Podcast: How to preach to a congregation when you don’t share the same culture
When Isaac-el Fernandes, S.J., delivers a homily he “won’t necessarily remember to say everything that I've written,” he says. “But what I will remember is the stuff that is closest to my heart. It is much more about the conviction that I say a homily with, than about the clever ideas that one might have.”
Isaac is a Jesuit of the Southern Africa Province. He was born and raised in Zimbabwe but currently lives and works in Lusaka, Zambia.
Listen to Isaac’s homily for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, on this week’s episode of “Preach.” After the homily, he shares with host Ricardo da Silva, S.J., just how he learned to depart from his prepared text and preach from the heart.
It’s much more about the conviction that I say a homily with, than about the clever ideas that one might have.
Scripture Readings for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
First Reading: Zec 9:9-10
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13-14
Second Reading: Rom 8:9, 11-13
Gospel: Mt 11:25-30
You can find the full text of the readings here.
Homily for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A by Isaac-el Fernandes, S.J.
In 1962, the social scientist E.M. Rogers came up with his diffusion of innovation theory; that basically tries to explain how an idea or a new product gradually infiltrates a society and gains widespread acceptance.
And this theory kind of divides the population into five slices, according to a normal distribution curve. At the very start, you have a very small minority of a population who will accept this new idea, and these are called the innovators, less than 2 percent. And these are the people who are going to trailblaze and take the risk that comes with the uncertainty of a new product or a new idea—but they’re a very small minority.
The next group is the group that I would consider to be the most critical group, again, fairly small, but 13 to 14 percent of the population, and they’re called the early adopters. Now, you want your early adopters to be influential people; to use their influence in society to convince other people to adopt this new idea or this new product because if they’re able to convince other people, you then get a large slice of the population.
Jesus is basically doing the analysis of his early adopters. What he finds is that far from having attracted the movers and shakers of society, his early adopters are the dregs of Jewish society.
That’s the next group, called the early majority, about 34 percent adopting that idea or that product. And then come the next slice, the late majority, another 34 percent. And at the very tail end of the curve is the laggards, the last 15 percent, who are really slow to adopt this new idea, or new technology. But I want to zone in on this crucial group, this critical group, of the early adopters because, as I said, these are people you really want them to be the movers and shakers in society. Because these are the people who are going to, with their clout, with their status, attract their followers—attract everybody else to adopt this new idea, to adopt this new product. So the more clout, the more status, your early adopters have, the faster your idea penetrates into society.
And what we have in today’s Gospel is Jesus basically doing the analysis of his early adopters. And when he does the analysis, what he finds is that far from having attracted the movers and shakers of society—the Pharisees, the scribes, the chief priests; the people who would have status to get his new idea adopted quickly—what he finds is that his early adopters are the dregs of Jewish society—It’s the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the uneducated peasants, the crippled, the lame—and what he says is, “Father, I thank you for having hidden these things from the wise and the clever [read: those who have status in society] and having revealed them to mere children.”
Now, in our modern-day, modern context, we have kind of idealized children, and they have become symbolic of the carefree innocence for us. That was not at all what they were symbolic of in first century Palestine. In first century Palestine, children were the people who had no rights and no status whatsoever. They were on the bottom of the pyramid. And this is what Jesus takes them to symbolize. And so we might find it rather bizarre that Jesus is thanking his Father that his early adopters are at the bottom of the pyramid—people with no status whatsoever to advance the adoption of his new idea which is the kingdom of God, this new idea that Jesus has been trying to preach to everyone.
In first century Palestine, children were the people who had no rights and no status whatsoever. They were on the bottom of the pyramid.
And it’s even more bizarre—when we put it in the context of what has just come before this in Matthew’s Gospel—because, just before, Jesus has been lamenting that John the Baptist has been branded as being possessed by a demon. And he himself has been taken as a drunkard and a glutton, someone who hangs around with sinners and tax collectors. And then he carries on further to lambast the towns of Chorazin and Bethsaida. And says to them, “Because the miracles I work there didn’t lead to anybody’s repentance, and if the same miracles had been worked in Tyre and Sidon—which are Gentile territories—they would have converted long ago.” And so it’s almost as if Jesus is having a rant here.
He’s filled with frustration at the failure of his mission. And then he stops short because the change in tone is just, it’s so stuck, because he switches from this almost rant into, “Father, I bless you and thank you,” and he’s filled with gratitude. It’s almost as if he stops short, takes a stand back from the situation, and then smiles, and then laughs at God’s sense of humor and thanks his Father for this paradoxical wisdom of having chosen the lowly and the meek. And it’s almost as if Jesus catches the evil spirit, who was trying to insinuate its way into his heart with this frustration, this anger, this lashing out at the failure and the hard-hearted people who have refused to accept him. Jesus catches this evil spirit and nicks it in the bud. And how does he do it? He just takes a step back. And Jesus always had—this is the amazing thing about Jesus, he always has his hand on the pulse, he can see God working in reality—and he catches the footprints of God at work. And he says, “Oh, there you are, Father. Well, thank you, thank you for having revealed it to the simple of mind. And he lets himself be won over by the Father’s preferential option for the poor, the lowly and the meek.”
And I think there’s a profound lesson in this for us. Because, so often, when we encounter an obstacle in our way as human beings, when we encounter failure, our knee jerk reaction is to just redouble our efforts or throw more money at the problem, so to make it go away. We just obliterate it with our efforts, our money, and our resources. And it’s almost as like... The good image for this is when you’re in a car and you’re stuck in the mud; the knee jerk reaction might be to floor the accelerator, but we all know that’s just only going to end badly. You’re going to just end up getting more and more stuck in the mud. And so Jesus invites us to say, “When you have encountered a problem, when you have an experience of failure, come to me and learn from me; shoulder my yoke, which is an easy yoke; shoulder my burden, which is a light burden.” And I think what he’s inviting us to do is to take a step back, to just take a step back and realize the work of God, in this situation that is frustrating us, and to let our frustration evaporate as we appreciate the paradoxical wisdom at work in the world through God’s action in the world here.
Jesus invites us to say, “When you have encountered a problem, when you have an experience of failure, come to me and learn from me.”
And so I think that we might go deeper and ask ourselves, when Jesus says: “Come and learn from me.” (And I love the French translation of this. It's, “Mettez vous dans mon école,” put yourselves in my school, so learn from me, because my yoke is easy and my burden is light.) And so we might want to ask ourselves, “How is it that Jesus’ yoke is easy, and his burden is light?“. Because if we just look at the analysis that he’s done of his early adopters, it’s the dregs of Jewish society. If his mission, the success of his mission, depends on attracting the whole of Israel— because this was his mission; to renew the house of Israel, to attract them and let them be won over by his new idea of the kingdom of God. If his early adopters are the dregs of Jewish society, he’s not gonna get very far. I mean, he’s gonna have to put in a lot of grunt work in order for his mission to be successful. And so we might ask ourselves: “Well, his yoke looks like it’s really heavy, and his burden must be overwhelming. Why is he not worried about the success of his mission?”
I think here an insight from Richard Rohr is apt; because Richard Rohr looks at the temptations that Jesus encountered in the desert. And the first temptation—the temptation of turning stones into bread—Richard Rohr identifies that as being symbolic of Jesus’ temptation during his public ministry; to use his power and his clout as the Son of God to be successful. In other words, to throw everything that he has at his mission, to ensure that it’s an absolute success.
And as Mother Teresa reminds us: God does not call us to be successful; God calls us to be faithful. And I think therein lies the clue to understanding how Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light. Because Jesus has understood this fundamental truth that God is not asking him to live by bread alone, by success. Rather, God is calling him to be faithful to his mission. And I think that Jesus gradually realizes—as he reaches this halfway point of his mission—that actually being faithful is going to take him to the cross. And this is why at the halfway point of his mission and all the Synoptic Gospels, you start having the predictions of the Passion.
As Mother Teresa reminds us: God does not call us to be successful; God calls us to be faithful.
And I think it’s important that we take Jesus as a human being, and that we hold to the fact that as he was here at this halfway point of his mission, I don’t think he had a clear idea of how the cross, his death, his subsequent resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit, would lead to his new movement becoming, spreading like wildfire. I don’t think he had that all figured out. But this is the whole point, he didn’t have to have it figured out because he was simply content to place the success of his mission into the Father’s hands, and says, “Father, look, I don’t know how this is going to work out. It looks pretty bleak now, but I’m going to trust in you. I’m going to leave this in your hands. I don’t need to ensure the success of my mission through my own effort, it’s in your hands, and that’s how my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
And so I think Jesus invites us to learn from him in this; that similarly in our own lives when we’re up between a rock and a hard place, when we are contending with failure, that we’re able to just surrender into the Father’s hands and say, “Father, this is in your hands. I’m gonna let you determine the success here, and I’m just going to learn to trust. And so I think that this is precisely the powerlessness, the meekness and the gentleness that Jesus is imaging for us, and why Jesus can celebrate his Father revealing the truth of the mysteries of the Kingdom to the lowly, the meek, the children, the dregs of Jewish society. And I think we’re called to journey with the powerless in our own lives, to journey with Jesus that we learn this lesson of surrender. And so I invite you all to pray for this grace in this Eucharist.
“Preach” is made possible through the generous support of the Compelling Preaching Initiative, a project of Lilly Endowment Inc.