Sunday, August 21, 2011

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

Readings: Is 22:19-23; Rm 11:33-36; Mt 16:13-20

Barbara Reid, a Dominican sister and professor of the New Testament at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, writes a weekly homily column for America magazine. She has a very interesting commentary on today’s gospel passage. She first notes the cultural differences between Jesus’ times and our times. In our day there are constant calls to "know yourself," find out "who you really are," and get in touch with the "real you." But the preferred method of our culture is to go deep within yourself away from any outside influences, and grab a hold of that core of who you are. That method is preferred by almost all of our self-help gurus, and there are a lot of them. Just check the "Self-Help" or "Self-Improvement" section of any bookstore. But Sr. Barbara notes that in Jesus’ time the method of discovering yourself differed significantly. In Jesus’ day people discovered who they were by asking members of the groups they were embedded in. They asked family members, and friends and people they worked with. Who they were came from how people saw them. We could say that from this perspective their actions showed who they were and what values they pursued.

Following Sr. Barbara’s analysis, we could say that Jesus in his human nature was honestly asking his disciples how people evaluated his ministry of proclaiming the Kingdom of God and how they themselves evaluated it and him. He was following the regular process that people in his day would have used.

We today could learn something from the process used in Jesus’ day. When I was working in the administration and faculty of the School of Theology at St. Meinrad, I never ceased to be amazed at how many students had absolutely no idea how other people saw them, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they had a very false impression of how other people saw them. They came to this false impression by going within themselves, asking who they were, and then automatically transferring those self-views to what they thought other people thought of them. And most of the time they were so wrong. And it didn’t make any different if they were introverts or extroverts. The introverts thought that people saw them as quiet, balanced, keep-to-themselves guys; but, in fact, oftentimes others saw them as mute, insecure loners. The extroverts thought that others saw them as talkative, friendly, life-of-the party types; but, in fact, oftentimes other people saw them as loud, intrusive, braggarts. In spiritual direction it was always a challenge to get students first to see, and then to accept how other people saw them and try to do something about it.

Jesus used both methods to "find himself." The gospels tell us that he spent time alone in personal prayer and reflection. In that personal depth he came to understand and accept that the God of Israel was his "abba," his Father. And he taught his disciples to understand and accept the very same thing. They were to pray to the God of Israel as "Our Father." Besides this introspective method Jesus also asked his trusted disciples questions about how they saw him. Peter answered directly: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."

Like Jesus we also need to use a combination of both methods to find our own personal religious selves. The discovery of a religious sense of self is a life-long process. We are going to be at this search our whole lives. Let’s hope and pray that we all attend to it very well.

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