[Homily: Start of ADDU “College Days,” Feb. 16, 2015].
In our Gospel for today, the Pharisees were demanding of Jesus a sign. They were not asking in good faith, that they might be led to the truth, or led to the faith that recognizes truth. They were asking in bad faith, in order to undermine Jesus, have him embark on some spectacular miracle like making the sun dance or eclipsing the moon or dividing the waters of the Jordan, that would necessarily fail. As Pharisees claimed to be teachers of the faith, they saw in Jesus a rival, and taunted him with this demand so that he would mess up and be considered a failure. Jesus dismissed their demand. If the Pharisees did not like Jesus, neither did he like them. He did not like their tendency to reduce the relationship to God to petty rituals like washing hands before meals or wearing showy phylacteries. “No sign will be given them,” he said. No use playing their hateful game.
In the continuation of this Gospel reading, which will be read tomorrow, Jesus says, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.” Leaven is what is mixed with dough so that in baking bread it properly rises. “Leaven” here is used figuratively to refer to some inner human vitality, some inner life energy, that makes a person grow and flourish. But in the Markan Gospel, Jesus uses “leaven of the Pharisees” insultingly. It refers to an inner evil principle of sick interior growth, something like a physical cancer, that grows and kills. The leaven of the Pharisees is their self-deceiving megalomania that turns into deception of others, their deluded inner conviction that they have the truth about God when all they have is pettiness, that they are the way to God when they are merely the way to themselves, that they are the living examples of how to relate to God when their example only leads people astray. They took the sacred scriptures and reduced them to purely external ritualistic observances. They taught that salvation was following these rituals, getting it right, getting it perfect, never leaving anything out, reducing the religious relation to mere superstitious ritualism, devoid of love, mercy and compassion. That is why Jesus, who wanted to introduce his Father as loving and compassionate, had harsh words for them: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitened tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but inwardly are full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Mt. 23:27-28). The leaven of the Pharisees, the pride in our self-serving piety that seeks to undermine Jesus, we must beware of in ourselves.
But for those who approached Jesus hungry for the truth, yearning for genuine human life, to those whose leaven was not “of the Pharisees” but the inner human hunger for truth and life, he provided abundant signs. Just as we recalled in the readings of the last week, as a sign, Jesus fed four thousand with one loaf of bread and had seven baskets of bread left over (Mt. 8:1-10); as a sign, he opened the ears of a deaf man with the word “Ephphata!” (7:31-37); in Tyre, as a sign, he cured the possessed daughter of a Syro-Phoenician woman, a Greek foreigner, despite his wanting to give priority to the Jews, because of her great faith. Earlier, as a sign, there was even a multiplication of loaves for five thousand men with twelve baskets left over (Mt. 6:44). Perhaps, the good news for us here is that for those who approach Jesus with genuine inner hunger for truth and life and joy he will not fail us. He will work out his wonders, convince us of his truth, enrich our lives and fill us with joy through many signs. We have only to approach him.
Pope Francis invites us to approach Jesus, to encounter him, to really get to meet and know him, not next month, not next week, not tomorrow but today; approach him not just once in your lives at baptism, not just twice in your lives at Holy Communion, not just thrice in your lives on your wedding day, and a fourth and final time in your lives on the day of your death, but every day. If necessary allow God to take the initiative to encounter you; just don’t lock the door to your heart on him: “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least to an openness to letting him encounter them. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since ‘no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord’” (Evangelii Gaudium, 3). The Lord came to bring life, life to the full, and joy in all its fullness. All he taught us about life and the goodness of his Father was, he said, “so that my joy may be in you and your joy complete” (Jn 15:11). He will not fail to respond to one who approaches him in sincerity and truth. He will not fail to bring joy.
When you encounter the Lord – or he encounters you – in a moment of silence in the chapel, in a moment of urgency as before an exam, in a moment of extreme need as a financial crisis, in a moment of grief as after the death of a teacher, in a moment of intense joy as on a wedding day, in a period of national darkness, he will not fail to convince you of his presence through signs, like feeling great consolation at prayer, or finding a solution to a difficult problem, or finding someone whom you can truly call a friend. Experiencing his presence, his personal closeness, his forgiveness for past wrongs, his challenge to go forth, go forward, always to move on, you are invariably filled with a sense of security, a sense of meaning, a sense of fulfillment, a deep joy.
May the joy of these College Days, which brings us closer to each other in fun, excitement, competition, laughter and lifelong bonding, also reflect the joy we have in encountering Jesus. In the simple happiness of these days may we recognize him in our midst – and rejoice! Remember, we are children of the light and of the day, we do not belong to darkness nor to night! (cf. 1 Thess. 5:4-5) “Burst out, and sing for joy” (Ps. 98:4). Smile, in the joy of the children of God!