Homily for the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Readings: Ecclesiasticus 27:5-8; Psalm 91(92):2-3, 13-16; 1 Corinthians 15:54-58; Luke 6:39-45
27 February 2022
Masks are off. Students have returned to school. Workers are returning to offices. On Monday, university students will return to face to face classes. We are hoping to emerge from a once in a century pandemic. Some of us have been sustained by prayer, having realised daily our mortality and the whole of humanity’s dependence on nature taking its course whatever that might be. We have been grateful for the human ingenuity which has produced the vaccines. We have been grateful for the human organisation which has permitted such a concerted response to the health and economic crisis. Human industry and dependence on our God have seen us through with faith, hope and love.
On Thursday we confronted a new and daunting reality: war across national borders in Europe. The NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced, “We now have war in Europe, on a scale and of a type we thought belonged to history.” Stoltenberg said, “This is a deliberate, cold-blooded and long-planned invasion. Despite its litany of lies, denials, and disinformation, the Kremlin’s intentions are clear for the world to see.” Russia’s President Putin had given the order for the invasion of Ukraine. None of us under 73 years of age has lived in a world where there is war between European nations, the initial actors in the two World Wars of last century. We have lived under a world order which set rules for respecting national sovereignty and the integrity of national borders. It has been an imperfect order, but nonetheless, an order which has helped to restrain national aggressions, maintaining peace across national borders, if not always within those borders.
When a country like Iraq invaded a country like Kuwait, there was a prompt international response. Even a leader like Saddam Hussein could be constrained, not because he was a good man, but because there were checks and balances which restrained or punished him. But there are different rules, or perhaps no rules, when the aggressive leader is an autocrat armed not only with nuclear arms but also with a power of veto at the UN Security Council. This week we have heard that such an aggressive leader might be kept in check but only at a distance.
Some nation-states will not be afforded the same international protection from his aggression as others. At least for the moment, the 26 European members of NATO trust that their national borders will be respected. This is the way Stoltenberg put it: “[A]s long as Russia knows that an attack on a NATO Ally will trigger a response from the whole Alliance, they will not attack because we are the strongest Alliance in history and as long as we stand together and make clear that we are committed by our collective defence commitments. That is the best way to prevent any attack, any spill over from the tragedy, the heinous attack we see in Ukraine, a spill over onto any NATO Allied country.” But these words offer absolutely no solace to Ukraine.
The Kenyan UN Ambassador Martin Kimani who holds a doctorate in War Studies from King’s College London gave the whole of Europe and the world a lesson in the immorality of different rules for different nations whether they be the aggressors or the attacked. Reflecting on the Russian attack on Ukraine, he told the UN Security Council: “This situation echoes our history. Kenya and almost every African country was birthed by the ending of empire. Our borders were not of our own drawing. They were drawn in the distant colonial metropoles of London, Paris and Lisbon, with no regard for the ancient nations that they cleaved apart.”
Kenya had been under British control since 1895 gaining independence in 1963. Kimani said, “At independence, had we chosen to pursue states on the basis of ethnic, racial or religious homogeneity, we would still be waging bloody wars these many decades later. Instead, we agreed that we would settle for the borders that we inherited, but we would still pursue continental political, economic and legal integration. Rather than form nations that looked ever backwards into history with a dangerous nostalgia, we chose to look forward to a greatness none of our many nations and peoples had ever known.”
He laid down the challenge to all peoples with this declaration: “We believe that all states formed from empires that have collapsed or retreated have many peoples in them yearning for integration with peoples in neighbouring states. This is normal and understandable. After all, who does not want to be joined to their brethren and to make common purpose with them? However, Kenya rejects such a yearning from being pursued by force. We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.”
Hearing Kimani speak to the UN Security Council and seeing the images of Putin declaring his aggressive intentions behind ever larger, empty desks, I was reminded of Jesus’ words in today’s gospel:
“There is no sound tree that produces rotten fruit, nor again a rotten tree that produces sound fruit. For every tree can be told by its own fruit: people do not pick figs from thorns, nor gather grapes from brambles. A good person draws what is good from the store of goodness in their heart; a bad person draws what is bad from the store of badness. For a person’s words flow out of what fills their heart.”
Scripture scholar Brendan Byrne says, “The image of a tree and its yield of fruit illustrates the continuity that must prevail between heart (the ultimate seat of human quality) and external action. The continuity must flow in the other direction too. Good intentions are no use if not put into practice.”
Seeing peace threatened by partisan interests, Pope Francis has appealed “to those with political responsibility to examine their consciences seriously before God, who is the God of peace and not of war; who is the Father of all, not just of some, who wants us to be brothers and sisters and not enemies”. He prayed “that all the parties involved refrain from any action that would cause even more suffering to the people, destabilising coexistence between nations and bringing international law into disrepute.”
With war, as with a pandemic, we daily face our mortality and the whole of humanity’s dependence on events taking their course whatever that might be. As we confront the real prospect of an expanding theatre of war in Europe across national borders, let’s be assured that human industry and dependence on our God will once again see us through with faith, hope and love.
In international affairs and in our own personal dealings with others, there are many situations that can be kept on track with checks and balances, rules and regulations. But at the edges where the rule of law does not run, there are always situations which will be determined by what is in our hearts, regardless of what others might control or determine. What each of us thinks matters. What each of us says matters. What each of us does matters. The Book of Ecclesiasticus puts it well:
In a shaken sieve the rubbish is left behind,
so too the defects of a person appear in their talk.
The kiln tests the work of the potter,
the test of a person is in their conversation.
The orchard where a tree grows is judged on the quality of its fruit,
similarly a person’s words betray what they feel.
We pray for those who will be killed on both sides of this unjust war. We pray for the families who will suffer needlessly from the consequences of this war, in the wake of the aggression and any necessary responses to it including suffocating sanctions. We pray that our Australian leaders will be generous to those seeking refuge from war not of their making.
Let’s think peace. Let’s talk peace. Let’s pray for peace. Let’s make peace, together in faith, hope and love.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA). He has been appointed a peritus at the Fifth Plenary Council of the Australian Catholic Church.
 Brendan Byrne, The Hospitality of God, St Pauls, 2000, p. 68