Most Rev. Joseph C. Bambera, D.D., J.C.L.

Respect Life Mass – October 1, 2017
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Some time ago, Pope Francis shared these profound and challenging words:  “Each day the Lord calls us to follow him with courage and fidelity.  He has given us the great gift of choosing us as his disciples.  He invites us to proclaim him with joy as the Risen one.  But he asks us to do so not merely by our words but by the witness of our lives, in daily life.”  …  The Lord asks us to follow him but not merely with our words but by the witness of our lives. 

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells a simple parable that serves as the foundation for the words of our Holy Father.  …  A man had two sons – and a vineyard that needs attention.  Simple enough!  …  So the man asked the first son if he could give him a hand.  “Sorry dad, I can’t do it today.”  But in time, the son changed his mind and provided his father with the help that he needed. …  Then the man approached the second son and asked for his help.  “Sure dad, whatever you need me to do.  I’m your man.”  But the son never set foot in the vineyard.  He was all talk.  He did nothing to give life to his words.  They were empty.

Jesus concludes the parable by asking a question.  Which of the two sons did his father’s will?  …  And we would all answer without hesitation:  the first son – because despite his words, his actions revealed the depth of his love and compassion.

Jesus’ simple story of the two sons takes the gospel out the realm of the theoretical and places the mercy of God into the midst of our messy, complicated everyday lives.  Compassion, mercy and respect are only words until our actions give full expression to those values in our relationships with others.  Calling ourselves Christians and followers of Jesus means little until our lives express that identity in the values we uphold and the beliefs we live.  Discipleship requires us to embrace the gospel as a set of idealistic assumptions or abstract concepts but as the rule by which we struggle to live our imperfect lives.

In short, today’s parable of the two sons is a devastating condemnation of those of us whose faith is confined to mere words and rituals.  …  It’s easy to say that we’re Christians – especially in a Church, where everybody else would likely join in the chorus.  …  It’s easy for me to profess on your behalf all that we believe.  …  But at some point, we have to live our faith.  Wherever God has placed us in this journey of life, we have to give life to the gospel message of love, respect and forgiveness.

It is hardly by coincidence and surely a part of God’s plan that the Church offers this gospel challenge to us on the same day that it celebrates Respect Life Sunday.  More than ever, our words must yield to actions if our world is ever to embrace the fundamental Christian belief that all of life is sacred and every life deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.  …  Just look at our world!

In mid-August, violence and hatred motivated by racism and a disrespect for human life led to one death and multiple injuries in Charlottesville, Virginia.  A few days later, a terrorist attack in Barcelona, Spain, arbitrarily took fourteen lives and injured over one hundred.  In less notable news, debate continues almost daily in medical societies and state legislatures regarding the legalization of doctor assisted suicide.  And the list goes on!

The treasured belief that all of life is sacred because all of life is made in the image and likeness of God appears to be eroding before our eyes.  Frighteningly, even some of us who presume to profess faith in God make arbitrary determinations about the value of life based upon criteria such as one’s country of origin, ethnic background, religious tradition, lifestyle or the color of one’s skin.  …  It’s sad – but true, isn’t it?  …  While such attitudes might appear to simply be vestiges of a by-gone era, they are tragically far more evident in our world than any of us would imagine or admit.

When coupled with an ongoing disregard for the countless numbers of human lives lost through abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment, it is not difficult to see that our world, with its values that so recklessly compete with those of the gospel of Jesus, is far from that which was willed by God at the beginning of creation.

Pope Francis has warned us often of the consequences of embracing such an erroneous perspective:  “All too often, as we know from experience, people do not choose life, they do not accept the ‘Gospel of Life’ but let themselves be led by ideologies and ways of thinking that block life, that do not respect life, because they are dictated by selfishness, self-interest, profit, power and pleasure, and not by love, by concern for the good of others.  …  As a result, the living God is replaced by fleeting human idols which offer the intoxication of a flash of freedom, but in the end bring new forms of slavery and death.”

Amid such competing values that the world places before our eyes, for us to ever begin to experience the fullness of life and freedom that God has promised, our lives must first be rooted in the life of Jesus.  Through his own example of service, selfless love and compassion for all, Jesus challenges us to engage our world in the same way.  Today’s gospel parable is a fitting reminder that it is no longer sufficient for us to merely preach and pray about respect for human life.  Nor is it enough for us to simply long for an end to what appears to be a godless age or to despair in the face of a world that seems to have lost its way.  Yes, prayer must be the foundation of our lives.  But Christ-like respect and action must characterize all of our relationships, our decisions and even our words and opinions.  In short, while it may very well appear that, at times, others need to change far more than we ourselves, to presume that we bear little responsibility for the upheaval that is enveloping our world is to miss the heart of the message of the Gospel of Life.

Simply put, the dignity of every human being must be upheld – even when such a posture places us in opposition to popular values, political expediency, and the tide of today’s evolving cultural norms.  Jesus’ way must become our way – in our homes, in our workplaces, in our parishes, in our relationships, in our casual conversations, in the votes that we are privileged to cast and in every aspect of our lives.   In the end, while we may not wind up changing those who need to change the most, in humbly seeking to change ourselves, we will be witnessing to the power of Jesus which alone can change our world.

My brothers and sisters, filled with the power of Jesus’ love, it’s our responsibility as Christians to continually to engage the battle of respecting life at its earliest and most defenseless of stages in the unborn.  …  But it’s also our role to follow that battle as it brings us to life’s end stages as well, in the defenseless elderly and infirm.  …  And every day, that battle also takes us to our borders, our prisons, our houses of worship, and to our workplaces, schools and neighborhoods where we encounter lives that look and sound differently than we do and that embrace lifestyles with which we might not agree.  …  These lives also deserve to be treated with respect, dignity and love.  For nowhere in the scriptures or in our faith tradition are we ever told that one life has more value than another.  Every life has value and every life can be worth living.

So, be not afraid!  Embrace the message of today’s gospel as it challenges us to not merely speakwords of faith, but to be light in the midst of darkness, to be hope in the midst of despair  …  and to be Jesus’ voice, hands and heart in the midst of a broken world.

May our merciful and loving God forgive and sustain us as we work ever more earnestly to establish a culture of respect for life, beginning first with those lives entrusted to our care, including our own.