Sermon - Year B

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Words that can hurt you truly badly and acutely can only come from someone who knows you very well: a confidant, a very close friend, or – most often – your spouse. While being close to someone has many obvious benefits, it also makes you exposed and vulnerable. This is the risk we must take and the price we must pay for love and friendship to make it genuine. Such utter openness has another common long-term side effect: it renders us virtually ineffective as domestic preachers. Having experienced your real or imagined shortcomings, imperfections, deficiencies and flaws, your spouse and children stop listening to you sooner or later. This is why it’s so hard to talk religion to your loved ones. Shrugging their shoulders may be the best reaction you can get; sometimes, it can be a source of tension or even conflict. Welcome to the reality of Jesus’ ministry: “A prophet is only despised in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house.” If he couldn’t make it work, how can we?

Should we then give up trying to share and pass on our religious experience to those close to us? In the first reading, the prophet Ezekiel was sent on a mission impossible from the outset: “I am sending you to the Israelites, to the rebels who have turned against me. Till now, they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me. The sons are defiant and obstinate.” Wasn’t carrying out the order futile, knowing the most likely outcome? Another Old Testamental prophet, Jonah of the three-day-tenancy-inside-the-whale fame, headed in the opposite direction after he’d been commissioned to preach repentance to the inhabitants of Nineveh, apparently a mission impossible on a par with that of Ezekiel’s. Their struggles mirror our own. We might imagine that setting off and talking in the name of God and with His authority behind the task could be successfully carried out without too much trouble. Such a belief is often an unintentional by-product of well-intended but overly polished and smoothed stories of the canonised saints, who went through their lives and missions from strength to strength, scoring a string of successes.

St Paul, one of those canonised saints, was undoubtedly one of the most successful Christian preachers. However, today’s second reading gives us indeed a very interesting insight into his state of mind and the source of his accomplishments. Firstly, St Paul openly acknowledged suffering a shortcoming of his, depicted as “a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to beat me and stop me from getting too proud.” Although we don’t get any detailed specifics of its nature, we know for sure that it troubled St Paul to a great extent: “About this thing, I have pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me.” In his mind, his shortcomings were unsurmountable obstacles that had to be removed to carry out his mission successfully. His thinking was in line with the aforementioned common but wrong perception that God’s messengers and preachers must be angels incarnate. So, St Paul must have been quite bewildered when his pleas were answered in a way he hadn’t expected. The “thorn in the flesh” was to remain in place with a very clear purpose: “My grace is enough for you; my power is at its best in weakness.” Eventually, St Paul came to understand that only when he preached from a position of weakness could his listeners find the message of the gospel relevant to their imperfect and flawed lives. That was quite a shift in position from the superficial perfection promoted by the Pharisees, a Jewish faction St Paul had been a very active member of before his conversion.

Another crucial consequence of such a permanent “thorn in the flesh” was a better and more compassionate understanding of people’s efforts and struggles to live their lives the right way, as well as their successes and failures in doing so. When St Paul compiled a list of desired traits, they all concerned interactions with others: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) He called them “the fruit of the Spirit”, indicating their initial source. Developing these traits and growing in them might be the best way of carrying out our individual missions to preach the gospel to those around us in line with the purpose of the prophet Ezekiel’s commission: “Whether they listen or not, this set of rebels shall know there is a prophet among them.”