Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Mass for Peace and Justice in commemoration of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.

January 22, 2021

St. Vincent De Paul Catholic Church
Arlington, Texas

Nehemiah 8: 2-4a, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19: 8, 9, 10, 15
Corinthians 12: 12-30
Luke 1: 1-4, 4:14-21

When the Jews returned from exile after 70 years in Babylon, they were faced with many hardships as they tried to rebuild their lives. They tried to rediscover their faith and truly hear the Law of the Covenant that God had initiated with their ancestors but that they had forgotten because of their oppression and the suppression of the practice of the rituals and customs of the Covenant.

They had to rebuild the temple which had been destroyed by the Babylonians; rightful worship of the one true God was essential to their health and identity as a people and nation. Without it, they would soon find themselves enslaved again — especially to sin.

Ezra, the priest, and Nehemiah, the administrator, read to them from the scroll of the law, and, as the people listened attentively, they recognized where they had strayed from God’s ways — ways that they had not previously recognized but that God was now revealing again to them. They were initially sad, but Nehemiah called them to joy because the Lord had delivered them to a freedom that only comes from belonging to God and placing His ways at the center of their lives. Ezra and Nehemiah then established reforms that stabilized the community both religiously and politically and called them to a radical change in their moral lives. At a solemn gathering, Ezra led the people in a rededication of their lives to God, who sealed their consecration with a sacred meal.

Today, Saint Luke introduces us to his version of the Gospel. He tells us what he has learned from eyewitnesses and from his own research so that we can come to know the Lord better. He tells us of Jesus returning to His hometown, Nazareth, and His custom of attending the synagogue on the Sabbath. The passage Jesus chooses to read is a prediction of the prophet Isaiah about the mission and work of the Messiah. The Messiah is anointed to bring hope to the poor, freedom to those who are captive and oppressed, sight to the blind, and new life for all. He concludes by saying that this prophecy is fulfilled in their presence.

The text from Luke’s Gospel proceeds to reveal how Jesus is rejected by the people from His own town of Nazareth — the people who should know Him better than anybody else. Jesus proceeds to speak of how “no prophet is accepted in his own native place.” Not only do the people reject Him, but they also become enraged and attempt to throw Him off a cliff. They like His words, but not the accountability of God that comes with those words and requires them to change. Jesus calls them to change by returning to a way of life with God as the center of their hearts and to recognize Him as having been sent to save them. They do not want to change, and they would prefer to maintain their lives in the same way: complacent with injustice and indifferent to sin. Their hardheartedness will prevent them from accepting His invitation to the banquet of the Last Supper.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (World-Telegram & Sun/Dick DeMarsico)

Jesus is as present to us as to the audience in the synagogue, and He comes to call us to recognize our poverty, blindness, captivity, and oppression. We are poor if we try to live our faith without the help and talents of others; we are blind if we cannot see the goodness of others; we are oppressed if we accept what our society and world tell us is important and how to live our lives; we are captive if we think we can live Christ’s love alone, without each other. We cannot change without loving each other as Christ loved us because Christ loved us first. We are cowards if we do not try to change by acting our way into right thinking.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles; Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances. Courage breeds creativity; cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it. Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it [politically correct]? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor [politically correct], nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”

Today in our society fraught with fear and poverty, plagued by racism and violence, too many people ask all those questions except the question “is it right?” Because of this, many are tempted to exchange sin for sin, to exchange hatred for hatred, and to replace one form of racism with another form of racism. This is because many have forgotten the centrality of God in their lives, and they have replaced Him with something else. The centrality of God is provided by the presence of Jesus. Jesus reminds us and calls us to remind others by our words, by our deeds, and by our lives that without God we cannot be free. Without God, we cannot be attentive to our neighbor as our brother and sister. Without God, we cannot have the courage to change and to break the cycle of sin, the cycle of injustice, the cycle of dehumanizing racism. Without God, we will only ignore and even reject our spiritual gifts and perish in isolation.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the men and women of our nation to a conversion centered in Christ and returning to God. He reminded us of what many had forgotten about all human beings being the children of God, just as Ezra and Nehemiah reminded the returning exiles from Babylon of their inheritance as the children of God. Like Jesus, he called us to be converted from the status quo of complacency with evil and to accept true freedom from sin as the gift of Jesus Christ.

Dr. King called us and showed us how to face the evils of injustice and racism with courageous love and sacrificial non-violence. He reminded us, and still reminds us today by the example of his life expressed in his words: “Always be sure that you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. I still believe that standing up for the truth of God is the greatest thing in the world. This is the end of life. The end of life is not to be happy. The end of life is not to achieve pleasure and to avoid pain. The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may.”

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