Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Ascension of the Lord Cycle A

Welcome to read homilies for the Sundays of the year. These are sample homilies which you can read with devotion. You may use them in your own homilies without asking my permission. You may also change or edit these to fit them to your audience. A unique quality of these homilies is that they are Christ-filled. From beginning to end they present to us some aspect of Jesus so that beholding his glory we “are being transformed from glory to glory into his very image” (2 Corinthians 3:18 NAB).

Doubters Are Not Punished

We all have come across persons who are doubters, people who doubt whether such and such can be true or can be done. Our own parents were once doubters. They doubted as they looked at us taking our first steps. They doubted whether we could walk without falling down for several feet.

We ourselves are doubters. We doubted whether we could pass our quizzes, our exams, the assignments given us by our teachers. Some of us doubted whether we would ever graduate given the obstacles that lay across our path before graduation.

We doubted whether our girlfriend or boyfriend would accept us. We doubted whether we would marry the person we loved. Some of us doubted whether we would have children after a childless marriage of some months or years.

There were also famous doubters. One of these turned the whole world of philosophy upside down. What was plain to most of us, namely that we exist, he doubted. He even doubted that he existed. After some days of doubting whether he existed, he concluded: I doubt, therefore I exist. Later he refined this to the famous sentence, cogito, ergo sum, meaning, I think, therefore I am. His name is Rene Descartes and his name is known by every engineer through the Cartesian coordinates, the horizontal and vertical lines in a graph.

There is only one person I know who never doubted. That person knows all things and knows the exact capacity of each of us. He knows exactly what we can do and expects us to do what we can do. And yet this person never looks down on persons who doubt like us.

This person who never doubts is the center of our Gospel reading today. Before leaving physically planet Earth he instructed his disciples through certain women that they were to go to a mountain in Galilee where they would see him.

So the eleven disciples went to that mountain and there they saw Jesus. The second sentence in our Gospel reading poses a problem. It says in the version we are using for Mass which is the New American Bible Revised Edition or NABRE, When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.  The problem is that this sentence says the eleven disciples worshiped Jesus but they also doubted. How could that happen, worshiping Jesus and yet at the same time they also doubted? We would think that because they worshiped Jesus they no longer had any doubt as to who was the one appearing before them.

This sentence has been so problematic that there have been several different translations of it. Most of the translations follow the Authorized Version which says, “And when they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted." In this translation it says that the eleven disciples did worship Jesus but some of them doubted. The translators here avoided a contradiction, worshiping and at the same time doubting. It was a contradiction for these translators that the eleven disciples would worship Jesus and at the same doubted. So they only wrote that some, that is, not all who worshiped Jesus doubted. The problem with this translation is that there is no equivalent of the word "some" in the original Greek. The pronoun "they" is emphasized there, referring to the ones who worshiped, that is, the eleven disciples.

Before our translation was revised, that is, in the first edition of the New American Bible, we have this translation: "At the sight of him, those who entertained doubts fell down in homage". This translation also tries to remove the contradiction. The doubt of the eleven was not simultaneous with their worship but was prior to this act of homage. They had doubted before, but now they worshiped Jesus. The problem with this translation is that the clause which has the verb "doubt" follows, not precedes, the clause with the word "worship" and the tense used in “doubt” is just the same as the tense used in “worship”.

So, our translation in our Mass reading is correct, “When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted”, meaning, they worshiped Jesus but at the same time they also doubted.

So some commentators explain how this could be, the acts of worshiping and doubting at the same time.

One commentator explains this using the imagery in the poem of Robert Frost “The Road Not Taken.” A "traveler comes to a fork in the road, and hesitates, knowing that his choice will make all the difference, but not knowing which fork would be the better choice.” This is a very good explanation because the verb used here “distazo”  means “twice” or “two ways.” or hesitate. The commentator adds, "That is the experience of these eleven disciples when they see Jesus.  They want to believe—and they do believe—but they are torn.  Knowing that Jesus died, they hesitate to believe their eyes when (they) see him alive again." (From Richard Niell Donovan in SermonWriter)

Another commentator interprets the simultaneous acts of worshiping and doubting this way. In this case the desire and joy of the disciples made them doubt the truth of what they saw. For them it was too good to be true. This was the source of their doubt. They were happy to worship him but deep inside they were hesitant to think that this was all really happening because of the joy they were experiencing. (Benson)

Whatever the interpretation is, the fact recorded by Matthew is that the eleven disciples worshiped but doubted what was happening to them.

And here is the wonder of the attitude of Jesus. He knew that the eleven disciples were doubting, were hesitating to think that all that was happening was true, and yet right there and then he gave them the greatest work on earth, a work greater than that accomplished by the greatest conquerors, even Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte, greater than that accomplished by the greatest philosophers since the time of Socrates. Jesus gave these doubting eleven the greatest work that even we cannot think of.

Listen to what Jesus told them to do. "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

They were told by Jesus to make all nations his disciples. They were told to put all these nations, baptize them, immerse them into the life and power and glory of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. And they were to teach them all that Jesus had commanded them, all the wisdom of the ages were to be passed by them from Jesus to these nations.

But that is the essence of Jesus' attitude to doubters. He does not condemn them. He loves them and he is patient with them. He does not punish them.

We can cite the case of Abraham, our father in faith. When Abraham doubted that he could have a child in his old age, and followed the advice of Sarah his wife to take her maidservant and produce a child by her, we do not find that the Lord condemned Abraham for this. Instead he blessed Abraham’s child Ismael by this maid servant, saying, "I will make of him a great nation" (Genesis 21:18).

When Abraham's wife Sarah doubted whether she could conceive a child in her old age and laughed because she had already stopped her monthly periods, the Lord did not punish her. He affirmed that Sarah would have a son.

Then we can go straight to the New Testament where this same verb of doubting was used by Matthew. When Peter doubted that he might be drowned because of the waves, did Jesus punish him and left him to fend for himself? Not at all! Matthew wrote, “Jesus at once stretched out his hand and caught him." (14:31)

That is Jesus, the friend of doubters. Perhaps that is why he honored Rene Descartes and put his name in all books of geometry and engineering. By the way this Rene Descartes produced a very different proof for the existence of God, a proof which was not based on what we see around us, but on what we think inside of us.

Do we doubt our ability to do something for the Lord? The Lord does not doubt in our ability. In the first place he was the one who created that ability in us. He knows that we can do what he tells us to do.

Jesus has ascended to heaven. But he has not left us helpless. He has left us with this comforting thought that he believes in us, even if we do not believe in ourselves.

In the first reading he tells us that he will empower us to use whatever ability he has given us to do his work, "you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

In the second reading Paul tells us through his letter to the Ephesians, that we inherit God's riches of glory, the surpassing greatness of his power, filling us in every way so that we can do what Jesus wants us to do.

Let us pray to Jesus, the friend of doubters. We bow our heads.

Jesus, you are the friend of doubters. You do not punish them. Instead you rescue them from their doubts. We are the doubters. We doubt we can do the work you tell us to do because it is too great for us, making all the nations your disciples, making them learn of you always, putting all of them into the life and power of the Blessed Trinity. But you do not doubt our ability because you empower us with your Spirit. Help our unbelief. Help our doubting minds and hearts. Amen.

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Note for the readers:

The Mass readings are from the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE). This is where our Lectionary gets the readings.

NAB stands for New American Bible (before it was revised). This is the translation I use. Unless otherwise stated the text I use is from this translation.

AV stands for Authorized Version of the Bible. It is more commonly referred to as the King James Bible. It is the version most used in English literature, therefore it is the one known more by the English speaking world.

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