Homily for the Solemn Mass of the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

19 Jun 2023

St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 18 June 2023

Mosaic of Alexander the Great (c.100 BC), House of the Faun, Pompeii

Alexander III (356-323 BC) was tutored by Aristotle and mentored by his father Philip II, before assuming the throne of Macedon aged only 20. Over the following thirteen years he led military conquests of many lands from Greece to as far as India, creating one of the largest empires in history and inaugurating the Hellenisation of the ancient world. Called “the Great”, the young Julius Caesar, no slouch himself on the battlefield, wept when he considered how little he’d achieved by comparison.[1] Hannibal, Caligula, Pompey, Napoleon and Castro all sought to emulate him.

According to legend, when nearly 33-years-old and aware he was dying, Alexander summoned his generals and gave three instructions regarding his burial: that his casket be carried only by his physicians; that its path be strewn with his treasures; and that his hands be left dangling from his coffin for all to see.

Death of Alexander the Great, after Jean Restout Jnr (1692-1768)

A brave general asked him why. Alexander responded: “I want only my doctors to carry my coffin, so all may see that even the best physician’s money can buy are powerless against death. I want them to stomp over my wealth, so all may know that how useless is treasure to the dead. And I want my arms to remind people that, for all that happens in life, we leave in the same way we entered: with nothing in our hands.”[2]

There was wisdom here. Death’s seeming finality brackets our lives and confronts us with our limitations, whether we are king or pauper. So we lament the arbitrariness and horror of ten wedding guests dying in a bus accident in the Hunter Valley last Sunday night, and the others seriously injured or grieving. Alexander was right to counsel a certain modesty when it comes to dying.

But is that all we can say about it? Three and a half centuries later another king was born, this time in Galilee, who was also to live only to age 33. He too was hailed as great, indeed the Greatest, and His ‘empire’ ultimately extended to the whole world.[3] Jesus was heir to the thought of Aristotle, Alexander and others. The wisdom literature of the Jews was coloured by Hellenistic thought; exiled in Egypt as a boy, Jesus may even have been schooled in the great philosophical centre of Alexandria. And so, He too recognised that no end of bother will add a single hour to your life-span (Mt 6:27) and so it’s best to be prepared for the end at any time.[4] He encountered a woman who, like the Macedonian, had spent her fortune on doctors to no avail (Mk 5:25-29; Lk 8:43). Perhaps He had Alexander in mind when He told the story of a man who accumulated great barns of wealth but went to his grave empty-handed, and wondered aloud “What point gaining the whole world and forfeiting your life?” (Lk 12:13-21; Mt 16:26).

Jesus was heir to the Greek philosophical tradition, but also to the great spiritual tradition of the Jews. So He didn’t just echo Greek thought about power and mortality. Alexander said to disperse your treasures as you are dying, since you can’t take them with you: Jesus said to dispose of your wealth throughout your life, to ensure you are not possessed by your possessions, not distracted from what most matters, but always serving God and neighbour.[5] It’s not just ultimately pointless to hoard earthly wealth: we must “store up heavenly treasure” instead (Mt 6:19-21 etc.).

Like the Macedonian, Jesus acknowledged that our mortal bodies would pass away and that doctors are powerless to prevent it. But He added that it’s the soul that most matters (Mt 10:28) and we should be ready to sacrifice our life to save it (Mt 10:39; 16:25; Lk 17:33-37). And Jesus the divine Physician brought healing to the sick, new life to the dead.

What’s more, while the General thought death a cul-de-sac, the Galilean demonstrated it is a door to eternal life.[6] So while Alexander thought we enter eternity empty-handed, Jesus said our good deeds will speak for us, as will the Holy Spirit (Mt 25:14-46; Jn 14:15-26; 1Cor 2:9-16 etc.). And He promised us Resurrection.

Such a different view of dying played out in a different view of living also. Jesus was a great king, but a very different one (Jn 18:36; Lk 17:20). He conquered hearts rather than lands, and by attraction and persuasion not force of arms. He healed rather than injured, taught rather than imposed, fed rather than taxed. He likened His kingdom not to a worldly empire, but to a growing mustard seed, a net for all kinds of fish, a hidden treasure, a wedding banquet for the ‘deplorables’.[7]

For Jesus, power was for sharing and for service of others, real greatness not about recognition but about self-sacrifice for the lost, needy, hostile. Such a view of kingship would have been as alien to Alexander as it is to President Putin and some others in modernity.[8] “The kings of the earth lord it over others, and those in authority claim the title ‘Friend of the People’. But it must not be so with you,” Jesus said. “Rather, the greatest among you must behave as if he were the junior, the leader as the one who serves.” (Lk 22:25-27). So all we gained in that extraordinary time from Ash Wednesday to Corpus Christi is to be carried forward into the Ordinary Time of Christian life.

In today’s Gospel Jesus conducts a bootcamp for His twelve generals (Mt 9:36-10:8; cf. 19:23,28). If He was an unlikely king, they were even more unlikely legates, but Matthew tells us “He gave them authority”. What kind of authority? Alexander built or rebuilt more than seventy cities, all called Alexandria after himself, in lands we now call Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and imposed military governors upon them all. Jesus gave His men a very different kind of clout: theirs was authority to exorcise unclean spirits rather than enslave peoples, to heal rather than bring injury, to preach good news rather than being feared, and to give of themselves freely rather than taking. Unlike Alexander’s violent conquests, they were to be shepherds tenderly gathering lambs.

Yet dying had its place in His kingdom as in Alexander’s. Christ’s passion turned authority into total self-spending for others, and His resurrection vindicated His kinds of sovereignty. Through His paschal mystery heaven was opened to us (CCC 1026), so we might join be citizens of that “kingdom of priests and consecrated nation” (Ex 19:2-6), the children of God. Let us make this ‘ordinary time’ one for building up in our hearts and our worlds that extraordinary kingdom.

[1] Recounted in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars.

[2] https://short-history.com/alexander-the-great-22ef7d859efe

[3] Mt 28:18-20; Eph 1:20-21; 1Tim 6:15; Heb 1:3-4; Rev 1:5-6; 17:14; 19:16.

[4] Mt 24:42-51; 25:1-13; 26:41; Mk 13:33-37; Lk 12:35-48; 21:34-36; Jn 10.

[5] Mt 6:19-24; 10:9,40-42; 19:16-26; 21:12-13; Lk 16:19-31 etc.

[6] He raised the dead (Lk 7:11-17; 8:49-56; Jn 11:1-44; cf. Mt 27:50-54), Himself rose from the dead (Mt 28; Mk 16; Lk 24; Jn 20-21), promised us eternal life (Jn 3:16; 5:24; 8:51; 11:25-26; 14:1-4; 17:3).

[7] Mt 12:31-43; 44-46, 47-52, 22:1-14; Mk 4:30-34.

[8] Mt 5:43-48; 20:26-28; 25:34-40; Mk 9:35; Lk 3:11; Jn 13:1-20,31-35.

Introduction for the Solemn Mass of the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A | St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 18 June 2023

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney for the Solemn Mass of the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time. After weeks of Lenten preparation for and Easter celebration of Christ’s Eucharist, Passion and Resurrection, of His return to the Father and sending of the Spirit, and of the Trinity of Love that all this reveals, we now enter into what the Church calls ‘Ordinary Time’. Yet no time is too ordinary for us: every moment, we know, is an extraordinary gift for which our acts of worship are thanksgiving. As I recover from a broken ankle and surgery, I know you will forgive me not mounting the stairs of the sanctuary or pulpit. I thank Fr Lewi for assisting with the celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist for us today. And to everyone present, a very warm welcome to you all.