Sunday, September 30, 2018

God’s ‘Vantage Point’—and Ours

(Twenty-sixth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 30, 2018, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Numbers 11:25-29; Psalm 19:8-14; James 5:1-6; Mark 9:38-48.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-sixth Sunday 2018]

Today’s readings brought to mind a Dennis Quaid movie that came out in 2008 called “Vantage Point.”  I’m sure some of you have seen it.  This fictitious story takes place in Salamanca, Spain, and concerns an assassination attempt that’s made there on President Henry Ashton of the United States (played by actor William Hurt).  The President goes to Spain to attend a summit on global terrorism—and he ends up being a victim of it.  As he’s giving his opening speech to a large crowd in Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor, he’s shot.  Then a bomb goes off in the plaza a few seconds later.  As you might imagine, total chaos ensues, and the question immediately becomes, Who did this?  Who’s responsible for this horrible crime?   

The audience doesn’t find out the answer to that question until the end of the film, after the events are replayed several times—each time from a different person’s vantage point (hence the name of the film).  Dennis Quaid plays a secret service agent assigned to protect the president.  We see the assassination attempt first through his eyes—from his vantage point as one of the president’s bodyguards.  Then we see it through the eyes of other witnesses.  Not surprisingly, each person’s vantage point is a bit different, and as such each provides a different insight on who’s responsible for the attack.

I thought of this movie when I reflected on the three Scripture readings the Church presents us with this weekend, because in each of them there’s a contrast between God’s “vantage point” and the typical vantage point of human beings like you and me. 

In today’s first reading from Numbers 11, for example, Moses gets some help dealing with the Israelites in the desert after the Exodus, who are constantly complaining and driving him crazy!  God tells Moses to assemble seventy of the elders of the people—which he does. Then the Lord anoints these men with “some of the spirit” that Moses possessed, and they begin to act and speak prophetically.  Well two of the men who should have been there with the group—Eldad and Medad—weren’t, yet they were also blessed to receive this special anointing from the Lord.

Which infuriated Joshua when he heard about it!  From his VANTAGE POINT these two guys shouldn’t have been prophesying because they weren’t with the group.  I suppose you could say that Joshua had the attitude, “You snooze, you lose!  You gentlemen weren’t there with the others, so you don’t deserve to receive what they received.”

Moses then shares with Joshua GOD’S VANTAGE POINT on the matter, which basically is, “Leave them alone.  What they’re doing is good.  I would like it if everyone spoke and acted like a prophet.”

The Lord, of course, has that same desire today in 2018.  In fact, when we’re anointed with chrism at our baptism we’re actually given a share in the prophetic office of Christ—which means we’re called to witness to our faith publicly by our words and by our deeds.  That means it should be extremely easy for people to recognize the fact that we’re Catholic.  If they can’t—if we speak and act like everybody else—then we’re obviously not living prophetically.

That brings us to our second reading, where we have this lengthy diatribe against the rich, courtesy of St. James:  “Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries.  Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, etc.”

After reading this, it should be pretty clear that GOD’S VANTAGE POINT on money and wealth is a lot different than the typical human vantage point on those realities.  Although here we need to make the important distinction that’s made in Scripture.  Every once in a while you’ll hear someone say, “The Bible tells us that money is the root of all evil.”  That is not true.  What the Bible says is that the love of money is the root of all evil.

And it’s that love—which can very easily enter the human heart—that St. James is railing against in this passage.

Then we have this gospel text from Mark 9, which is filled with contrasts between God’s vantage point and the typical human one.  The vantage point of the Apostles concerning this man who was expelling demons in the name of Jesus is similar to the vantage point of Joshua with respect to Eldad and Medad.  The apostles say to our Lord, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”

Jesus then responds with the divine vantage point on the issue.  Our Lord says, “Do not prevent him … for whoever is not against us is for us.”

These words of Jesus should have a practical effect on our lives today.  They should affect how we look at—and how we treat—non-Catholic Christians.  Actually these words should affect how we look at—and how we treat—every other person who inhabits planet earth at the present time, regardless of what religion they are.

Then Jesus reminds his apostles (and us) that from God’s vantage point little things done out of love for him matter—a lot!  From the normal human vantage point, of course, little things matter much less than big things do.  That’s why so many people these days do outlandish things in public in order to draw attention to themselves and have their 15 minutes of fame.  They want to do something really big—that gets noticed!

Finally, Jesus makes the assertion that from God’s vantage point leading another person into sin knowingly and willingly is itself a serious sin: a sin that’s worthy of what you might call a “millstone necktie”: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”

Here I can’t help but think about those bad priests and others in our society who’ve sexually or physically abused young people.  That kind of behavior is definitely deserving of the kind of punishment that Jesus talks about here—which is why we need to pray for abusers as well as for the abused.  For the abused, we need to petition God for healing and peace.  But for the abusers we also need to pray.  We need to pray that they will feel remorse for what they’ve done, and sincerely repent of their sins, and do as much penance as they can for the rest of their lives—so that they don’t die with those millstones tied around their necks (spiritually speaking).  Because if they do, there’s only one place for them to go.

And it’s not good.

As I hopefully have made clear in this homily, God’s vantage point and our vantage point are not always the same.  One of the challenges of life, therefore, is to try to find God’s vantage point on things—all things—and to live our lives accordingly.  We do that, basically, by reading and getting to know the Bible and the Catechism.  In fact, that’s what the Bible and the Catechism are: they’re the written expression of God’s vantage point (his perspective) on all the important matters of this earthly life—and of eternity.

So don’t ignore them; don’t leave them on your bookshelves collecting dust.  Read them—often!