The following is a homily for the twenty second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A. The readings can be found here.
In 1977, a military dictator rigged the election to become the president of El Salvador. As you can imagine, many people did not take too kindly to this, and so they protested, leading to violence on the part of the government. Peaceful protesters were attacked, went missing, or faced massacres. Eventually, people began fighting back with violence of their own, and by 1979, El Salvador was in the midst of a bloody civil war. From 1979 to 1981 around 30,000 civilians were killed by army death squads of their own government.
Where was the Church in this very Catholic country while all this was happening? Well, silent, at first. The archbishop, Oscar Romero, believed that neither side was entirely free from blame, and thought it best to stay out of politics. He knew that he could not criticize the government like you can here. To speak out against this violence would surely mean getting killed himself, and it just wasn’t worth it.
But then his eyes were opened. A priest friend of his was assassinated. Faithful Catholics, peacefully protesting violence, went missing. He saw atrocities with his own eyes and could no longer remain silent. He began a weekly radio show condemning the violence. Taking the side of the poor and marginalized, he spoke out against the evil that he saw from the government, the violations of human rights being committed in his streets. He preached comfort to the afflicted and affliction the comfortable. Oscar Romero was truly a modern-day prophet: someone who spoke the truth of the Gospel without fear… and he was ultimately killed for it. While celebrating mass in 1980, he was assassinated.
In our Gospel today, we get the first of four predictions of Jesus’ passion in Matthew. He tells the disciples that he is going to Jerusalem, that he will be persecuted by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, that he will be killed and raised on the third day. In one sense, he knows this because he is God. I mean, right? If he’s truly divine, then he has to have a sense of the eternal plan set by the father, that he is going to die for the sins of humanity. God knows all. But I suspect that he knew this on a human level as well, that he just knew it in his bones, an intuition that can’t be questioned. Having studied the prophets, he knew what happened to those who questioned authority. He knew what happened when you went after the rich and powerful. Proclaiming to the masses, “Blessed are the poor” and “woe to the rich,” calling the religious elites hypocrites while dining with sinners and prostitutes… these were not ways to make friends with the rich and powerful. These were ways to get killed. Jesus knew this. Oscar Romero knew this. Jeremiah knew this.
As much as we may say we like prophets, as much as our world needs prophets, there is nothing glamorous about being a prophet. Romero experienced death threats. Jesus suffered his agony in the garden. Jeremiah was ridiculed. In our first reading today he writes, “You duped me Lord.” He is not happy with God. Having preached the word, having told the people to stop acting unjustly, doing just what God asked of him, he is laughed at and mocked. This is not the life anyone wants. And so he says, “I will not mention him. I will speak in his name no more.” He tries to quit God. The pain, the upheaval is too much. Being a prophet has brought nothing but derision.
But he can’t. He just can’t. Speaking about the word of God, he says, “But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.” As much pain as he faces, as awful as his life is as a prophet, what choice does he have? He knows that this is the truth whether it’s comfortable or not. The spirit wells up in him and he can’t not decry the injustice he sees. Such is the fate for the prophets. Jeremiah knew he would be mocked. Jesus knew he would suffer. Oscar Romero knew that he would be assassinated eventually. But they kept preaching. When you see the world turning from God, how can you stay silent?
What a question for us all: When we see the world turning from God, how can we stay silent?
We have this horrible norm in this culture, an unwritten rule in our society, that you never talk about religion or politics in mixed company. It’s just not polite, right? You would never bring up something like, say, abortion among your friends. 50 millions abortions happen worldwide each year, 50 million defenseless human beings are killed each year, but it’s just too controversial a topic to bring up. It’s better to stick to easier topics.
The same goes for racism. Hot button issue these days. Is it “black lives matter” or “all lives matter”? Probably best to avoid it altogether. Otherwise, you might find yourself talking about how redlining districts left African Americans excluded from certain neighborhoods, paying higher interest rates, and forced into bad schools. You might get into a discussion about the prison industrial complex, how people of color are systematically disenfranchised in society, exploited at every level of the criminal justice system and so forced into modern-day slavery, and that, that is surely going to upset some people. Ahmaud Arbery? Breanna Taylor? Jacob Blake? George Floyd? Philando Castille? Eric Garner? Trayvon Martin? Woo. You should probably just forget those names because there is NO chance you could bring them up without people getting angry at you.
I mean, really, the list is a long one of things you want to avoid. The 80 million refugees worldwide fleeing violence. The rising temperature of the earth and our continued overuse of resources. Voter suppression. Predatory lenders. The death penalty. Human trafficking in the porn industry. If you care about your well-being, these are not things that you want to talk about. Taking a stance on these things, devoting your life to ridding the world of them, they could turn your friends against you, cost you your job, bring shame upon your family, maybe even get you killed. If you care about saving your life, then the best thing to do is stay silent and ignore that these things are happening.
There’s just one problem: Jesus says to us today, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it… Take up your cross and follow me.” St. Paul reminds us that if we want to be disciples of Christ, then we must not conform ourselves to this age, but as he says, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.”
Being a prophet is not a fun existence. Calling out injustice, standing up to the rich and powerful on behalf of the poor and marginalized… that’s not going to lead to a comfortable, happy existence. But I guess I just have to wonder: what other choice do you have? Speaking the truth may bring some discomfort to our lives, but does that mean we’d rather ignore the truth? Hide from it? Deny it?
It’s true that it is not polite to talk about religion or politics in mixed company, but maybe being polite isn’t our highest goal. Maybe what matters more to us than being polite is the life and dignity of the poor, the rights of the disenfranchised, the love of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and maybe, just maybe, these things matter so much to us that we’re willing to stand for them even if it might turn people away from us. Not uncharitably. Not hatefully. But also not worried about disturbing people. Sometimes, when the world likes what is bad, it needs to be disturbed.
Jeremiah thought so. Jesus knew this to be true. Oscar Romero preached it loud and clear on his radio show: “That is what the church wants: to disturb people’s consciences and to provoke a crisis in their lives. A church that does not provoke crisis, a gospel that does not disturb, a word of God that does not rankle, a word of God that does not touch the concrete sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed—what kind of gospel is that? Just nice, pious considerations that bother nobody—that’s the way many people would like our preaching to be. Those preachers who avoid every thorny subject so as not to bother anyone or cause conflict and difficulty, shed no light on the reality in which they live.”
Being a prophet is not an easy life. It will most likely bring you hardship. But I ask you: as disciples of Christ, those who know the truth of the Gospel and see the world broken as it is, what other choice do you have? “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it… Take up your cross and follow me.”