Homily for the Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.
In January 2010, I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. I remember it being one of the most emotionally draining days of my life. It took me several hours to make my way through the museum, and by the end I was spent. The truth of what I saw, the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man, was exhausting and overwhelming. When I came to the end of the tour, I remember sitting down on a step in the Hall of Remembrance, a large open space covered in granite and limestone. It felt like I’d been hit by a truck. Not only my heart, but the rest of my body, ached. As I sat there, I looked up and saw a quote on one of the thick, limestone walls. It brought me to my feet, because I saw that it was from the bible: the book, chapter, and verse were right beneath it. The quote read: “I call heaven and earth to witness this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—that you and your offspring shall live.” Deuteronomy, chapter 30, verse 19.
“Choose life—that you and your offspring shall live.” Moses first spoke these words to the Israelites as they concluded their journey through the desert and were about to enter the Promised Land. They were some of the last words Moses said before he died: a kind of last will and testament, a final commandment and warning. If the Israelites loved the Lord their God, obeyed His voice, and held fast to Him, they and their offspring would enjoy a long life on the land. If they did not, they would die, and their land would be taken away. This warning proved to be prophetic. When the Israelites came into the Promised Land, they did not love the Lord their God, they did not obey Him and hold fast to Him. And so, God sent the prophets to repeat Moses’ words and remind the Israelites of the consequences for failing to heed them. Every prophet, from Isaiah in the eighth century to Malachi in the fifth century, repeated Moses’ warning. And for that, the Israelites put the prophets to death. “One they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned.”
Jesus’ parable in our gospel is a summary of Israelite history. God, the landowner, brought a vine out of Egypt. He cleared the ground, tilled the soil, and planted it in the Promised Land. It soon took root and filled the land. He then entrusted the vine to tenants, to the leaders of Israel. The leaders were meant to care for the vine and help it produce fruits of love, obedience, and righteousness. God then sent his servants the prophets to reap these fruits. But instead of finding good grapes, grapes of righteousness, they found wild grapes, grapes of sin. When the prophets called the leaders to task, when they passed judgment on the fruit which they produced, the prophets were put to death. And so, in the fullness of time, God sent His Son. But instead of respecting him, instead of listening to His voice, the leaders “seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.” This is exactly what happened to Jesus: He was seized in the middle of the night, taken outside the walls of Jerusalem, and then crucified.
To be a prophet like Moses, to be a prophet like Isaiah, to be a prophet like Jesus, is to speak the truth. And it is to be willing to suffer for the truth. For the truth can get you killed. “For this I was born and for this I came into the world,” Jesus said, “to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (Jn. 18:37). Jesus spoke these words when He was brought before Pontius Pilate. And to them, Pilate gave his infamous reply: “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:38). “Choose life—that you and your offspring shall live.” This is truth. It is truth worth suffering for. It is truth worth getting killed for. The prophets certainly thought so. Jesus certainly thought so. And we should think so too.
The true measure of our humanity is our willingness to suffer for the truth. In his encyclical Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI wrote this: “The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer…[T]he capacity to accept suffering for the sake of goodness, truth and justice is an essential criterion of humanity, because if my own well-being and safety are ultimately more important than truth and justice, then the power of the stronger prevails, then violence and untruth reign supreme. Truth and justice must stand above my comfort and physical well-being, or else my life itself becomes a lie…Love simply cannot exist without this painful renunciation of myself, for otherwise it becomes pure selfishness and thereby ceases to be love. To suffer with the other and for others; to suffer for the sake of truth and justice; to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves—these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself. Yet once again the question arises: are we capable of this?” (nn. 38-39).
And that is also my question for us this morning: Are we capable of this? Are we capable, like the prophets, of putting the truth before our own comfort and well-being? Are we willing to suffer for the truth? We were made for the truth. We cannot live without it. To put our self-preservation above the truth is, in the end, not to preserve ourselves, but to destroy ourselves. If we put our own comfort and well-being above the truth, then the power of the stronger prevails, then violence and untruth reign supreme.
“Choose life—that you and your offspring shall live.” The reason why these words cut me to the heart in January 2010, was not only because of the horrors of the first holocaust, which claimed the lives of some six million Jews, but because of the horrors of a second holocaust, which has claimed the lives of over 62 million babies since 1973. It was this second holocaust, the holocaust of abortion, which I was in D.C. to protest that January. “Choose life—that you and your offspring shall live.” The Church takes up these prophetic words, first spoken by Moses over three thousand years ago, when she teaches and preaches on the dignity of human life, especially the life of the unborn. She proclaims these words as truth, she is willing to put this truth before her own comfort and well-being, she is willing to suffer and even die for this truth.
There are, of course, many threats to the dignity of human life. But the Church teaches and preaches that the threat of abortion is the most significant. The Church’s teaching on the dignity of human life has sometimes been compared to a seamless garment: any tear in the garment, any threat to the dignity of human life, threatens the integrity of the whole. And there is a certain truth to this. But garments cover our bodies. And while every part of our body is important, some parts are more important than others. We can live without an arm or leg, but we cannot live without a heart. The life of the unborn is at the heart of the dignity of human life. Remove the heart, and the body dies. If the unborn baby does not have the right to life, if their human dignity is not respected in the womb, then their other rights, the other aspects of their dignity, become irrelevant.
This Sunday, the first Sunday in October, is Respect Life Sunday. It kicks off a whole month dedicated to defending human life, especially the life of the unborn. During this month, Catholics and other Christians will stand outside abortion clinics, praying for, counseling, and offering help to those tempted to have an abortion. These peaceful protestors will be harassed, yelled at, and threatened for their witness. But they are willing to put the truth above their own comfort and well-being. They are willing to suffer for the truth, revealing the true measure of their humanity. We should pray for these heroic witnesses and consider joining them.
“Choose life—that you and your offspring shall live.” If we heed this warning, we will live. If we do not, then the power of the stronger will prevail, then violence and untruth will reign supreme. Let us stand on the side of the weakest and most vulnerable in our midst. Let us stand on the side of peace and truth. Amen.