Daily homilies by the Prior of Pluscarden at the Quarr Abbey Retreat, 5-12 October 2016
Homily for Monday Week 28 Year II, 10 October 2016: Luke 11:29-32
We know well that the emphasis of St. Luke in his Gospel is on the mercy and gentleness of Jesus; on his love for sinners, and his tender kindness towards the lowly and the poor. St. Luke also dwells, more than the other Gospel writers, on the joy of Jesus in God his Father and in the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, St. Luke does not hesitate to report also some very harsh sayings of Jesus. Today we read quite a notable example.
Jesus is on his final journey to Jerusalem. His popularity is at its height. The ever increasing crowds are pressing all around him. Far from offering them encouragement, or rejoicing in their presence, Jesus turns on them and sharply rebukes them. His tone is confrontational, condemning, sweepingly dismissive. This is an evil generation, he cries. They follow him hoping for signs and wonders; they want to use him in service of their political aims; or they closely watch his every move, hoping for some slip they can use against him, convinced that he comes from and belongs to the devil. So Jesus will do to them what Jonah did to the Ninevites. He will preach against them. He will preach repentance and conversion, on pain of terrible punishment from God.
The sweeping condemnation of Jesus in this passage of St. Luke continues inexorably on. The pagan Queen of the South will condemn you, he cries, for she came looking for wisdom from Solomon. You are in the presence of the very Messiah whom Solomon foreshadowed, but you don’t listen to what I say; you’re not interested in true discipleship. The men of Nineveh - a by-word for the worship of hideous demons, for cruelty and every evil imaginable – they will condemn this generation, for they repented, but you won’t, so you are worse than them. And we all know what happened to Nineveh, when it was totally destroyed by the Babylonians.
A community of monks on retreat might well listen to these words without deriving much comfort from them at all. Can Jesus have been so ready to condemn a whole generation, and precisely the generation most privileged in all of history: the one among whom the Incarnate Son of God walked? If so, what will he say of us, who have received so much more grace even than they, and who are so aware of our own lack of true repentance and conversion?
I think the only option available to us in these circumstances is freely to embrace the condemnation of Jesus, and even to rejoice in it. The spiritual master of St. Luke, the Apostle of the gentiles, wrote this in his letter to the Romans: All are under the dominion of sin; not one is upright, no not a single one (3:9). But then, as St. Paul continues to paint his picture ever blacker and blacker, he cries out: Yes! All have sinned and lack God’s glory – and all are justified by the free gift of his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (3:23).
Emboldened by St. Paul, we can willingly accept that no condemnation could be sufficiently harsh for us. Yes, we are all sinners, and nothing but a disgrace. Yet we stand not on our own merits and goodness, but on our faith in Christ, in his saving blood, in the grace of justification he has truly bestowed upon us. And now perhaps we start also to compare texts. In St. Matthew’s version of today’s Gospel passage, the “sign of Jonah” is specified not as his preaching to Nineveh, but his spending 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of the sea monster (12:40). This is a clear reference to Christ’s death and resurrection: the invincible source of all our hope. Having this sign before our eyes, we are confident in our sure knowledge: that life comes out of death; sin is overcome; mercy is definitively proclaimed; hope is given even to the very worst of sinners. Yesterday at Mass we had another consoling text of St. Paul, from his second letter to Timothy: If we have died with him, then we shall live with him. If we persevere, then we shall reign with him (2 Tm 2:11).
Today then, especially in the course of this retreat, we determine to come to Jesus, and to listen to his word, with open hearts and minds. With the Queen of the South, only more so, we come to him as incarnate Wisdom, asking him to teach us his ways; to make our minds perfectly conformed to his mind. With the Ninevites, only more so, we commit ourselves anew to repentance and conversion. And we resolve to follow Jesus, come what may, even to his passion and death; confident that in this way we will be sharers also in his resurrection from the dead.