Homilies,  Year A

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

A key focus for the Gospel of Matthew is the relationships that constitute the Christian community.  There is a way of living together and a way of relating to one another that is reflective of the Kingdom of God as inaugurated by Jesus, and that is ultimately indicative of the life of God, and there is a way of living and of relating that is not as illustrative.  Fear, suspicion, resentment, bitterness draw people away from one another.  Listening, humility, openness and dialogue bring people together.  It is easy to identify which side of the ledger speaks of the life of God, and which does not.

Writing in the 6th century, St. Benedict who drew up his now very famous Rule for Christians living together, was acutely aware of this.  For him the greatest sin in a Christian community was the spirit of what he called ‘murmuring’.  Sometimes it appears in his text as ‘grumbling.’  He was seeking to address that culture of whispers in the dark that he knew could so easily circulate in the life of a community.  He regarded it as the singular most destructive dynamic in the life of a community and many of the structures and procedures he initiated for his communities sought to avert this possibility.  

Of course, in modern vocabulary, we would call this spirit simply by the term, gossip.  We have to admit there is a perverse side of us that revels in gossip, and we often find ourselves having to make the deliberate decision not to engage it.  Gossip excites; it titillates.  It breaks the boredom of our day.  It suggests we know something that someone else doesn’t know.  Subsequently, it gives us the illusion of superiority, and of power.  Gossip always is at the service of building up a weak personality.  It is always at the expense of another.  It is essentially care-less, and by this, I mean that it demonstrates a lack of care for others. It walks away from its insinuations without any sense of responsibility because it always is exercised at a distance that never really calls us to account.  In John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 play, “Doubt” we come across this remarkable account of the destructiveness of gossip.  One of the main characters of the play, Fr. Brendan Flynn says in a homily:

“A woman was gossiping with her friend about a man whom they hardly knew – I know none of you have ever done this. That night, she had a dream: a great hand appeared over her and pointed down on her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The next day she went to confession. She got the old parish priest, Father O’ Rourke, and she told him the whole thing. ‘Is gossiping a sin?’ she asked the old man. ‘Was that God Almighty’s hand pointing down at me? Should I ask for your absolution? Father, have I done something wrong?’ ‘Yes,’ Father O’ Rourke answered her. ‘Yes, . . . You have blamed false witness on your neighbour. You played fast and loose with his reputation, and you should be heartily ashamed.’ So, the woman said she was sorry, and asked for forgiveness. ‘Not so fast,’ says O’ Rourke. ‘I want you to go home, take a pillow upon your roof, cut it open with a knife, and return here to me.’ So, the woman went home: took a pillow off her bed, a knife from the drawer, went up the fire escape to her roof, and stabbed the pillow. Then she went back to the old parish priest as instructed. ‘Did you gut the pillow with a knife?’ he says. ‘Yes, Father.’ ‘And what were the results?’ ‘Feathers,’ she said. ‘Feathers?’ he repeated. ‘Feathers; everywhere, Father.’ ‘Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out onto the wind,’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it can’t be done. I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over.’ ‘And that,’ said Father O’ Rourke, ‘is gossip!'”[1]

Yes, gossip is cheap.  Genuine relationship is not.  Mature relationships demand involvement. They are founded on reality, on truth and on honesty.  They grow through the readiness to be vulnerable before each other.  They develop in the open, in the daylight, not in the shadows, in secret

The very opposite of gossip is the spirt of encouragement. Encouragement is a word that in recent use has perhaps lost its full import. To encourage another is ‘to draw out the heart of the other.’  It is to bring people home to their heart.  In this sense, it is to free people’s heart to become fully itself.  Encouragement is the capacity to enable others to listen to their heart; to identify the nature of their heart; so as to be able to follow their heart.  We care for one another by truly encouraging each other.  

On this Father’s Day, let us remind ourselves that a father, in particular, demonstrates his care of his children by genuinely encouraging them.  There is no greater gift than a father can give his child than to encourage them to become truly who they are.  Even further, one of the most marvellous things is to discover that our father has become our mentor. To develop this capacity for mentoring is a wonderful form of exercising encouragement.  It is a capacity that fathers especially can exercise.

A mentor is not simply teacher, role model or friend, but something singular. For one writer, Damon Young, mentors provide experience and they provide honesty.  “They don’t always console or comfort their protégé – they confront them with blunt reality . .  they juggle hard reality and gleaming possibility.”  What a wonderful description of the vocation of fathering! As Daimon Young goes on to observe:

“The job of a teacher is chiefly to relay information; to teach skills, or pass on facts . . . but one can be a teacher to a class of students, and mentor to none.

Neither is a role model a mentor. Role models are exemplars – they represent, and they possess, the virtues we want to embody.  But they can do this at a distance, and unknowingly . . . Mentoring requires proximity and intimacy.

And a mentor is not necessarily a friend.  Friends are crucial for a good life, for shared joys, caring advice and moral support. But even our closest, most trusted friends cannot always mentor us. They often lack that first vital trait of the mentor: experience.” [2]

As Benedict knew over 1500 years ago, the Gospel itself recognises that our relationships are never easy, including the relationships between fathers and their children which we mark here in Australia on Father’s Day. They are always fraught with the possibility of hurt, with disappointments, with projections, with disillusionment.  Their demand is constant.  Yet, it is what happens in and through them that determines our real sanctity.  We do not grow in holiness by practicing more religion.  We grow in holiness by practicing more listening, more humility, more love – by genuinely encouraging one another rather than putting wedges between ourselves.

It is in those relationships that are characterised with these qualities of openness and transparency which truly reveal the presence of Christ in our midst.


[1] See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0918927/quotes, accessed 6 September 2014.

[2] See Damon Young, “In moments like these, we need mentors,” The Sydney Morning Herald (26 April, 2010).

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