Homily of H.E. Mons. Claudio Gatti of October 19, 2008
1st Reading: Is 45:1, 4-6; Ps 95; 2nd Reading: 1 Thess 1:1-5; Gospel: Mt 22:15-21
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. "Teacher" they said, "We know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?" But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax" They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, "Whose image is this? And whose inscription?" "Caesar's" they replied. Then he said to them, "So give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's". (Mt 22:15-21)
As I was reading the Gospel passage taken from Matthew, I had the urge to add, beyond what I had thought to tell you, some reflections on this passage, because, as you know it is good to constantly investigate, as far as possible, the Word of God. I will offer just some simple observations, then we will focus on the passage of my dear friend Paul.
The first observation that I want to offer you is this: Matthew is listing here all of Jesus' enemies, Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, which means that these people, despite being in opposition to each other having agreed on very few ideas, were together and in agreement in the opposition to Christ and they were even allies in order to put Him in trouble. The Pharisees very much disliked the Sadducees, but having heard that they were in a difficult situation, went to their aid and came up with this question, this problem.
When going to talk to Christ the Herodians, Pharisees and Sadducees were forced to highlight His qualities, His characteristics, in fact the Pharisees acknowledge Christ's independence of judgment: "You teach the way of God in accordance with the truth", but they did not rally believed it because otherwise they would not have tried to trap Him. But you know that human heart is often very complicated, it is not clear what is true and what is false. A certain attitude was indeed recognized to Christ: "You aren't swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are" and this is the most beautiful and highest praise than can be attributed to a true minister of God. Was there anything nicer to be said: you teach in accordance with the truth, you do not bow to blackmail and threats from anyone? Just think, the identikit of the authentic shepherd comes from His enemies. In Jeremiah it is written: "Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding" (Jer 3:15), the knowledge of God, the understanding of God. Well, this is the shepherd, this is what a priest must be, this is what a Bishop must be and if it is not like that then he is not authentic at all. But be careful, in the passage is written this trenchant sentence: "Knowing their evil intent". We would not succeed, but Jesus is God. St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae writes a sentence that refers to our case: "Everything that is in accordance with the truth, even if it is said by the devil, comes from God", for the truth comes only from God, then the enemies of God, and the devil is the greatest of them, are often forced, and sometimes do not realize it, to uphold the truth, to say that something is true and comes from God. Having said this, I believe you have received enough.
During summer, as those people who joined us on Sunday and with whom I celebrated the Holy Mass know well, in the feast day Masses I never said the homily, not because of laziness or because I had nothing to say, but simply because what was said during the apparition of Our Lady before Mass was so beautiful, so important and useful that I would just say: remember what Our Lady said, think about it and put it into practice. Today I am tempted to do the same, but on the one hand Our Lady has spoken and what she said comes from God, on the other hand we find ourselves with the Word of Jesus which is eternal Word, so I'm almost in trouble. Thus I say: think about what Our Lady said and add what I think of the passage in the second reading.
"Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you.
We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction". (1 Thess 1:1-5)
While reading this passage a thought came to my mind: it would be nice that all priests addressing their communities and the parishes they manage, that all Bishops addressing the dioceses they manage, could repeat what Paul says while addressing the Thessalonians, for they are very beautiful statements. Here Paul teaches and reiterates a great truth that is often hidden and not preached by the Church: all churches, all parishes, all communities in order to live and be authentic, need to be in God, the members must be united with God. This is only possible with the grace, with the acceptance of His Word, by fighting sin and fighting against the devil. Those who are not united with God, although part of a parish, a church, are in the same condition as the dead people we have in the cemetery: they are part of the community, part of the family, but other than prayer there is no connection or physical relationship because the contact is broken. These contacts will resume at the end, when there will be the judgment, so we hope to see all of us in the eternal joy. It is also necessary to distinguish between baptized and persons in the grace of God. A parish priest may even have thirty-thousand parishioners, but are truly part of the parish only those who are in the Lord, those who are in a state of grace, the others are not excluded, but are dead, so they have no relationship. As Jesus says: "I am the vine, you are the branches", if the branch is detached it does not bear fruit. So even here, ideally, we should change our vocabulary a little: a parish priest could be said to have a parish of thirty-thousand people only if they are all in the grace of God. When this topic of grace will finally come into the Church? If there is no grace of God, there is no union with God, let us keep it well in our mind, there is no Church, no Community, there are no sacraments, no grace, no Word of God, for relationships and contacts are closed, then we must be united with the Father, the Son, and, I may add, with the Holy Spirit because our relationship is solely and strictly Trinitarian.
And now here is the great and joyous statement from Paul: "We always thank God". I wondered, without judging anyone, can I thank God? I have a small community, can I thank God for all of you? But it is not up to me to give the answer, you have to give it, then I am prompting you for an answer and a positive one. "We always thank God for all of you", says Paul, and that was a larger community than ours. Paul goes on, and I stand behind Paul: "We continually mention you in our prayers"; it seems he is using the plural where both of us are involved and I do the same and every pastor should do the same. We should not be surprised if a bishop, a parish priest, but they must be sincere, says: "I speak of you to God, I pray for you to God", this is normal, this must be the case by all means.
"We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ". A pastor must know how to judge the spiritual growth of his flock, but how can he do it? Paul refers to three criteria that are firmly linked: the first is commitment to faith and to have faith is not an easy task, have you heard today when I was saying: "We never lost our faith in God", and I hope I am speaking on your behalf as well. If tiredness and exhaustion takes over, one might say: "Lord we are perishing, we are collapsing", in fact, also the apostles said it, but faith must be a commitment that requires strength, labor, suffering; they have shown it and you? I hope all of you will show to have faith in what God said in the public Word and in the private Word.
"Your labor prompted by love": we cannot restrict ourselves to pray for our brothers and sisters, especially for those who are in need, any kind of need. To say: "I pray for you" does not cost much, you have to give something more, an effort, a demonstration; it is not enough to say: "I love my brothers", but you have to show love, even giving up something yours, be of assistance, be of assistance for the others, as Mary did, when she went to assist St. Elizabeth. Nobody, not even God, asked her to go and assist St. Elizabeth, bearing in mind that Our Lady had to face a trip and stopped there for three months in a state of incipient motherhood: this is true love.
"Your endurance inspired by hope": here it is, ours is the year of hope, perhaps we have not talked many times about hope as the year we are celebrating would have required, but hope must be kept vibrant, alive, throbbing, it is like a little flame that must be continually replenished because if the fuel is finished the flame will go off, because it needs nourishment to give light to the people living in that house. Here too, hope requires hard work, effort, sacrifice and suffering.
"Brothers and sisters loved by God": here is the sweetest expression present in this passage. I thought that all Christianity is in the word loved, for there is God who is love, as John says, and gives his love; we are the creatures receiving this love, with grace we make it ours, we put it in practice, and especially we try to be an unremitting witness of love, we address it to our brothers and then we give it back to God. This is a circle, and when the love between us and God breaks due to our fault, it inevitably stops the love between us and our brothers. Then those people who are in a state of grace truly love their wife, husband, children, parents, friends. And those who are not in a state of grace? They love with a love that is a substitute for true love, but it is not true love.
"He has chosen you", but be careful, you have to ponder on the meaning of the word chosen, elect. It may have a limited and reductive significance, as in the sentence "Few are chosen", but in Paul's letter it is not to be understood in this sense. The election is for everyone, conversion is for everyone, God wants all of us to be saved, then God elects as his son every creature, if the creature is willing, but if he is not, then God will retract and the creature fall will become ruinous and dangerous.
"Our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction". Paul preached in Thessalonica and this community recognizes him as its founder and Bishop, and Paul, in his extreme frankness, while recognizing that this preached Word has had some success, he immediately puts himself at the right place by saying that the Word has taken root not only by his own efforts and through his preaching, but because it is powerful in itself and the Holy Spirit allows it to penetrate into the heart of listeners if the heart opens to this Word.