June 21, 2020

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time


First Reading: Jeremiah 20:10-13

Responsorial: Psalm 69:8-10, 14, 17, 33-35

Second Reading: Romans 5:12-15

Alleluia: John 15:26B, 27A

Gospel: Matthew 10:26-33


            Years ago, there was a series of commercials for an insurance company that would show a chain of events involving people looking out for each to prevent mishaps. For example, a delivery driver was trying to unload his truck at a curbside, and a passerby on the sidewalk saw that the deliveryman was about to trip while trying to carry a load down the loading ramp because it wasn’t positioned correctly. The passerby reached out his hand to stop the driver and together they adjusted the ramp.


            The deliveryman was then wheeling the delivery into the business (which was a restaurant), and he passed by an employee on a stepladder cleaning the upper reaches of a tall window. He noticed that the spreader rails on the ladder were not fully extended, making the ladder potentially unstable. He reached over and locked them out.


            Next we see the restaurant employee clock out of work and head out onto the streets. She comes to a busy cross-walk and stops to wait for the green signal. As she’s standing there, the original pedestrian who had saved the delivery driver from falling approaches the intersection, but he’s heavily involved in a conversation on his cell phone and so misses the “do not walk” signal. The pedestrian starts to enter the crosswalk, but the woman from the restaurant grabs his shoulder pulling him back, just as a car flies through that would have hit him.


            Since insurance exists to indemnify against the costs of accidents that do occur, rather than preventing them from occurring, I’m not sure how the ad would motivate people to buy insurance. Perhaps the message was that since we all depend on the others to look out for us in various ways, and insurance is one of those things on which we depend upon in that way.


           In any event, it was a touching ad because it showed us the world as we wish it was: We all want to live in communities in which people look out for each. We all recognize the ways in which a good act can multiply, inspiring others to do likewise and creating a network of benevolence. A good example in our faith would be Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She was just a simple nun who began a ministry of caring for the outcasts of India. At the beginning, it was just herself and a few sisters with no real resources trying to care for the gutter people of Calcutta, of whom there were millions. Yet, slowly, over time, the work of Mother Teresa and her sisters grew and attracted attention. The Sisters of Charity have grown into a world-wide network of thousands of nuns caring for the sick and the dying, the poorest of the poor – and they have inspired many others to do similar work.


             Sadly, of course, we also see the reverse. Bad things and bad examples can spread like wildfire, too. Perhaps even easier because in a fallen world – sin and evil have an alluring quality for most people. It’s kind of like the second law of thermodynamics: in any system entropy (disorder) naturally increases over time. By contrast, negentropy (a system becoming more ordered) is more difficult, as it requires a positive infusion of energy. This is why human beings have to regularly consume food (energy) just to keep our bodies from breaking down.


            The contagious or generative quality of both good and evil is reflected in the second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Paul contrasts the work of Adam to the work of Christ: “Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death; and thus death came to all men.  But the gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one, the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many.”


            As Christians, we know that the grace of God can conquer all things. Nonetheless, God’s grace works in conjunction with human striving. The fact is, for most people, it takes a strong and sustained effort to overcome sin – because we are concupiscent creatures and sin has an attraction for us. And because we are social creatures, it takes effort to avoid the negative peer pressure that causes us to adopt the sins glamorized and justified by others. By the same token, it requires a serious effort on our part to do good in the world, because it requires us to overcome natural self-centeredness in favor of selflessness. 


            Because we are also celebrating Father’s Day today, I think it’s good that we reflect on the way fathers can generate that goodness that overcomes selfishness and creates a cascade of goodness in the world. When I think of the compounding effects of grace and fathers, I always think back to the trio of parables that Jesus gives us in Matthew 13: (1) the parable of the Mustard Seed, (2) the parable of the Yeast, and (3) the parable of the Weeds among the Wheat. 


            The first is the parable of the Mustard Seed. Our Lord tell us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like that seed which starts off so tiny but over time blossoms into the largest of bushes, so much so that (like a tree) birds can nest in its branches. It’s the same way with fatherhood. We’ve all seen the data that correlate the presence of a father in a child’s life with so many good outcomes; and conversely, how the absence of a father correlates with so many bad ones. 


           Fathers have enormous influence on their children’s development, especially in their most formative years. Those many “small” things that a father does to nurture and educate his children have hugely apparent effects years down the road as those children approach adulthood. It’s as our Lord said in the Gospel, “Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known.” The quality of fatherhood becomes apparent, not immediately in many cases, but down the line as child matures and becomes known to the world.


           And one of the biggest effects that a father can have for his children is in passing on the life of faith. Studies have found that the single biggest factor in a young person continuing to practice the faith as an adult was the example shown by their father. That’s true not just of sons, but of daughters. Sorry Moms – while your example of faith to your children is indeed important in other ways – evidence shows that the example of the father is what best predicts lifelong patterns of faith participation.


            The second parable is about the yeast. Our Lord compares the Kingdom of Heaven to yeast because just a small amount of it can leaven a large amount of flour. Of course, it only does this because the baker vigorously works the yeast into the flour to create a dough which can then be baked. This points us to the fact that being a father is a hands-on job. A father is meant to be intimately involved in the life of the family and, particularly, in the life of each of his children.


           Thankfully, I think that’s a message that a lot of younger fathers today have heard – many of them want to be much more involved in their children’s lives than perhaps was the common for the man of the house a few generations ago. They recognize that fathering cannot be done from a distant perch or just during a few weeks of summer vacation. They recognize that sometimes sacrifices are necessary in others aspects of one’s life in order to be the father that God calls them to be.


            Finally, we have the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Here, Jesus says that in this life, we have to accept weeds growing with the wheat. The farmer who tries to uproot the weeds too soon risks damaging the wheat. Better to let them both be harvested and then separate the weeds to be burned. This parable, of course, is meant to explain the ongoing existence of evil in our world, despite God’s providence.


            But it also applies to the life of fathers and their children. Part of fatherhood is recognizing the balancing point between protecting children from evil and giving them their due freedom. The balance point between forming a child and encouraging them towards the good, without being overbearing and stifling their own capacity to discern and deal with the consequences.