Where Is Hope Found?
In his apostolic exhortation, "Evangelli Gaudium" or "The Joy of the Gospel" 1 Pope Francis shares His vision of the Church. It is a document well worth reading. It this exhortation he states that the homily is a "dialogue between God and his people" 2 It's purpose is to "guide the assembly, and the preacher, to a life changing Communion with Christ in the Eucharist." 3 Note that the homilist is also a subject of this transformation - this 'life changing Communion with Christ.'
One of the beautiful aspects of homilies is that each week the Church worldwide preaches on the same readings but no two homilies are the same. This testifies to the depth of Sacred Scripture and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Each homilist brings his understanding, education, and experience to the readings, and these are transformed by the Holy Spirit in a variety of ways, prompting greater preparation, meditation, inspiration, and more effective means of communication.
It"s critically important that Christ"s salvific work is proclaimed with as much effectiveness, persausion, and authenticity as possible. This applies not only to homilies but to every program and activity of parish life, and to every aspect of our lives. We must always be willing to evaluate and modify our methods to more effectively bring Christ to the world.
Pope Francis continues saying "the homily should inspire hope". Yet, today's readings speak pointedly of infidelity, disappointment, judgment, and punishment. So, how are we to understand these readings? How do they inspire hope?
In the gospel reading, Jesus is in the temple area, just before His crucifixation, speaking to the chief priests and elders of the people who continue to challenge his authority. Jesus is still trying to persuade them to change without publicly exposing their sins, so he speaks to them in a parable.
He begins with a story from Isaiah, a story in which they were undoubted familiar. The story begins as a love song – the love God has for His people. It is a story of God"s abundant goodness and providence. It is a story of God"s hope for His people.
In this story God plants a vineyard – a vine of divine origin. The vineyard is Israel – a people chosen by God to be a holy nation – a people set apart to exemplify God's love and His saving care. God took his people from slavery to promised land – to this vineyard "flowing with milk and honey" 4 There he planted His people, not on a hostile waste land, but on a fertile hillside. Then He prepared it, tilled the soil, cleared the stones, and planted the choicest vines. He built a watchtower and a hedge around it, symbols of His divine protection, and made a wine press to harvest the goodness of His people.
God gave Israel everything they needed to live a joyous, hopeful, fruitful, and holy live But at harvest time, instead of the choicest fruit, His vineyard yielded wild, sour, ungrateful, and rebellious grapes. Then He asked the chief priests, "What more was there to do that I had not done?" 5
Jesus, then, expands the story beyond what is found in Isaiah. He speaks of God patience and mercy, sending prophet after prophet begging His people to return to His grace and love. But they refused. Finally the owner of the vineyard sends His Son, thinking “They will respect my son.”6 But the elders and chief priests, the religious and political authorities in Jerasalem, will not be challenged. They certainly would not tolerate instruction from a nobody from Nazareth.
They conspired to expell the owner's son from the vineyard and killed Him. This is a clear and unmistakeable reference to Jesus passion and death. Forced from of the Garden of Gethsemene, Jesus carried His Cross outside the walls of Jerusalem, where He was crucified. In this parable, Jesus addresses the hearts and motives of the chief priests and elders, and the infidelity of His people. Like the prophets they slew before Him, they schemed to put Jesus to death
Just before His crucifixation, Jesus lamented, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling!”7
The question that comes to mind is, 'How did the 'Chosen People of God' abandon the true hope that God gives, in exchange for temporary political power? What seed did Satan plant to cultivate such rebellious and adulterous hearts? This is indeed a story of disappointment and heartbreak on multiple levels as God's holy priests and people plot to murder their salvation.
Where do we find hope and how do we live lives of hope?
Hope is not the same as optimism. Some of you may know of my fondness for the game of golf. Despite how it may seem, golfers are eternal optimists. With each new round they think that today will be the day. Today will be the day they hit it far and straight, have a deft touch, and putts will fall in like magic. However, this optimism seldom lasts longer than a few holes as we have to face the reality of hooks, pulls, shanks, and three-putts. Hope has to be realistic. It has to be founded in truth.
Pope Francis explains, "Hearts [grow] in hope from the joyful and practical exercise of the love which they have received." 8 In other words, hope comes through God"s love for us and our joyful response to His love. [Such hearts], Pope Francis continues, “will sense that each word of Scripture is a gift before it is a demand." 9
The seed Satan planted in the hearts of the chief priests, elders, and people was not the seed of pride, power, or greed. Those came later. The seed Satan planted was the seed of ingratitude. The chosen people of God stopped seeing God's love and providence in their joys and sorrows, in their victories and defeats, and in the seemingly insignificant events of everyday life.
So, where is hope found? The Roman philosopher Cicero once said. “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”10 We need to write these words indellibly in our minds and hearts. And we need to ask ourselves what kind of Christian, what kind of disciple, do I want to be? Am I just trying to get by? Does heroic virtue seem beyond my ability? Or do I aspire to true intimacy with my Savior?
As Cicero says, "Gratitude is the parent of all virtues." 11 If I grow in gratitude, I will grow in charity. If I grow in gratitude, I will grow in patience and kindness. If I grow in gratitude, I will grow in faith, fidelity, humility, wisdom, and hope. And gratitude is an attitude that I can develop. It is not beyond anyone's ability to be grateful. Gratitude not only brings optimism, but true and enduring hope.
A second essential source of hope comes in forgiveness. What generates more hope than God's forgiveness of our sins, and our forgiveness of others. Hope is found in the confidence that God's Mercy is greater than our sins - that no matter how much we have failed, like the Prodigal Son, Jesus welcome our return.
Jesus did not abandon His people. He did not reject the chief priests and elders. He did not condemn the soldiers that nailed Him to the Cross. He did not cease to love the 'Chosen People of God' that cried, 'Crucify Him!' On the Cross he prayed. “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”12 Jesus forgave them. He forgives us. Jesus said “Were a soul like a decaying corpse … the miracle of My Divine Mercy restores that soul in full.”13 Forgiveness brings hope – a true and realistic hope that is born in a grateful heart.
St. Macarius of Egypt expressed this hope in very poetic words. “Christ, our heavenly king, came to till the soil of mankind devastated by sin. He assumed a body and, using the cross as his ploughshare, cultivated the barren soul of man. He removed the thorns and thistles which are the evil spirits and pulled up the weeds of sin. Into the fire he cast the straw of wickedness. And when he had ploughed the soul with the wood of the cross, he planted in it a most lovely garden of the Spirit, that could produce for its Lord and God the sweetest and most pleasant fruit of every kind.” 14
Hope is found in the realistic contemplation that every blessing, every provision, everything needed for our salvation, everything needed for a heroically virtuous and joyful life has been given to us by Our Heavely Father. Our Lord has cultivated and replenished our barren souls. He has pulled up the weeds of sin. He has given us the Sacraments of Life. Yes, hope is found here. It is found in the Body and Blood of His Son, in His forgiveness, in this Banquet of Love and Gratitude, in this Banquet of Hope.
Come, let us give thanks!