Homily: Teach Us How to Pray

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The Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138:1-2, 2-3, 6-7, 7-8
Colossians 2:12-14
Luke 11:1-13

Our gospel reading today begins, “Jesus was praying in a certain place. And when he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’” We often don’t think of John the Baptist as a man of prayer. He was a man of calling people to repentance, and preparing them to receive and follow the Lord. But John also had disciples, and taught them to pray according to his own mystical relationship with God.

And that’s what this disciple is asking Jesus. The first thing we should contemplate is that the disciples saw Jesus at prayer. They see the way Jesus prays, and it’s profound, it’s deep communion between Jesus the divine Son and God the Father, in a relationship unprecedented in human history. The disciples see Him at prayer, and want to Him to teach them to pray like Him. Our Gospel reading is the answer Jesus gives to this request. It’s not about adopting a technique or style of prayer. It’s about entering into the relationship of prayer between each of us and our heavenly Father, the relationship Jesus the Son invites us into. Jesus has three parts to His lesson on prayer.

In the first part, Jesus teaches them what we call the Lord’s Prayer. Of course, this version of the Lord’s Prayer in the Gospel of Luke is different than the longer one we usually pray, which is from the Gospel of Matthew. This shorter version has 5 petitions, as opposed to the 7 in Matthew’s Gospel. In Jewish Tradition, and in Christian Tradition, there are often longer and shorter versions of the same basic prayers. We should reflect on this prayer that Jesus gives us as the example for praying to the Father.

The first two petitions focus on God. First, “Father, hallowed be your name” (or, “may your name be hallowed”). God’s name, which is different variations of “I AM,” “God is with us,” “God Saves,” “God Most High,” should be held as holy, as set apart from our everyday vocabulary, like we put the special dishes in the special cabinet so they don’t suffer the wear and tear of how our everyday stuff gets treated. That doesn’t mean we don’t call on God’s name every day! It means that we treat it special every day! And we pray that His name would be hallowed and worshiped by all on earth, the one true God, Whose glory fills heaven and earth.

The second petition, “your kingdom come.” God’s kingdom is where God reigns, and all give Him glory, and follow His law. In one sense, His kingdom is heaven, the kingdom of the angels and saints. In another sense, His kingdom is here on earth. When Jesus was before Pontius Pilate, Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not here.” Because it’s the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that fills the earth and transfigures it after the pattern of Jesus. By appearance, he looked like everyone else. But in the truth of the Spirit, He is the power and wisdom of God. We participate in the life in Christ: we appear to live earthly lives like everyone else; but in the Spirit, we are united with God, we make our choices and shape our character and our lives by the truth and laws of His kingdom, and so in living by the Holy Spirit, we make God’s kingdom manifest. We pray that His kingdom come and unite all on earth into the blessings of heaven; we pray that the day of our Lord Jesus Christ—judgment day—come, and that we be found worthy to enter into the fullness of His kingdom for eternity. That’s a bold prayer. Jesus teaches us to pray it. But he also teaches us to always be ready for that day, lest we find ourselves rejected.

Those are the first two petitions, which put our attention on God. The other three petitions ask God to put His attention on us.

Give us each day our daily bread.” Give us what we need to live, to be saints. The Greek word translated “daily” is a play on words: it could be epi-ousios, which means “supernatural,” or epi-iousios, which can mean “every day”. The word play is that it’s both. It refers to the daily care of God; the fulfillment of our spiritual and physical needs, and of course, the Eucharist, the supernatural and daily bread that strengthens us in our holy communion with God and the communion of the saints.

Then he teaches us to pray, “and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us.” It’s an interesting thought, that it equates sin in the first part, with debt in the second part. When someone sins against someone else, they incur a debt (of justice, and more so, of love) because they have not acted toward them as the divine law requires. When someone sins against us and incurs such a debt, our response is (or ought to be) to forgive that debt. God is generous with his forgiveness toward us, and that inspires us to be generous with our forgiveness toward others. 

And the final part of the prayer, “and do not subject us to the final test.” Or Matthew’s version, “And do not lead us into temptation.” Of course, God does not tempt us to sin. But God does test us, our patience, our character, our faithfulness—not to discourage us or get us to fall, but to strengthen us and help us to grow. We can be tempted to get bitter, to get frustrated, to give up our faith, to try to go around God to get what we want. That’s the ever-present temptation to sin, especially in suffering. But this is our prayer that whatever we endure, we are asking God to give us the grace to respond by growing in faith and love and holiness. So the Lord’s Prayer is the first part of Jesus’ answer. 

The second part is this story about the man who must go bother his neighbor during the night. The lesson Jesus is giving us isn’t that God is going to be slow to respond. The lesson is that we must be persistent in our prayer. The Greek word being translated “persistence” is like “shameless.” The person knocking knows that he’s bothering his neighbor, but he’s in such dire need that he’s going to persist, he’s going to continue past the point of being annoying, until he gets what he needs; he tosses the rules of proper respect aside and just keep begging of God shamelessly, persistently, until God responds.

And the third part of Jesus’ instruction: “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish?” No one, of course! But the moral of the story is that if we sinful human beings, who love our children, give them what they need as generously as we can, and don’t give them the things that would hurt them, how much more so does God, the perfect Father in heaven, do better even than that? The most important thing we could ask God for is Himself, the gift of the Holy Spirit. And He gives Himself to us generously, even when we’re not smart enough to ask for it! So if God is not answering our prayer, either He is testing us, wanting us to grow, or what we’re asking for is not good for us, and God is not going to give it to us, or He’s given us an even greater gift, and we’re too focused elsewhere to have noticed the better gift. So that’s the Gospel. A lot going on in a few short lines, as you would expect when you ask Jesus to talk about prayer!

And just a moment on our First Reading before we end. Abraham’s haggling with God to save Sodom demonstrates the life of prayer that Jesus teaches us: Abraham’s relationship with God, built on a solid prayer life; his humble knowledge of himself in light of God’s glory; and Abraham’s patient persistence in prayer to intercede on behalf of the people in Sodom, particularly his loved ones.

As we know, God still destroyed Sodom. Ultimately our prayer isn’t, “God, I want you to do this.” Ultimately, our prayer is “God, I want you to do this… but… not my will, but thy will be done.” The more we learn to have our heart in tune with God’s heart, we will have more of our prayers answered, because we will want what he already wants to give us. The further along our spiritual journey of being who he made us to be, the more often it will be our experience that we ask and we will receive; that we seek and we will find; that we knock and the door will be opened to us. For everyone who loves God and asks, receives; and the one who loves God and seeks, finds; and to the one who loves God and knocks, the door will be opened.

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Homily: Martha and Mary

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The Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Genesis 18:1-10a
Psalm 15:2-3, 3-4, 5
Colossians 1:24-28
Luke 10:38-42

Some men in a Bible study group were discussing who would make the better wife: Martha or Mary. One said, “I think Martha would make the better wife. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. It sounds like Martha knew how to cook. I’d love to be married to a woman like that!” Another man said, “I think Mary would make the better wife. She was thoughtful, sweet and loving. I could be very happy, married to a woman like Mary!” Finally, another fellow settled the argument when he said, “Well, I would like to be married to both of them. I would like Martha before supper and Mary after supper.” Today’s Gospel invites us to integrate the listening spirit of Mary with the dynamic spirit of Martha in our Christian lives.

Many times, this story in our Gospel is explained by saying that Martha was wrong to be so busy and active, and Jesus wants us to be like Mary, contemplative and peaceful. Or that we need to balance the activity of Martha with the contemplation of Mary. That’s closer to the mark. If we read the story carefully (maybe prayerful Lectio Divina on this reading), we might notice that Jesus doesn’t criticize Martha for being busy or active. He corrects her for being anxious and distracted. Not her physical activity, but her spiritual activity. She’s worried about a great many things. Jesus isn’t telling her to stop being active. And he doesn’t necessarily praise Mary for being a better person; just that she’s made the better choice in that moment.

In the Old Testament, there are many words that get translated into English as sin. But in the New Testament, there’s pretty much only one word: hamartía (ἁμαρτία). It means “missing the mark,” like shooting at a target and missing. God gives us principles and circumstances to guide us in virtue and truth, and we can go wrong on either side of the target. The virtue is like Goldilocks: not too much, not too little, but just right.

Martha and Mary are a wonderful illustration of the extremes (missing the target to one side or the other). Mary is contemplative and inactive; Martha is active and anxious. We’re called to be contemplative and active. Jesus says we must be hearers and doers of the Word. He says it in that order, and not the other way around.

In this scene in our Gospel reading, Jesus, the Word of God, Wisdom Incarnate, is there in Martha’s house. Now hospitality was very important. And Jesus didn’t usually travel alone, so maybe there’s a small crowd in the house. But some things take priority over other things. It says Martha was burdened with much serving. Perhaps she had planned to serve a great feast to her visitors. Jesus is calming her down. Martha didn’t have to go all out, when her attention should be on what’s really important… the better portion, the one thing necessary.

Sometimes, many times, we get all worked up about what’s not that important, and then we’re too anxious and worked up to pay attention to the most important thing. If we’re not planning things out and being organized in our thinking and priorities, we’re just going to be putting out fires, taking care of the urgent problems, and not letting some of the less important fires just burn out so that we can be attentive to what’s getting neglected. Children’s sports and activities and jobs are important, sure. But on Sunday mornings, they’re not as important as Church. Teaching responsibility is good. Teaching holiness is better.

We don’t want to be so worried and anxious about what we’re doing that we’ve forgotten why we’re doing it. Martha was so fixated on hospitality that she was missing out on who she was showing hospitality to. She could have fixed a tray of bologna, cheese, and crackers (and maybe some olives or pickles), and then joined her sister at Jesus’ feet.

On the other end, Mary might have provided some support to Martha before Jesus got there, made sure that they had everything ready (of course, we don’t know that she didn’t). The other end of the problem is more like Mary’s end of the spectrum: to be so interior, academic, theoretical, and wrapped up in your thoughts, that you don’t do much of anything. Sometimes it’s called “analysis paralysis”: Getting so locked up in the theoretical that it gets in the way of the practical. Sometimes it’s good to be quiet and still, sometimes it’s good to be active and busy, but only when those are the correct responses to the situation. In this situation, Mary had the right response.

Also, of course, as I kind of hinted at a moment ago, we don’t just want to balance out our action and our contemplation. We want to make sure that our action flows from our contemplation. Our external activity should be the outward fruit of the internal activity of our relationship with God (how sacramental!). We can be doing a lot of things. But if we’re just doing and not praying, then how sure are we that we’re doing the right things? Is what we’re worried about really worth the anguish, or is it really unimportant? Are we focused on the storm we’re going through instead of the Lord who can calm the storm? Are we putting first things first, and everything in its proper priority? Or are we just choosing as we want, or worse, letting circumstances (the urgent fires to be put out) choose for us? 

In our first reading, Abraham understood that his guests were more than just three men. Rublev TrinityIt’s a strange little section of the Old Testament. It says that the Lord visited Abraham, then it presents three men. It keeps shifting between singular pronouns and plural pronouns for the three. Many Christian commentators have said that this could be one of the earliest revelations of the mystery of the Holy Trinity: the Lord as one and three at the same time. But Abraham understood this because of his relationship with the Lord. His prayer life, his relationship with God, gave him the insight into the situation, and allowed him to perceive the truth he needed to respond to. Because he was spiritually attuned, his hospitality was rewarded with a great blessing from God.  (This icon is popularly known as “Rublev’s Trinity”, by the 13th c. Russian Andrei Rublev. It is also called “The Hospitality of Abraham.” You can read more about it here). It’s interesting that our readings both have themes of hospitality to the Lord. Moreover, in our gospel reading, St. Luke, who usually calls Jesus by his name, here calls him, “the Lord,” as he’s often referred to in our first reading. Perhaps Luke is deliberately making a connection to our first reading.

Unless we’re dedicated to our prayer life, we’re often missing the big picture, and so we react the wrong way. Martha was distracted about many things, and was so caught up in her momentary concerns that she was missing the big picture. The religious leaders of Jesus’ time were big into the Temple Sacrifices, but they weren’t reading the situation right when the Messiah they had been waiting for actually stood in front of them.

We often want the benefit that Saint Paul had: a brilliant white light, the booming voice of the Lord… what I call “the divine 2×4” (or as a friend has said, “the divine Gibbs slap”).Image result for gibbs slap God does sometimes do this, when we’re in a position of really not paying attention to Him, and he really wants to get something through to us. This is a good technique for communicating, but it’s not good for formation, which is what he really wants. He wants to form us into saints by our free will, by our decision to direct our faith, hope, and love to him. He wants us teach us to be His dance partner, to live gracefully, and to be so attuned to His will, that He need only give us the slightest gesture of how to move, how to serve Him, and we respond with grace and joy.

Sometimes, as we see in our second reading, from Saint Paul, we serve Him by our suffering. “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up
what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church, of which I am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past.This verse from Paul’s letter to the Colossians was a major turning point in Dr. Scott Hahn’s conversion story. He was assigned in a class to research this, particularly Paul’s words of filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ. Of course, Christ’s suffering on the Cross was more than sufficient to wipe away all sin. So Paul is not saying that Christ’s crucifixion was not sufficient, not enough. But this verse (and those like it) establish the principle of “redemptive suffering.” What is lacking in the afflictions of Christ is our participation in the mystery. When we suffer, we can “offer it up,” as the Catholic saying goes, uniting ourselves in our suffering to Christ’s suffering on the cross, and so experience meaning to our suffering. Suffering purifies us, if we use it to unite ourselves more deeply into the paschal mystery of Christ’s suffering that takes a way the sin of the world. It’s not that we’re earning our salvation by our suffering, but that we’re disposing ourselves more perfectly to the mystery of Christ’s suffering, and the glory of his triumph. It’s part of the mystery of the life of grace we enter into through baptism: living out the life of Christ, including the death and resurrection, in our own lives. 

Also, a bit more of a theological stretch for some, but right there in Saint Paul, is the idea that we can enter into (offer up) redemptive suffering for others. Of course, this is what Christ did, since his suffering wasn’t for himself but for everyone else. Again, it’s not that we offer up suffering that others may have their sins absolved, but rather we offer up suffering (and prayers, fasting, and almsgiving) for others to receive an increase of grace and mercy for them, dedicating whatever good might have been directed toward us to be directed toward them, that they may have that favor. Paul says, “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.” Dr. Hahn said that when he examined the tradition of interpretation for this verse, he divided his findings into three piles: those that were Protestant, but largely unconvincing; those that just skipped over it, and those that sounded the most reasonable, which were Catholic, despite his dislike of Catholicism at the time. It was for him a compelling invitation to consider the Catholic faith with more interest, which of course resulted in his conversion to Catholicism, and his reputation as a popular teacher, writer, and speaker on the Catholic Faith, especially fueled by his great knowledge and love of Scripture from his Protestant upbringing and education. 

A true story is told about an advertising executive at Reader’s Digest. In spite of her successful career, she had felt emptiness in her life. One morning, during a breakfast with a co-worker, she mentioned that emptiness. “Do you want to fill it?” her colleague asked. “Of course, I do,” she said. He replied, “Then start each day with an hour of prayer.” She looked at him and said, “Don, you’ve got to be kidding. If I tried that, I’d go bonkers.” Don smiled and said, “That’s exactly what I said 20 years ago.” The woman left the restaurant in turmoil. Begin each morning with an hour of prayer? Out of the question! Yet, the next morning she found herself doing exactly that. And she’s been doing it ever since. Now, she’s the first to admit that it hasn’t always been easy. There have been mornings when she was filled with great peace. But there have been mornings when she was filled with nothing but weariness. And it was on these weary mornings that she remembered something else that her co-worker had said. “There will be times when your mind just won’t go into God’s sanctuary. That’s when you spend your hour in God’s waiting room. Still, you’re there, and God appreciates your effort to be there.” To put God first in our lives, we must be able to trust God with our lives. And to do that, we have to have created a relationship of trust with Him. Relationships only grow by investing time and attention; in this case, to the most important relationship of our life; with Him, whose relationship we hope to enjoy in our heavenly eternal life. That’s the one thing necessary.

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Homily: Who Is My Neighbor?

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The Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)

Deuteronomy 30:10-14
Psalm 69:14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37
Colossians 1:15-20
Luke 10:25-37

Who are the people in your neighborhood? Who is your neighbor? This is the question of our gospel reading. It was a legitimate question to Jesus from the Jewish scholar, but it wasn’t asked with a legitimate intention.

There were over 600 statutes of the Jewish Law, stemming from the Ten Commandments, and other precepts, especially in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. So it was not unusual for the scribes (the trained biblical scholars) to ask a new teacher about his interpretation. One of the common ways to do this was to ask him to summarize his interpretation by identifying what he saw as the most important of the laws, his key for interpreting all the other laws. So this scholar asks Jesus what his opinion is of the key to salvation. And Jesus (who, unknown to them, is the very Law of God incarnate) responds by reversing the question back to the scholar, as if to say, I think it’s self-evident, what interpretation could there be? So the scholar then answers his own question to Jesus, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus respond to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” In Matthew’s Gospel, it’s Jesus who says these words. Here in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus inspires these words in his examiner.

The scholar then asks, “So who is my neighbor?” As I said at the beginning, it was a legitimate question to Jesus from the Jewish scholar, but it wasn’t asked with a legitimate intention. These two parts of the scholar’s answer come from two different places. The part about loving God with all your heart and strength comes from Deuteronomy 6. And the part about loving one’s neighbor as yourself comes from Leviticus 19. But if we look at that whole verse, it says, “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your own people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” So the scholar’s question is, “Who is ‘my own people’? Is it my family? My tribe? All Jewish people? Just those striving to be pure and holy? How far is this love of neighbor like myself supposed to reasonably extend?” Jesus then responds to his question with the parable of the Good Samaritan.

What’s Jesus’ point about this parable? That it wasn’t the Temple Priest, and it wasn’t the Temple Levite (who spent their lives offering the Sacrifices of the Temple, and were experts in the Law) who gave the example of living out the law, but the no-good Samaritan, the despised outsider. Jesus was saying, your neighbor is not just fellow Israelites, fellow believers, fellow people who look and act and believe the same as you… which is not what the scholar wanted to hear, who wanted to constrict the command of love.

Image result for fight with neighborYour neighbor, whom you are obligated to love as you love yourself, is also the people you dislike, the people you’ve been having fights with, the people you ignore, the people who are strangers. And especially, your neighbor is anyone you see who is in need: the vulnerable, the outcast, the poor, and frightened. Your neighbor is every person who is made by God in His image, which is every person. What does it mean to love your neighbor? To do as the Samaritan did: to show mercy, to personally sacrifice, to put yourself out and become vulnerable, to invest yourself (in love) in their well-being and flourishing.

This comes into even clearer focus in light of the first reading. This is the basic law written into our nature of being a human person, natural law. That’s what Moses means when he tells the Israelites, “For this command that I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. It is not up in the sky, that you should say, ‘Who will go up in the sky to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ 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 carry it out?’ No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.

Carry what out? The basic human principle that is distorted by sin: that we are to love God, and to love every other person with the same love God has shown us, especially in Christ. Christ is humanity without sin. As the Church said in Vatican II, Christ not only reveals God to man, but reveals man to himself. That’s why we’re supposed to imitate Christ: not just because he’s God, which is very true and important, but because he’s man without the effects caused by sin. He’s man reset to factory settings, before the Fall, in intimate communion with God. In Christ’s example, and his teaching, he gives us images and example of what the Old Testament points us toward: what it means to truly be human.

To recap an earlier conversation we had, we often hear the question, “Do you need to be Christian to be a good person?” And the answer is, “YES.” Why? Because of sin. St Theresa of Avila says, if the “soul were always attached to God’s will, it is clear that it would not go astray. But the devil comes along with some skilled deception and… confuses it… Then little by little he darkens the intellect, cools the will’s ardor, and makes self-love grow until in one way or another he withdraws the soul from the will of God and brings it to his own.

Almost everyone wants to consider themselves a good person. Which is good. We have the love and need for the good, the true, and the beautiful (which is God) written in our hearts. And much of what humanity does is good. But without the light of the true faith, people promote abortion, thinking it’s morally good. People promote false imitations of marriage (including cohabitation) thinking it’s morally good. People promote all sorts of bad things that offend love of God, love of our neighbor, and even our love of ourselves, because sin darkens the intellect. And then disordered sentiment (desire) pulls the intellect and the will to justify what it wants to be true, but isn’t. We can allow that darkness to control us, or we can cooperate with God who wants to heal us and free us, and then send us out in love to heal and free others by our testimony. Love and Truth go together, and cannot thrive if separated… because they can’t be separated, they have the same source, which is God. There are things that seem good, and seem just, and seem loving, but in truth, are not. To truly be good, to be holy (which is to be like God), we need the light of faith, and the grace of God given to us in the sacraments, to heal us from sin and error.

Image result for edith steinI’ll end with this quote from another Theresa, St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (the religious name of St. Edith Stein), who was a Jewish-convert to the Catholic faith, and martyred by the Nazis in Auschwitz. St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross wrote this, which beautifully summarizes our reflection on the Good Samaritan: “Our love for our fellow humans is the measure of our love for God. But it is different from a natural love of our neighbor. Natural love goes out to this one or that one, who may be close to us through the bond of blood or through a kinship of character or common interests. The rest then are ‘strangers’ who ‘do not concern’ us, who, it may be, eventually come to be repulsive, so that one keeps them as far away as possible from contact with us. For the Christian, there are no such ‘strangers.’ Rather, he is the ‘neighbor,’ this one who stands before us and who is in the greatest need of our help; it doesn’t matter whether he is related to us or not; whether we ‘like’ him or not; whether he is ‘morally worthy’ of help or not. The love of Christ knows no bounds, it never stops, it does not shrink back from ugliness and dirt. He came for the sake of sinners and not for the sake of the just. If the love of Christ lives in us then we will, like Him, go out after the lost sheep.

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