September 24, 2021
The following homily was originally delivered in 2017 on the same gospel reading we have today:
Once when Jesus was praying in solitude, and the disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (Luke 9:18-22)
The gospel for today caused me to reflect on the age-old question, “How well do you really know someone?”
We all have friends we would say we know very well. We claim to understand them; we get where they’re coming from. However, they surprise us at times, don’t they? We find ourselves in a competitive or stressful or uncomfortable situation with that friend, and they respond differently than we had expected. We walk away from the situation thinking, “Wow, I thought I knew him better than that.”
I have been married to Carol for 37 years. In theory, I should know and understand her. On a regular basis, just when I think I truly and finally understand her, something happens that leaves me scratching my head. Are those happy tears or sad tears? Is she upset with something I did or something I didn’t do? Something I said or didn’t say? That look she is giving me – does it mean I am getting close to crossing the line or that I already crossed it? My failure to truly understand her is further complicated by the fact that the tears or the look might mean one thing on one day, and something completely different the next day.
However, as frustrating as it might be to understand our friends or my wife, the real energy and growth in the relationship comes from seeking to understand. What does seeking to understand look like?
It requires self-reflection. I have to consider my role in my own frustration. How am I interacting with my friend? How am I engaging with my wife? Is the way I am participating in this relationship contributing to my lack of understanding?
It requires dialogue – open and honest conversations. I have to be courageous enough to ask tough questions. I won’t know if I don’t ask. I have to be willing to leave myself vulnerable. By challenging my friend or challenging Carol I risk damaging my relationship with them.
It requires an open heart and an open mind. I must be willing to accept that I don’t have all of the answers, and that I might never fully understand.
It requires love. The love must be unconditional. I must love through my lack of understanding.
It is critical that I continue to seek understanding. If not, the relationship is dead in the water.
When we consider how incredibly difficult it is to truly know and understand another human being, it is not surprising that it is nearly impossible to truly know and understand God, the infinite and divine being. Truly knowing God doesn’t seem promising. If you’re anything like me, each time you feel like you may be close, something happens to turn your understanding on its ear.
You know and understand a loving and compassionate God, and then a loved one dies suddenly and unexpectedly. You know and understand a fair and protective God, and then an earthquake rocks an underdeveloped country like Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands of people and leaving another million or more homeless. You know and understand a generous God, yet your continued prayers for relief from debt or freedom from addiction seemingly go unheard.
On a recent podcast, Bishop Robert Barron compared our attempt to know and understand God’s actions to that of a young child attempting to do the same with his parents. The young child intuitively senses that his parents love him, yet their actions leave him confused. If they really loved me, would they take me to a doctor and let her stick me with a needle? If they really loved me, would they put me down for a nap when I would prefer to keep playing? If they really loved me, would they put up a gate and keep me away from the stairs I would like to explore?
What ultimately happens, Bishop Barron explains, is that the child “surrenders in faith.” He accepts the fact that he will not ever fully understand why his parents do what they do, but trusts that it comes from a place of love.
Trust. Faith. Belief in something that the child cannot fully understand. All of this makes the question Jesus asked His disciples in today’s gospel come to life: Who do people say that I am?
Who do we say You are? We have no idea. Yet we seek to understand, and the seeking becomes the foundation for our faith. It is when we stop seeking to understand that the flame of our faith can potentially die out.
Seeking to understand God is no different than seeking to understand our spouse, our children, or our friends.
It requires self-reflection. How am I interacting with God?
It requires dialogue, prayer – open and honest conversations with God.
It requires an open heart and an open mind, accepting that I don’t have all of the answers.
It requires loving through my lack of understanding.
God constantly reaches out to us. The USCCB describes His methods in this way: The methods used by God in reaching out to the world stagger human comprehension but are at the same time a dazzling invitation to abiding faith.
We are obligated to seek understanding. We are invited to surrender in faith.