Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ad Hominem Disasters
They didn’t recognize God working in Ezekiel. He was too much of a fanatic for them. A bit of a kook. Paul wasn’t all that some thought he would be. He was a little guy probably with a high squeaky voice, certainly not a great orator. They didn’t recognize that Jesus was the Word of God among them. They had watched him grow up. Today’s readings present what I would call three Ad Hominem disasters.
First of all, an Ad Hominem argument is an attack on a person instead of an argument based on what the person is presenting. It basically says that because a person has this or that foible, or limitation, or even failing, we shouldn't listen to him or her no matter what he or she says. For example, someone says that it is wrong for a nation to steal land from another nation like Russia did in the Ukraine regarding Crimea. The person with the opposite viewpoint instead of countering with something like, “Russia owned this land 120 years ago,” says, “Well, you don’t have the education to argue with me, and besides, your fat and fat people don’t know what they are talking about. And your mother dresses you funny.” An Ad Hominem argument is the weakest of all arguments because it does not consider the facts, and just attacks the person presenting the opposite opinion.
Ezekiel was the victim of an Ad Hominem attack. Here’s the background: The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel comes from the beginning of the Babylonian Captivity, around 580 BC. After the people of Israel had fallen into pagan practices, trusting in military treaties with pagan neighbors rather than trusting in God, the Lord withdrew His protection. Like the Pharaoh in the days of Moses, the people became more and more obstinate, refusing to listen to the prophets. "Hard of face and obstinate of heart," the Lord calls them in today's first reading. The Hebrews ended up being conquered by the Babylonians and taken into exile to what is modern day Iraq. At the beginning of this exile the people felt absolutely deserted. Some believed that they were being punished for their sins. But many others refused to believe in God any more. "If Yahweh exists, He would not have allowed this to happen," they claimed. Instead of drawing closer to God in their need, they rejected His very existence. But God gave the spirit of prophesy to one of these exiles. His name was Ezekiel. Ezekiel said that God set him on his feet; God gave him standing among a downtrodden people. Some would listen to him. Some wouldn't.
With Ezekiel and with all of the prophets, God used one of their own to speak to the people. The humble accepted this. The proud could not accept this. This hubris, this pride was destructive. It resulted in the disaster of the people refusing to listen to the Word of God because they could not fathom that God would speak to them through this or that everyday man. They leveled an Ad Hominem argument against Ezekiel.
The Ad Hominem argument was also the basis of the criticism that many in Corinth had regarding St. Paul. In 2 Corinthians 10:10 we read, “For someone will say, ‘His letters are severe and forceful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.’” Many of the Corinthians were no longer following the teachings of Paul because he did not cut the figure that they experienced in some of the other people who spoke to them. St. Paul humbly says in today’s reading that he knows he can be weak, in fact he speaks about a thorn in the flesh that he prays that God would remove, but he says that his own weakness shows the Power of God in his words. For the Kingdom of God has advanced. Many have become followers of Christ, not because of Paul but because God worked through this weak man. Sadly, too many Corinthians would not allow themselves to be open to this truth. They were stuck in a disastrous Ad Hominem argument. For many it did not make sense to listen to this little man.
This destructive hubris is particularly and painfully evident in those who rejected Jesus because He was one of them, all too familiar to them. His mighty deeds, His miracles, His wisdom, the power of His speaking, were lost on people who could not get beyond the fact that this was the carpenter’s son speaking. They knew His family. They missed the words of the Greatest of All Prophets because they were too proud to hear them. Their Ad Hominem attack led to their not receiving the gifts of the Messiah as promised by the prophet Isaiah. The Gospel concludes with Jesus saying to them:
“A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.”
And then it concludes:
So He was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.
We also can easily be caught up in Ad Hominem arguments and miss the truth when it is right in front of us. The Ad Hominem argument prevents us from recognizing the possibility that truth can emanate from someone we know. For example, a home ownership group is meeting regarding the designs for a community center. Someone we might know who can be quite mean, stands up in the meeting and says, "We should design the building in such a way that all the members of our community, including those with physical challenges, should feel welcome." Do we hear the truth of the statement, or do we miss the truth because we are so focused on the foibles of the one speaking? Or far closer to home, husbands and wives know each other’s' foibles and failures. So often this prevents them from hearing the truth come from their spouse. So many teens cannot get beyond their parent’s humanity to hear the truth of their Mom and Dad's advice. So many parents cannot get beyond their teens lapses in maturity to recognize their virtues.
Perhaps the Ad Hominem argument is most destructive when we apply it to ourselves. So often we want to make a statement of faith, a statement of morality, but we feel that we are just not good enough to speak out. For example, someone who was raised in my generation might say, "How can I tell my children or my grandchildren not to smoke and take drugs, when I sacrificed years of my youth to the wacky weed?" Or, "How can I emphasize to the kids the importance of receiving communion weekly, when I was away from the Church during my college days?" or "How can I protest immorality, when I have been far from saintly myself?" These are Ad Hominem arguments that we are using against ourselves. If we follow this line of thought than we would never stand up for the truth.
Let’s go back to Saint Paul. He was certainly aware of his own personal failings. He speaks about a thorn in the flesh. What was this? A sin he had trouble avoiding. Was his temper getting the best of him? Should he stop preaching Jesus Christ because he recognized this thorn? No, the message was more important than the person. He might be weak, but the message, the Gospel is strong. What Paul writes at the end of today’s second reading can be paraphrased into: Maybe this is all for the better. It is not me, but the message that is important. I am weak, but Christ is strong. In fact, I am happy to be weak if that focuses my attention on true strength, the power of the Lord.
And that is what we need to realize, all of us. We all know our own personal failings and sinfulness. But we want God in our lives. We want His Kingdom of Peace and Justice to come. We need to realize that
God will speak through us despite our own foibles.
Sometimes when I recite the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass, I use the expression, "Yours is the truth that gives meaning to the very concept of truth." You have all heard me do that. The truth of the Lord comes from Him, not from the one who mouths it. We err horribly when we focus in on the individual proclaiming truth, even if this individual is ourselves
The power of God is upon us. His presence is among us. His truth is in our hearts and on our lips. We need to be less demanding upon others and upon ourselves. We pray today that we do not let our own humanity or that of anyone else keep us from hearing, proclaiming and living in the Truth of the Lord.