(Sixteenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixteenth Sunday 2003]
A 7 year-old Jewish boy named Zachary was failing math class. His parents had tried everything: tutors, flash cards, special classes—but nothing seemed to motivate him. When it came to math, he was a straight “F” student.
Finally, as a last resort, they enrolled him in the local Catholic school.
When Zachary arrived home after his first day, his mother noticed that he had a very serious look on his face. In fact, he was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t even say ‘hello’ to her. Instead, he went straight to his room, opened his math book, and started studying.
His mother couldn’t believe it.
Later she called him down for dinner. He ate quickly, excused himself, and went back to his math problems.
This went on every single day for the rest of the quarter.
Finally, little Zachary brought home his report card. He handed it to his mom, and then went straight to his room to begin his studying for the day.
His mother opened the card and looked at it. She was absolutely amazed—Zachary had gotten an “A” in math!
She immediately ran upstairs to his room. She said, “Son, I’m so proud of you. Your father will be thrilled when he gets home from work. This is wonderful! But I need to know—what motivated you? What made the difference? Was it the nuns?”
He shook his head and said, “No.”
“Was it the books, the discipline, the structure, the uniforms?”
“So what was it, then?”
Little Zachary looked her and said, “Well, on the first day of school, when I sat down in class and saw that man on the wall nailed to the plus sign, I knew they weren’t fooling around.”
Now the danger in telling a joke during a homily is that people will remember the joke and forget the point the preacher was trying to make.
So here’s the point: One of the most powerful “motivators” in life is fear. And this story provides a perfect illustration of the phenomenon. Fear—specifically the fear of death—motivated little Zachary to do his math homework and succeed where he once had failed miserably. He was afraid that if he didn’t shape up quickly, he’d end up on one of those “plus signs.”
In this case, fear prompted him to do the right thing.
But more often than not, my brothers and sisters, fear motivates us to do the wrong thing! Business owners fear that they won’t make a big enough profit, so they cheat their customers. People fear what the future will bring, so they gamble excessively trying to make that “one big hit” that will give them the security they want. Or they simply cheat on their taxes! People fear getting old, so they’ll waste all kinds of money on plastic surgery—and they still get old. Teenage girls fear losing their boyfriends, so they compromise themselves sexually. Their parents fear that they’ll get pregnant, and so they put them on birth control pills instead of teaching them good morals. [And, by the way, by putting them on the pill, they increase the chance that their daughters will contract breast cancer by 40 %, according to some studies.] Then, when some of these girls do get pregnant, they fear how their parents and others will react, and so they go out and get abortions. Some young people fear losing their friends who are into drinking or drugs, so they begin to drink or abuse drugs themselves.
In today’s first reading, we hear the Lord’s harsh words to some of the religious leaders at the time of Jeremiah, the prophet. They were leading God’s people to compromise their faith. And why were they doing it? Out of fear!—they were afraid that if they taught the truth they would be persecuted and have to suffer; they were afraid that if they stood up for what was right they would lose their social standing. So they told the people what they wanted to hear and not what they needed to hear.
Fear is a very powerful motivator—no doubt about it. But there is one reality that’s more powerful than fear and which can overcome fear—and that’s faith! We can choose, by grace, to live in faith, to walk in faith, to act in faith—and if we do, our lives will be qualitatively different, qualitatively better—both here, and in eternity! That’s the good news!
For example, in today’s Gospel text from Mark 6, it says that the apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. What was that all about? Well, you see, earlier in this chapter, Jesus had sent these apostles off two by two to minister to the people in the towns surrounding
Good things like that happen when faith trumps fear.
Jesus wants to build up our faith at this Mass, and at every Mass we attend; he wants to do it when we read Scripture and engage in personal prayer and adoration. He wants to build up our faith, so that by this faith we can conquer the fears we face each day.
The only question is: Will we allow the Lord to do it?
I pray that we will!