Homily for Mass for Tuesday 24th Week in Ordinary Time, Year 1

28 Sep 2023

Sancta Sophia College Chapel, Camperdown, 19 September 2023

Over the last fortnight, the world has watched on in horror as two disasters struck North Africa. First, a magnitude-6.8 earthquake claimed around 3,000 lives as it devastated Morocco’s capital Marrakech and wiped-out whole villages in the Atlas Mountains. Those mountains rise by 1mm per year as tectonic plates press against each other, but roughly once-in-a-century a major earthquake results. Gut-wrenching images of physical devastation and human misery have brought home to us the reality of the tens of thousands of injured, grieving and displaced.

A few days later Cyclone Daniel pounded the east coast of Libya rupturing two dams and unleashing megalitres of floodwater. The city of Derna was washed into the sea, with the death toll likely to top 20,000 as bodies are recovered. Now clean-water shortages, disease and floating landmines are multiplying the damage.

Suffering on this scale elicits horror and bewilderment. People of faith or no faith ask Why. Why do the innocent suffer? Why do some parts of the world get more than their share? Some conclude that life is simply a lottery; we are at the mercy of a natural order impervious to guilt or innocence; in this world some unfortunate souls simply draw the short straw. Others offer an even more dreadful explanation: the fates or gods deliberately bring destruction out of arbitrariness, cruelty or teach us a lesson; innocent people are collateral damage…

Yet it’s not only “natural evil” such as earthquakes, floods and pandemics that make us wonder: “moral evil”—harms caused by human beings—raise more why questions, even if blame is easier to apportion. Why wars like in the Ukraine, preventable starvation in Somalia and South Sudan, cruelty and violence on some streets and even in some homes? Why neglect, as in North Africa of late, where rescue efforts were hampered by the slow response of neighbours and paralysis of local authorities? Why are so many innocents the victims of these human evils? If God exists, why does He allow such things? If these harms are somehow part of a big plan, how could we love a God with such plans?

These questions are, of course, perennial. Civilisations and traditions of every stripe in history have tried to make sense of them. Our own Scriptures begin with stories of creation and destruction, blessing and curse, paradise given and lost, of natural beauty and devastation by flood. There are psalms of lament, one of which Jesus Himself cries from the cross (e.g. Pss 6,10,38,42-43,130; Mt 27:46). But it’s The Book of Job that is the Bible’s most famous exploration of innocent suffering and, in some ways, an indictment of the God who allows it.

Job, an admirable man in every way, suddenly loses his children, home, livelihood, health (Job chs 1-2). He attempts to maintain his equanimity and refuses to curse God (1:20-22; 2:9-10), but eventually, like many before and since, he says he hates his life and wishes he’d never been born (ch. 3; 9:21; ch. 10). Three of his mates try to challenge and console him with explanations: no-one is innocent in God’s sight; Job must have sinned to deserve such punishments; he should repent; his endless complaining only undermines religion.[1] Job responds that he is innocent of their charges; his suffering is disproportionate to anything he has done; often in this life the innocent suffer, the wicked go unpunished; for all his efforts to be godly, he has become a laughingstock, but there is no reasoning or bargaining with God; he must trust that redemption will come.[2]

His spirit broken, Job cries out to God (ch. 17). After carefully listening to Job’s indignant questioning, God poses His own set of questions. Where was Job when the world was created and the laws of nature put in place? Has he has the wisdom or power to improve the order of creation? The exchange highlights the gulf between Creator and creature, God’s thinking and ours (chs 38-41; cf. Isa 55:8-9). Who are we, the divine author seems to be saying, question anything God has deigned? Job is humbled and his interlocutors humiliated, and he is given back his family and livelihood a hundredfold (ch. 42). He was right when he said “I know that my Redeemer lives…and that with my own eyes, I will see my vindication!” (19:25-27)

While logically correct, this response to Job’s suffering can leave us wanting more pastorally. Does God really care about us and all we suffer, or is He arbitrary in who He helps, cold and calculating in His balancing acts? Does He call us forth into being only to recede into the background, indifferent to our plight? Tonight’s Gospel story offers some sort of answer.

Like in North Africa right now, we witness the sombre funeral procession of a young man. Luke tells us that his mother is a widow, the deceased her only child, and so she faces not only loneliness but destitution. Confronted with her grief and suffering, Christ is God responding.

Compassion is a word we associate with Jesus and the God He revealed: we are told He was moved with compassion when he saw people hurting from physical, emotional or spiritual disease, harassed and rudderless, hungry for earthly bread and the Bread of Life (Mt 8:3; 9:36-38; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34; 21:14; Mk 1:40-45). Compassion was the chief quality of the Father-God in His stories of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son (Lk 10:25-37; 15:11-32), and the dimension of God He tells His men they must most imitate (Lk 6:36).

Tonight, when Jesus encounters the bereft widow of Nain, we are told “he felt sorry for her”. The Greek word σπλαγχνίζομαι, which is usually rendered ‘compassion’, means stirred inner parts, contorted bowels. Jesus didn’t just “feel sorry”, His was sick to his core at the evils that hurt people, determined to help, and was resolved that His followers would also (Mt 25:31-46; Jn 13:1-18 etc.). But what does that look like?

Well, unlike Christ, we can’t bring people back to life and give mothers back their sons. But we can engage in an active compassio, a suffering with that motivates action to help. And that must surely be our answer to natural and man-made evils: to help prevent or minimise the suffering, heal or resolve it, accompany and transcend it. To be like the Good Samaritan through selfless outreach and material support. To be like Jesus in Nain, risking His own physical and spiritual health by reaching out and touching the dead and bereaved, giving hope and life.

Circling back to the question of suffering’s ultimate meaning, Christ’s life, death and resurrection shows us that God doesn’t arbitrarily mete out suffering, nor is He indifferent to it. In Christ, God entered into our suffering in the most profound way, willingly experiencing what we experience, and offering hope beyond. Like Job, like the Widow of Nain, I know that my Redeemer liveth, and will multiply my efforts to bring compassion to this world.

Visitor’s AddressSancta Sophia College, Camperdown, 19 September 2023

Amongst the grandest paintings in the Art Gallery of New South Wales is Sir Edward Poynter’s The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon painted in the 1880s.[3] It’s 3½m high and over 4m wide and its sheer size and drama, as much as its colour and technique, captivate onlookers as they enter the southern gallery. Poynter was president of the Royal Academy and part of a group known as the ‘Victorian Olympians’, who sought to bring high classical ideals to life through vivid and romanticised paintings of classical antiquity, biblical narratives or ancient mythology. Late nineteenth century archaeological expeditions meant Egypt and the Middle East were flavour of the month, not just for the British Museum but for artists inspired by its treasures, and Sydney sports one of the greatest fruits of this orientalist craze.

The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon is recorded in the Old Testament (1Kgs 10:1-13; 2Chr 9:1-12). Poynter’s court of Solomon is a kaleidoscope of rich reds and golds. A beautiful queen on the left ascends stairs to the throne on the right, as the king offers her his hand, his wives seated in anticipation behind him. She comes bearing gifts—gold, gems and spices as in the biblical account, but also a monkey in our painting. Solomon responded by giving her “everything her heart desired” from this opulent palace of sprawling columns, tapestries, marbles, soldiers, servants, fruit and peacocks.

Before Solomon was known for his grandeur, however, he was famed for his wisdom: still to this day we speak of “the wisdom of Solomon”. As a young man genie-like God offered him a wish, and he said what he most desired was not sovereignty, gold or wife, but wisdom. This was granted (1Kgs 3:4-9) and allowed him successfully to rule the unruly People of Israel, and to judge with a discerning heart, as in the famous case between two women who claimed to be mother of the same infant (1Kgs 3:16-28). It was the judgment of Solomon that the Queen of Sheba celebrated after meeting him (1Kgs 10:7), manifested not just in custody battles, but in the 3000 proverbs, songs and poems attributed to him as the ancient Pin/terester or Instagram influencer.

But Solomon was human and eventually demonstrated all-too-human frailties. His wisdom as a governor brought him the power, wealth and women he had supposedly repudiated in his humble youthful wish. It meant he would think big, including building the Temple in Jerusalem, but also comfortable, and so he lived in sumptuous palaces with his 700 wives and 300 concubines! Such scale and comfort costs, and it was his people who paid the bills. In due course he built altars to rival gods at the request of some of his wives, and turned his back on the God who had given him everything that made him great.

What might we learn from Solomon’s tale? On the one hand, young Solomon shows us that even when tempted by power and privilege, we can be aware of our limits and wisely use our gifts in service of the greater good. The youthful wisdom-seeking Solomon knew that for his kingship to succeed, he needed the cunning of his father King David. But worldly wisdom is not enough; however clever we are, we can lose our bearings and start to believe too much in our own efforts. We can forget the God from whom all wisdom comes, and our need to trust in Him. 

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus references the Queen of Sheba’s visitation to Solomon. He remarks to the religious authorities that they are witnessing something greater that Solomon here (Mt 12:42). Now the Pharisees knew their history. Solomon was one of their greatest kings, a military genius, builder of so much of their infrastructure, especially the first Temple. He was so impressive that even royalty made pilgrimage to hear him. How dare this carpenter’s son claim to be greater than Solomon? He had no palaces, wives, gold or armies, no buildings, robes or crowns to boast of. He had nothing on Solomon.

But wisdom has many names, and one of those is λόγος, word, argument, reason. John’s Gospel opens by saying that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (Jn 1:1) Jesus is Wisdom, “the true light that enlightens everyone, coming into the world”. At the end of the Gospel He’s on trial and explains to the Governor, “For this was I born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the Truth. And all who belong to the Truth listen to my voice.” There was a wisdom greater than Solomon, standing right before Pilate, and all he could say was “Truth? What’s that?” (Jn 18:38) It is in and through Jesus that we find the intelligibility of creation and meaning of our lives. He is the source of goodness, truth, beauty, unity. Solomon built with stone and marble, the mansion Christ promises us in heaven (Jn 14:2) is built of faith, hope and love. Solomon’s temple and all his treasures eventually decayed or were pillaged and destroyed; Christ’s are eternal, where moth and man can do no damage. Solomon’s kingdom was built of heavy burdens on his subjects; Christ promises a light yoke, a kingdom of peace (Mt 11:28-30; Rom 14:17).

So here we are in the College of Sancta Sophia, Holy Wisdom. What kind of wisdom do you pursue? What inspires each one of you? May this place be known for something greater than all the treasures of Solomon’s palace: may it be a place for seeking a higher learning, for gaining a deeper wisdom. God bless you all!

[1] Job chs 4-5, 8, 11, 15, 18, 20, 22, 25, 33-37.

[2] Job chs 6-7, 12-13, 16, 19, 21, 23-24, 26-31.

[3] https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/898/

Introduction to Mass for Tuesday 24th Week in Ordinary Time, Year 1 – Sancta Sophia College Chapel, Camperdown, 19 September 2023

It’s a joy to be back here at Sancta Sophia College for the annual Archbishop’s Mass and Visitor’s Dinner—an evening of faith and fraternity—or should I say sorority?

I salute the College Principal, Fiona Hastings, and her predecessor Sr Mary Shanahan, and members of the College Council and staff; various Heads of Schools; and members of the university community. I welcome concelebrating with me Camillian Fathers Renate and Ruben from the parish. Above all, a very warm welcome to the students of Sancta Sophia College!