Ars Praedicandi: 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

The conferring and stripping of public titles
is an effective power strategy
employed across many cultures and societies.

Not a lot of people get to be called Cardinal or eminenza,
President or Pope,
Speaker of the house or Sultan of Malaysia.

With all of current hub-bub around the royal house of Windsor,
the forthcoming coronation of Charles III,
and the explosive autobiography of de-royalized Harry –
no longer his royal highness
but now the self-designated “spare” –
the contemporary question of whether
to confer or not to confer
has upended Shakespeare’s memorable
to be or not to be.

As you might guess Charles III holds dozens of titles,
including King of Papua New Guinea,
Duke of Cornwall,
Lord of the Isles,
Head of the Commonwealth,
Sovereign of the Grenadines,
and Defender of the Faith.

While the Son of God may not carry as many titles as Charles III,
he still wields some impressive ones.
As we heard in last week’s gospel, he is the Lamb of God.
Other biblical monikers include
Alpha and Omega,
Only-begotten,
Bread of Life,
Son of Man, Son of God,
and Prince of Peace.

Over the centuries
disciples and detractors have further bestowed
a slew of unofficial titles or ascriptions on this Jesus of Nazareth,
reimagined as a pacifist or conscientious objector,
feminist or free-thinker,
alternately accused of being a charlatan
or a closet pharisee, condemning them often.
Some considered him an outlier Rabbi or seditious zealot
And the Roman state called him both an imperial criminal
and the King of the Jews.
Talk about message inconsistency!

Admittedly, it is not possible to capture the Jesus essence
through a single designation.
How do you sum up the mystery of incarnation
in one arbitrary name?
However, musing over today’s readings made me wonder
if some of the more disparaging titles for Mary’s boy
hold the promise of unexpected revelation.
It is especially the geography in today’s readings
that sparked this wonderment in me.

Lectionary texts are frequently punctuated
with geographic references.
Some of them like Bethlehem or Jerusalem
are familiar to us.
Others are a little more obscure
like the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali
mentioned in the first reading and gospel.

This area, in the north of Palestine –
better known by its New Testament equivalent, Galilee, –
is the place where Jesus grew up and began his ministry.

While as the crow flies it was only about
70 miles from Jerusalem
it was socially and culturally quite different,
from the south and its capitol,
probably because it had been invaded so often
with foreign armies frequently trekking across this land.

But the northerners were mavericks in another way,
holding to a kind of tribal theocracy
dating back to the time of the 12 tribes.
Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the 12 sons of Jacob
and the place of their legacy
believed that they were directly under God’s rule.

Even at the time of Jesus this area had a reputation
of being politically rambunctious
independent minded
even rebellious.

It was quite different from the southern province of Judea
with its holy city of Jerusalem –
different racially, economically, culturally, linguistically.

One New Testament scholar offers this caricature
of Jesus the northerner when visiting his southern cousins: [1]

even an impeccably Jewish Galilean in first-century Jerusalem [like Jesus?] was not among his own people; he was as much a foreigner as an Irishman in London or a Texan in New York. His accent would immediately mark him out as “not one of us,” and all the communal prejudice of the supposedly superior culture of the capital city would stand against his claim to be heard even as a prophet, let alone as the “Messiah,” a title which, as everyone knew, belonged to Judea.

The gospels are filled with lots of characters.
Peter is a my favorites: the rock
who is the only person Jesus calls Satan.
Take that Pope Peter!

But as in many good tales, geography is also an important actor.
Just think of the Lord of the Rings books and movies:
the Shire, Middle Earth, Mordor, and Gondor,
each a character with its own implied morality. [2]

Similarly, geography is an important gospel character,
most dramatically in the Gospel of Luke
which pivots when Jesus turns toward Jerusalem (9:51)
but also, here in Matthew.

It both fascinating and enlightening for me
to consider Jesus not only as a bumpkin from a backwater town
(“could any good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46))
but that Jesus was also from a part of the country
that has a reputation for being rebellious, independent
and maybe even what one commentator labels
a hot bed of “banditry.”

Jesus the rebel, Jesus the free thinker, Jesus the bandit:
now there’s a string of titles
you probably haven’t heard before.

There is strong evidence that we have deep affection for bandits,
rebels and apple-cart upsetters.
While appropriately sterilized for public consumption,
think about the way we cheer on Butch Cassidy
and his Sundance buddy,
Captain Jack Sparrow, our favorite Disney Pirate,
and Robin Hood and his many contemporary reincarnations.

Like Ozel Clifford Brazil, African Methodist Episcopal Minister
who went to prison for financial aid fraud
not for trying to get his own kids into USC or Stanford
(thank you, Lori Laughlin),
but for getting an estimated 18,000 students
from LA’s inner city into universities around the country.

Quite frankly I think part of the charm of Prince Harry
is his 2nd child rambunctiousness
(I say that as a second child)
and his amiable way of popping monarchical balloons and
deflating dirigibles launched from the house of Windsor;
he is a contemporary definition of the lovable rogue.

Jesus as charming bandit maybe pushing the limits here
but in today’s gospel he easily stole two professional fishermen
away from their nets and wives
and absconded with two others from their father’s business
with apparently little less than a wink and a smile.
While no prince, he must have been charming.

But the unique revelation in Jesus’ banditry is that
it did not diminish but only uplift others,
ultimately not himself
except on a cross.

Jesus did metaphorically steal from the rich, the elite, the clergy:
he punctured their pomposity
their overblown piety
and their self-inflated dignity
and raised up the marginalized,
the leprous,
the adulterous, and widowed and despised.

But in doing so Bandit Jesus did not deprive
the rich, the elite, the clergy from kingdom richness
but instead invited them into new richness
through a narrow gate
inviting them to bow low as he did in his own incarnation.

Most compelling for me
is that this Christo Bandito
ever had a self-aggrandizing agenda.

He didn’t know that the gospels were going to be a best seller,
so didn’t get the 20 million dollars advance that Harry did
for authoring Spare.

Jesus’ final payment was splayed out on a cross
providing the ultimate restitution for all our sin
for all of our reluctance to love.

In the end, this only-begotten bandit
stole dehumanization back from humanity,
stole marginalization back from the marginalized,
stole abuse back from the abused,
stole distain back from the distained,
stole despair from the despairing,
and stole the sting from death from all of humanity.

In a word – one reverberating through today’s Psalm –
Jesus stole back darkness from every darkened heart
and planted light in every point on the map willing to kindle it
in every community wanting to embrace it,
in every baptized who accepted that modest candle,
and in every soul hoping and dreaming of stepping into the sun.

But here’s that problematic “so what”
which rears its demanding head
every time we plunge into the mystery of God.

In the spirit of this divine Bandit, we are unexpectedly invited
into the piracy of God,
the Robin Hood mission of the only-begotten
baptized not just to be disciples
but maybe even holy marauders.

Half the joy of being with this community for 16 years
is that you let me say such outrageous things
in my own attempt to untame God’s Word in my life
and the outrageous incarnation of that Word in Jesus.

There is yet so much darkness, greed, prejudice among us,
in our workplaces and schools and church
and most problematic in my family and maybe yours.

We are commissioned to kidnap it
subvert it,
oppose it,
and reject it.
In place of the stolen darkness, greed and intolerance
we replant Christ light,
Jesus hope,
maverick hospitality,
crucified love,
and Gospel peace.

I have to be careful not to invoke a favorite text too often
because it could be misconstrued
as pushing a Franciscan agenda
in this diocesan parish
presided over by a Jesuit pastor…

But I gladly risk the subversion again this morning,
in the spirit of a Jesuit pope
smart enough not to call himself Ignatius but Francis
and pray:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.


[1] F. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007), p. 6

[2] See the various entries of these places in The J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia,  ed. Michael Drout (New York: Routledge, 2007) e.g., pp. 622–623.

2 comments

  1. The Redeeming Robber was a game changer at the prison where I chaplained for 10+ years. It’s a story that needs more telling in the outside parishes.

  2. I love how your homily is so in touch with the subversive nature of the gospel. Jesus embraces humanity. He just tells us —and shows us—we’re not doing it right. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *