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6/25/23 Homily: For Love of Neighbor

Updated: Aug 5, 2023

Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]

In our gospel today, Jesus tells us: “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.”

Now, what in the world could possibly stop a believer from acknowledging Jesus before others? What might hold that person back from telling others about Jesus when given an opportunity? The answer to that question can be quite revealing as to what you and I really believe about Jesus and how we view our neighbor.

Over a decade ago, Penn Jillette (of the magician duo Penn and Teller) shared a story on YouTube about having received a certain gift from a member of the audience after a show. The gift he was given was a bible; or rather, The New Testament and the Psalms.

Now, according to Penn’s telling of this event, Penn felt that the audience member knew that Penn himself was an atheist; that he didn’t believe in God. But this audience member—a believer—did make an impression on him; enough of an impression for Penn to share his experience.

As Penn tells the encounter, he speaks about this person: “…He was really kind, and nice, and sane, and looked me in the eyes and talked to me. And then gave me this bible. And I’ve always said that I don’t respect people that don’t proselytize—I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life—or whatever—and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward… how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?” These are Penn’s words, and he continues.

“How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean if I believed beyond the shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming at you and you didn’t believe it—that truck was bearing down on you—there’s a certain point where I tackle you, and this is more important than that… this guy was a really good guy. He was polite, and honest, and sane, and he cared enough about me to proselytize and give me a bible…”

At the time of that video, Penn was an atheist. I don’t know where he’s at now in terms of faith. But the point of his sharing of the story was well-taken. If we truly do believe in Jesus and that salvation in Christ is possible by believing in him, then how could we ever keep that good news to ourselves? How can a person be saved without belief in Jesus? And how can one believe in Jesus if no one tells him about him?

Now, we ought to acknowledge Jesus before others simply out of love for Jesus—our God. But we are also called to love our neighbor. That too should inspire our acknowledgement of Jesus to others at every opportunity.

You may remember that movie from the late 90’s, “Good Will Hunting,” starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Will, played by Damon, is a college-aged youth with a troubled past. Despite having been abused and abandoned early in life, Will is a gifted genius who attracts the attention of certain academic elite, and he has a chance of capitalizing on that to rise out of obscurity and poverty.

But he doesn’t, at least not for the majority of the film. Rather, he continues to meander through life with his childhood friends who have been his support system. But near the end of the film, his best friend, Chuckie, played by Affleck, says to Will, “You’re sitting on a winning lottery ticket and you’re too [proud] to cash it in… I’d do anything to have you have; so would any of these guys. It’d be an insult to watch you still here in twenty years. Hanging around here is a waste of your time.”

Despite the risk of being taken the wrong way, Chuckie calls Will out. He does that because he cares deeply for him. It was his place as his best friend to give Will that message. He wouldn’t hear it from anyone else.

There is a “lottery ticket” we all can “cash-in on”. And that’s the gospel of Jesus Christ. There’s no greater message that we can share with another person. We were all doomed due to original sin, which has corrupted us to our very core. But we are delivered from that condemnation through our belief in Jesus Christ.

“He who believes in him is not condemned,” says the Lord. “He who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (cf. Jn. 3:18). We enter into this world already condemned by the sin of our first parents. To escape that condemnation—that requires belief in Jesus Christ. But again—how one believe in Jesus if no one tells him about him?

That’s our place in this. Presumably, we all believe in Jesus. We share in the Eucharist. We have everything in Christ. It’s merciful to share that deliverance with others.

A brief word on our first reading from Jeremiah. Jeremiah authentically prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem; God’s punishment for Judah’s abandonment of the Covenant. Jeremiah’s prophecies made him very unpopular with the religious, political, and social elite who were contemporary to him. And so, Jeremiah was beaten, ostracized, and imprisoned; and his enemies plotted his death. Nonetheless, Jeremiah still shared God’s message with Judah, hoping for their conversion and repentance—and deliverance from conquest.

We are the prophets of our day. Most of us have not yet shed blood for the proclamation of the gospel; most of us will never have to do that. But we are called to acknowledge Jesus before others, at some cost. We’re called to love others; love them enough to tell them about Jesus.

Cry of Prophet Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem, by Ilya Repin, c. 1870, oil on cardboard, Tretyakov Gallery [Public Domain]


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