Five-Legged Dogs

(Homily for Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C)

Why, then, 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either
good or bad, but thinking makes it so
(Hamlet Act II, Scene II)

Abraham Lincoln posed this question: “How many legs does a dog have?” The reply of course was four.

Lincoln asked, “If we call the tail a leg, then how many legs does a dog have?” The reply: Five.

“No,” Lincoln said, “Just because you call a tail a leg doesn’t make it so.”

We need Lincoln’s common sense today. We live in a world where many people think they can change reality just by giving it a different name. This is sometimes done out of a sense of compassion, but since it distorts reality, in the long run it will cause more harm than benefit.

In today’s Gospel Jesus praised Mary because she listened. In contrast her sister Martha just got busy preparing something to eat. It might appear Martha was more practical, but maybe not. Perhaps Jesus simply wanted to relax and talk before thinking about dinner. Once I visited a home where the lady of the house disappeared for ten or fifteen minutes, then returned with plate of food. I do my best to be polite, but the truth is that I was not hungry. All I wanted a cup of coffee and some conversation. We need to first listen, ask questions, try to understand what is really needed.

Regarding food or drink, it is relatively easy to find out what the other person really needs. In other areas it can be more complex, require more intense listening. Let me give an example. It is well known because it has become the center of a world wide controversy. I am referring to the attempt to take the friendship between two men or two women and call it “marriage.” Now, to celebrate friendship is obviously a good thing. St. Augustine called his friend the “other half of my soul.” In good times friends can increase each others joy – and in trials they can lessen each others sorrows. Few people are so misanthropic that they do not value friendship and wish to see it honored.

However, there is a problem if we try to put friendship on the same legal level as marriage - as was done this year in Massachussets (and previously in countries like Sweden). It may seem to be simply granting rights to people who have been marginalized, ending a form of “discrimination.” And who really cares if two men or two women wish to call their relationship “marriage”? However, there is more involved. They not only want to call their friendship “marriage,” but to force you and me to do the same. I don’t know about you, but I could never do it, no matter what the law said.

Even though I am not married, I recognize marriage as something sacred and fundamental to society. While few people would want to limit legal arrangements (inheritance, hospital visitation, etc.) between two friends, nevertheless, to call that relationship marriage will damage both marriage and friendship. The government really has no business regulating friendship, but by sharpest contrast all of us have a huge stake in marriage and families.* And we belong to a Church that sees marriage as a sacrament, the greatest earthly sign of the covenant between God and his people.

Like many other things, the controversy over “same-sex marriage” will probably only be resolved when the consequences become more apparent, when people see that it not only weakens marriage, but casts suspicion over friendship. Just because you call a tail a leg doesn’t make it so. Don’t get me wrong. I respect any man’s freedom to equate the two – but I would not trust my dog to his care.

As Christians we have a deeper concern than what equivocations such as same sex marriage might do to society. We are concerned about the effect it will have on souls. It will further erode the ideal of a beautiful, chaste love** – and the sense that our failing to achieve that ideal should point us to Christ for forgiveness and healing. Who has time for Jesus if they focus their whole attention on reheating leftovers? But no matter how busy one gets, those things will never satisfy.

Like Mary we must first listen, be attentive to reality as Jesus sees it – as it truly is. Only then can we correctly respond to the needs of others. Mary indeed has chosen the better part. She has received something which cannot be taken from her.


*Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus expressed it this way:

The marriage amendment continues to gain steam and will likely play a significant part in the presidential campaign. A critical question is whether it can avoid being stigmatized as an anti-gay measure. That will depend in large part on whether the argument is successfully made that homosexual unions and other domestic arrangements fall into the category of friendships. Friendships can be healthy or not, but it is not the government’s business to certify or regulate friendships. By way of sharpest contrast, marriage has always and everywhere been recognized as a legitimate and necessary public concern. (While We Are At It)

**David Morrison has an excellent reflection on chaste friendship: What Would I Have Same Sex Couples Do?

Spanish Version

From Archives (16th Sunday, Year C):

2013: Focus in Mission - Part Three
2010: The Difference Between Martha and Mary
2007: Being in the Lord's Presence
2004: Five-Legged Dogs
2001: Hospitality - First Principle of the Moral Law
1998: The Better Part

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Sunday: Homilies

Bulletin (Packing for Peru, Birthright, NFP Presentation)


Though it is regulated by civil laws and church laws, it did not originate either from the church or the state, but from God. Therefore, neither church nor state can alter the basic meaning and structure of marriage. (from U.S. Bishops Statement on The Debate about "Same-Sex Marriage")

How Daily Kos views God (and puts Evangelicals in their place)

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