Sunday, September 10, 2017

In Whose Name?


23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc LainToni Hou

My dear friends, if you were to receive a call on your mobile phone, from someone claiming to be a police officer, asking you for your personal information, what would you do? Would you give the caller what he or she wants? Probably not, right? And what about if someone were to stop you on the street, and offer you a brand new Rolex watch for $200? What would you do? Would you buy the watch? Again, probably not, right? And we all know why. The reason is quite simple. Just because a watch bears the name Rolex, doesn’t make it genuine. It could be an imitation. And just because someone uses the name of the police, doesn’t mean the person is an authentic public servant. She or he could be an impersonator. Claiming to act in someone else’s name, but actually really acting only in his or her own unscrupulous interests.

And if I were gullible enough to believe the caller, or to buy the watch, and get cheated as a result, there’s no way I can claim that it was actually the police or Rolex who cheated me. I owe it to myself to take care to see beyond the names that people use. To learn how to tell the difference between the genuine and the imitation, the authentic and the impersonator.

I think there’s something similar going on in our Mass readings today. As you have no doubt already noticed, in both the first reading and the gospel, we find people being asked to respond to wrongdoing in a certain way. To confront the wrongdoer. In the gospel, Jesus even provides a helpful procedure for doing this. For performing what is commonly called fraternal correction. The important task of confronting and correcting a brother or a sister who does wrong.

So that, on one level, the message in our readings seems clear. They speak of our responsibility to correct wrongdoers. To be a Christian, it is not enough for me simply to focus on my own spiritual growth. I am also responsible, in some way, for the spiritual wellbeing of others. And this responsibility goes beyond my closest family and friends. Beyond even the Christian community. It extends also to the rest of the world. To be Christian, to be Church, is to be a light for the nations. A prophetic sign to others of how human beings should conduct themselves. In order to experience the peace and harmony, the fullness of life, that we are all meant to enjoy.

We see this quite clearly, for example, in the words and actions of Pope Francis. Since becoming pope, he has spoken and acted in a consistently prophetic way. Not only reminding us Christians of the joy of the gospel and the joy of love. But also calling the world’s attention to the obstacles that keep us from experiencing this same joy. Obstacles such as a global economy based essentially on greed and limitless consumption. And a manipulative way of relating to people and things that leads to shattered lives and a broken world.

And yet, my dear friends, there is also something more in our readings today. We find it in that phrase that occurs both in the first reading and the gospel. Do you know which one I’m talking about? It’s the phrase in my name. In the first reading, God tells the prophet to warn evildoers in my name. And, in the gospel, Jesus assures us, that where two or three meet in my name, the Lord himself will be there with them. To speak and to act, and even to correct others, in the name of the Lord. This is surely an awesome responsibility. But what does it actually mean? What does it look and feel like?

As you know, we Christians are fond of ending our prayers with the words, we make this prayer in the name of Christ the Lord. But does it mean that just because I use the Lord’s name, whatever I do is done in the name of the Lord? What about if I were to use the Lord’s name to curse or to harm someone? Won’t I be acting more like that anonymous caller we mentioned at the start? Using the name of the police only to cheat others? What then is the difference between a true prophet and an impersonator?

Our readings give us at least three helpful characteristics of the experience of speaking and acting in the name of the Lord. The first has to do with the source of authority. In the first reading, God says to the prophet, Son of man, I have appointed you as sentry to the House of Israel. When you hear a word from my mouth, warn them in my name. Ezekiel does not act on his own authority. He does not take his prophetic ministry upon himself. No. Not only is he appointed by God, but he is also specifically told to convey to the people only what he hears from God. Nothing less and nothing more.

The second helpful characteristic has to do with the spirit in which the prophet’s ministry is performed. Even if the words of the prophet may sometimes sound harsh, and his actions seem shocking, his main goal is not to make the people suffer. Not to punish them. But to save them. To warn the wicked person to renounce his ways. To win back one’s brother or sister. Back to the way of the Lord. And, by doing this, by seeking only what is best for the other, the third characteristic of prophetic ministry becomes visible. It is what the second reading says sums up all the commandments of God. Namely, You must love your neighbour as yourself, (For love) is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbour…

Source, spirit and summary. The word of God, the good of others, and the commandment of love. Three characteristics of what it looks and feels like when someone speaks and acts in the name of the Lord. Source, spirit and summary. Three points that help us draw that crucially important line separating the impersonator from the authentic servant of the Lord. The line between the thief, who comes only to steal and kill and destroy, and the true Shepherd, who comes in order that we may have life, and have it abundantly. A line that we need to learn to draw especially today, when so many claim to speak and act in the name of religion and of God. But in ways that lead only to more shattered lives and broken relationships. A line that needs to be drawn not just out there in the world, but also in here within and among ourselves.

My dear sisters and brothers, scripture tells us that, in word and deed, we are to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus. In whose name are you speaking and acting, today and everyday?

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