Ancient Answers

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Ordinary people gone fishing


(Only a brief text summary of this sermon. The audio file above is complete.)

I was shocked by how much opposition and outright hatred has been directed against Pope Francis before and during his visit to the U.S. – hateful attacks from both the Left and the Right, because he does not fully line up with their agendas. The only people who embrace him are the ordinary people. Thank God the ordinary people are the majority!! Are you ordinary?


In today’s Gospel reading we see Jesus calling ordinary people, a few fishermen, to be his messengers to the world. These “fishers of men” were given no agenda other than love. Fishers of men – the fishermen who became extraordinary and yet remained ordinary to the end of their lives on earth. Ordinary people are the only people who can do God’s work. For 2,000 years the Church has looked to extraordinary people – emperors, monks, patriarchs, popes, theologians. It’s time for ordinary people to go fishing! This Pope is extraordinary by being so ordinary. This is the way God prefers.

In his speech to Congress, Francis singled out four past citizens of this land: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton….

Three men and one woman, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, equality and inclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.

Four representatives of the American people. Are they your representatives? They certainly are mine. I was very happy that Pope Francis singled out these four individuals. The first two everyone has heard of; Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, not too many know of them. I love the way he finished his speech to Congress:

In particular, I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions. At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.

A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.

In these remarks I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.


In the name of freedom

Jesus called fishermen as his first disciples and instructed them to become “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). Does this mean that people will be forced to be followers of Jesus, caught in nets that they cannot escape? It depends on where you put the emphasis – on the fish or the fishers. Jesus clearly used the metaphor of fishing because he was speaking to fishermen. The metaphor has nothing to do with trapping/deceiving/manipulating people into believing. Those are the methods of cults and other religions, including fundamentalist versions of Christianity.


Fishermen worked hard, very hard – they still do. Jesus is telling them that they will have to work even harder to bring people into the kingdom of God. Human life is messy. The world is a complex place. Don’t believe anyone who tells you Christianity is simple. It’s not simple, because life isn’t simple! The demands of Jesus are not straightforward. His use of metaphors like fish and sheep to describe the people who follow him does not mean that he wants us to be mindless, unquestioning followers. Jesus only desires people who will follow him freely, without coercion or deception. Jesus does not look for blind faith. He himself welcomed dialogue and debate. He faced the questions of people who didn’t understand or didn’t want to understand him; and he questioned them right back. The four gospels can be read as a series of dialogues and explorations with Jesus. Today, too, Jesus looks for people who will enter into dialogue with him. That’s where true faith is found, in that dialogue!

To more fully understand the kind of faith that Jesus looks for, let’s read  the earlier part of chapter 4 in Matthew. This is the scene of the “three temptations” that Jesus faced after his baptism in the Jordan. Here is how Matthew describes the scene. Notice how this too, is a scene of dialogue, debate and exploration of the meanings of scripture. Jesus confronted the devil in the same way as he confronted all challengers: through dialogue and argument, not force or manipulation. This is the way of Christian freedom.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 

But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” 

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 

Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”

Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him.

There is no better explanation of the three temptations than Dostoyevski’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor, which occupies an entire chapter in his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoyevski was a devout Orthodox Christian, but was very honest in his views of the church and Christianity. And honesty is essential when you think about the church. I love the hymn that we sing every year at Holy Friday evening at the Lamentations: Τέξασα ζωήν, Παναμώμητε ἁγνὴ Παρθένε, παῦσον Ἐκκλησίας τὰ σκάνδαλα, καὶ βράβευσον εἰρήνην ὡς ἀγαθή. We sing to the Theotokos, the Mother of Christ, to “stop the scandals of the Church”! Right there, in the middle of one of the most popular services of the year, we acknowledge that not everything is right with the church. It’s one of the most honest hymns we sing all year!! The Grand Inquisitor represents the greatest scandal: when the church of men of the church presume to know better than Jesus what human beings need.

The Grand Inquisitor is a parable told by one of the characters in the Brothers Karamazov. The parable takes place in the 16th century, during the time of the Roman Inquisition. Jesus appears in Seville, Spain, and the crowds recognize him and throng to him. The Cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor himself, appears and immediately arrests Jesus. He then confronts Jesus in prison and accuses him of getting it all wrong about human beings. Accusation after accusation is thrown at Jesus by the old man, and Jesus listens without speaking a word. The Cardinal uses the three temptations to prove his central message – that Jesus was wrong to trust in the freedom of human beings. Here are a few select quotes from the Ignat Avsey translation published by Oxford University Press in 1994. Notice the sheer arrogance from the very first words that come from the Grand Inquisitor’s mouth.

“Is it You? You?” There being no answer, he adds quickly, “Don’t answer, remain silent. After all, what could You say? I know only too well what You would say. And You have no right to add anything to what You have already said. So why have You come to disturb us? For You really have come to disturb us, and You know it.

Freedom of faith was dearer than everything else to You then, fifteen hundred years ago. And didn’t You Yourself say so often, ‘I want to make you free’? Well, now You’ve seen them, these ‘free’ men. 

The terrible and clever spirit, the spirit of self-destruction and annihilation,” the old man continues, “the great spirit spoke to You in the wilderness… Those three temptations combine and predict, as it were, the whole future history of mankind…

That first temptation in the desert… You rejected in the name of freedom, which You elevated above everything else.

You knew that Your glorious deed would be recorded in the Scriptures, would reach to the depths of time and to the furthest limits of the earth, and You hoped that, in following You, man too would remain with God without need of miracles. But You didn’t know that as soon as man rejected miracles he would also reject God, for man seeks not so much God as miracles.

You did not come down from the cross when they shouted at You, mocking You and ridiculing You, ‘Come down from the cross, and we shall believe that it is you.’ You did not come down because once again You did not want to enslave man by a miracle, and You thirsted for a faith that was free and not inspired by miracles.

Why did You refuse that last gift? Had You accepted that third suggestion of the mighty spirit, You could have provided all that man seeks on earth— that is to say, someone to worship, someone to take charge of his conscience.

You would have founded a universal kingdom and brought universal peace. For to whom is it given to rule over men, if not to those who rule over their conscience and in whose hands is their bread?

When the Inquisitor stops speaking, he waits a little while for the prisoner to answer him. He finds His silence disconcerting. He has seen the captive listening all the while quietly and attentively, looking him straight in the eye, and apparently not wishing to respond. The old man wants Him to say something, no matter how unpleasant and terrible. But He suddenly approaches the old man in silence and calmly kisses him on his bloodless ninety-year-old lips. That is His only response. The old man shudders. His lips quiver; he goes to the door of the cell, opens it, and says, “Go and don’t come back any more… never… never, never!” And he releases Him into the dark backstreets of the city. The prisoner walks away.’

It is a devastating chapter, and it can be read by itself without the rest of the Karamazov novel – although you would then miss out on one of the greatest literary masterpieces of all time. The Grand Inquisitor represents a vision totally contrary to that of Jesus. It’s a vision that has no room for human freedom – the freedom for which Jesus died, the freedom that is yours today. Be alive in Jesus!