Archbishop Lori’s Homily: 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
October 2, 2021

Monster or Marshmallow? 

Some 50 years ago, I attended my first class at Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg. It was 8 a.m., and our professor was a Dominican priest, Fr. Thomas Heath, one of three brothers who served as priests of the Order of Preachers. They looked so much alike that they were known as “heath, heathier, and heathiest.” Fr. Tom Heath was probably “heathiest” – at the time, he seemed craggy & forbidding. To top it off, he was to teach moral theology to me and my classmates, a motley crew. Fr. Heath turned out to be a wonderful priest and an excellent professor. He began that class with a question I have not forgotten after all these years. He asked, “Is God a monster or a marshmallow?”

Is God a monster who created us only to condemn us, only to lay down harsh rules, keep a running tally of our infractions, and at the end of our lives sentence us to eternal damnation? Or is God a marshmallow, an old softy, an indulgent sort of fellow who looks the other way when we sin and then rewards us eternally for doing pretty much what we darn well pleased. Even as a rookie, I sensed that God was neither a monster nor a marshmallow, but it was Fr. Heath who led me and my classmates to appreciate more deeply the God of love who made us in his image, so that we might love him and one another as he has loved us.

Light on a Seemingly Harsh Teaching 

That said, we can’t really seem to get around the fact that some of Jesus’ teachings strike us as countercultural and harsh. In today’s cultural climate, the biblical assertion that God created human beings as “male and female” may seem out of step, to say nothing of the fact that Jesus annulled a provision for divorce in the Mosaic Law. Jesus is a merciful Savior, but in today’s Gospel, he seems to be a rigorous teacher. Even as Jesus’ disciples were so amazed that they asked him for a private explanation, we too may want Jesus to explain to us teachings of his that seem harsh, teachings of his that strike some of our contemporaries as “monstrous”.

In his love for us, Jesus not only provides us with an explanation, but he has also set the stage for you and me to understand the explanation he gives us – as we learn in that brief second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. So, we are going to detour through the 2nd reading so as to understand the Gospel.

Now, in the verse before today’s 2nd reading, the author of Hebrews teaches us that, even in our disordered world, we see Jesus “crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death” – tasting death so that you and I might live eternally. Of course, we do not see Jesus in the flesh but we do “see” him by faith – in the celebration of Mass, in Eucharistic adoration, and in others, especially the poor. And the more we see Jesus by faith, the more we become like him. Being with Jesus, praying to him, serving him in others, all this helps us to understand what our Redeemer did to save us from our sins and how deeply the Lord really does love us. Here is the solvent that softens a hardened heart, the cure for sclerosis of the heart!

This leads us into today’s reading from Hebrews where we are told that, in God the Father’s plan of salvation, his plan to bring “many children to glory” – it was appropriate that his Son, Jesus, be “made perfect through suffering”. Now, these words might rankle us no less than the first audience who heard them. What does it mean to say that the Eternal Son of God needed to be “perfected”? Was he guilty of some sin? Was he in some way less “perfect” than the Father? The answer is that God’s Son became one of us – without sin to be sure – out of love for us, as he assumed the weakness of our frail humanity. By becoming one of us, Jesus could take our sins upon himself. In the crucible of human suffering, he broke the power of sin and opened the way for our humanity to be “divinized” – to share in the glory of the Father’s life and love. And so Jesus, our leader, became the perfect priest who offered himself to God and who has now “ordained us” … ordained us to be a holy people, a people who strive to live in the Kingdom God while still living in this passing world… who strive to become those persons whose daily lives reflect what God had in mind when he created the world in love, and then, with even greater love redeemed it. By Baptism, we were ‘ordained’ to be a people of self-sacrificing love and service, who are willing to walk in the footsteps of the One who loves us beyond all telling. We are to have soft and supple hearts, which soak up the teaching of Christ! We are to be like the children whom Jesus loved and blessed in today’s Gospel, for the Kingdom of God belongs to those who accept it with childlike faith and trust.

The Teaching on Marriage and Family 

Hopefully, the foregoing has prepared us now to take a second look at today’s Gospel and to see it not with the cynical eyes of the Pharisees but rather to receive it with the open minds and hearts of true disciples. Evidently, the Pharisees had heard Jesus on a prior occasion teach against divorce. They knew in a heartbeat that his teaching did not fully align with the permission Moses gave for divorce, as found in the Book of Deuteronomy. So the Pharisees asked Jesus a question, the answer to which they already knew: “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” The Pharisees knew that it was.

But Jesus does not fall into their trap, but instead goes back to the beginning, to the Book of Genesis, where we read that “God made them “male and female” and decreed them to live as husband and wife, to be fruitful and to multiply. Jesus added that, what God has joined, no human authority should separate. If elements of the Mosaic Law bent to human weakness and hardness of heart, in the Kingdom of God we are to be made new, restored to what God had intended from the beginning, only more so! In the death and resurrection of Jesus, he who embodies the Kingdom of God, we are given a new power, a new grace to be and to live differently. The Kingdom of God is not a big abstract idea but in fact, it is the Person of Jesus who wants to infiltrate our hearts and to transform all our relationships, including the relationship of marriage with its many daily challenges, ranging from the most trivial to the most severe. Even the most happily married couple knows that their love is perfected as each day they take up their cross to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

Alas, none of us fully embodies the Kingdom of God and all of us are wayfarers. Not all marriages survive and some are fatally flawed from the start. For people in such situations, and indeed for all of us in all our struggles, the Church must be, as Pope Francis often says, “a field hospital”…a place of healing… not a place where we wave aside the moral teaching of the New Testament, but rather a place where we are healed and formed so that we can open our hearts and minds in trust and love, to the Teacher who loves us like no other. And so it seems that God is neither a monster nor a marshmallow but rather the God of love who created us in his image, sent his Son to redeem us, and continues to pour out his mercy upon us – all in the ardent hope that he, God the Father, may see and love in us what he sees and loves in his Son, who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.

Archbishop William E. Lori

Archbishop William E. Lori was installed as the 16th Archbishop of Baltimore May 16, 2012.

Prior to his appointment to Baltimore, Archbishop Lori served as Bishop of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., from 2001 to 2012 and as Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington from 1995 to 2001.

A native of Louisville, Ky., Archbishop Lori holds a bachelor's degree from the Seminary of St. Pius X in Erlanger, Ky., a master's degree from Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg and a doctorate in sacred theology from The Catholic University of America. He was ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Washington in 1977.

In addition to his responsibilities in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Archbishop Lori serves as Supreme Chaplain of the Knights of Columbus and is the former chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.