Confession: I got a late start this morning, so part of this homily has been cannibalized from one I preached back in 2007. Mea culpa!
7th Week OT (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatula
Great teachers are often great actors. Pitch the voice just right. The dramatic gesture. The well-placed pause for effect. Props help and so does audience participation. Engage the students in a mini-drama and never let them know that they are learning. Great preachers are both great actors and teachers. They use all the same techniques, plus they pull from a long tradition of biblical images and bring them alive for a contemporary congregation. Engage the congregation in the drama of the living Word and let them see and hear Jesus himself proclaiming the gospel. There's only one small problem with this familiar picture of the Christian preacher. You're not going to find Jesus on stage acting a part, or playing to an audience for effect. Take this morning's gospel for example. Jesus performs an exorcism. Always good for a little drama. When the possessed boy sees Jesus, he starts thrashing around, foaming at the mouth, etc. Jesus asks few questions about the boy's history. Listens to the answers and seems just a little put out by the whole situation. He issues the demon a simple command, and it's over. There's no swiveling heads, no nails or bugs puked up, no mysterious messages pressed against the flesh from inside the boy’s body. No levitating. Just a little shouting and a couple of convulsions and the demon is gone. So, where's the spiritual drama? Where's the tension and conflict in this story? Look to the boy's father. Jesus addresses the father's doubt, “Everything is possible to one who has faith.” The father cries out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!”
You can almost see the distress on the father’s face. There’s torment there and love and a dreadful hope, the kind of hope that one needs to feel in order to keep going, but at the same time the kind that is often broken by what seems impossible. Barely above a whisper, the father, reluctantly, expectantly, says to Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” There's a long moment between putting his hope into words, trusting in the power of a stranger, and the stranger’s answer, “’If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Is the father relieved? Or joyous? Or just more desperate? He cries out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” He is showing great wisdom here. He understands that his unbelief is at the root of his yet to be fulfilled hopes for his son. And he understands that it is his belief, his faith that will give his hope healing power. The father's dramatic confession of belief; then his plea for help; and then his admission of unbelief is a sign of his wisdom. He cries out in true humility, confessing to crippling doubts and then total trust. Up until the moment Jesus speaks, doubt strangled all of the father's hope. At his confession of faith, he brings peace to himself and his son.
The boy’s father makes a humble and wise admission: “I trust you, heal my distrust.” And Jesus works with this prayer to cast out the demon. Like this father’s faith, our faith is never about quantity, about having “enough faith.” We don’t “have faith” in the way that we “have money.” Faith is the habit of trusting God to do what He says He will do. Our faith, our habit of trust in God, can be measured in depth, strength, endurance, or sincerity, but never quantity. Nor will we often find our faith on stage, at the center of a drama, and so publicly tested. But there is in us a virtue, a habit of being, that makes it possible for us to reach out to God and say without fear, “I believe, Lord!” and confess without fear, “Help my unbelief!” When we throw ourselves so completely on the mercy of God, we give witness to an eternal truth, “All wisdom comes from the Lord and with him it remains forever, and is before all time.” Indeed, upon His friends, our Lord lavishes His wisdom.
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