Sunday, August 22, 2010

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Is 66:18-21; Heb 12:5-13; Lk 13:22-30

The teaching in today’s second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews isn’t something we like to hear: "Do not disdain the discipline of the Lord....for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines." Those words can cause a few shudders: what exactly does God have in mind for me? But before we jump to conclusions, we should examine the passage and its teaching a bit more thoroughly.

We should begin with how we immediately understand the word, discipline. When I began seminary high school at St. Meinrad back in 1955, one of the priests held the office of "Disciplinarian." His job was to mete out punishments to all the students who broke the rules and got caught. Unfortunately I got to know him pretty well. So, in that context, discipline is about getting punished for not obeying the rules. Now there are a lot of other meanings for the word, discipline—a course of study (the discipline of biology), a regular way of doing things, a certain training (military discipline), or even a whip (to take the discipline). But I would wager that most of us first thought about punishment when we heard those words: "whom the Lord loves, he disciplines."

Yet the larger context of the passage (the whole of chapter 12) as well as the biblical commentaries suggest that punishment is not the main meaning of the word, discipline, in this passage. Rather, that meaning is "the challenge to persevere in faith." (Those whom the Lord loves, he challenges to persevere in faith.) Along the many years of our life there may be some punishments, but the greater emphasis is on persevering in faith. Consider these other passages in the twelfth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews: "let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us," "therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees." They all speak to the notion of persevering in faith.

However, that in itself presents huge challenges for people of our modern culture. The whole idea of gaining something by persevering hard work and denying yourself along the way dismays many people today. After all, the whole message and milieu of modern advertising is: "Get it now!" "Get it faster than ever before." Whether it’s the latest iPhone, the fastest computer, the newest car, the current fashion...the message is always, "Get it now!" I could see this problem arising thirty years ago in the seminary. Already back then many students couldn’t understand why they had to rewrite a paper or do more research on a topic. They had no concept of a "work in progress," of learning things through patient discipline and application. I think that anyone who teaches today should really seek to teach students the vision and practice of persevering discipline. Because they probably won’t get it anywhere else.

If you are trying to teach someone to follow a discipline, it helps a lot if you are doing it yourself. We can then be a little more straightforward and honest about how much hard work it takes. Any discipline takes hard work. Whether it’s keeping to that regular schedule of Lectio Divina, of that diet you’ve been trying to follow (Oh, that looks so good), or following that plan of regular exercise—any discipline requires effort, self-denial, patient perseverance and will power. All these things the Letter to the Hebrews is urging us to follow. Let’s respond to the challenge.

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