I always get furious when people say that they are not religious because religion causes wars. Greed causes wars, desire for power, exploitation of the desperate, fanaticism – these are the things that cause wars – NOT religion! Yes, religion has sometimes been used by evil people to justify war, but not really in modern times. No, more recently war has been more often caused by atheistic ideologies like Nazism, Communism or Capitalism, or even more often, simply by the fear and hatred of what is different.
This is what upsets the people of Nazareth about Jesus in our Gospel today (Luke 4;21-30). He’s the local boy come home, and at first “he won approval of all, and they were astonished at the gracious words that came from his lips.” But then he reminds them of something that they don’t want to hear. They think God is a cosy God, their own special God – just for them, and certainly not for foreigners. So when he talks about God healing foreigners, they are so angry they try to kill him!
He has challenged one of the greatest causes of war, fear of the foreigner.
Christianity follows the teaching of the great Jewish prophets who proclaim that the one invisible and all powerful God of the Jews, is actually the God of all peoples. We heard Jeremiah in our 1st reading (Jer 1:4-5.17-9) being appointed by God “as prophet of the nations.”, and we know that Jesus died for all men and women, not just for Jews, and certainly not just for us Christians. Now this doesn’t mean that we won’t find ourselves at times in conflict with other groups of people, just as Jesus finds himself in conflict with the people of Nazareth, but conflict for Christians should rarely, if ever, mean violence or war.
Indeed, it is precisely because we know that our God is a God for all peoples that the Church teaches that all people of goodwill, whatever their beliefs or lack of them, are not far from God, and may, through God’s mercy, find themselves eventually accepted into his presence after death.
As our Catechism says : “The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as “a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.”
This doesn’t mean that we think all beliefs are the same, for we believe that in Jesus the fullness of God is revealed. But just because some people do not know Jesus in the way we do, does not mean that God does not love them, or worse wants them punished or destroyed. No, our God is a God who teaches that the greatest virtue, is not faith or hope, but love, which, as we heard in our very well-know 2nd Reading (1 Cor 13) “is always patient and kind… does not take offence… is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope..”
I was reading a very interesting article by an atheist last week, the novelist Howard Jacobson. He argues that the most dangerous thing for the world is not belief or the lack of it, but the view that some people hold that they are right and so everyone else must be wrong. It was interesting in that he used this to criticise what he calls “the new aggressive form of atheism”. He goes on to say that “you don’t need God’s encouragement to be a fanatic” as they “learn their lessons from the godless ideologies of the likes of Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot, not the Bible.” What kills, he says “is the determination to make a single simplistic view of the world prevail.” Well! I never thought I would quote an atheist in my Homily with such enthusiasm!
Sadly, some of our history as a Church has been to condemn others, for which we must always be sorry. But that was a world of the past where everyone thought like that. Gradually, the full teaching of Jesus, and of Paul following him, has prevailed in the Church -“to love as Christ loved”. Paul taught us in our reading last week how amazing and wonderful our faith is, how many wonderful things God can do in us. But this week he says that if we have all that – “faith in all its fullness.. to move mountains, but without love” then we are “nothing at all!”
Love is a hard road, of course. It is so easy to slip into prejudice and the suspicion of other people, just like the people of Nazareth had done, despite the teaching of their prophets. We come here to Mass to offer ourselves in love to the God of love that we may find a way always to follow that road of love, however hard it may be.