Homily: Parable of the Lost Son

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The Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year C) “LAETARE SUNDAY”
Joshua 5:9a, 10-12
Psalm 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7
2nd Corinthians 5:17-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32


This Fourth Sunday of Lent is traditionally called Laetare Sunday, from the entrance antiphon of the Mass: 

Latin:
Lætare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam: gaudete cum lætitia, qui in tristitia fuistis: ut exsultetis, et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis vestræ!”

English:
Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning; exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast!

The color for the Mass is the seasonal Lenten purple, the liturgical color of penitence and preparation, or for today the option of rose, the liturgical color of joy and rejoicing. On the one hand, it’s the joyful midpoint of our Lenten penitence, giving us a brief reminder of the Easter joy we’re preparing ourselves for. On the other hand, it’s also a reminder that even our penitence itself is essentially joyful, as offering our suffering and sacrifice unites us more closely with Christ and the mysterious joy of the paradox of the cross.


In our gospel reading last week, Jesus gave us our rude awakening. Our kind and gentle Jesus shouted us out of our spiritual sleep with the abrupt and sudden message, “If you do not repent, you will all perish!” Wake up! You don’t know that you have the next day or the next year to change your ways and take your eternal life seriously. You don’t know that you are going to heaven with your current spiritual condition. Repent, change your ways. Love God with all your soul and all your life, and bear the fruit of your faith, and do it urgently and always.

In this week’s gospel, we have the good news—the joyful news—that our God who urgently calls us to repentance, is eagerly waiting for us to return to Him, as a father who painfully misses his runaway child, that He might again embrace us in His love, restore us to our dignity, and share His overflowing joy with us.


The readings together share a common theme of renewal and “new creation.” In our first reading, actually right before our first reading, God instructs Joshua to circumcise Israel a second time. All those who had been circumcised when they had left Egypt had died for their unfaithfulness, and Moses had failed to circumcise the next generation. Circumcision is the sign of a man’s participation in the covenant. So Joshua did as God had commanded. And thus the first line of our first reading, “The LORD said to Joshua, ‘Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.’” So immediately upon entering into the Promised Land, the Lord renews Israel in their identity and covenant as God’s people.

And then the Israelites celebrated the Passover for the first time with the fruits of the Promised Land. The Exodus began with the Passover, and now ends with the Passover, the sacrifice that is to be a perpetual reminder of the Lord liberating them from their slavery in Egypt. And now that their journey had come to an end, the miraculous food for the journey, the manna, which God had provided for them, has come to an end as well. The food they had never seen before its appearance at the beginning of the Exodus, they never saw again after the Exodus. But the Manna was one of the items God told them to put into the Ark of the Covenant (along with the tablets of the Law, and Aaron’s staff). And they believed the manna would someday return, with the Messiah, the new Moses, for the new Exodus, to the New Promised Land.

As great and momentous as their Exodus was, which freed them from slavery, brought them into the great covenant with God, revealed to them the truth of human nature and moral law, and instituted them as a nation, for all that, it was still only a promise of a greater Exodus yet to come. Moses did not circumcise the second generation, nor did Moses lead them across the threshold into the Promised Land. Joshua accomplished what Moses did not. The Hebrew for Joshua’s name is Yeshua, which is also the Hebrew for Jesus. Likewise, Jesus accomplished what Moses did not. Moses freed the Israelites (those who participated in the Passover and the circumcision) from the physical slavery of the Egyptians. Jesus frees all people (who participate in baptism and the Eucharist) from the spiritual slavery of sin. Moses gave the people the law of living by justice, written on stone. Jesus gave the people the love of living by mercy, written on the heart. Moses gave the daily miraculous bread from heaven that fed the body for the Exodus to the Promised Land of Canaan. Jesus gives the daily living miraculous bread from heaven that feeds the spirit for our new Exodus to the new Promised Land of Heaven.


In our second reading, Saint Paul teaches the Corinthians, “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away… And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ…” I have said before that God isn’t up in heaven with his angels keeping track of each of our mistakes and sins. He’s looking for us to become a certain sort of person—the sort of person who throws themselves upon the mercy of God with contrition, sorrow for their sins, and the hope that through God’s mercy, Image result for woman catholic baptismal font joy waterthey will go and sin no more; to be able to amend their life and live virtuously and fruitfully. Each time we go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we re-enter into the mystery of our baptism, in which we are made anew from our old life. We become a new creation, not defined by our sin, but by God’s merciful love for us. And all this is possible through the life-giving sacrifice of Christ, who pours the grace of His Paschal Mystery into the world, and upon all who truly want to put their past behind them and step forward into their new life in Christ. Paul again pleads with us: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.


The beautiful parable in our Gospel Reading has been given different names, each giving its own emphasis on how the parable might be interpreted. The most common title is “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” The word prodigal means “spending one’s resources carelessly or indulgently.” And so this title emphasizes how the younger son “squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.” Another common name for this story is “The Parable of the Merciful Father,” or even the “Prodigal Father,” emphasizing the great indulgence of forgiveness expressed by the Father on the son’s return. Pope Benedict called this “The Parable of the Two Sons,” emphasizing the contrast between the contrition of the younger son and the hard-heartedness of the older son. The best name might be the “Parable of the Lost Son.” Jesus gives the parable in the context of Pharisees and Scribes offended that Jesus and his disciples are eating with sinners. Jesus responds with a number of short parables (which our reading skipped, between the introduction and the parable) such as the shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep and found the one lost sheep, and the widow who had lost and then found her two coins. And then Jesus gives this parable, in which the father twice says that his son was lost, and is now found.

For today, we’re just going to focus on two things in this beautiful parable. First, the younger son had set off for distant lands. It sounds awesome in Greek, it’s the chora makra (which sounds like an alien race in Doctor Who) which means, “the great wide-open emptiness.” Now he’s suffering, because he wasted his money, and he’s starving, eating less than he’s feeding the pigs. He’s someplace where they herd pigs, so we know he’s not among the Israelites, because pigs are unclean. For Jesus’ audience hearing this parable, this would have connected with the theme of exile: Israel’s sinfulness caused them to leave the Promised Land and suffer disgrace and captivity out in the chora makra. We often think of sin in the sense that we broke a commandment or rule, and so we deserved to be punished. But here we have other images for sin: sin as exile, sin as suffering, sin as being unclean, sin as having lost our sense of worth or dignity. Surely we have felt these effects of sin.

And the second thing we’re going to look at is the encounter of the son returning to his father. When his father saw him from a distance, it implies his father had been in the habit of looking into the distance with the hope of his sons’ return. When the father saw that the son was coming home, the father ran out to meet him. The son didn’t even get the chance to finish his prepared speech! So what did the father do? First, it says the father was “filled with compassion.” The Greek word means, “He was moved in his guts, his bowels” (which is sometimes adapted to “heart”). It’s the same Greek word used when it says Jesus saw that the people “were like sheep without a shepherd, and his heart was moved with pity for them.” It’s that feeling deep within, of just wanting to embrace a loved one in their suffering, and pull them close and comfort them. It says the father, “embraced him and kissed him.” Literally in the Greek it says he “cast himself on the neck of his son”. If you’ve ever seen the videos of veterans returning home and surprising their loved ones (I love those videos!), what’s the response of that encounter? It’s this. A tight, full embrace of love of someone who was gone, maybe forever, and has returned. That’s the love of this father being shown.

Then the son tries to give his speech of his humble offer. But his father cuts him off, and tells his servants, Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.” What does that mean? It means that the son is not being welcomed back as a slave or servant, but being restored to his dignity as a son of the Father, as family. He receives the family cygnet ring, and will not go barefoot like a slave but with the dignity of having sandals for his feet. We can see how this father, in his prodigal (extravagant, bounteous) forgiveness of his son, undoes all our earlier images for the effects of sin.Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’”


All our lives, in every moment, God, our loving Father, is eagerly waiting, hoping, and watching for your return to Him. God wants to embrace you and welcome you to Himself, to bring you out of your suffering, to clean and wash you from your sins, and to restore and help you to see your own dignity as a son or daughter of the Most High God. This is the new creation, the restoration, made available to us by Jesus, by his life-giving, reconciling sacrifice, which we celebrate every Easter. It’s a miracle so wonderful, that we need 40 days of purification and preparation to enter into the celebration of so great a mystery. But first we need to wake up, and recognize our sin, and repent. Reconcile yourself with God. “Taste and See the Goodness of the Lord.

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Homily: The Rude Awakening

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Third Sunday of Lent, Year C
Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15

Psalm 103: 1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8, 11
1st Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12
Luke 13:1-9


Our gospel reading gives us three separate images of our main theme for today. Our theme is that of God’s desire for our reconciliation with Him, Who is the source of life and salvation. God says to us repeatedly through His prophets that He does not delight in the death and destruction of the sinner. He is God of life. He wants not death, but that the sinner would repent, call upon God’s mercy, live according to the truth, bear the good fruit of faith and virtue, and share in eternal life.

Image result for burning bush mosesIn our first reading, we hear God’s call of Moses from the encounter of the burning bush, which is in flames, but is not consumed by them. God proclaims to him, “I am the God of your fathers… the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob… I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry… so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore I have come down to rescue them… and lead them out… into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” This doesn’t sound like a God who is all wrath and destruction and judgment. This is the revelation of a God of relationship, of nurturing, guiding, and protection. This is a God who hears the cry of His own people and enters into their suffering, and leads them through their suffering, and delivers them to goodness and abundance.

Our Psalm echoes that theme:The Lord is kind and merciful… He pardons all your iniquities, heals all your ills, He redeems your life from destruction, crowns you with kindness and compassion… He has made known his ways to Moses, and his deeds to the children of Israel.

When God revealed his name to Moses, in our first reading, it’s extremely difficult to translate the full impact of what’s contained in the short, simple Hebrew. “‘I am who am.’ Then he added, ‘This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you.’” It reveals that God is being; As St. Augustine explored in his Confessions, time exists only to matter, and God is infinitely transcendent to matter. So God is beyond time. We think of God in our material, temporal terms, “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.” Infinite, perfect existence. But that’s the perspective from within our time. From God’s perspective, He simply is. He is the perfection of existence: love, light, goodness, beauty, wisdom, compassion, justice, etc. Time is just a little span of drama. He can see the whole continuum of time. He can do what he wants in any point of time. His nature is to provide being to all things, and to be well-disposed toward the flourishing of their being, their nature. It’s not that God is vindictive or wrathful, but rather when human beings  make choices that hit against the well-being of their own nature and existence, then their existence, human nature itself, hits back. Not with the intent to destroy, but with the intent to bring one back into harmony with its nature, its flourishing. To quote the humorous sign I saw recently, “Everything happens for a reason, and sometimes that reason is that we’re stupid and make bad decisions.

Often, then, our suffering is rooted in some pattern of sinful choices that frustrate our goodness and happiness. But Jesus’ message in our gospel reading is that this is not true for all suffering. Image result for lynch mobIn fact, the two examples at the beginning of our gospel are the two sources or kinds of evil: moral evil, and natural evil. Moral evil is suffering that comes from sin committed by a person. In our Gospel reading, Pontius Pilate slaughtered some Galilean Jews and mixed their blood with the blood of the sacrifice they were offering in worship. Natural evil refers to suffering that comes from something that just happens without blame. Related imageIn our Gospel reading, eighteen people were killed in Jerusalem when a tower fell on them. We might add with that other natural disasters, such as flooding, or earthquakes; and disease, like cancer, or pneumonia. It’s perhaps a little easier to process the suffering or death of a loved one from moral evil: there’s someone to blame, someone to be angry at, someone to work toward forgiving. It’s often more difficult to process when the suffering or death of a loved one is from a natural evil.

Since suffering that comes from our own bad choices, and suffering from natural evil, both lack a “person out there” to blame, we can sometimes confuse the two. How often someone asks, “Why me? Why do I deserve this?” or worse, they say it about a tragedy that happens to a child. We can’t presume that our suffering is always deserved, because that’s just not always the case… which should bring some relief, but it often doesn’t. Because if it were something that we did to deserve it, we might be able to fix it. And that allows us to live in a universe that’s fair and makes sense to us (and implies we as humanity are in control of whether we suffer). But if it’s natural evil, again, that’s often harder to process, because we believe that if we do the right things, we won’t suffer. And when tragedy strikes anyway, there might be a feeling of betrayal: that’s not fair. The natural response in that case is then to blame the only other person that can be blamed: God. How many people have lost their faith because of tragedy? As if faith in God is protection against suffering (as though suffering were completely avoidable, or even that suffering is bad; certainly we don’t enjoy suffering, but in a modern society where pleasure is the ultimate blessing, suffering is the ultimate curse). God doesn’t always protect us from suffering. God didn’t keep the Israelites from becoming slaves in Egypt. And the Scriptures say nothing of their deserving to become slaves. But God does deliver them from slavery, and for the rest of their history, their cultural experience of slavery becomes a constant image for the captivity of sin, and the power of God to deliver them from slavery into the Promised Land. 


Back to the Gospel reading… Jesus says, “Do you think that, because this happened to them, they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?” “Do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?

By no means,” he says. “But… I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” Jesus uses these examples to remind us that we must not make excuses for putting off repenting of our sinful habits and attachments, reconciling ourselves with God, and living always mindful that at any moment we might perish without warning. I’ve never gotten caught up in predictions about when the world ends, and what the end of the world and general judgment will be like. Because there’s only a possibility that we’ll be alive when that happens. But it’s absolutely guaranteed that we’ll see our own life end, and our own particular judgment. And that could happen at any time. 

That doesn’t mean adopting the self-absolving attitude, “I live with no regrets,” because there very well might be some big regrets you’ll have, if you unexpectedly find yourself before the God who called you to repentance, and whose invitation you postponed and ignored. And it also doesn’t, on the other hand, mean living in scrupulous fear of making a mistake and losing your salvation. (God does not have angels with notepads keeping track of our every little sin… we talked about that here). What it does mean is that our God is generous in mercy, always inviting us to partake of his repentance and salvation. But we only have this life to do that, and this life can end in an instant. We might not get the time we think we have. And if we unexpectedly have to answer for having delayed our repentance and living by God’s way, if we haven’t done all we could to purge sinful behaviors and vices and ordered our life to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, then we might find that the secular message that “everyone who’s basically a good person goes to heaven,” isn’t what God says.

At the end of our second reading, the Word of God says, through St. Paul, “whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.” Elsewhere, St. Paul says to the Philippians, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” At the end of our Gospel reading, Jesus gives us another parable: a fig tree that is failing to be fruitful. The landowner loves his orchard, all the trees that generously put forth their fruit, as it is a tree’s nature to do, when nurtured, and cared for, as God cares for us. But about the unfruitful tree, the landowner tells the gardener, “For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?” The gardener responds, “Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.” If we’re wasting the talents and resources God is giving us, and yet we won’t produce the fruit we’re supposed to… maybe we’ll be left for another year… and maybe that year is already up.


When I had my dad as a high school biology teacher, he always called the Chapter 3 test “The Rude Awakening.” The first two tests weren’t necessarily easy, but this test clearly raised the bar, and students struggled (not always successfully) with the new level of challenge. He was a great teacher. He was just, and he was merciful (which was good, because I’m not really good at biology!). After the first two weeks of Lent, with Jesus triumphing over Satan’s temptations, and the glorious beauty of the Transfiguration, this week’s Gospel, here in Week 3 of Lent, Jesus raises the bar, and gives us our Rude Awakening: We’re not resting in the verdant pastures of heaven yet. There’s work to be done. If you do not repent, you will perish.

Image result for mercy -overwatchThe truth of the gospel is not just about God’s beautiful invitation to his mercy and kindness—it is that—but also about God’s requirements of justice and truth—that we must accept the invitation to repent (from the actions we’ve done and the habits we have that conflict with the flourishing of our human nature), and bear fruit. The way to salvation is steep and narrow, and few are those who find it. You can’t just float upstream. Things float downstream. If we’re going to go up, it’s going to be by repenting of our sins, reconciling ourselves with God’s Divine Mercy, and bearing the fruit of our faith.

Homily: The Transfiguration

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The Second Sunday of Lent (Year C)
Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18

Psalm 27:1, 7-8, 8-9, 13-14
Philippians 3:17—4:1
Luke 9:28b-36


Every Lent, the Church has certain episodes it pulls from the gospels to kind of serve as “anchors” for the Lenten journey. Even though we read from different books of the Gospels each year, every First Sunday of Lent we begin with Jesus’ temptations in the desert, and on the Second Sunday, we have the mystery of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Why? Because the Church is teaching us about the Christian understanding of reality, the supernatural reality that exists behind the veil of the physical world, beyond what we can observe with our senses. Jesus appeared to be like other preacher-miracle-workers. But in our Gospel today, Jesus reveals to Peter, James, and John that what you get is infinitely more than what you see. The language the scripture uses to describe the Transfiguration is full of awe and wonder, to those who have ears to hear.

In the Old Testament, Moses would talk with God in the Tent of Meeting. When he would come out, his face would shine with such splendor that the Israelites insisted that he veil his face. Jesus’s face shows this same divine radiance, not from who he was talking to, but from within himself, his own divine splendor. 

His clothes became dazzling white, an outward sign of heavenly purity and glory, as the saints and angels are shown to have, and as we symbolize in the white albs we wear as a sign of our baptismal purity, our participation in the heavenly glory of the resurrection, which is foreshadowed in the mystery of the Transfiguration.

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A cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.” The frightening cloud of divine glory envelops the disciples, and they hear the Father’s voice instruct them, “This is my chosen (beloved) Son; listen to him.” This is the same smoking and fiery cloud we encounter in the first reading, that showed God entering into a covenant with Abram. The same pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night that protected and led Israel from Egypt to Mt. Sinai, and enveloped the summit of Mt. Sinai as Moses entered into the covenant of the Exodus. It’s the cloud that rested upon the Tent of Meeting, and that filled the Jerusalem Temple when it was dedicated and the Ark of the Covenant set in its place. It’s more than just a cloud. It’s the Holy Spirit of divine presence and power. 

Peter says to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter is often said to just be dumbfounded and speaking nonsense. But, according to Dr. Brant Pitre, there’s an interesting connection.  The Feast of Booths or Tabernacles was a joyful celebration of families staying in tents around Jerusalem, re-enacting the journeying conditions of the exodus. And in ancient Jewish tradition, the Feast of Tabernacles was also seen as a kind of anticipation of a new exodus to the glory of a new Promised Land. Peter’s response of connecting this event of the Transfiguration with the Feast of Booths then makes sense, even if he didn’t fully understand what was happening.


St. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray. Jesus is often presented as getting up early, and going up a mountain to pray. Mountains give a sense of being closer to heaven, a meeting place of heaven and earth. Image result for dante purgatorioYou can imagine the sense, in the quiet darkness leading up to dawn, the solitude high in the ascetic ruggedness of a mountaintop. In Christian mystical tradition, even as far back as Moses atop Mt. Sinai, the spiritual journey often uses the image of ascending a mountain toward purification and divine encounter. You might think of Dante’s Mount Purgatorio, and Paradiso. You might think of St. John of the Cross’ “Ascent of Mount Carmel,” or Thomas Merton’s “Seven Storey Mountain.” This is of course not unique to Judaism or Christianity. Many other religious traditions, both ancient and modern, share the idea. Not that God or heaven are up in the sky, or that we can, through our efforts, climb to heaven. But the image is so prevalent that there is something of the transcendent that speaks to our heart of the longing to ascend, toward our ultimate destination and purpose.

St. Luke is also the only one that tells us what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are talking about: They “spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” (Perhaps this is why Peter thought of tabernacles). We’ve talked many times of the promise that God made through Moses that God would eventually raise up a prophet like Moses himself. This prophecy was the seed of Israel’s expectation that the Messiah would be like a New Moses, who would lead the People of God on a new Exodus, to a new Promised Land. The text of the Transfiguration reinforces this connection. We heard the voice of the Father from the cloud proclaim, “This is my chosen (beloved) Son; listen to him.” In Deuteronomy 18:5, which was the prophecy of the new Moses; that one day a figure like Moses would come, Moses tells the Israelites, “You are to listen to him, you are to heed him.” So Jesus is being revealed here as the new Moses, and even more, as the son of God.

So what is this Exodus that Moses and Elijah were talking about with Jesus? Here on this mountain of the Transfiguration, they were talking about what would take place on another mountain: on Calvary, Golgotha, the mountain of the Paschal Mystery, the suffering, crucifixion, and death that Jesus would endure at Jerusalem. This would then make the way to the fulfillment of the law (represented by Moses) and the prophets (represented by Elijah). Perhaps this is why Moses and Elijah vanish, and Jesus remains. Jesus is, on one hand, the fulfillment of the law: He is the giver of the new and perfect law of divine love. And on the other hand, Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophets: He is the Word of God incarnate, the perfect revelation of God. And Jesus, who is God, will put his divine Spirit into the heart of each member of the New People of God, the New Israel, the Church. This, then, is the means of the New Exodus, not a journey from a place of slavery to a place of liberty, like from Egypt to Canaan, but the spiritual journey (up the mountain) from a condition of slavery to a condition of liberty: from the slavery of sin, to the perfect freedom of heavenly grace. The new Promised Land isn’t a new earthly land, it is the kingdom of God, the wisdom of God, the love of God, in the hearts and minds of the followers of Christ. It’s the heavenly reality, infused into our material reality, making everything more than it appears to be.

In our second reading, Paul writes to the Philippians about many who are trapped in their slavery. “Their God is their stomach; their glory is in their “shame.” Their minds are occupied with earthly things.” St. Paul is speaking of those who live in servitude to their sensual appetites, their lust for earthly delights, the “Triple Concupiscence” we talked about last week: pleasure, possession, and pride/power. They are “enemies of the cross.” They resist the invitation to embrace suffering and self-denial. “Their end is destruction.” They could be free, if they only embraced the cross and denied themselves, gaining control over their appetites. Related imageOnly God can heal our disordered souls. But it is up to us who are sick to acknowledge our sickness, to decide we no longer want to be sick, to go to the Divine Physician who can heal us, and then to do what He tells us, to be healthy. St. Paul tells us that if we want to stay healthy, Join with others in being imitators of me, brothers and sisters, and observe those who thus conduct themselves according to the model you have in us.” In other words, look at the example given to us by the saints. Copy their virtues, imitate their practices, learn their lessons. The saints are the “cloud of witnesses” who have run their race well, have won the crown of salvation, and cheer us on our way.

In Luke’s Gospel, after our reading of the Transfiguration, it says, Jesus “set his face to Jerusalem.” From here, Jesus leads his disciples on their journey to the events of holy week. Luke connects the two points—the Transfiguration and the Crucifixion—with a straight line. The Church gives us the Gospel reading of the Transfiguration for the same reason: That as we journey through Lent to the sorrowful passion of Jesus in Jerusalem, we remember the true reality: that Jesus is who we have seen in the Transfiguration, he is divine glory hidden in human flesh. And so it may seem like Jesus has lost control as all the terrible things happen to him. But the true reality is that Jesus is always in control. He chooses to allow what happens to happen. His plan is not thrown off. What happens during Jesus’ passion is accomplishing the plan that God has been laying out since the Garden of Eden. In the contradiction of the cross, Satan’s cleverness is checkmated by God’s wisdom.


Adam had been the high priest and king of creation. When he fell away from God, all creation shared in the Fall. And here’s the real point of the Church giving us this reading: If the New Adam, Jesus Christ the king and high priest of the new creation (the restoration of creation), is himself infinitely greater than his material appearance (in meaning, being, and dignity), then all creation also shares in being infinitely greater than its material appearances.

That which has the material presence of bread and wine on the altar, has the true reality of Christ’s nourishing and saving body and blood. The Church, which has the material presence of an archaic, sin-ridden, rules-imposing human institution, has the true reality of the mystical body of Christ, the perfect, sinless mystical Bride of Christ, led and protected by the Holy Spirit, to perfect union with her Bridegroom. That act which has the material appearance of a person having water poured on them, has the true reality of the spiritual death of a son of Adam and spiritual rebirth of a son of God by adoption through Christ, a new member of Christ’s mystical Body. 

And you, each of you, who have the material presence of a supposedly meaningless blob of tissue, that is here today and gone tomorrow, you have the eternal and true reality of the image of God. You have infinite dignity and meaning, which demands respect and protection. You have a divine intention for your life. The suffering and sacrifice you endure is not meaningless; it is the way, the injection site, for the grace Christ earned on the cross to enter into your life. And so even in our Lenten penances, our suffering, our longing, our sometimes feeling lost and unforgivable, our sometimes feeling helpless against our relentless desires for sin, even now, we can sing with joy, for all this is God’s plan for uniting His divine strength into our human weakness, and our receiving his infinite mercy. It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give thanks to the Lord, our Holy Father, our almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord. Because of him, everything is more beautiful than it seems.

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Finally, whereas the Gospel and the Old Testament readings give us things for meditation, to ponder with our minds, the responsorial psalm helps us understand what God wants us to do with our will. What should it stir up in our affections toward God, as we ponder these mysteries, as we hear these words? 

Psalm 27 sings, “The Lord is my light and my salvation… Of you my heart speaks; you my glance seeks. Your presence, O LORD, I seek. Hide not your face from me...” So the story of the Transfiguration should move us to desire to see what Peter, and James and John saw: to see the face of the Lord, to let the Lord be our light. Ultimately, the glory of the resurrection isn’t just going to be our resurrected bodies, and an end to death and suffering. The true happiness of the resurrection is the Beatific Vision, it’s the “seeing God, face-to-face”. So do you long for that? Do you want that? Is that your goal in life, to see the Lord face-to-face? Do you seek his face? That’s what the Psalm is trying to stir up in our hearts for today, as we ponder the great mystery of the Transfiguration.

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Homily: Temptations in the Desert

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The First Sunday of Lent (Year C)

Deuteronomy 26:4-10
Psalm 91:1-2, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15
Romans 10:8-13
Luke 4:1-13


There is an old story about a carriage that was being pulled by a pair of spirited steeds. A heavy drowsiness came upon the driver and he fell asleep. The horses, not feeling the restraint of the reins, went off the right path, and soon they were bouncing over bush and brush, to the edge of a ravine. A man nearby saw the carriage, and called out in a loud voice: “Wake up! Save yourself!” The driver suddenly awakened. In a moment he realized his peril. Pale and trembling, he hastily grabbed the reins, and, exerting almost superhuman effort, he succeeded in turning the horses to one side, saving his life, his animals, and the carriage. The story is an allegory: the fiery steeds are the appetites and passions which threaten to run at full tilt, even toward danger, pulling the heart with them. The driver is the wisdom and intelligence with which God has endowed human beings that we might rule over our appetites and passions and have dominion over our self-destructive impulses.


The reading from the Gospel of Luke which we just heard was about Jesus overcoming the temptations in the desert.

We discussed these a bit on Ash Wednesday, because the three main penitential practices of Lent address these same three weaknesses, what are sometimes called the Triple Concupiscence (concupiscence is sinful inclination of excess of desire). Saint John in his first letter identifies them as:

  • Lust of the flesh (a disordered desire for pleasure, indulgence)
  • Lust of the eyes (a disordered desire for possession, greed, envy), 
  • Pride of life (pride, a disordered focus on self at the expense of the love of God).
The Seven Capital Vices in relation to the Triple Concupiscence

Triple Concupiscence and Vices

I also mentioned at Mass on Ash Wednesday, that these also correspond to the temptation of the forbidden fruit that Eve gave in to. In Genesis 3:6, it says, “The woman saw that the tree was good for food [lust of the flesh] and pleasing to the eyes [lust of the eyes], and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom [disordered lust for pride, power]. So she took some of its fruit and ate it…It’s not that these things they wanted were bad; they were good! Food is good, possessions are good (God gave Adam and Eve the whole world), and even the desire to be like God is a good thing, to be wise is a good thing. But they wanted these good things in the wrong way. They figured that the best way to attain these good things was by breaking God’s commandment. It’s still wrong to try to get a good thing the wrong way. 

On Ash Wednesday, we heard Jesus give us the three penitential practices of the Christian life, particularly in Lent, to directly fight against this Triple Concupiscence. First, Jesus talked about “when you give alms,” giving of our possessions so that we learn detachment, and overcome the lust of the eyes. Then Jesus talked about “when you pray,” giving glory to God, acknowledging that we are inferior and dependent on God, and overcome pride. And then Jesus talked about “when you fast,” when you discipline your bodily appetites, overcoming the power and hungers of the lust of the flesh.

Men and women who enter religious orders take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, what are often called “the evangelical counsels.” These virtues are enshrined in the rule of many religious orders because they are tried-and-true Christian weapons for resisting the Triple Concupiscence, not just for vowed religious, but for everyone: poverty helps resist the lust of the eyes, chastity resists against the lust of the flesh, and obedience helps resist against pride of life. Pretty much all sin that we commit, or are tempted to commit, is some aspect of this Triple Concupiscence. 

So now we can look at the temptations and testing that Jesus endured in the wilderness, and guess what, we see the same Triple Concupiscence.

Before we get to that, let’s look at the forty days Jesus spent in the desert. We often hear that the number forty in the Scriptures simply means “a really long time.” According to Dr. Brant Pitre, biblical references to the number forty spiritually denote a period of preparation and purification. It’s not just that it rained a long time while Noah was in the ark, but it was a period of purifying the earth from sin, and a preparation for a new beginning. Moses spent forty years in the desert before his encounter with the Lord in the burning bush, and he spent forty days atop Mt. Sinai, in preparation for his leading God’s people Israel from their slavery in Egypt, and for his role as the quintessential prophetic figure, interceding between God and God’s stiff-necked (stubborn) people. Israel’s forty years in the desert marked their period of purification from the slavery and idolatry (and other sins) of pagan Egypt, and preparation for their place as the holy nation of God’s people.

Immediately after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan (which we heard in January), and before beginning his earthly ministry (beginning with the synagogue in Nazareth), we skipped over our gospel for today, Jesus’ time of purification and preparation to face the challenges of his Messianic mission, to enter into combat with (and faithfully resist the testing by) Satan.

In Exodus 4:22, God tells Moses, “So you will say to Pharaoh, Thus says the LORD: Israel is my son, my firstborn.” Immediately before Luke tells of the temptations in the desert, he gives Jesus’ genealogy, not just to Abraham, as Matthew did, but all the way back to “Adam, son of God.” As Adam failed in the garden, Israel failed in the desert. Jesus, the true and perfect Son of God, the “New Adam,” now recapitulates these tests, and of course passes with perfect faithfulness, in himself removing (or rather, taking into himself) Adam’s and Israel’s failures. 

Jesus faced these temptations not because there was the chance he would fail—he was divine—but, like his baptism which brought us into his relationship with the Father, his temptations unite us into his victory over the snares and wickedness of the devil, Satan, the ancient Serpent, the enemy of humanity. 

Temptation 1 - BreadFirst, Satan tempts Jesus in the area of Lust of the Flesh: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” How was this a temptation for Jesus? He had been fasting in the desert for forty days, he’s not just fully divine, but also fully human, incarnate. He has to be very hungry. And yet, he rejects the temptation to give up the purifying suffering of his fast. He responds, “It is written, ‘One does not live on bread alone’” (Dt 8:3). Remember what Jesus said to his disciples when he was talking with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:34), “Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of the one who sent me, and to finish his work.’”

Temptation 3 - KingdomsSecond, Satan tempts Jesus with the Lust of the Eyes“The devil said to him, ‘I shall give to you all this power and their glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if you worship me.’” (All the world was entrusted by God to Adam and Eve. When they sinned, they, and everything handed over to them, fell into the debt to Satan. Jesus calls Satan “the prince of this world.”) How is this a test, a temptation for Jesus? It’s not the glory and splendor of those kingdoms; it’s all the human souls in those kingdoms. Jesus’ messianic mission is to win back those kingdoms, all the souls of the world, from Satan’s grasp. And Satan is saying “Look, I’ll give them all to you, just give me your worship, and they’re all yours.” And what does Jesus say? Worship the Lord, your God, alone(Dt 6:13).

Temptation 2 - TempleThird, Satan temps Jesus with Pride: “Then he led him to Jerusalem, made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here…” Satan says, “Look, if you’re the son of God then prove it to everyone. Show everyone your power. Jump off the parapet (the highest point) of the Temple, where everyone can see. And then they’ll know that you are in fact the Son of God, when the angels catch you.” Satan quotes Psalm 91, about the angels coming to our aid. Yes, Jesus wants everyone to come to faith and believe in him as the Son of God. Wouldn’t it make it easier for Jesus to convert the world to Him—to accept and follow Him—if he performed a huge public spectacle to prove and wipe out any doubt that he is indeed the Messiah, the Son of God? But the problem is… this isn’t God’s way (which allows for each person’s free choice to put their faith in Christ). This forceful overpowering of people’s free will would be Jesus conforming to the way the world works, instead of Jesus converting the world to the way heaven works—where Jesus’ freely accepted suffering and death on the cross is the victorious act of sacrificial love to redeem humanity from sin and raise humanity to the glorious life of grace. Satan is tempting Jesus away from the cross. Remember when Peter rebuked Jesus for predicting his crucifixion? Jesus rebuked Peter back, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16:23). Also notice the connection between Satan saying to Jesus here, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here” and Jesus’ persecutors at his crucifixion saying, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!


Psalm 91, the psalm Satan quotes in the third temptation, is our psalm for today. And in Jewish tradition, it’s a deliverance prayer, a psalm of exorcism. People would pray Psalm 91 over someone possessed by demonic or satanic influence. One theory as to why Satan quotes this psalm is because he knew it, he’d heard it many times, he knew its power. And in his effort to use it to tempt Jesus, he twists the meaning from one of trusting in the Lord’s protection to pridefully presuming on God’s protection. Because that’s Satan’s way: to manipulate, to trick, to try to win by devious cleverness and half-truths. So Jesus responds to Satan’s temptation, “It also says, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test’” (Dt. 6:16).

And if the words of our psalm sounded a bit familiar, it’s the basis of the song, “On Eagles’ Wings.” Also, the Liturgy of the Hours offers this as the psalm for every Sunday night (and every Solemnity), so that we might begin our week delivered from the power of the enemy. 

Image result for christus victor in artInterestingly, when Satan pulls his chosen scripture quotes from Psalm 91, the very next verse, which of course he doesn’t quote, is “You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.” Peter in his letter says Satan is “prowling like a roaring lion, looking for souls to devour.” And of course the connection between Satan and the snake in the garden, the serpent, and the great dragon in the Book of Revelation, makes it easy to see not only why this would be a psalm of exorcism, but also why Satan would stop short of quoting this verse… which speaks of his own defeat!


The first readings of the liturgical season of Lent aren’t chosen to be connected to the Gospel readings, like in Ordinary Time. As Lent progresses, the first readings take us on a tour of the pivotal moments in salvation history in the Old Testament, leading us up to its consummation in Christ, which we celebrate at Easter, the end of the Lenten Season.

Our First reading, from Deuteronomy, Moses outlines the liturgical instructions for the faithful for the celebration of Pentecost, which is an ancient harvest festival, to give thanks to the Lord. The faithful are to present to God the first fruits of their labor, which the priest receives in a basket, and sets in front of the altar of the Lord. Then they participate in a memorial narrative that outlines the history of the covenant.

Kind of like what we’re going to do in the rest of the Mass. The collection is taken up of the first fruits (not just what’s left over and easier to give) of our labor (which in the modern world isn’t fruit or wheat, but exchanged for money), which the priest receives (from the ushers) in a basket, and sets in front of the altar of the Lord. Then the faithful participate in the retelling of the Institution Narrative of the Last Supper, in which Jesus consecrates the bread and wine on the altar into the Covenant of His Body and Blood.


[The Sunday homily for parish Masses at this point used the first readingof giving our first fruits to the Lordas the reflection for speaking about the Diocesan Annual Campaign. Everything from here on was not part of the homily.]


The Second Reading we have for today is somewhat challenging in giving the broader meaning of its apparent (and often mistaken) simplicity.

Brothers and sisters: What does Scripture say? The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart…Paul is quoting Moses’ words after he gave Israel the Law: “For this command which I am giving you today is not too wondrous or remote for you. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to the heavens to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?’ Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?’ No, it is something very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it” (Dt 30:11-14).

—that is, the word of faith that we preach—Paul refers to the commandment of the law of Moses, which is fulfilled by the word of faith in Christ; the works of obedience to the law that does not save, fulfilled by the life of love poured out from Christ into our hearts, which does save. The Mosaic Law was an external law, a set of precepts from God that Israel was to follow to live in harmony with the laws of Creation and human flourishing, along with some particular laws for living together in community. So the heart of the (Mosaic) Law is in essence written into our very nature, “something very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart.” But the Law merely pointed out what sort of things were sinful, but gave no intrinsic help against fallen humanity’s inclination toward sin. The New Law, the New Covenant in Christ, surpasses the Mosaic Law in raising the perspective from simple legal obedience to embracing the love of God that inspired the Mosaic Law. In Christ the Law is fulfilled, for Christ perfectly satisfied the requirements of the Law, and even put to death the punishments owed by all who failed to uphold the Law. Then, even greater, Christ put His own Holy Spirit within us (received in the Sacrament of Baptism, and then more perfectly and fruitfully in the Sacrament of Confirmation), to give us an internal fountain of grace to live the Christian life of divine love (which surpasses the Law). But it requires our consent and our cooperation to participate in this life, which Christ by his perfect sacrifice makes available to us.

For, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.The prima facie interpretation of these verses is asserted by many evangelical Christians to be the essence of the whole Christian scripture, faith, and life. And that would be good, if the Christian scripture did not also identify many other requirements for being saved, such as avoiding sin (1 Thes 5:22), eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ (Jn 6:53) worthily (1 Cor 11:27), remaining in full communion with the Church without causing scandal (1 Cor 5:2), being baptized with water and the Spirit (Jn 3:5), denying ourselves, picking up our cross daily, and following Jesus (Mt 16:24), to name a few.

So how do we reconcile this verse with the larger picture of what we must do to be saved? First and foremost, Jesus Christ our Lord, the Son of God, by his life, death, and resurrection, purchased salvation for all who would believe in him, love him, follow him, and unite themselves to him. He is the only one by whom anyone can have any hope in salvation. We cannot earn salvation apart or aside from him by any amount of human works. People often think the Catholic Church teaches a salvation by works, but that is a heresy consistently condemned by the Church. 

If you confess with your mouthshould be interpreted not just in confessing your Christian faith and identity, which could result in suffering and even death, but also your confession should be considered to be with more than your mouth. It should be consistent with the witness (confession) of your Christian life. Certainly we must not speak one way and then live in a way that conflicts with our words. We cannot speak in the Spirit and then live in the Flesh. If you “believe in your heart” that Jesus is resurrected and lives and is truly the Son of God, then the whole of your life, in your words and your actions, should manifest that heart-held belief. And if you do so, you will be saved. Not because you earned your salvation by your works, but because your heart was good, fertile soil, which received the Word, which then bore fruit that will last, the fruit of your Christian life of faith, hope, and love (not just faith!)—the greatest of these is love, which must be lived out in the intentional choices and relationships of our life. So one believes with the heart, and so is justified by a living and fruitful faith, and one confesses with the mouth, one’s words and actions bearing consistent witness to one’s faith in the living Christ and his saving truth, and so one is saved.  

For the Scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him.” Paul is addressing the Roman Christian community (whom he has not yet met at the time of his letter), which is enduring some tension between Jewish Christians and Gentile (Greek, or Greco-Roman) Christians, with the Jewish Christians being even more targeted for having been Jewish. So while he encourages all the Roman Christians to bravely live out and confess their Christian faith regardless of the apparent shame that might come to them, he is also encouraging reconciliation and unity in the Roman Christian community, particularly calling on the gentile Christians to be supportive and protective of their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters. 

For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” The Roman Christians are encouraged again to bravely face persecution for their faith, because it is their faith—their being Christian—not just in name but in their witness—that is their hope for being strengthened by Christ in their suffering, and saved by Christ in their martyrdom. 


The reason the Church gives us this gospel reading is because Lent is about uniting ourselves to the mystery of Jesus in the desert. We are living out that mystery in our own lives during the forty days of Lent. We all face temptation, and often feel helpless to resist them. Because Lent is about taking on temptation, sacrifice, and trying to unite ourselves with Jesus, we’re going to face an uptick in resistance from the Enemy. Lent is also a time of spiritual warfare. So we can remember the lessons of Jesus in the desert from our Gospel today, and his instructions given to us in the Gospel on Ash Wednesday, to help us overcome the three great areas of our weakness and temptation. Let us not sleepily allow our disordered passions to run unreigned toward danger, but let us awake and save ourselves, exercising wisdom and understanding over our passions.

Let us embrace the opportunity for purification and preparation, that we may more fruitfully and joyfully celebrate the Easter Mysteries!

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Homily: Don’t be a Blind Guide!

Integrity

This year is the latest calendar-date that Easter can be, and so this is the farthest into Ordinary time we can go before Ash Wednesday and the readings switch over to Lent. So these readings today for the Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time in Year C, haven’t been used in 18 years.


This Sunday we finish Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke. 

In the first week, we reflected on the blessings and curses. The worldly values of the Kingdom of Man are upside down from the values of the Kingdom of God. When we acknowledge that the earthly life that gets us to heaven—the life that follows the example of Jesus—is the only truly good life, then we embrace and find joy in the suffering, rejection, and virtues which most unite us with Jesus. And we reject, or are at least very wary of, the treasures and pleasures of this life, as they dull our desire for heaven, or distract us from that which leads us toward heaven.

In the second week—last week—we reflected on living out this upside-down example Jesus gives us, compared to how we naturally see things in this world. We naturally love our friends and hate our enemies; Jesus teaches us we must love our enemies, and pray for those who mistreat us. We naturally lend to those who will pay us back; Jesus teaches us to give sacrificially, especially to those who can’t pay us back. We naturally promote ourselves as right and good, and others as wrong and bad (especially those who make us feel bad); Jesus teaches us not to judge, not to seek revenge, but to have mercy, and we will be shown mercy, for the measure we use for others, God will use for us.

In the third week and final week—our Gospel reading for today—Jesus teaches us how to spread the Gospel, in our words and our actions, by our example. “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?’ No disciple is superior to the teacher; but when fully trained, every disciple will be like his teacher.” The martial arts, like kung fu, have a long series of moves, which a student must learn by imitating his teacher. karate-kid-e1551491835784.jpgIt takes much practice to perfect each move, and a long time of discipleship to learn the entire series of moves. But a teacher can only teach as far as he himself knows, and he can only teach his disciples as well as he himself knows. A poor teacher is unlikely to make excellent disciples of the art, but he can make excellent disciples of himself, who, like himself, would then be poor disciples of the art. Be careful whose disciple you become, whose teaching and example you’re following. If they’re not leading you to virtue and holiness, they are a blind guide at best, and you will both fall into the pit, at worst. That’s also a point to ponder for those who have people they are teaching and giving example to, such as children. Don’t be a blind teacher, failing to lead to virtue and holiness, or you and they may both fall into the pit.

The blind guide is not only one who does not know the way, but one who does not know himself, his sins, faults, and blind spots. Ignorance of one’s sins is a source of false pride. It is this blindness and false pride that leads one to commit the sins Jesus talked about earlier: judging and condemning others with a harsh measure. One of the best weapons against this ignorance is frequent use of an Examination of Conscience and the Sacrament of Confession. The Examination of Conscience forces us to look more critically at our conduct in the light of the moral guide of Church teaching. The frequent use of the Sacrament of Confession sharpens our awareness of our actions, and helps us to be more attentive to the promptings of conscience and grace. 

You might ask, “How can a celibate priest give me guidance in marriage and raising children, or on other moral matters of which he has little or no experience?” On the human level, the priest has two sources of such guidance. First, priests are not locked in the church between Sundays. Priests have families, friends, and other relationships and experiences that they bring to their ministry. Second, priests have more than their own personal experience, but also the body of experience of Catholic Tradition. The counseling wisdom of the Church has been amassed over centuries of developing moral guidance in light of human experience, difficulties, weakness, and relationships. Third, a priest encounters hundreds or thousands of people in his priestly ministry, and if the priest is wise, each one has many things to teach him about different personal challenges, approaches, and successes. And then on the spiritual level, it is not just the priest who is providing guidance. The ultimate spiritual guide is our Lord, who himself is the way, the truth, and the life. He works through the priest to minister to his people. That’s why it’s so important to choose not just an old wise priest, but more importantly, a holy priest. The old wise priest may be aided by lot of human experience, but a holy priest is aided by being open to the divine wisdom being poured through him to bring wisdom and counsel to the people he serves.

Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?” Jesus is not saying that we should not correct one another, or that we must be sinless before we correct one another. This is the intentionally-impossible measure set by secular society (who, ironically, does not hesitate to criticize and judge), because people do not like to be told that what they want, what they find pleasurable, is sinful, and destructive of their human nature, goodness, and salvation. Jesus is not saying that we should let sinners just ignorantly embrace sin. We are called to speak God’s truth, because it sets us free… even when it is unpopular. But Jesus is saying that our own example should not be scandalous. (“Scandalous” comes from the Greek word “skandalon,” which was an obstacle, a stumbling block. Our example should not be an obstacle or stumbling block for those seeking Christ and an example of the Christian life.) And we should be very delicate in correcting sins where we are struggling ourselves. We don’t want to come across as a hypocrite. We want to come across as a humble, struggling sinner helping another struggling sinner, in an area where the wisdom we’ve gained might be of use to them. It’s humble, honest, and inspired by love. If someone is not receptive to your help, it might be because you’re not the person they want to receive correction from in that area, or they’re not ready to accept correction in that area. In that case, pray that God will bring them the wisdom they need. Continue to love them, and maybe there will be another opportunity to help them.

A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit.” “A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.” The good tree is a good person, and the good fruit are holiness and virtue. The bad tree is a bad person, and the rotten fruit are poor choices and vice. It’s not that good people are perfectly good and bad people are perfectly bad. It’s that to be an effective messenger of Christ, you can’t have a scandalous moral life, in flagrant contradiction to what the Christian Church and the Christian scriptures teach. That’s the blind, by bad example, misleading the blind, who are looking to them for guidance. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.” Certainly we need to be conscientious about our words, because they reveal the content of our hearts. But even more so we need to patiently and consistently build a moral life of integrity, truth, and virtue, because our actions are more convincing than our words.

The 7th century monk “The Venerable” Bede, teaches us:Do you want to know which are the bad trees and what are the bad fruits? The apostle [St. Paul] teaches us: “fornication, impurity, self-indulgence, idolatry, sorcery, malice, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, conflict, factions, envy, murder, drunkenness, arousing, and things of this sort” (Gal 5:19-21). He subsequently lists the fruits of a good tree. He says, “The fruit, however, of the Spirit, is charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faith, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).Often, like the one linked above, an Examination of Conscience is based on the Ten Commandments. But this list from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is another option. Certainly we can have characteristics from time to time from both lists, and we need to wage war against those characteristics of ours on the first list. But we should be very concerned when people associate us more with the first list. That would mean that, at least to those people (however accurate their opinion might be), our example is a scandal of what the Christian life is. 


In our first reading, from the Old Testament book of Sirach, we get a series of short images, like we heard from Jesus in the Gospel. These images are about testing a man’s character by what he says, especially in times of difficulty. “When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do one’s faults when one speaks.” When the wheat crops are brought in, they’re sifted. The good wheat falls through the sieve, and what’s left is the bad stuff left over. When a man is stressed, his guard is down and what’s truly in his heart is revealed. Remember the courtroom scene from “A Few Good Men,” and Tom Cruise’s character succeeded in getting Jack Nicholson’s character to get enraged and speak his mind, and “You want the truth!? You can’t handle the truth!”

Image result for a few good men jack nicholson

The second example: “As the test of what the potter molds is in the furnace, so in tribulation is the test of the just.” If a work of pottery is poorly crafted, when it’s put into to the kiln, it explodes in the fire. The same with a person who lacks the character to keep it together under fire. He explodes… at others, blasting them with the shrapnel of his temper… which can cause scandal.

The third image is the connection to the Gospel: “The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had; so too does one’s speech disclose the bent of one’s mind.” If someone who grew sycamore trees, for example, carefully poked a hole in the fruit as it’s growing, it grows bigger and is much juicier. The fruit shows the care taken in developing it. Likewise, the fruit of one’s speech and actions reveal the care taken in developing one’s mind and heart.


The psalm for today shows the other side of the coin. “It is good to give thanks to the LORD … They that are planted in the house of the LORD … They shall bear fruit even in old age; vigorous and sturdy shall they be …The way to purify our heart is to practice piety, gratitude, and the other virtues, which are given by the Holy Spirit. Our words show what is in our hearts, but the reverse is also true: the heart and words don’t just go from inside out; it can also go from outside-in. We can develop our hearts by using our words to praise God and letting him mold our hearts (to be like His own Sacred Heart!).

We become like those we spend time with. If we spend a lot of time with blind guides and rotten trees, who don’t lead us to holiness and virtue, we suffer the rotten fruit of that influence. When we spend time with good guides and good trees, then we cultivate better fruit. We learn better how to respond when the heat rises, when our guard is compromised, when our heart is revealed. It will reveal integrity and virtue, and we will be a good example of following Christ, for those who look to us, and those who listen to our words.


St. Paul, in our second reading, is continuing to teach us about the resurrection of the faithful, after the example of Christ, and how we will share also in the resurrected body.  And when the faithful, the Mystical Body of Christ, are reassembled in heaven with it’s Head, who is Christ Himself, Satan, Sin, and Death will be finally defeated and vanquished.

In the midst of our reading, St. Paul says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” Image result for poisonous scorpionDeath is being portrayed as a poisonous stinging creature of the dangerous wilderness, like a scorpion. And Death kills us by successfully tempting us to sin. Sin is what causes our separation from God, who is the source of life. So like a scorpion stings its victims with its poison and kills them, Death stings its victims with the poison of sin, which kills them.

The Law (given through Israel’s Holy Scriptures) is what God has provided humanity about what is good and evil. The Law in a sense is written into Creation. What is good and evil is not because it is written in the Scriptures; but the Scriptures reveal to us what is true of (the Law of) all Creation. St. John Chrysostom wrote, “Without the law sin was weak. It existed, to be sure, but it did not have the power to condemn, because although evil occurred, it was not clearly pointed out. Thus it was no small change which the law brought about. First, it caused us to know sin better, and then it increased the punishment.” So it is the written Law of the Holy Scriptures, now known to humanity, that increases sin, because now what is evil is clearly known and yet freely chosen. So “the power of sin” to condemn humanity is the law given to us and to which we are held accountable.


And so this is why we as Christians, who have the fullness of revelation of Truth in Jesus Christ Our Lord, must, out of love for God and our neighbor, give good witness (and not scandal) by our example, our words, and our actions. Even though not all of humanity knows (or accepts the truth of) the law, the evil we do still harms us, and distorts us, away from the image we need to have, if we are to recognize our sins, humbly call on God’s mercy, and be granted everlasting salvation.

In the Church’s ordination rite, the Bishop exhorts the man being ordained, “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” The same applies to us: With diligence and prayer read the scriptures, with love and patience share scriptures, and with discipline and integrity, live the scriptures.

So our discussion of the Sermon on the Plain ends as it began, with our call to serve as God’s prophetic people: to speak and live God’s Word of guidance, correction, and encouragement; to share His Word in season and out of season, in truth and love; to give example of the apparently upside-down wisdom of the Kingdom of God, embracing humility, simplicity, and suffering as Jesus, the Word of God, did; and to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow Him. 

Next week, the first Sunday of Lent. God bless you!

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