By Fr Munachi E. Ezeogu, cssp
Homily for the Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time - On the Gospel
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Counterfeit Spiritualities

Deuteronomy 11:18, 26-28, 32 Romans 3:21-25, 28 Matthew 7:21-27

Ever heard of counterfeit $100 bills? Yes, a lot. Ever heard of counterfeit toilet paper? No. Why not? Because it is not worth it. The existence of counterfeits indicates how precious a thing is: the more precious it is, the more counterfeit you get. Spirituality is a very precious commodity. The proof is in the amount of counterfeit spiritualities in circulation. Counterfeit spirituality did not begin with us.

Acts 19 reports a curious incident that happened when Paul was preaching in Ephesus. Paul was performing so much miracles in Ephesus that the other religious ministers in the city became envious of him. They were losing their members to Paul. So some of them decided to observe and copy what Paul was doing. Paul was doing mighty works and casting out demons by invoking the name of Jesus. They thought they had discovered his secret formula, and they took off to go and implement it in their own ministry. Seven sons of a Jewish high priest called Sceva, who were professional exorcists tried to use the name of Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” But the evil spirit said to them in reply, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” Then the man with the evil spirit jumped on them, overpowered them and handled them so badly that they fled out of the house naked and bruised all over. The moral of the story: Who you are comes before what you do or say.

This is what Jesus is trying to teach his followers in today’s gospel story. He gives thumbs down to some people who say words of faith. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21). He even gives thumbs down to some people who do works of faith. “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers’” (vv 22-23). By saying “I never knew you,” Jesus indicates that the fundamental and most important thing is him knowing us and we knowing him. In other words, the relationship between Jesus and us is more important than the performance we put up in terms of words and deed. We have to be Christians, people who know Christ, before we can act or speak Christian. We must have a direct, personal relationship with Christ. This is what gives meaning and potency to the words of faith we speak and the works of faith we perform. Otherwise we are no better than the seven sons of Sceva.

The seven sons of Sceva represent all those who try to profess the Christian creed outwardly (saying “Lord, Lord.”) and perform Christian works and projects (doing “many deeds of power” in Christ’s name) but without being Christian on the inside. The seven sons of Sceva did not surrender their lives to Christ; all they wanted was to profit from the amazing grace that is available to Paul, the servant of Christ. They did not love Jesus; they loved something that Jesus gives. It was self-interest through and through. Paul professed Christ because he wanted to know him, love him and serve him. The sons of Sceva professes Christ’s name because they were seeking some personal gain. Herein lies the crucial difference between true and false Christianity. There are many advantages is serving Christ. But when we follow Christ with the primary purpose of personal gain, whether that gain be material or spiritual, we are still suffering from the Sons of Sceva syndrome.

The Sons of Sceva syndrome is, unfortunately, very widespread today. In parts of Africa, religion is now the most flourishing industry. Self-styled prophets who train themselves in the art of mass persuasion “devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers” (Luke 20:47). They achieve this by attributing the ill fortunes of their unsuspecting clients to evil spirits and then promising them deliverance in the name of Jesus, the Jesus that they themselves do not even know, to start with. They are walking in the footsteps of the sons of Sceva. They are using the name of Jesus in vain. Their Christianity is counterfeit and, like counterfeit money, it will be rejected on the Day of Reckoning.

The purpose of today’s gospel is not to instil self-doubt and uncertainty into our minds but to challenge us to set our priorities right. Professing the faith by word of mouth is good. Involvement in concrete works of faith is great. But for these to have any meaning for eternal salvation, we must, first and foremost, cultivate a direct and personal relationship with our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

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