of where God is going ahead of us – and then following in those footsteps.

In two and a half weeks, after hearing these challenging Gospel words from Jesus, we begin our Lenten journey. Jesus has given us much to think about in these opening weeks of the Gospel. We still have time to prepare for Lent and to decide what Jesus is calling us to repent from this year. We might take ideas such as:

  • Where do we need to die to ourselves so as to take the Beatitudes seriously?
  • Where do we need to be courageous in speaking the truth of Jesus to on our culture and leaders?
  • Where do we ned to face the fear and trembling that can come over us when we want to step out of line with our society and its values?

Only a people with prayerful hearts will be able to tackle those questions and not be paralysed by fear or slip into an unhealthy form of discipleship. Jesus issued an uncomfortable invitation 2,000 years ago. He still does.

+ Donal McKeown

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