HOMILY FOR THE THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME YEAR A.
HOMILY THEME: “THE GREATEST AMONG YOU WILL BE YOUR SERVANT. ALL WHO EXALT THEMSELVES WILL BE HUMBLED, AND ALL WHO HUMBLE THEMSELVES WILL BE EXALTED.” (Matthew 23:11-12)
BY: Fr. Robert DeLeon Csc
Driving into Albany from Valatie during rush hour one mid-morning, I was caught for many miles behind a large dump truck in the center lane of I-90. Try as I might, I was unable to pass the vehicle on either side because the frenzied cars behind me were already doing so, lightning streaks to my left and right. Impatiently trailing the monster, all I could focus on was the muddied metal of the truck’s rear contrasted with the bright orange sign posted on the tailgate, CONSTRUCTION VEHICLE—DO NOT FOLLOW. Try as I might, there was no way off the path this vehicle was dragging me along. I was helpless to avoid following what I did not wish to follow. The dump truck seemed to anticipate my every turn. Then, just one block from my destination, the dump truck turned left, freeing me from its grasp.
During those seething moments when I was caught behind that orange warning sign, it occurred to me that life would be lots simpler if people’s backs were likewise marked by warning signs. Some people’s backs would be marked DANGER—DO NOT FOLLOW. Other’s backs would carry a more inviting sign, SAFE TO FOLLOW. Unfortunately, people are not as easy to read as dump trucks, human packaging oftentimes very deceiving. I’d guess we’ve all had the experience of following an inviting personality down a dead-end street. I’d further guess that we’ve had the experience of ignoring the leadership of a less than glamorous person who really did know the right road to what was best. Clearly, some people ought not to be followed, and it’s this very message that Jesus addresses in today’s gospel passage. Conversely, there are people who, in often quiet ways, are walking in the way of truth and holiness, and when we can find these people, we’d be smart to get in line right behind them.
A long ago article from “The Connecticut Post” featured a seasonal article entitled, “Meet Zoltan: 821 Pounds of Smashing Pumpkin.” The story unfolded: “Zoltan is a big boy. So big, in fact, that at 821 pounds he’s set a record. Zoltan is the name given to a massive pumpkin grown by Dr. David Garrell in a patch across from his home in Fairfield. The monster has squashed the old state record of 777 pounds for pumpkins at the Durham Fair. Garrell said Zoltan could have surpassed 900 pounds if it wasn’t for the heat wave and drought during spring and summer. At one point, in Zoltan’s infancy, the pumpkin grew at a rate of 30 pounds a day, he said. Then, the heat wave struck and slowed the pumpkin’s growth to only 10 pounds a day. The largest pumpkin Garrell had cultivated previously was last year’s 704-pounder, dubbed ‘Roman.’ The 821-pounder has a good lineage. Its seeds were taken from an 845-pounder and those seeds came from a relative weighing 1,260 pounds, Garrell said.”
A few decades back, Dr. Garrell and I frequently passed each other in the corridors and patient rooms of the hospital we together served, his demeanor quiet, unassuming, deferential. It was only after reading the pumpkin article in the paper that another side of him emerged when, passing him in a hospital corridor, I wished him a good morning and spoke the single word— pumpkins. His countenance changed entirely! The quiet doctor I’d seen so often bent over a bedridden patient suddenly became animated, excitement coming to his face. Whenever I saw him with a sick patient or anxious family after that, I pictured him in his pumpkin patch, calling forth abundant life from a tiny seed. This doctor had a passion for tending the soil, had the patience to see a small seed through to full growth, had a special gift for nurturing life. If his lavished care could turn a small seed into 821 pounds of pumpkin, what might he do for the human lives he tended day by day.
Today’s gospel passage is an exhortation against hypocrisy. Citing the example of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus tells his followers that some religious leaders do not practice what they preach. Do not follow their example, Jesus advises. Rather, look to the quiet, unassuming example of those who really do serve, those whose words and actions are consistent. “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11-12)
I suppose that I’ll be trapped in traffic once again behind a truck bearing the large orange warning, CONSTRUCTION VEHICLE—DO NOT FOLLOW. But before I attempt to lurch out and away, I’m going to think of that 821-pound pumpkin and the quiet man who so carefully nurtured and tended its abundant life.