Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Homily of the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time in Year A with the Chapter of the Good Samaritan Sisters at St Joseph’s Centre for Reflective Learning, Baulkham Hills
24 September 2017
What a great joy it is for me to be with you this evening. I truly feel blessed among women and particularly women disciples who often embody the spirit of Christ in a way my species does not. I do not mean to be condescending. Rather it is my belief that male disciples need to learn from female disciples the core value of powerlessness. Perhaps the privilege of maleness in our patriarchal Church and our still male-dominated society makes us blind to the power we enjoy. We male disciples need you to alert us to this blind spot just as we need coloured people to tell white people that race matters, or gay people to tell straights that gender matters in ways we don’t always appreciate experientially.
Several years ago, the Australian Democrats came up with a slogan “keep the bastards honest”. They no longer exist and perhaps that’s why we are where we are politically in this country. I actually think that the one of the primary functions of religious, female religious in particular, is to keep the leaders and the rest of the Church honest. They seek to renew her vigour by the radical commitment to the Gospel. Against the tendency to accommodate and compromise on the part of the mainstream, religious who dance to a different drum beat, hold the rest to the dream. They keep the flame of the Gospel burning bright. In this sense, they are doing the greatest service to the Church not primarily by their institutional ministries but their radical witness at the margins. It is for the sake of the Church and for the sake of the Kingdom that they are called to be that still, small, voice. Yet undeterred by their smallness, they raise their prophetic voice; they speak for the voiceless and make them count.
Like the prophets of old, religious stretch the boundary and expand the normative. Like Jonah, we challenge the exclusivism of the system and call it to measure up to God’s inclusive and universal love. Like Jeremiah, we keep one eye on yesterday and the other on tomorrow; we reframe the harsh reality around us into a hopeful future to unfold. We do so not by repeating the practices and customs of yesterday but by reimagining the charismatic spirit that drove our founder in the first place. The words of Ezekiel in the vision of the Valley of Dry Bones describe what religious do. “I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin and put breath in you that you may come alive”. That is their prophetic mission. They put fresh sinews, fresh flesh, fresh skin to the Gospel, that it may come alive again for our people in our time.
Religious are to incarnate the spirit of Jesus, faithful to the past but also creative to the present and courageous to the future. We are supposed to be agents of the Gospel, leaven and yeast for the world. The boundary breaking spirit of Jesus spurs us on to go against the prevalent culture. When the prevalent culture often legitimated by dominant religious system, treated poor women and children with disdain, religious embraced them; when it rejected certain groups of people like Jews, blacks, LGBTIs, religious reverenced their dignity; when undocumented migrants, refugees and the poor were discriminated against, religious walked with them and took up their cause.
In the Book of Exodus, there is the story of creative and courageous women that are often overshadowed by the more dominant men. Puah are Shiphrah are less known than Moses and Aaron. But the choices and actions of these women are no less heroic. These two Hebrew midwives preceded Moses and Aaron not just in years but also in stature and agency. They gave rise to that movement to freedom called the Exodus. They were up to the task of reframing a harsh reality into a vision of hope. They did so by refusing to accept the impossibility of changing the status quo and by showing faithfulness to God in delivering new life.
The Word of God challenges the myth of self-made success and merit-based system. In one of the most intriguing parables, he upsets the expectations and the commonly-held views of the status seeking and result-driven society. He makes it clear that the economy of the Kingdom is not based on individual merit, competition, success and achievement; rather it is predicated on the common good, justice, inclusion and equality for those who are at the margins.
In the parable, the owner of the vineyard goes into the market square and hires workers to work in his vineyard. He does this at different hours of the day and still he employs them, some as late as the eleventh hour. At the end of the working day, the owner pays them their wages starting with the last arrival. These receive a generous day’s payment even though they have only worked for less than a day. Seeing this, the other workers are excited. “Surely we will be paid more because we have put in more hours” they thought to themselves. Yet to their disappointment, they too get as much pay as the Johnny-come-latelies. Jesus concludes by saying that the Kingdom is not some kind of reward system that favours the more able, the more worthy and the more privileged members of society. The reign of God is really about paying attention to the weakest link in the chain. It is about taking care of the most disadvantaged and the most vulnerable among us.
The parable makes us humble because it removes the security that we rely on in terms of who we are, what we have and the sense of worth that is linked with our successes and achievements. We don’t deserve more than others because of where we were born, where we live, what attributes and privileges we have etc… Though I come from a humble background, I have other privileges such as being male, heterosexual, ordained etc… which incline me to certain ways of thinking, judging and acting. I need to learn from the wisdom of others who have distilled it from their particular lived experience. The parable is actually designed to prod at our sense of entitlement and our claim to what is ours at the exclusion of those whom we consider less worthy. It challenges us to think and act in the way that God in Jesus has shown us, which is based on the justice of the Kingdom and the very mercy of God.
Dear Sisters and friends,
Throughout history, women disciples have played a critical part in forging the new future out of the hopeless present. Puah and Shiphrah catalysed the exodus by their civil disobedience. Esther did it by her courage. Ruth and Naomi too exemplified the power of vulnerable trust. Scholastica Gibbons, of course, started a new and hitherto unheralded group of women who enfleshed the Benedictine charism in a creative way. The Church owes it to women disciples to find fresh expressions of the Gospel Spirit. Even now as your numbers diminish, the wisdom accumulated and distilled by generations of faithful discipleship lived at the margins will guide us to a future to unfold.
I am convinced that if the Church has a bright future, it is due to the example of many female religious who are like those early female disciples, Mary Magdala, Mary wife of Clopas and most of all, Mary of Nazareth. I ask you to continue to be for the Church the icon of the inclusive, compassionate and all embracing Christ. Be for us the example of living the Gospel of Christ suffering, dying and rising again. Then we can be certain that the loving God will take care of the rest. He will bring about renewal and transformation even if he takes us through a season of extensive pruning. Using the words of St Paul, we thank our God every time we think of you. As we pray for you today we pray with gratitude. For we are sure that he, who began a good work in you, will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.