7th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Preached February 23, 2020; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon

When Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, Pilate asked whether he was a king. Far from denying his kingship, Jesus defined his kingship in a way that, on the one hand, did not set him in opposition to Caesar, but on the other showed that his kingship was truly on a higher plane than Caesar’s because it is the kingship of truth. He said, My kingdom does not belong to this world. … For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. (Jn 18:36, 37)

It is hardly likely that the cynical Pilate understood the full import of what Jesus was saying, but he did understand that Jesus was not claiming an earthly kingdom opposed to Caesar’s empire. That was enough for him. As for all the talk about truth, he made his infamous reply, What is truth? (Jn 18:38)

Then being a practical man, Pilate sought to settle the matter in a practical fashion, seeking a win-win solution whereby he would both satisfy the people and let Jesus go. He miscalculated and the high priests manipulated him into a situation in which, after having the innocent Jesus’ scourged to appease their wrath, he condemned Jesus to death. Still, he managed to exact a price from the high priests. He maneuvered them into a profession of loyalty to Caesar and then officially and publicly condemned Jesus as the king of the Jews. Everyone knew the high priests had called for Jesus’ death; everyone saw the title of condemnation over the Cross: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. The high priests were convicted in the eyes of the people as being collaborators with the Romans.

We could say the back and forth in the power struggle between the high priests and Pontius Pilate all took place because none of them cared for the truth. Also, none of them came out victorious in the power struggle. They were all losers.

What does this have to do with today’s Gospel? Everything actually.

First, we see Jesus’ own example. We see how he did resist evil, bearing witness to the truth; and how he did not resist evil, handing his body over to be crucified. We also see how he loved his enemies, offering his life for the salvation of Pontius Pilate, for the high priests, and for all of us.

Also, for ourselves, we will never be able to understand and apply Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel apart from his kingdom of the truth.

In our world today, however, we have embraced Pontius Pilate’s question; we have shoved the question of truth to the side, either putting in its place ideologies of power, or reducing everything to questions of practicality, getting things done. That is what we deem important.

When truth is shoved aside, we are left with ‘power struggles’ on every level of personal and community life. We find ourselves continually trying to negotiate our way within networks of competing interests. Worldly peace involves trying to balance conflicting interests in which each side gives up something to get something and, in the long run, no one is really happy.

Now let me propose to you a riddle: “Neither a victim nor an abuser be; Leave off the power struggle and a victim be.” The resolution of this riddle can be found in the difference between two meanings of the word victim. This will also give us the key to Jesus’ teaching today.

We will find the solution to the riddle not in the theme of love found in today’s Gospel, but in the theme of holiness that underlies all of today’s readings.

In the first reading, we heard: Be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy. In the second reading, St. Paul tells the members of the Church: Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? … The temple of God, which you are, is holy. Then in the Gospel, Jesus uses a different word, but the reality is the same: Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Holiness, we could say, holiness to which we are all called, is perfection, moral perfection. Nevertheless, holiness is not just any moral perfection, but the moral perfection that comes from belonging to God. All things belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God.

How do we belong to God, so as to become holy? How do we belong to God so that his Holy Spirit might dwell in us, purifying our hearts, filling us with his holy love, and making us holy?

St. Paul writes, I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer you bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your rational worship. (Rm 12:2) This is our ‘rational’ worship because this is the most truly reasonable thing we can do: to give ourselves completely to God, who gives himself completely to us.

When we hear the word, ‘sacrifice’ we think, ‘renunciation’, ‘giving something up’, something painful. We might not even think of God. The word, however, comes from the Latin sacrificium, which means to make something holy, sacred, to remove it from the realm of human use and consecrate it to God, to give it over to God. The bloody character of ancient animal sacrifices, which were supposed to be symbolic of the self-offering of the worshipper, was a consequence of the painful aspect that sacrifice has taken in a world marred by the egoism of sin. To give ourselves to God as a ‘sacrifice’ we now have to die to our own self-will so as to submit ourselves to his life-giving will. We must stop lording it over others, and instead become servants of the one Lord.

Jesus is the One whom the Father consecrated (that is he reserved him for himself) and sent him into the world. (cf. Jn 10:36) Jesus, the Son of God made man, who belongs completely to the Father, who feeds on doing the will of the Father who sent him (cf. Jn 4:34), responds to the Father’s consecration by consecrating himself, that is offering himself as a sacrifice for sin. He tells the Father before going to offer himself upon the Cross: I consecrate myself for them that they also may be consecrated in the truth. (Jn 17:19)

Jesus, the Holy One of God, makes himself an offering, giving his sacred humanity back to God, that through him, with him, and in him, we too might be consecrated, sanctified, and given back to God, in body and soul. That is meaning and reality of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, our truly reasonable worship.

“Neither a victim nor and abuser be; Leave off the power struggle and a victim be.” Just as the word sacrifice, in our contemporary usage, has nearly lost its original meaning and lost its connection to God, so also with our word ‘victim’.

The word ‘victim’ comes from the Latin victima and was part of the sacrificial language of Latin. The victim was the animal offered in sacrifice to God. Remember, the death of the animal was a secondary aspect; what is primary was that animal was given to God, removed from the realm of profane human usage, and made holy and sacred.

Jesus did not offer a symbolic animal but offered his own body upon the Cross. He said, This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have the power to lay it down, and the power to take it up again. (Jn 10:17-18) So Jesus is at once priest and victim.

Today, in our unbelieving world, we think that Jesus is a victim of a terrible crime. We have changed the meaning of the word ‘victim’: the victim is no longer what is freely offered, but what is cruelly killed. The high priests arrested the innocent man and after a rigged trial, condemned him to a cruel and shameful death. End of story. Jesus has become for us today the symbol of all those who are oppressed, all the victims of injustice. Nothing more.

So who would want to be like Jesus? Rather, we must fight against injustice (so the argument goes) so that there will be no more victims. Since, however, we ourselves, the victims of injustice, are unjust, we can only replace one injustice with another. We can only make new victims in the endless cycle of the power struggle. But we are not offering sacrifice to God.

Yes, the high priests were malicious in their intent, but they were not acting as priests, they were acting as criminals. More importantly, they would have had no power over Jesus except that he had freely delivered himself into their hands. They demanded that he come down from the Cross, then they would believe in him. (cf. Mt 27:41-42) Jesus could have come down from the Cross; he was indeed held to the Cross not by the nails, but by his obedience to the Father’s will. He offered himself freely.

Jesus was consecrated by the Father and sent into the world, then responded to the consecration received by his self-consecration on the Cross. So, we have been consecrated in our baptism and must respond through uniting ourselves to the self-consecration of Jesus. When we follow him and freely offer ourselves to God, through, with, and in Jesus Christ, we will belong to God. Then all things belong to us, and we to Christ, and Christ to God. Then we will be holy.

Belonging completely to God in Christ as a holy and living victim, we will discover an amazing security, confidence, and trust. Then will not be worried about life or death, present or future.

We will be able to look at ourselves differently. We will not look at ourselves from the standpoint of egoism. Instead our ego will have been decentralized. We will look at ourselves as belonging to God; servants of God. We will take care of ourselves as belonging to God; as God would have us take care of ourselves, giving priority to our immortal souls. In that way we will rightly love ourselves.

Then, loving ourselves rightly, as belonging to God, we will truly be able to love our neighbor as ourselves, without having a need to hate anyone. There will be no competition. We all belong to God. God even wants to win his enemies back to himself, just as Jesus gave his life for us while we were yet enemies. (cf. Rm 5:10)

So we will no longer seek revenge against enemies, we will no longer follow the logic of repaying hurt for hurt, we will no longer plot to establish our own power or advance our own agendas, but we will we given over completely to the Kingdom of God. Our good and the good of others will be measured by the standard of God’s Kingdom. Gain or loss will be measured according to the standard of God’s Kingdom.

If God allows someone to praise me, so be it; praise be to God. If God allows someone to slap me on the cheek, so be it; praise be to God. If God wants me to stand up and fight and protect my own bodily, mental, or emotional integrity or the integrity of someone else, so be it; may he grant me the strength to do so and may all praise belong to him. If God wants me to yield up not only my tunic, but my cloak as well, so be it; may he grant me the peace of soul to do so, while all praise returns to him. For myself, I am nothing but a victim, offered to God, through, with, and in Jesus Christ, priest and victim. In God is my glory; in God is my happiness; in God is all my good.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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