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Your faith is moving mountains

Archbishop Wenski's homily at opening Mass of 2021 Florida Knights of Columbus convention

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this homily at the opening Mass of the annual convention of the Florida State Council of the Knights of Columbus, which was celebrated in Orlando, May 28, 2021.

We think of Jesus as "meek and humble of heart" and he is, of course. But in today's Gospel reading (Mark 11: 11-26), there is nothing "meek" about Jesus. He curses a fruitless fig tree, and he drives the money changers out of the temple. What is going on here? Why would Jesus curse a fig tree? Why would Jesus whip anybody? At first glance, it seems out of character — like he was having a bad day or something.

Of course, the Christ that is the answer to the longings of the human heart — the Christ that is found in the Gospels — is much different from the image of Christ that prevails in our culture today. The “popular” image of Jesus today is of a Jesus who demands nothing, who never scolds, who accepts everyone and everything — a Jesus who no longer does anything but affirm us – a Jesus too nice to curse at a fig tree or to wield a whip.

Pope Benedict, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, said: “The Jesus that makes everything okay for everybody is a phantom, a dream, and not a real figure.” The Jesus we meet in the Gospel — who is the same yesterday, today and forever — is demanding and bold. And therefore, he is not always convenient for us in his boldness and in his demands. And the Church, if she is to be the effective presence of Christ in the world today, cannot be ashamed or afraid of the very real demands of discipleship that Jesus boldly makes on those who would be his followers.

As you know, Jesus taught in parables. And today’s Gospel is no different. Jesus is teaching in parables but today the parables are not spoken parables but rather acted out parables — with some drama, and not without being demanding.  This is how we are to understand why Jesus cursed a fig tree, and because the cleansing of the temple is kind of sandwiched in between the story about the fig tree, the cursing of the fig tree helps us to understand what Jesus meant by chasing the money changers out of the temple, which is also another "parable" in action. 

I am not saying that Jesus was play-acting — the fig tree did wither and die, and those money changers felt the sting of the whip. But this all takes place the week before Jesus' death on the cross. So, the cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple are parables teaching us something about what Jesus was going to accomplish through his death and resurrection.

Figs were and are an important food for Jews and the other peoples of the Middle East. The fig is important enough to their diet that a bad fig — or a rotting fig tree — could be easily understood as symbolizing evil deeds or spiritual decay. Thus, this unfruitful fig tree symbolizes the outcome of Israel’s unresponsiveness to the word of God. It failed to produce the fruit that God expected from it — the faith of the people of Israel was in a state of decay and did not produce the fruit of righteous actions. 

And so, the fruitless fig tree represents what happens when one does not allow himself (or herself) to be nourished by the Word of God; without rootedness in God’s Word, we wither as that fig tree did. If your faith is not nourished by God’s Word, it will not be fruitful or productive. And so, this parable of the fig tree is a warning lest we close our hearts to God, to Jesus, to his life-giving Word. 

Likewise, the cleansing of the temple is also a parable not spoken but acted out. Jesus wants to tell us more than that he was unhappy with the money changers cluttering the entrance to the temple with their tables, etc. And since, according to Jewish custom and law, offerings of sheep or doves brought to the temple for sacrifice had to be purchased with special temple currency and not Gentile money, the money changers did have an important role even if they were not always honest in their dealings. They probably overcharged — like restaurants in airports, or concession stands at the movie theater. But Jesus’ argument with them was that they were cluttering up the court of the Gentiles when non-Jews could approach and worship. God’s temple was to be a “house of prayer for all peoples” and they were getting in the way.

Jesus cleanses the temple of these crooked money changers — but in doing so he is pointing to something deeper — for the temple is a symbol of the Jewish people and the universal mission of their covenant. 

"Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up" he would later tell the Pharisees. The evangelist tells us that he was speaking of the temple of his body — but when that temple was destroyed in Jesus' death and resurrection, a New Covenant was made in his Blood. And not long after — about 70 years or so — the Romans destroyed the Jewish temple. His bold actions in the temple were part of a parable acted out in which Jesus points to a new way of worship — a new covenant with a new sacrifice. And this new covenant will produce within us a new fruitfulness — not because of our own merits but because of the merits of the Sacrifice of Jesus.

The Church is, as Pope Francis has said, a “field hospital” tending to those wounded in the battlefields of life with the healing balm of God's grace and mercy. The “medicine” of the Gospel is denied to no one. That is why, in the Church, we seek healing, and we ask God to forgive our sins — and not to bless them.

What does this have to do with the Knights? A lot, I would say. The first principle of the Knights of Columbus as men of faith and men of action is charity. If charity or love is the Church’s language, the grammar of this language is mercy. We speak a language well when we master its grammar. We will love well when we learn mercy and practice it through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.  These are the fruits the Lord expects to see in us Knights. Nourished in his Word and strengthened by our Communion in His Body and Blood we can bear fruits of righteousness.

The Knights have always fostered charity, unity, and fraternity — and you do so by many works of mercy. For this, and for your constant support of your bishops and your priests, for your promotion of vocations and your defense of the values of marriage — understood correctly as a permanent union between a man and a woman — for your protection of life and your work with our Respect Life ministries, I thank you.

We are to pray with expectant faith no matter how difficult the situation may be – and with the pandemic, social unrest and economic uncertainty, our situation is to be sure difficult. But the phrase “to move mountains” was a common Jewish expression for surmounting difficulties. And Jesus was a mountain mover. If we pray with his faith, God will give us the means to overcome difficulties and obstacles. Your faith is moving mountains.

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