Sunday Homily – 20th Sunday C

Jeremiah 38:1-2ab, 4-6, 8-10;
Hebrews 12:1-4;
Luke 12:49-53

A few years ago, a Franciscan priest named Fabian Thom was shot dead in his bed, at his home in Port Moresby. This is what he got for his forty years of befriending, helping, healing, teaching, guiding, and supporting, hundreds and thousands of people as a missionary in Papua New Guinea. His family says his murder makes no sense, because he made no personal enemies, and was always open, honest, truthful, good, kind and gentle, with every person he met. Unfortunately, payback is still strong in parts of PNG culture, but it remains a great puzzle why Fr Fabian became a target for his murderers.

Fr Fabian joins a long line of prophets, spokespersons for God, who have been martyred for being constant and faithful in their work for God. They remind us all that there’s a price to be paid in our dealings with others, for always telling and living the truth. The prophet, Jeremiah, whom we meet today in our First Reading, is dumped down a muddy well because he kept saying what God wanted him to say, but which people did not want to hear. Jesus, too, as our Second Reading has reminded us, stuck to his task of telling the truth without fear or favour, and kept on living the truth he told. For that he became a sign that was contradicted, and, in the end, was murdered on the cross.

At the birth of Jesus, the angels sang: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to the people God loves’ (Lk 2:14). He was announced as the Prince of Peace. But that never meant he would be weak, soft, and sentimental. A lover of children, people without friends, and poor persons? Yes! A speaker of pious, gentle but meaningless platitudes? No way! Jesus came to bring real peace to the world, but real peace always comes at a price, the price of misunderstanding, conflict and division, even within one’s own family. Think of the conflict and division threatening democracy in the USA, over the ‘big lie’ that Donald Trump won the presidency of the USA in 2020, the lie that even led to the storming of the Capitol, the seat of government, on January 6th, 2021.

A very perceptive writer called F. Scott Peck has coined the phrase ‘people of the lie’. In South Africa, the national lie was the system of apartheid, the unequal system of separate development and segregation of white people on the one hand, from coloured and black people on the other. Here in Australia, until the High Court Mabo case a few years ago, we have lived with the lie, that when settlers first arrived from Britain, Australia was terra nullius, an uninhabited land. The truth is, that our aboriginal brothers and sisters have occupied the land for more than 60 thousand years, and therefore continue to experience Australia Day (January 26th) as Invasion Day. Being reconciled must include admitting the truth, and in a spirit of what has been called ‘tough love’, putting right the wrongs of stealing their land and even massacring many aborigines. This is Australia’s ‘original sin’.

Truth is hard on families, communities, and nations. When a family stop pretending that Mum’s drinking is not a problem, or that Dad’s gambling doesn’t hurt anyone else, or that number one son’s insulting and abusive language is just letting off steam, expect a blow-up when the ‘not happy, Jan’ message is finally delivered. When a nation admits that its economy is based on the destruction of the environment or the oppression of certain groups, few people will feel comfortable about that. Telling the truth typically leads to denial, and denial to much conflict and division, before a process of reconciliation and peace can begin.

So, we might ask, who is the one in our family, in our parish, in our community, in our nation, who keeps on risking unpopularity and even violence, by telling it like it is? Who among us is doing a Jeremiah or a Jesus, by always ‘speaking the truth in love’ (Ephesians 4:15)? Who among us is fearless enough to say as needed, ‘That’s not right!’ Maybe it’s you, maybe every one of you. I hope so.

Consider going into action this week in this way: – Spend one whole day as a teller of truth. Don’t be silent when others are loose or evasive with the truth. Tell no white lies. Don’t cover up for your best friend or anyone else. Get real with people. Find out what happens when you confront the truth, speak the truth and live the truth. Be ready to be a whistle-blower wherever it’s needed.

Without any fear or favour, without any deceit or hypocrisy, without worrying about being called a ‘dobber’, without any compromise at all! Be as fired-up about ‘telling the truth in love’ as Jesus was when he said: ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already!’ (Luke 12:49). And saying to God all along, that little prayer we say over and over today with the psalmist, ‘Lord, come to my aid!’

Brian Gleeson is a Passionist priest, and a member of the Passionist community in Endeavour Hills, Melbourne.