Standing Against the Culture

(Fourth Sunday, Year C)

The ancient Greeks tell about a man with a "perfect" wheat field. People admired it because every stalk was exactly the same height. When asked how he achieved it, he replied, "Simple. If a grain sticks its head above the others, I cut it off!"

Jesus' relatives and friends wanted to do something similar in today's Gospel. They had known him for thirty years and gotten used to the "carpenter, the Son of Mary." But now he stood up, read the great messianic prophecy and declared its present fulfillment.

To go against people's expectations, to stand up to the popular culture provokes resistance. It did for Jesus and it will for us. If we lift up our head, we do risk being cut down.

Today's culture has at least three characteristics that can never be reconciled with the message of Jesus. The most obvious is secularism which not so much denies God's existence, but says that even if he does exist, he is irrelevant to our lives. Sure, we invoke him on solemn occasions (like presidential inagurations) but our everyday media - newspapers, television, magazines, movies, etc. - avoid references to him as if he were someone of marginal importance.

Along with secularism comes relativism - the belief that "you have your truth and I have my truth," but there is no objective truth to measure either claim. Relativism changes the meaning of a beautiful word: tolerance. It used to mean respecting the other person and listening open-mindedly to their opinion. But now it requires something more - saying from the start that their opinion is just as good as ones own or anyone else's.* In other words there is no truth, no objective standard. By asking for such "tolerance" they in effect demand underconditional surrender before sitting down at the same table.

Finally because of relativism, what matters most is politics - not just national politics but every level: school, family, parish, etc. Politics is the means by which we decide whose opinion will prevail. The most astute, the best organized - in a word, the strongest - win the day.

Politics, relativism, secularism set the moral standards for our society. We see it most strikingly in the abortion debate. It's not a question of examining the scientific and medical evidence. You could broadcast fetal heartbeats, monitor the brain waves of a tiny embryos, show stacks of ultra-sound fotos. We have all seen them. But objective criteria scarcely matter. What counts are how people feel about it. And who has the cleverest slogans to influence popular feeling. And whether one is in the "mainstream" (that is, with the most powerful).

Jesus did not flow with the current of his day. When the moment arrived, he stood up. He resisted the surrounding culture. I know what you are thinking. Well, that was Jesus, but I am just an ordinary, weak, mixed up human being. So am I. But I take some inspiration from Jeremiah. Being only a boy, was afraid to speak. But God said to him:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you.
But do you gird your loins; stand up and tell them all that I command you.
Be not crushed on their account, as though I would leave you crushed before them. (Jer 1:4)

**********

*see the Usual Homily for illustrations.

From Archives (Homilies for Fourth Sunday, Year C):

2016: New Beginning: Living God's Plan
2013: Spiritual Combat
2010: Three Levels of Love
2007: We Are Doing It For Someone
2004: Love is a Decision
2001: Standing Against the Culture
1998: Catholic Schools Week

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