HOMILY FOR THE THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME YEAR A.
HOMILY THEME: PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH
BY: Fr. Brian Wideman
There was a young girl who was obsessed with eating sugary foods. No matter what her parents did or said, she wouldn’t stop. So they decided to take the girl to a wise old man, so he could give her some direction. The old man listened to the parents and then thought for awhile. And when he finally spoke he said to them, “Bring your daughter back in two weeks.”
So they went away and came back later as the old man had directed. Their daughter sat down, and the old man said to her, “Child, you’re eating too much sugar. You should stop that; it’s not good for your health.” Her parents looked at the old man and asked, “Why couldn’t you say that two weeks ago?” To which he answered, “Because I needed two weeks to cut back on my own obsession with eating sugar.”
It’s a cute little story (often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi), but there’s some important wisdom in it which relates to our Scriptures today. The girl’s parents sought out the old man because of his reputation. But his reputation was built on his own personal integrity. In his wisdom, he knew he couldn’t tell the girl what to do if he himself refused to address his own weakness. He knew he had to “practice what he preached.” That’s what made him the sought- after “wise” old man.
Our Scriptures today chastise those who are leaders of God’s people, but who do not practice what they preach. That’s why Jesus said, “Do what they say, but do not follow their example.” He’s speaking specifically of the Chief Priests, the Pharisees, the scribes and the elders, all of whom had the responsibility of teaching and shepherding the people. They laid down the law, but they themselves refused to live by that law. And so they were very poor leaders.
And, as we know, poor leaders can devastate a community—whether they’re civil leaders or religious leaders. Their message can be right, but it can go very badly if they don’t listen to their own message. And we don’t have to look very far to see this.
The Catholic Church is a very old and venerable community instituted by Christ. But her shepherds haven’t always been the most honorable. This past week, Lutherans celebrated Reformation Day, that day back in 1517 when Martin Luther called out the hypocritical shepherds of the Church. Now, we can debate all day about whether or not Luther’s actions were a good thing. But there’s no question at all that, if the shepherds of the Church had practiced what they preached and adhered to the gospel, what Luther did wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place.
We look to our own century and see the devastation brought by the clergy abuse scandal fifteen years ago. The lives of innocent children and their families were ruined, and so too was any respect the Church had as a trustworthy, loving, and honorable institution. And once trust is gone, it’s near to impossible to get back. The callousness and hypocrisy of some clergy brought a significant amount of devastation. And, I suppose, one lesson we can take from our Scriptures today is to pray for those in leadership of any kind, especially in the Church. When one makes a public profession to “practice what one preaches,” the expectations to do that well increase a hundred-fold. And that’s not a bad thing, but it increases the pressure. So praying for our leaders, supporting them—even in their human weaknesses—is a lesson we can take with us today.
The other lesson we can take is that—especially in the Church—we are all leaders of the faith. The Church is made up of all the faithful, ordained and lay alike. And we’re all called to go from here and share our faith with others. And we do that by how we live our lives, how we treat others—in the home, at school, at work, in the fields, wherever we are. And so that call to practice what we preach is important for all of us to follow.
When you think about the reasons why somebody might join a parish or leave a parish, or want to join the Catholic Church or leave it, it usually has something to do with “human stuff.” Of course, there are other reasons too, including the preaching and the music, and also larger cultural factors. But the integrity, or authenticity, of the community itself seems to play a significant role. When Saint Paul went around preaching and starting up little communities of faith, he would also do a lot of follow up with them. That’s what many of his letters seem to be. But it wasn’t just a friendly “check-up:” you know…”How’s it going over there in Corinth.” His letters reminded them of how he treated them, and how he shared the gospel with them.
Today, we heard, “We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children. With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us. You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery. Working night and day in order not to burden any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.”
But Saint Paul wasn’t boasting. He wasn’t saying, “Hey, look at what a good person I was to you.” He reminded them so they could imitate him. Saint Paul was a man of integrity—even in spite of his personal history and his continuing human weaknesses. He was a man who practiced what he preached; he lived with real faith, with certain hope, and with unconquerable love and charity. And he was encouraging others to be like him; to be a person of integrity. And that’s because integrity, authenticity, “practicing what we profess” is attractive; it’s beautiful and good. And that comes through in all our “human stuff:” the way we treat others, the way we put our values into practice, and so on.
Some of the values we profess and that hope others get on board with include things like…hospitality: welcoming others, greeting others as the brothers and sisters in Christ that we are. And hospitality includes forgiveness. Now, to live with integrity doesn’t mean being sinless. But it does involve how we respond to sins: our own and others.’ Can I forgive myself as God forgives me? Can I forgive others as God forgives me?
And this all includes being able to work through things with charity, mercy, humility, justice, and so on. Wherever there’s a community of human beings, there are going to be conflicts—church, home, school, friends. The test, however, is how we get through it. The test is: Will we put into practice the values we profess?
If we can say yes to that, it’s attractive. Being hospitable, forgiving, encouraging, honest…it’s all attractive; it draws people in because the gospel is being preached right there in how we live. Other values we profess and that we hope others will get on board with are…prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Those are brought out pretty strongly every Lenten season. Can people tell that I am a man or woman of prayer? Can I say the psalm from today: “In you, Lord, I have found my peace. O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor are my eyes haughty; I busy not myself with great things, nor with things too sublime for me. Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap, so is my soul within me.” Or am I always restless, never satisfied, always angry, and not at peace with myself and others?
People can tell whether or not we “practice what we preach;” whether or not we “practice what we profess.” And we each know that; we can spot hypocrisy—in others and in ourselves. We can also spot authenticity—in others and in ourselves. We know when we’re living the gospel…because we’re at peace with ourselves. And it feels very good. And it is good, and attractive, and a beautiful thing to experience. That’s why Saint Paul says, “Live like me, imitate me.” He knows that authentic Christian living is the most inspiring thing we have to share with others. It’s what draws people in—into community, into Christian friendship, and into union with our God. When it comes to the world, and evangelizing that world, we are all shepherds. And so, today’s Scriptures are really for all of us.
May we shepherd the world well, practicing what we profess…for our own good, the good of others, and the glory of God.