October 22, 2016*
by Dennis Hamm, S.J.
Creighton University's Theology Department - Retired
click here for photo and information about the writer

Saturday of the Twenty-ninth Week in Ordinary Time
Lectionary: 478

Ephesians 4:7-16
Psalms 122:1-2, 3-4ab, 4cd-5
Luke 13:1-9

Praying Ordinary Time

Perceiving Jesus to be a wise man, some people ask him to help them understand the meaning of some recent catastrophes—Pilate’s slaughtering of some Galileans in the temple precincts and the death of eighteen people crushed under the collapse of the Siloam tower.  Were these people singled out for catastrophe as punishment for being extraordinary sinners?  No way, says Jesus, opposing the popular view that bad things only happened to bad people.  Then Jesus takes the occasion of their questions to make the paradoxical point that they themselves will suffer catastrophe if they do not repent.  To understand what he means, we only have to read further in this chapter to the place where he speaks of the disaster of being locked out of the banquet of the kingdom of God (Luke 13:24- 30).

Hearing this so soon after the first anniversary of 9/11/01, the image of people dying under a fallen tower has to remind us our own disaster of the collapse of the World Trade Center.  On that occasion—and on its anniversary—I heard no one wonder whether those thousands (from some 176 nations) who died had done something bad to earn this kind of death as a divine punishment.  On this question of theodicy we have heard Jesus well: bad things do happen to good people.  But have we used this occasion to hear the other point Jesus makes in this Gospel reading?  Have we responded to 9/11 as an urgent prompting to repentance?

In our understandable preoccupation with security and defense against terrorism, have we worked to take our place among the nations in a renewed effort to establish the justice that will make for peace?  It seems to me that we have emphasized military solutions over the rule of law, even to the point that we would not support a world court that could deal with the crimes of a Bin Laden or a Saddam Hussein.  We’d rather police things our own way, even if it entails using a means that international law rules illegal and our church’s teaching declares immoral - a preemptive military strike. 

Ephesians 4 is helpful here.  The author of this letter is describing the worldwide community of the church as a single body united with Christ as its head.  Listen to the last sentence: “Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love.”  What would it mean to be converted to that vision of the international church?  Wouldn’t that mean, minimally, that we would at least avoid killing other Christians?  Wouldn’t that mean that we would have grave hesitation about endangering Christian women and children and men in Iraq?  Of course, our faith calls us to more than that; we are not supposed to kill any people—soldiers or civilians—just because we perceive their leader is an evil and dangerous man.  Our community of faith holds that we are to use military force only as a last resort, and never against noncombatants.

The parable of the barren fig tree (Luke 13:6- 9) speaks about a fresh chance.  When the owner of the orchard wants to cut down the unproductive fig tree, the gardener urges him to allow a little more time: fertilize it a little more, and maybe it will produce fruit.  My application of that is that we still have the opportunity to act as citizens of a democracy who realize that the command to love our neighbor (even our enemies) requires that we voice our convictions regarding what our country, the most powerful on Earth, does in our name.  Just now, responding to the Gospel surely means that we examine our conscience on the matter of planning war, and that we communicate our judgment of conscience to our members of Congress.  “Separation of church and state” refers to government intervention in the practice of religion, not to the participation of religious people in their government.  Indeed, our faith requires that we participate.

* This reflection first appeared for these readings in 2002.

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