Homily – 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Fr. Smith)

Some stories are so good that it is hard to believe that they are true, and I must admit that I heard the story that I will tell today secondhand. It was however from my spiritual director who heard it from the young priest in question and if you can’t trust a lawyer who can you trust?

On the day of his ordination, a newly ordained priest met an older priest whom he had never seen before and never saw again who said to him “Today you have given your life to Christ, don’t spend the rest of it taking it back”.

My spiritual director told this story to a gathering of priests and it, as he had intended, scared us. How much had we taken back? Even today a priest is not only given responsibility but also privilege and it is easy to lose sight of the former while grasping the latter. This is a danger in any community, religious or not in all times and places. St Matthew is acutely aware of the lure of title and position and confronts it head-on.

He was the leader of a community in the Mid-east around 80AD. It was originally composed of people born Jews but by this time had received many gentiles. They did not always play well together, and Matthew was very concerned about keeping the groups in harmony. This gospel is almost a handbook for church development, and I used it as such when merging churches in a past life. Matthew maintains a great focus on his task, but he devotes much time to  missionary activities that may not seem to directly affect his church.

Let us look at his strategy. Jesus summons his twelve disciples. Disciple means followers. He had more than 12 of course but these were his closest. He then gives them authority over unclean spirits and the power to cure diseases. As he had shown in his own ministry these were signs that the kingdom was at hand. Curing the sick, raising the dead, cleaning lepers and driving out demons showed both power and commitment. He then calls them “apostles”. Literally, an apostle is one who is sent. It implies a mission and the authority and strength to accomplish that mission. The word and title apostle will eventually reflect broader roles in the early church, but Matthew will hold to the original meaning. In Matthew, an apostle is a missionary who brings the good news to the world.

If Matthew is focused on the concerns of his own community, most likely several house churches, then why is he so concerned with missionaries? He knows that they are essential to the Church, but he also knows that because they will be held in great esteem, they will need to show high ethical and moral standards. They may start by giving all to God but end by taking much of it back.

The missionary thrust of the church is essential for several reasons most importantly because it continues Jesus’s essential mission to bring the kingdom to all people. Matthew’s gospel concludes with “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) We are his presence in the world in all things. It will be up to us to do this; it is part of who we are. Pope Francis has noted that when the church looks at herself and does not connect to the world, she becomes sick. Denying who we are has consequences.

This role is critical and those who do it are key to the overall success of the church. Thus, Matthew tells both those who fill this role and those who fund it that there are common rules to be followed. We see the most important one at the end of today’s reading “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give”. Ministry should not be a way to wealth. But they are not to stave either. Matthew will continue that the community, his and all other Christian communities, must care for the missionary/apostles when they are present. (Matthew 9-15)

This may not seem to be of great concern to us today but look around you. The missionary reality has changed not ended. All four of our newly ordained priests this year were born in other countries and African priests refer to the American Missions. I have known some that have come with such great zeal that I was humbled by their sincerity. I pray that they will continue this in the presence of wealth and temptation but also that we will treat them with respect.

But there is another reality that perhaps more closely resembles St Matthew’s world. Those who need to experience the good news are among us, indeed our neighbors, friends, and families. They may have heard the gospel with their ears but never received it in their hearts. The church must reach out to them.

Certainly, there is room for personal testimony and witness, and I hope that we do so, but our society’s complexity requires specialization, lay people must be formed and educated for the needed tasks. There will be many roles from teaching religious education to both children and adults to public relations and advertising. Our parish experience with streaming during COVID is a good but small example of what will be needed. We must also include food pantries and migrant care that reach out of the church building and sharing the fruit of Catholic Social teaching with organizations that seek the common good.  I am old enough to remember both a vibrant labor movement in America and the participation of Catholics within it and I look forward to returning to community organizing.

The rubber of the church will hit the road of the world with the laity. I pray that many of you will, to paraphrase the poet, do the right thing for the right reason*

*In T.S. Eliot’s play “Murder in the Cathedral,” Thomas Becket approaching martyrdom asks if he is doing this for the love of fame or the love of Jesus. ( p. 196)

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.