Sixth Sunday of the Year A (13 February 2011)
Homily of Fr. Paul Panaretos, S.J.
Sharing God’s Honor
To appreciate Jesus’ words means appreciating the culture in which Jesus lived. The ancient Mediterranean world was driven by honor and shame, namely a desire for honor and a fear of shame. Honor exceeded saving face, though that was a frequent concern then. In that world honor registered in various ways. Age was prized not novelty or youth. Age crowned life. Long life allowed people to raise and enjoy children. Yet women feared being unable to have children. Its shame was not being fully a woman. Recall one childless woman in scripture, Elizabeth: in her old age she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her.1 God turned shame into honor.
Unlike us, people suspected the new. When wandering teachers criticized customary patterns of living or spoke of new gods, people did not welcome their opinions or their styles of life. When they pointed not to the latest but to some-thing hinting at fundamental transformation, it was cautiously considered because the ancient Mediterranean world was eager for true renewal. Roman law, after all, imposed a somber public morality, and the religious outlooks, uneven though they were throughout its world, sought freedom from all sorts of oppressive forces, visible and invisible.
In the relationship with the people of Abraham, God gave them commandments not only to shape their moral living but to help them transform the societies in which they lived. The commandments gave people daily, practical guidance: If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you. Salvation was no future ideal. Living the commandments would bring people honor and free them from shame; not just any honor, but God’s honor, named righteousness in scripture.
Here was the problem: one could appear to live by a commandment, You shall not kill, for example, yet have a heart brimming with malice. Jesus offered his disciples a true interpretation of the commandments, one by which people could live truly honorable lives, of the heart as well as by behavior. This is the context of the voice of Jesus we heard in his gospel. Outwardly observing commandments did not guarantee right relationship with God. Outward but not heartfelt observation of the commandments had become what many religious professionals, of all people, had done in Jesus’ day. For his disciples Jesus revisited and interpreted the commandments with fresh authority.
Anger motivates murder, and insults pave its way. Jesus was not teaching good manners but how to grow more humane with one another. Defusing anger was more important than temple-worship done for show: leave your gift...at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother or sister.
In Jesus’ world adultery was a way a man shamed another. A violated woman brought shame to her family, and if her husband took no action against what happened he was thought less a man. Jesus taught his disciples to ignore adultery as a way to challenge a man because it lacerated individual dignity of men and women, of families and communities. Unless a marriage is unlawful divorce, as a way not to face marital challenges, fared the same way in his teaching: it devastated lives, too.
In the world of Jesus oath-taking as lying frequently happened in the market but not only there. “Is this fruit fresh?”would get answers like, “By heaven it is!” or “By the temple mount!” or “By the hairs of my head!” All these to close a deal and swindle buyers. In the market and beyond it honesty and direct speech allow relationships to grow and deepen.
For his disciples Jesus restored and renovated the desires of God for human relationships. The experience of Jesus’ teaching drew people to him. More, after Jesus’ resurrection his disciples experienced nothing less than fundamental transformation: not only was their shame transformed to honor—their sinfulness into salvation, right relationship with God and others—they experienced release from forces which diminished them and freedom to proclaim their new life. They experienced, as St. Paul put it, God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden...for our glory. Jesus is our wisdom. The sacraments nourish our friendship with Jesus. Jesus welcomes our deepening friendship with him to show us how to live God’s wisdom in our society driven more by profit than by honor and by God’s saving wisdom to transform our world.
In your daily 15 minutes with Jesus this week, rest in the Trinity. Ask the disciples to present you to Jesus. Praise Jesus for revealing God’s heart and desires. Ask Jesus for the grace to live by his teaching more closely. Close, saying slowly the Lord’s Prayer. Each time we live more in and by the spirit of Jesus we hallow the name of his Father and ours, and we imprint on God’s desires the traces of our lives.
1. Luke 1.57-58.
Wiki-image of stained glass window of Jesus teaching is in the public domain.