30th Sunday of Ordinary Time: Thoughts on the Tree of Life Massacre

I had a homily pretty much ready to go for this weekend.  It wasn’t the greatest thing in the world, but it was pretty good; I was going to do a little exegesis on the Gospel and maybe get into how the readings at the end of the liturgical year start to take on an eschatological tone, but I just can’t do that right now.  Not after what happened yesterday morning.

I presume you all know what happened, nevertheless, and at the risk of insulting your intelligence, let me refresh your memory.  Yesterday morning, while services were going on at the Tree of Life congregation, a Jewish synagogue, a man walked in armed with 3 pistols and an AR-15 rifle.  He opened fire, allegedly shouting anti-Semitic remarks while doing so.  By the time it was over, 11 people were dead, with 6 more injured, including 4 police officers who responded to the scene.

The Tree of Life congregation is located in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Not in some small town in some fly-over state; not in anything-goes California; not in some uber-fancy suburb in New England.  This happened in Pittsburgh.  This Pittsburgh.  Our Pittsburgh.  My Pittsburgh.  I know not all of you are locals, but I am.  This is my home.  And I love this city.  So, quite frankly, I’m kind of a mess right now.

I’m still trying to make sense of all the feelings that are running through me right now; I imagine that most people are trying to do the same.  I’m angry.  You picked up on that.  Anger is easy to do.  I’m angry it happened at all, let alone in my hometown.  I’m sad, too, at the loss of life; I’m sad that 4 of our brave cops are seriously wounded; and I’m sad that this kind of hate still has this kind of power.  I’m also confused.  Quite frankly, I fail to understand how, in the 21st century, in the greatest country on the planet, the last of the superpowers, I fail to understand how this kind of hate even exists.  And you can call me naïve for thinking so, but I disagree with that.  I think it’s a more grievous error to expect that there will always be some kind of hate in the world.  As soon as we accept sin on any level – on any level – then we’ve already failed in our mission as disciples.

Finally, and honestly, I’m scared.  I’m scared, not necessarily because this is local, but because this happened to people who were doing exactly the same thing that we are doing now – worshipping the Lord their God as a community.  I’m scared because this is not the first, or the second, or the third time that this has happened.  It’s going to happen to us – by us, I mean it’s going to happen at a Catholic church – eventually.  And that scares me.

So now what?  What do we do with all of this emotional baggage we suddenly and unwillingly find ourselves carrying?  First, understand something.  It is ok to be angry; it is ok to be sad; it is ok to be confused; it is ok to be hurt by this.  These types of wounds take time to heal.  But fear is a trap, and we can’t allow ourselves to fall into it.

I’m reminded of a story a priest friend of mine once told me.  He said this experience changed his entire priesthood…or rather, that it changed his entire life.  He had a parishioner who was this absolutely great, stand-up guy.  The type that would do anything for anybody.  He had one vice: he smoked like a fiend.  He got sick – cancer – and it got bad, and it got bad quick.  Father went to visit him in the hospital as the end was drawing near.  The guy could no longer talk anymore, but he was awake, and lucid; he communicated my writing.  Father asked him if he was afraid.  His reply was profound.

“For someone who has faith in Jesus Christ, there is never anything to fear.”

How strong is your fear?  How strong is your faith?

In the Gospel today, we encounter Bartimaeus, who shows us what it looks like when faith is stronger than fear. When we first him, he’s on the side of the road, blind and begging – totally helpless.  Yet when he hears that Jesus is approaching, he doesn’t continue to wallow in his helplessness; instead, he cries out, “Jesus, have pity on me!”  The crowd around him rebukes him.  They tell him to be quiet, to shut up, to stop crying out.  It’s hard to understand their motivation, and it doesn’t seem to make much sense, but Bartimaeus doesn’t care.  He doesn’t fear them.  Instead, he continues to cry out.  He gets louder.  “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!”

Son of David.  That title is huge.  It recognizes that Jesus is part of the royal line of Israel; that Jesus is, in fact, a King.  Bartimaeus can recognize this, even though he has never seen Jesus; the rest of the crowd, which can and has seen all the things that Jesus has been doing…they don’t call him a King.  They can’t see it.  Do we see it?  Do we recognize that Jesus truly is a king – truly is our king?  Do we listen to and obey Him?  And do we, as Bartimaeus did, ask for His mercy?

Jesus, have pity on me!  Son of David, have pity on me!  Kyrie eleison!

Jesus stopped and calls Bartimaeus over.  Bartimaeus leaps to his feet and runs to Jesus; his helplessness is forgotten.  There is no fear in him.  When Jesus calls him, he answers – recklessly.  He doesn’t hold back, he’s not timid.  He doesn’t care what the crowd thinks.  Do you?

Jesus heals Bartimaeus immediately, and tells him to go on his way.  Bartimaeus does indeed go, but not on his own way.  He follows Jesus on His way.  This is the last healing in Mark’s Gospel; Jesus has been journeying towards Jerusalem since the Transfiguration, but He will soon be arriving there, which means that the Crucifixion is not far away.  Bartimaeus follows Him to that.  But remembers what happens three days after the Crucifixion, too; Bartimaeus follows Him to that, as well.  Are we willing to follow Him?

The only place to go from here is to Jesus.  The only thing we can do is beg for His mercy, acknowledge that He is our King, and to follow Him unreservedly.  Social media is already awash with the saying, “Love is stronger than hate.”  Yes, it is.

Remember that God is love.

Shabbat Shalom.

3 thoughts on “30th Sunday of Ordinary Time: Thoughts on the Tree of Life Massacre

  1. Thank you Fr. Mike for putting things in perspective without saying that we shouldn’t have these feelings, but instead rein them in by having faith that Jesus will get us through our fears.

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