Homily: “Lo, the day is coming…”

entrance to the Temple

The Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Malachi 3:19-20a
Psalm 98:5-6, 7-8, 9
2nd Thessalonians 3:7-12
Luke 21:5-19

In the Soviet Union, Christians were persecuted for their Faith by the Communist regime. One small group of believers used to meet in a family home every Sunday. They would arrive at different times to avoid suspicion. On one particular Sunday they were all inside, curtains drawn and doors locked, praying, when the door burst open and two armed soldiers stormed in. One shouted, “Everybody up against the wall. If you wish to renounce your faith, you may leave now, and no harm will come to you.” Two people left right away, then a third and fourth. “This is your last chance!” the soldier warned. “Either turn your back on this Jesus of yours or stay and suffer the consequences!” Two more slipped outside, crying and ashamed. No one else moved. They fully expected to be shot, or imprisoned. The soldiers closed the door. One of them said, “We, too, are Christians. We are sorry to have frightened you, but we have learned that unless people are willing to die for their faith, they cannot be fully trusted.” In times of trouble our faith is tested, and we have a chance to do for Christ what he did for us: love him to the end.

Next Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Church year, with the message that all of time and creation points to and is fulfilled in Christ. This Sunday, then, is the last Sunday reading from the Gospel of St. Luke as Jesus travels toward Jerusalem, teaching and healing along the way, as both His spiritual and physical journey have been leading Him to the final conflict, in Jerusalem, between His earthly ministry of grace and mercy, against the powers of corruption, sin, and death.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus takes His disciples to the Temple, and they are marveling at its glorious splendor. And in today’s Gospel we hear, “While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, [Jesus] said, ‘All that you see here—the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.’

We might remember that Jesus’ threatening of the Temple was one of the charges brought against Him at his trial, and was also a charge against Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr (cf. Acts 6:13-14).

The people’s response is to ask Jesus, “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?” And the rest of our reading is His answer to the question, which then also goes on another 16 verses past the end of today’s reading.

The first part of his answer in our reading is what will happen to the world, the signs that will indicate the end has come. When Jesus is asked about when the end of the world and final judgment will be, He doesn’t answer with a date and time. He gives signs for us to read by the light of faith, that those who have the eyes to see and heart to understand, those who are attentive to the things of God, will know. But on the other hand, how would we fallen humans live if we knew for sure that He wasn’t going to come back in the next 10 years? We would live like the people in Noah’s time, who weren’t worried about the flood coming. We wouldn’t bother with living holy and virtuously. Or, on the other hand, if we knew He is going to come on a certain date 10 years from now, we would procrastinate living virtuously and holy, and then try to cram it all in at the end, not out of love for God, but looking after ourselves. That’s the opposite of the Christian life. And that’s what many people do now, even not knowing when the end is coming, or perhaps caring enough about their spiritual and eternal life.

Jesus says, there will be signs, but no, I won’t tell you directly. Instead, be ready always. Always live as though judgment might be right around the corner. And that’s what St. Paul says to the Thessalonians in response to their laziness and getting into everyone else’s business: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living. Brethren, do not be weary in well-doing(RSV translation). We must always be at work with all our heart and all our might in earnest heartfelt prayer, repentance, and a life devoted to fruitful works of the Spirit. Personally, I have never had much interest in speculating about the end times. Because practically, there’s only a chance that I will be alive to face the trials of the end times and the final judgment. But there’s a certainty that I will face my own end and personal judgment, and that is far more urgent. Because even if the end of the world isn’t coming at any moment, the end of your life might be at any moment. People who die in fatal accidents or other sudden events had no idea that morning they would meet Judgment that day, and we enter eternity with whatever state of our soul at our death. And so, Jesus’ answer is, be wise, observe what’s happening, and always be ready.

The second part of His answer is not just what the world will endure, but what His disciples will endure. “Before all this happens, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimonyYou will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”

Jesus said all this in response to the question, “When will this happen?” which was asked when Jesus foretold that the Temple would be destroyed.

The Temple was more than just the hub of Jerusalem’s religious life. The Jews saw the architecture of the Temple itself as symbolizing the Heavens and the Earth. The Jewish historian Josephus describes that the bronze pool that was full of water represented the sea. He said that the lamp stand, the menorah in the Temple, represented the lights of the Heavens, the seven planets that you could see in the Heavens. On the Temple Veil, that divided the inner court of the Holy of Holies from the outer court, was woven stars. They actually had the constellations on the veil to symbolize the fact that the veil represented Heaven, whereas beyond the veil represented the Heaven of Heavens. And so the destruction of the Temple was in a mystical sense, a destruction of all of Creation.

And, historically, the Temple WAS destroyed. Not one stone of the temple still stands on the Temple mount Image result for wailing wall(The Western Wall, or “Wailing Wall”, is a retaining wall surrounding part of the mount, the foundation, not the Temple itself. The Islamic Temple Al Masjid Al Aqsa, “The Dome of the Rock” now sits on the Temple Mount). In the year 70, the Romans attacked and destroyed Jerusalem, and millions of Jews, and all the temple priests, died. And with that, Temple-based Judaism and the sacrificial system, ended, and Related imageJudaism shifted completely to the synagogue model, with rabbis instead of priests, and scripture study instead of sacrifices. I’ve heard it said that the Catholic Mass is more like the Temple aspect of Judaism (sacrificial liturgies offered by priests), while Protestant Services are more like the synagogue aspect of Judaism (liturgical scripture expositions, led by rabbis). But in any case, Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple, and the signs that preceded it, were fulfilled on the literal, historical level. But also, on the mystical, universal level, we still await the perfect fulfillment of His prophecy with the unfolding events at the final judgment.

We know from the Acts of the Apostles and other early Church documents that Jesus’ prediction of the persecutions of the Church came true as well. Many Christians gave the full witness of their faith in Christ (“witness” in Greek is the word “martyr”). We have the accounts of many of the early martyrs and their heroic testimony. But also, in a fuller sense, the persecution of the Church, and the call to witness to our faith, is an ongoing reality, in some places worse than others, in every age since Christ, and in every age until Christ’s return, with Christ’s prediction that it will be the worst at the end. We, here and now, are called to witness to our faith, to bear fruit in our love, in our words, in our example, and in what we promote and what we oppose as disciples of the truth and love of God in Jesus Christ.

The question being asked by St. Luke’s Christian community was, “Now that many of these things have happened, and we are being persecuted, what should we do?” Our Gospel reading today, and parallels in other parts, especially the book of Revelation, writings in the bible like these about the tribulations of the end times is called “apocalyptic literature.” To quote the homily resource from Fr. Anthony Kadavil…

Early Christian apocalyptic writings were symbolic in nature, giving more an interpretation of events than an actual prediction. One purpose of apocalyptic literature is to encourage dispirited people by proclaiming that God is in control of history and that punishment of the wicked will come about by God’s doing. A second purpose is to encourage believers to remain faithful through the coming ordeals. A third purpose is to inspire believers to derive all the spiritual good God offers them through life’s inevitable suffering. So the apocalyptic writers encouraged their readers to interpret their sufferings as a sharing in the birth-pangs of the “end.” The believers were assured that if they remained constant in Faith, they could welcome the end of all things and the beginning of eternity with confidence and joy rather than with fear and dread. 

St. Luke reminds them of Jesus’ assurance that they were to trust His words against their persecutors and to make use of this opportunity to bear witness to Jesus. This test of Faith was also an opportunity for them to bear witness to Him before the court officials and the public at large. Thus, the persecution would become a massive evangelization campaign. Their Faith would serve as a clear witness on the Day of Judgment.  Not only would the individual martyrs see the Lord in Heaven, but the Church would flourish in persecution.

Our responsorial psalm for today continues that theme of hope, rather than fear.With trumpets and the sound of the horn sing joyfully before the King, the LORD… let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains shout with them for joy… Before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to rule the earth, he will rule the world with justice and the peoples with equity.Yes, the Lord is coming, and for many this bodes of the consequences of suffering for their iniquity and unfaithfulness. But for those whom “he has tested in fire and found worthy of himself,” (Wisdom 3:5, 1 Corinthians 3:13), they will share in the inauguration the New Creation, the restoration and recreation of the world, marked by perfect justice, perfect love, perfect joy, the hidden beauty in everything fully revealed. It’s the manifestation of the perfectly ordered Kingdom of God (as I said at the beginning, everything points to its fulfillment in Christ the King, which we celebrate next Sunday). 

This exhortation to faithfully persevere in times of widespread suffering is the message of the prophet Malachi in our first reading. Malachi was responding to rampant moral corruption in Israel centuries before Jesus, but this excerpt of his writing fits well with today’s Gospel. “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire… But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”

Related imageMy brothers and sisters, as we enter the end of the Church year, meditating on end things, our eternal life, I remind you of the phrase I mentioned last week, “Memento Mori,” Remember death. Let us pour ourselves out in making sure that our spiritual condition is always ready to meet Jesus Christ our generous savior, and merciful judge, not with empty hands because we focused entirely on this temporal world and things that pass away, but with the treasure we have laid up heaven, our deep devotional life, our good works done in love and service toward others, and our profound holiness and love for God above all things.

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Homily: Hope for Heaven


The Thirty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
2nd Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14
Psalm 17:1, 5-6, 8, 15
2nd Thessalonians 2:16-3:5
Luke 20:27-38

If it’s true that the world is flat, then cats would have pushed everything off the edge by now.

If it’s true that each piece of bacon you eat subtracts 9 minutes off your life, then I died in 1823.

If it’s true that a cat always lands on its feet, and that a slice of bread always lands buttered side down, then you can strap a slice of buttered bread to the back of a cat and invent anti-gravity technology.

These are all forms of the same logical test, called reduction to the absurd (reductio ad absurdum). If this one statement is true, then this second statement is logically also true, and this second statement is obviously absurd, so the first statement obviously can’t be true.

It’s the same test that the Sadducees use on Jesus in our gospel reading. The first statement is that there’s an afterlife, and this woman marries seven brothers, who each die. The second statement is that, in the afterlife, then, she would be married to all seven men, and that’s absurd. Therefore, the first statement, that there is an afterlife, is false. Image result for Now there were seven brothers;the first married a woman but died childless.The trap was that if Jesus agrees, he’d get out of the trap, but in the process, he would lose the large Pharisee group, and much of the crowd, who all believed in the afterlife. So what Jesus did was to show how the trap was wrong in its assumption. The basic assumption of the trap was that the afterlife was like an eternity of earthly life. Jesus responded that life in heaven is not like earthly life. “The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like the angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise.

The first part gets many people intrigued. There’s no marriage in heaven? Well, there is one: The marriage of Jesus Christ, the Lamb, the Divine Bridegroom, with the Church, the members of the mystical Bride of Christ. If you think about it, not all of the Church’s seven sacraments would apply in heaven. The Sacrament of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick are no longer needed. The sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders leave an eternal mark on the soul, and so they would still be part of eternal life. The Eucharist wouldn’t, because the Eucharist is a sacramental sign of the holy communion of heaven, and now that we’re in the reality of heaven, we wouldn’t need a sacramental sign of it, we’d behold and enjoy the full reality of it.

Marriage wouldn’t be eternal. First, the sacrament only binds until death do they part. Once a spouse dies, the sacramental marriage is no longer bound. But also, look at the purpose of marriage: first, the mutual sanctification of the spouses. Related imageThat’s unnecessary in the perfect sanctity of heaven. Second, the procreation and raising of children. That’s also unnecessary in heaven, as all humanity is born in this world. And a third purpose of marriage: to be an icon, a sacramental sign, of trinitarian love in the world. And if spouses are no longer in this world but in heaven, marriage doesn’t apply. Marriage is an earthly sign of (and participation in) the love of the supernatural marriage of the Lamb and the Church, which everyone in heaven participates in in an infinitely greater way than any earthly marriage.

And that’s perhaps the key reason why there’s no marriage in heaven. The relationship of divine love shared between God and every heavenly being is infinitely greater, more intimate, more transparent and self-giving, more joyful, than even the best marriages in human history. Does that mean that you won’t know your spouse in heaven? Absolutely you will.

Image result for falling in loveYou know how intimate and intriguing and exciting it is to explore the infinite mystery of someone you’re in love with? That’s because we reflect the infinite mystery of God. That’s why we exist: so that God and each soul can spend eternity exploring and growing in love and wonder of the infinite mystery of each other. Those people you already have a relationship with, especially your spouse, you already have a huge head start. And your relationship with your spouse (and everyone you already know) will be healed of any wounds. It’s an eternity of growing in deeper wonder of the mystery of God Himself, and His mystery reflected in the being of every other person. That’s the spiritual joy of heaven. There’s also physical joy of heaven, because our human nature is the unity of body and soul. The joy of our bodily resurrection and physical participation in heaven is just as wonderful, and eternal. Jesus says in our reading, that we will be like angels. But we won’t be angels. We don’t earn our wings or play the harp. Angels are completely different creations of a different spiritual species. But we will be like them in their eternal life, in heavenly perfection, and perfect holy communion with God and one another.

Dr. Peter Kreeft has an excellent recorded lecture on Angels, and another on the question of Sex in Heaven (transcribed here!), which of course is a topic I’m not going to get into here!

And as great as I can try to make heaven sound, our imagination cannot possibly come even close. St. Paul assured us that “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (1st Corinthians, 2:9). So you definitely don’t want to gamble on losing that for anything in this world. Jesus says in our gospel reading that heavenly life is for “those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age.” Don’t let modern society trick you into thinking the road to heaven is wide and easy. The way is steep and narrow, but it’s infinitely worth it.

So just a quick look at our first reading. The theme of these readings ties into what I said at the Masses for All Saints Day. November is the end of the liturgical year, when we ponder the last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell, and purgatory. So our readings today share the theme of our hope in eternal life in heaven. Jesus gives us a beautiful glimpse in the gospel. Our first reading shows us the potential cost. Our first reading is from the Old Testament Book of Second Maccabees. It’s one of the books that Protestants don’t accept as part of the inspired scripture.

The Second Book of Maccabees continues from the first book the experience of the faithful ones of Israel amidst the persecution from the Greek emperor Antiochus Epiphanes, who viciously enforced the Greek religion, and punished all others, about a hundred years before Jesus. Our reading is from the account of the mother of seven brothers, showing the 1st century BC Israelite value of martyrdom, rooted in the Israelite faith in the bodily resurrection. Each of the seven brothers speaks an important aspect of Israelite faith in the afterlife, but our reading only has the first, third and fourth. From them we learn, from the first son, that the just ones die rather than sin; from the third son, they will rise with their bodies restored, and from the fourth, for the wicked, there will be no resurrection to life. I also mentioned on All Saints Day that our word “macabre,” is from the French, and originates as a reference to the Maccabees and the gruesome details of the torture they endured, which our reading today thankfully leaves out. But in reading these accounts, we can see how the early Christian Church quickly gained an appreciation for the glory of martyrdom amidst persecutions, as well as the firm Christian faith in the bodily resurrection, both of which are clearly taught in the New Testament, but come kind of out of nowhere if the Old Testament excludes the books of the Maccabees… which also, in another place, talks about intercessory prayer for the dead, and the biblical root for the teaching of purgatory.

Many of the homily resources I used stressed the value of reading the full story of this mother and the seven sons, especially her exhortation to her sons, the tortures they endured, and the final words of each son. This wasn’t delivered in the homily, but I will give them to you here (and unfortunately, I couldn’t address the psalm and second reading without making it way too long!)

The Martyrdom of a Mother and Her Seven Sons.

(Second Maccabees, all of Chapter 7; translation and commentary is from the New American Bible, on the USCCB website; verse cross references omitted; emphases mine)

1 It also happened that seven brothers with their mother were arrested and tortured with whips and scourges by the king to force them to eat pork in violation of God’s law.

One of the brothers, speaking for the others, said: “What do you expect to learn by questioning us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”

3 At that the king, in a fury, gave orders to have pans and cauldrons heated.

4 These were quickly heated, and he gave the order to cut out the tongue of the one who had spoken for the others, to scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of his brothers and his mother looked on.

5 When he was completely maimed but still breathing, the king ordered them to carry him to the fire and fry him. As a cloud of smoke spread from the pan, the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, with these words:

6 “The Lord God is looking on and truly has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song, when he openly bore witness, saying, ‘And God will have compassion on his servants.’”

7 After the first brother had died in this manner, they brought the second to be made sport of. After tearing off the skin and hair of his head, they asked him, “Will you eat the pork rather than have your body tortured limb by limb?”

8 Answering in the language of his ancestors, he said, “Never!” So he in turn suffered the same tortures as the first.

9 With his last breath he said: “You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up* to live again forever, because we are dying for his laws.”

[7:9The King of the universe will raise us up: here, and in vv. 1114232936, belief in the future resurrection of the body, at least for the just, is clearly stated; cf. also 12:4414:46Dn 12:2.

10 After him the third suffered their cruel sport. He put forth his tongue at once when told to do so, and bravely stretched out his hands,

11 as he spoke these noble words: “It was from Heaven that I received these; for the sake of his laws I disregard them; from him I hope to receive them again.”

12 Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s spirit, because he regarded his sufferings as nothing.

13 After he had died, they tortured and maltreated the fourth brother in the same way.

14 When he was near death, he said, “It is my choice to die at the hands of mortals with the hope that God will restore me to life; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.”

15 They next brought forward the fifth brother and maltreated him.

16 Looking at the king, he said: “Mortal though you are, you have power over human beings, so you do what you please. But do not think that our nation is forsaken by God.

17 Only wait, and you will see how his great power will torment you and your descendants.”

18 After him they brought the sixth brother. When he was about to die, he said: “Have no vain illusions. We suffer these things on our own account, because we have sinned against our God; that is why such shocking things have happened.

19 Do not think, then, that you will go unpunished for having dared to fight against God.”

20 Most admirable and worthy of everlasting remembrance was the mother who, seeing her seven sons perish in a single day, bore it courageously because of her hope in the Lord.

21 Filled with a noble spirit that stirred her womanly reason with manly emotion, she exhorted each of them in the language of their ancestors with these words:

22 “I do not know how you came to be in my womb; it was not I who gave you breath and life, nor was it I who arranged the elements you are made of.

Personal comment: biblical argument for human life in the womb before birth. 

23 Therefore, since it is the Creator of the universe who shaped the beginning of humankind and brought about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life, because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of his law.”

24 Antiochus, suspecting insult in her words, thought he was being ridiculed. As the youngest brother was still alive, the king appealed to him, not with mere words, but with promises on oath, to make him rich and happy if he would abandon his ancestral customs: he would make him his Friend and entrust him with high office.

25 When the youth paid no attention to him at all, the king appealed to the mother, urging her to advise her boy to save his life.

26 After he had urged her for a long time, she agreed to persuade her son.

27 She leaned over close to him and, in derision of the cruel tyrant, said in their native language: “Son, have pity on me, who carried you in my womb for nine months, nursed you for three years, brought you up, educated and supported you to your present age.

28 I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things.* In the same way humankind came into existence.

* [7:28God did not make them out of existing things: that is, all things were made solely by God’s omnipotent will and creative word; cf. Heb 11:3. This statement has often been taken as a basis for “creation out of nothing” (Latin creatio ex nihilo).

29 Do not be afraid of this executioner, but be worthy of your brothers and accept death, so that in the time of mercy I may receive you again with your brothers.”

30 She had scarcely finished speaking when the youth said: “What is the delay? I will not obey the king’s command. I obey the command of the law given to our ancestors through Moses.

31 But you, who have contrived every kind of evil for the Hebrews, will not escape the hands of God.

32 We, indeed, are suffering because of our sins.

33 Though for a little while our living Lord has been angry, correcting and chastising us, he will again be reconciled with his servants.

34 But you, wretch, most vile of mortals, do not, in your insolence, buoy yourself up with unfounded hopes, as you raise your hand against the children of heaven.

35 You have not yet escaped the judgment of the almighty and all-seeing God.

36 Our brothers, after enduring brief pain, have drunk of never-failing life, under God’s covenant. But you, by the judgment of God, shall receive just punishments for your arrogance.

37 Like my brothers, I offer up my body and my life for our ancestral laws, imploring God to show mercy soon to our nation, and by afflictions and blows to make you confess that he alone is God.

38 Through me and my brothers, may there be an end to the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.”

39 At that, the king became enraged and treated him even worse than the others, since he bitterly resented the boy’s contempt.

40 Thus he too died undefiled, putting all his trust in the Lord.

41 Last of all, after her sons, the mother was put to death.

42 Enough has been said about the sacrificial meals and the excessive cruelties.

There is a progression in the words the brothers address to the king before dying:

  1. The just die rather than sin.
  2. God will raise them up.
  3. They will rise with bodies fully restored.
  4. For the wicked there will be no resurrection to life.
  5. Instead of resurrection, God will punish them.
  6. The just suffer because of their sins, as will the wicked.
  7. The death of the saints has imperatory (obtain by entreaty or petition) and even expiatory (make atonement) value. Thus, the sacred author states the theology of martyrdom and the resurrection of the just.

And so, what we can do with all this, in this month of November, contemplating the last things, is first, to give thanks to God for all that he has blessed you with of his own sheer goodness and love for you, particularly the revelation of himself and his truth, that we may know him, love him, and live by his way of holy joy. Second, apply the traditional Catholic mantra, memento mori, remember death. Always be prepared for eternal judgment. Avoid all sin. Pursue all virtue. And third, build up the strength of your own personal faith in and relationship with God, that you too may have the courage to witness and sacrifice for your faith with love and grace, in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

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Homily: Zacchaeus


The Thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Wisdom 11:22-12:2
Psalm 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13, 14
2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2
Luke 19:1-10

Our first reading for this weekend, from the Old Testament book of Wisdom, gives us a beautiful prayer to the Lord. It says, “For you love all things that are, and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned. And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it… But you spare all things, because they are yours, O LORD.” And the use of the word, “LORD” is not a call to some generic supernatural force, but the reverential substitution for the holy name of Israel’s God, who revealed His particular and personal love for His people.

So first, we can get from this the assurance that if we feel distant or unloved by God, that this is our feelings misleading us. God, who is love, loves us, or we wouldn’t exist. Not because He has to, but because He willingly chooses to. We are His beloved, each individual one of us, infinitely. We respond to His love by surrendering our lives to Him, and conforming our lives to His grace, which purifies us of every imperfection and sin.

But, we might protest, what about spiders, and mosquitoes, and oatmeal raisin cookies? Why do these vile things even exist? Or more to the point, what about terrorists, and pedophiles, and cancer cells? What’s up with that? Does God love cancer? Is that why it exists? No. Of course not. God creates all things good.

What is cancer? It’s cells of life, whose internal instruction code gets corrupted, and they start multiplying out of control, like a biological meltdown, where the very mechanism that was designed to regulate becomes the problem. That the cells exist is good. That they have become corrupted from their intentional goodness is not. The same with terrorists and pedophiles. Their existence, their nature, is good. That they have gone down the path of sin and error, and corruption of their goodness, is not.

That is why, except under very particular and rare conditions, the Church rejects the death penalty. Even the most vile criminal, who has twisted and corrupted their moral character, cannot diminish the inherent goodness of his or her human nature and dignity, which has inviolable rights, such as the right to life. 

It goes all the way back to Satan, the most beautiful of the seraphim angels, who pridefully rejected the goodness of the very plan that his own existence was part of. So in the sinful jealousy of his corruption, he led Adam and Eve, the holy stewards of creation, into sin, and so corrupted the order of nature of both humanity and of the created world, which continues to groan in anticipation of its redemption, and its freedom from corruption. God loves the things he has made, and so they continue to exist, even with their corruption. First, because he loves the goodness of their nature; and second, because his plan of restoration and redemption uses even corruption, suffering, and death for healing, love, and eternal life. God’s got it all in his plan, even allowing for our stupidity and misuse of our freewill, and the naturally occurring corruptions of disease and disaster. He uses it all for the goodness of his beautiful plan of love for each one of us, with whom he is especially close when we are suffering and brokenhearted.

Like a society under a corrupt ruler begins to share in and reflect the ruler’s corruption, Adam and Eve were given the divine authority as king and queen of creation, and so in their corruption, all of creation suffers the effect of humanity’s fall from original order.

Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little, warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O LORD!

Speaking not of natural evil, like disease, but of moral evil, which is sin, God is praised for his gentleness and patience, yet his firm intent to turn offenders, sinners, from their sin and wickedness to the life of grace. He doesn’t overpower our wills, he doesn’t bully our freewill. He prompts us, through our conscience, our conversations, our circumstances, to give up our sin, our voluntary corruption, our wounds caused by the sin of others, and to abandon ourselves to the mercy of his healing love and care for us, to live according to the goodness of our created nature (for, as he says on the sixth day, “it is very good”).

Our psalm echoes the praise in our first reading. “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness… compassionate toward all his works. Let all your works give you thanks, O LORD… The LORD lifts up all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down.”

Our second reading, as we know, isn’t chosen to reflect the theme of the other readings, but is progressing independently through the letters of the New Testament. But today we hear St. Paul tell the Thessalonians, “We always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith, that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, in accord with the grace of our God and Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is through Jesus Christ that human nature is called to redemption and restoration to original glory and grace. We have not fully accepted the invitation to allow the kingdom of God to rule over our hearts and minds. We still want to retain some relationship with our sinful attachments, because we’re just not ready to hand over every last bit ourselves in complete trust to him; to do what we are supposed to do, and to be what we are supposed to be, for his glory and for our salvation.

The Thessalonians were obsessed with end-times predictions. In this letter is where Paul writes the most about the end times, and so we read from this letter the last four weeks of the liturgical year, leading up to the feast of Christ the King on the last Sunday. St. Paul is responding to the disordered way that the Thessalonians were responding to thinking the end times had come, or were about to come. They cannot think the end is nigh, so  work is pointless and slacking off, nor that they might be like the wicked servant, who thinks the master is long delayed in coming, and begins growing in sinfulness. And Paul corrects them to always be prepared for the coming of Christ by always being faithful in living out the Christian life, always bearing fruit, always carrying out their witness of the virtuous and holy life of grace. 

And finally, in our gospel, all of this comes together in the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus. We remember from last week how much tax collectors were despised as unclean thieves and traitors against their own people. Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector, a regional director. And a wealthy man. And he’s short.

So Jesus is coming to town, and Zacchaeus wants to see him. Perhaps because of Jesus’ reputation of mercy and kindness toward tax collectors, even naming one among his twelve special apostles. So he runs ahead of where Jesus is going, and climbs a tree, maybe hiding in the leaves. Here’s a rich chief tax collector, climbing a tree like one of the village children.

Children can experience and participate in the celebration of the Mass more easily  without rows and rows of adults in front of them blocking their view of the sanctuary, and Jesus on the altar. 

Jesus looks up and sees him, and invites himself to have dinner with Zacchaeus. And everyone grumbled. Why is he going to that house? Why doesn’t he go to the poor? Why not with the prayerful ones? How can Jesus be who people say he is, if this sinner is the kind of person he’s going to have supper with?

But Jesus is expressing God’s desire to be in communion with those lost in sin, to seek them, find them, and bring them back to life. Zacchaeus had only hoped to see Jesus. Now he’s overwhelmed being the recipient of God’s divine attention and care. God did not just see the corruption of Zacchaeus’ moral character. God also knows Zacchaeus down beneath the corruption to the goodness of his very being; goodness that God wanted to draw out; the life of generous communion he was made for, which is perfected in the communion of heaven. And the effect on Zacchaeus is not just perfect contrition, but also superabundant reparation for his sinful ways. The reading says, “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone, I shall repay it four times over.’”

Think about what you have in the bank right now, what you own, what your assets are, whatever. Think about saying, I’m cutting that in half, half of that, it goes to the poor right now and you don’t look back. That’s Zacchaeus.

This reparation is like the penance that is assigned in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The penance does not earn the forgiveness of sins. The penance is the reparation done in thanksgiving, as the response to having been forgiven. It is meant, on the one hand, to be therapeutic, to help the penitent grow in holiness and not fall into sin again; and on the other hand, to put good into the world, into the community, to “repair” the effects of the sins they’ve done and now been forgiven for. The Sacrament of Reconciliation forgives the sin in the eyes of God, on the supernatural level. But the effects of sin, the wounding done to the relationships and the community, and an increased attachment to sin, must be amended on the natural level. 

So when Zacchaeus responds in this way to Jesus, what does Jesus say? “Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house…’” There’s a play on words, a double meaning.

First, Zacchaeus being restored to righteousness and communion with God by God’s mercy, and Zacchaeus’ response of perfect contrition for his sin, and his abundantly generous reparation shows “that today salvation has come to this house.”

But also, Jesus says this in the context of He Himself coming to Zacchaeus’ house. Jesus himself is the salvation that has come to this house. Jesus is the cause of Zaccheaus’ conversion, his restoration to the communion of the children of Abraham, God’s people. Zacchaeus belongs to God, and God has always loved him, and now calls that love to come bursting forth out of Zacchaeus in the form of joyful generosity. And that’s what ties all our readings together. God knew of the evil and corruption of Zacchaeus, and the suffering that he caused, especially to the poor. And now Jesus doesn’t help the poor by destroying their oppressor Zacchaeus, but by lovingly removing the corruption in Zacchaeus, he now becomes a generous blessing and provider to the poor.

For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” And this might remind us of the three parables about God’s joy at recovering the beloved thing that had been lost, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (prodigal) son. One might imagine, with the hatred and resentment the people expressed toward Zacchaeus, and his corruption keeping him away from the liturgical and communal life of worship, which held the community of Israel together, that Zacchaeus might have struggled to see himself as a divinely loved member of God’s people, the children of Abraham. He was lost and separated, by sin and by hatred. And Jesus, salvation incarnate, came to heal the sin and reconcile the separation, that this lost son of Abraham might indeed know himself principally in terms of God’s love for him, and his call to live out that love in holy and generous care for the community, using his gifts and resources for the good of all, especially those most in need.

I love the quote that I saw that says, 

Image result for Long before Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus, the tree was already planted to meet his need

God works all things for good for those who love him and follow his ways. And Zacchaeus didn’t even love him when that tree was planted. God continues to love us, even when we do not love Him in return. God was prepared and ready for Zacchaeus. If God could do this with corrupt, selfish little Zacchaeus, what could he do with you? What would be the effect for the world of your Zacchaeus-like repentance and superabundant restoration? He doesn’t need us, but calls us to exist and sustains us out of sheer generous love for us, that we might repent of our sin, and share in the joy of his divine goodness. We are made to let loose all our potential into his divine service, for his glory, and for the welfare and salvation of others.

God loves you, and he is not angry with you. He wants you—He created you—to share in His joy, and let go of the sin that limits His life in you. Trust in him. Do not be afraid. Let your light shine.

Before the LORD the whole universe is as a grain from a balance or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth. But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent… Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little, warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you… O LORD and lover of souls.”

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Homily: The Pharisee & The Tax Collector

Pharisee and Tax Collector

The Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18
Psalm 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

What kind of person is despised for their poor, unholy reputation? Drug dealers? Rock stars? Abortionists? People calling about the warranty on your car? Then, what kind of person is respected for their high moral reputation? Monks? Teachers? Nurses? That’s the contrast that Jesus sets up in his parable.

A person of a very respected group. A pharisee. We have a jaded opinion of pharisees because most of what we know about them comes from their conflicts with Jesus, and his criticisms of them (such as in today’s reading!). But they were highly respected for their reputation for righteousness. The Pharisee movement was a call to radically live the requirements of the laws of righteousness, and in general they were well-respected for their knowledge of the scriptures, the law, and their propriety. Tax collectors on the other hand, were reviled by the Jewish people. Tax collectors were Jews who paid the Romans in advance for the money due to Rome for taxes, and then collected the taxes from their fellow Jews to repay themselves, often with a comfortable margin for profit. The fact that most tax collectors were rather wealthy, and rather unforgiving toward their fellow Jews who struggled to pay their taxes, didn’t help their reputation. In other words, they collaborated with the Romans and stole from the Jews.  Hence, they were considered by their fellow-Jews to be traitors, unclean and sinful. So Jesus sets up this contrast in his parable: the obvious good guy, the pharisee; and the obvious bad guy, the tax collector. The pharisee, no stranger to the temple, goes up and gives a litany of his righteous habits. The tax collector timidly slips in the back, and mutters a pathetic little prayer.

We talked a few weeks ago about the parables of Jesus having two very common features: the unexpected twist, and the moral lesson (in Hebrew, the “nimshal“) at the end. And this parable fits that description. “I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former.” There’s the surprise twist.For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” And there’s the moral lesson at the end.

Jesus’ criticism of the pharisee echoes the prophets’ complaints about the Temple sacrifices for centuries before that: people doing the religious actions required by the law, but without the religious devotion, contrition, and holy life those actions are supposed to express. Outward holiness must be the fruit of inward holiness. And this pharisee has a long way to go toward inward holiness. St. Luke even introduces this parable saying, “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” So let’s look first at the prayer the pharisee offered: “The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself. ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’”

So first, he “spoke this prayer to himself.” His prayer is addressed to God, but he’s praying to himself. He’s replaced God with himself. That’s the definition of pride. 1, he trusted in himself and his righteousness, and 2, he despised others.

I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous.” So he’s not praising God for God’s mercy and glory, he’s praising himself for being better… than the rest of humanity. Wow. And then he lists the ways he’s better, by the opposites of his own strengths: as a pharisee, he overpays on his tithes, follows the letter of the law, and is scrupulously righteous; therefore “the rest of humanity” is greedy, dishonest, and adulterous.

And then he says, “or even like this tax collector.” The great 5th century homilist St. John Chrysostom commented on this, “To despise the whole race of man was not enough for him; he must yet attack the tax collector. He would have sinned, yet far less if he had spared the tax collector, but now in one word he both assails the absent, and inflicts a wound on him who was present… To give thanks is not to heap reproaches on others.”

If you’re one of the people who have confessed being judgmental and condemning strangers, especially people who appear to have made a life with a pattern of bad choices, that’s like this pharisee: “At least I’m not as bad as that loser.” The good news is that you’re not alone. The bad news is it’s clearly an uncharitable habit that needs to be broken. Jesus just called you out.

So that’s enough picking on the pharisee for now. Let’s turn now to the underdog hero of our story, the miserable tax collector. Here’s where we get the connection to the other readings.

But the tax collector stood off at a distance.” Ok. Score one for the people in the back pews.

He “beat his breast and prayed.” This is a common expression of penitence. In the Penitential Act of the Mass, the Church instructs us to strike our breast, as we say, “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” We’re humbly expressing our sorrow for our guilt. First we have to have a sense of sin, that there are things that are objectively and truly in conflict with God’s law of goodness. And we have to examine our conscience and acknowledge that we have sinned, and we’re owning up to it. And we’re contrite, we’re sorry for our faults.

The tax collector simply and earnestly prays, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” That’s the way to confess sin. Often in the confessional, a penitent (usually one who isn’t frequently in the confessional) will say something like, “Well, I do this bad thing, and that bad thing, because this and that (implying, so it’s not really my fault’). But I do this good thing and that good thing.” No, that’s now how this works. Confession isn’t where we explain away our guilt, and we don’t go into describing our good things, justifying ourselves. That’s the pharisee. Confession is just that: humble, straightforward confession of our guilt and sin against God, our wounds where we need God’s mercy to forgive and heal us. Like this tax collector, who, moved by God’s holiness, and his own lack of holiness, simply and honestly prays for mercy.

Remember tax collectors were generally pretty wealthy. But here’s a tax collector who has been moved by God to come to the Temple, to the presence of God, and confess his spiritual poverty, his many sins, against God and against his neighbor, and his utter dependence on God for mercy and reconciliation and salvation. And it is the tax collector who went home justified, forgiven, reconciled.

In another commentary by St. John Chrysostom, who was referenced earlier, he says, “This parable represents to us two chariots on the race course, each with two charioteers in it. In one of the chariots it places righteousness with pride, in the other sin with humility. You see the chariot of sin outstrip that of righteousness, not by its own strength but by the excellence of humility combined with it. But the other is defeated not by righteousness, but by the weight and swelling of pride. For as humility by its own elasticity rises above the weight of pride, and leaping up reaches to God, so pride by its great weight easily depresses righteousness.”

I’m also reminded of an earlier passage in St. Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.” Jesus was trying to tell the Pharisees that they, too, are sick and in need of repentance and not as righteous as they think. But the Pharisees were too proud to understand. But the tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners, they were well aware of their sin, their spiritual poverty, and were joyful that the divine physician had come to heal and restore them to justice and spiritual health. One commentary on our gospel reading said,The Pharisee got what he asked for, which was nothing, while the tax collector got what he asked for, which was everything.”

One of my favorite movies is “Son of God,” directed by Christopher Spencer, and produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. It’s the Gospel follow-up movie to their History Channel series, “The Bible.” And my favorite scene from this movie combines this parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, and the calling of Matthew, the tax collector. 

Our first reading, from the Old Testament wisdom author Sirach, says, “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds” This is echoed in our Psalm, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.” St. Paul says our second reading, “But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength… and I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.

God is awesome, and perfect, and glorious. And He pours His glory upon us as His love and mercy. We know we can only be made holy by His grace, and our receptivity to His grace; His invitation and our response.

In this life, and in our final judgment for the life to come, if (and wherever in our life) we rely on our own righteousness, we fall, proud and unrepentant, and we will be humbled when we are locked out, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. But if we humbly prostrate ourselves before Him in utter dependence (especially when we are suffering and brokenhearted), He exalts us. He heals us and unites us to Himself and the saints and angels in holy communion for all eternity. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

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Homily: Healing and Thanksgiving


The Twenty-eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
2 Kings 5:14-17
Psalm 98:1, 2-3, 3-4
2 Timothy 2:8-13
Luke 17:11-19

Today our readings teach us about two things: God healing us, and our thanksgiving to God for healing us.

In our first reading, we have the end of the story of the healing of Naaman. Namaan was a Syrian, the army commander of the king of Aram, and he was highly esteemed and respected. But he had contracted leprosy. Naaman’s wife had an Israelite slave girl who spoke of a prophet in Israel that could cure Naaman. So the king sent Naaman to the king of Israel, along with a letter and gifts for Naaman’s safe passage. One of the interesting things about this story is the Israelite king’s response. It says, “When he read the letter, the king of Israel tore his garments and exclaimed: ‘Am I a god with power over life and death, that this man should send someone for me to cure him of leprosy?” The king tells us that the deadly affliction of leprosy is so horrific that it only a god could cure it.

So, the prophet Elisha hears about this, and sends a message to the king: “Let him come to me and find out that there is a prophet in Israel.” So, when Naaman arrives at Elisha’s dwelling, Elisha sends word to Naaman to bathe seven times in the Jordan River, and he will be healed. And the valiant military leader is a bit insulted. First, Elisha doesn’t even greet him himself, he just sends a messenger out to tell him. And second, the Jordan river is a muddy little creek compared to the great rivers of Syria, and third, just bathe in a muddy river? That’s it? So in anger, he storms away. But his servants plead with him, saying, “if the prophet told you to do something extraordinary, would you not do it? All the more since he told you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?

Image result for naamanAnd then this is where our reading picks up. Naaman went down and plunged into the Jordan seven times at the word of Elisha. His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean of his leprosy.” It wasn’t just that his skin was healed of leprosy and became the normal skin of a grown man. He was made new. His flesh was like that of an infant.

And then we have the second part: Naaman is thankful for God’s healing. He tells Elisha, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel… please let me, your servant, have two mule-loads of earth, for I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other god except to the LORD.” This is a strange request to us, but it shows the belief that gods were territorial, and Naaman wanted to take ground from Israel to worship the God of Israel back in Syria.

So now let’s see how all this relates to the Gospel. Jesus is traveling through Israelite and Samaritan lands and is approached at a distance by ten lepers asking to be healed. “And when he saw them, he said, ‘Go show yourselves to the priests.’ As they were going, they were cleansed.” So leprosy referred to a number of different skin diseases, some of them were temporary, some were not, and included in that was what we know as leprosy, that killed off the nerve endings, leading to infections, until the person died. Image result for israelite lepersIn the book of Leviticus, Moses had established procedures for the priests, who were responsible for protecting the physical and spiritual health of the people, and declaring people clean or unclean, part of, or separated from, the community. So if someone had a skin disease, they would be declared unclean, and they had to stay away from others and shout “unclean” to protect the healthy community. But if it seemed that someone had recovered from their disease, they would present themselves to the priests, who would declare them to be clean, and the person would take a ritual bath, wait seven days (the number of the covenant), then there would be a sacrifice with blood and water being sprinkled seven times, and the person would be restored to the community.

So, these ten lepers don’t shout, “Unclean.” They shout, “Jesus, heal us!” And Jesus responds by fulfilling the Law: “Go show yourselves to the priest.” And as we know, they discovered along the way that they were healed. But one of the ten, not one of the Israelites, but the one that was one of those foreigner, no-good, Samaritans, “realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.” And at the end it says, Jesus said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith (your trust) has saved you.

Ok. So. Let’s put this all together. The Samaritan and Naaman the Syrian had three things in common. First, obviously they were lepers! Second, they were both healed by their faith and trust in God, after obeying in faith what they were told to do. So that ties us back to last week: faith and trust. And thirdly, they were both foreigners, gentiles. What was our responsorial psalm? “The Lord has revealed to the nations (the gentiles) his saving power.” So part of what is happening here, is not just healing of lepers, but healing of spiritual wounds and division, and the converting of gentiles. Jesus is expanding the covenant, so the New Covenant won’t be just with the children of Abraham, but open to all the children of Adam.

Next thing: Remember what the king of Israel said? “Am I a god with power over life and death, that this man should send someone for me to cure him of leprosy?” Who cured Naaman? God. Who cured the ten lepers? Jesus…who is really God.

Naaman tried to thank Elisha with gifts, but Elisha refused, because it was God who healed Naaman. The Samaritan returned glorifying God, and fell at the feet of Jesus, and thanked him. Did Jesus correct the Samaritan? Did he say, “Stand up, I’m just a man, like you”? No. Because he is God, who has the power to heal, and wants to heal, the world—not just Israel, but all humanity.

As a closing reflection… There was a particular kind of ritual sacrifice in Israel that was described by Moses, but it became popular much later. The Todah sacrifice was not offered in atonement for sin or in reparation, but in thanks and praise to God for a specific act of deliverance.  The Todah was a festive sacrifice offered as part of a seven-step sequence of experiences, in which you (1) began in a situation of distress, (2) you cried out to God, (3) made a vow to offer the Todah sacrifice if God would save you, (4) God saved you, (5) you paid your vow by offering the Todah sacrifice in the temple, (6) you had a festive party as you and your family and friends ate the meat of the sacrifice and all the bread that was involved, and (7) you gave public testimony to all assembled in the Temple concerning how God saved you.

So you would bring the animal to God in thanksgiving, and then the priest would ritually sacrifice it, and then rather than burning it up or keeping it, he gave you back to you for a thanksgiving feast. The Passover is a kind of Todah feast… and so is the celebration of the Eucharist. Eucharist means, “thanksgiving.” From the Psalms, we learn that it was common to offer a wine-libation (offering) as part of the ritual.  This cup of wine, poured out in offering to God, is described: “The cup of salvation I will take up.”  Related imageOver this “cup of salvation” Jesus will later speak: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we bring bread and wine to the priest. The priest offers it to God. God accepts the sacrifice, and changes it into the even greater sacrifice of the meat/substance/reality of the Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice. God then accepts that sacrifice, and then the priest gives it back to us for our thanksgiving feast with our family and friends, as we share with each other our stories of how God has saved us from our distress.

Those who were at any of the Forty Hours Eucharistic Devotions evening liturgies last week prayed Psalm 116, which is a Todah psalm. It says, “How can I repay the Lord for all the good done for me? I will raise the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. I will offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving… I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, In the courts of the house of the Lord...”

In Every Mass, we’re called to grow in this spirit of thanksgiving, because the Eucharist is Jesus’ own prayer of Thanksgiving to the Father. During the Mass, the priest says, “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, Holy Father, almighty and eternal God.” It is our duty and our salvation, to thank God always and everywhere. At the Last Supper, Jesus gave thanks as he offered the bread that would be his broken body, and he gave thanks as he offered the wine that would be his spilled blood. Related imageJesus gave thanks, because Jesus always thanked the Father, because it is right and just. As much as he would suffer in Gethsemane and in his Passion, he was giving thanks, here in the Last Supper, for the victory he knew (through faith and trust) he would have. The Mass is the school in which we participate in Jesus’ own thanksgiving, the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving the Church makes to the Father; the offering made through Jesus, with Jesus, of Jesus. The Church’s perpetual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to the Father through him, with him, and in him, from the rising of the sun to its setting.

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Homily: Having Faith

mustard seed

The Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C
Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14
Luke 17:5-10

God does not always respond “yes” to our prayers. Sometimes, he has to tell us, “no.” But very often, he tells us, “Wait. Not yet.” So, “Yes, No, or Wait.” A few years ago some atheist came out with a YouTube video that pointed out that, well, there are only these three logical possibilities. If you pray for something, it will happen immediately, or it will happen later, or it won’t happen. He said, if you pray to a milk carton, what you ask for will happen immediately, or happen later, or not happen. So praying to God is no more reliable than praying to a milk carton. And that seemed to sound very convincing, and probably affirmed a whole lot of people who already didn’t believe in praying to God. 

But it misses something very important. And that is trust. Faith and trust are parts of a relationship. I don’t trust a milk carton to have my best interest, my salvation, as the underlying reality behind whether or when my prayer is answered. Because it’s just a milk carton. But when I offer my prayer to God, I trust that the answer to my prayer, whether it’s yes, or no, or wait, is determined, not randomly or by coincidence, but by His divine wisdom, and his divine love for me. 

In our first reading, the prophet Habakkuk is wrestling with the two biggest obstacles to faith: suffering and unanswered prayer. Habakkuk was writing as the Babylonians were destroying Jerusalem, torching the Temple, and marching the Israelites into exile. Yet Habakkuk, as God’s prophet, is trying to encourage the people to remain faithful (and you think you have a hard job!). So in our reading, he is complaining to God—where are you? How can you let this happen? He says, “I cry for help, but you do not listen!  I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene.

And then God responds: “Write down the vision clearly… so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time… and will not disappoint; … wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.” God says, I know about the suffering. But suffering isn’t the worst thing that can happen. Suffering has a purpose, even though it’s painful. I am not only guiding the unfolding of events, but I am with you as you suffer these events. What was the result of the Exile? The Israelites examined themselves, repented of their spiritual and social corruption, and rededicated themselves to their trust in God. Then almost immediately, the king who held them captive was inspired to release the Israelites to return to their land. Huh. Maybe God had it all planned out.

Saint Augustine, in the 5th century, wrote that God sometimes delays answering our prayers because our heart is not yet ready to receive how he intends to super-abundantly answer our prayer. If you’ve really had prayer answered, you know, he’s not going to answer your prayer on the same little scale that you expect. He’s going to blow you away with how it all comes together, nothing like you’d expect. And so he inspires us to remain faithful, while he expands our hearts with longing, until we are truly ready for his gift. God will not settle for giving us less than his best for us. It’s all or nothing. Either we follow his way of preparing us to receive his answer to our prayer, or we impetuously decide that he just doesn’t answer prayers.

Maybe you saw the movie, “Evan Almighty,” where God, played by Morgan Freeman, appears to Evan’s wife and explains to her, “Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does he give them circumstances that will bring them closer to each other?” He opens her eyes to the fact that He has been responding to her prayers all along; that God doesn’t normally perform big flashy miracles. He works quietly in the situations of life, often in ways that could be missed, because he doesn’t overpower the working of nature, he just lovingly nudges it in the right direction.

We need to maintain our faith, our trust, that God is truly who he says that he is, and that he is doing what is best for us. That might mean he doesn’t answer our prayer. If we pray for something that seems good to us, it might be something that in reality is bad for us, and no matter how much we plead, beg, and desire, God will not give us what we want. And as I’ve said before, all Christian prayer ends (either explicitly or implicitly) with Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will, but thy will be done.” Christian prayer is, at its heart, a matter of relationship, a matter of faith, and trust, that God truly has our back, that he is protecting us and providing for us.

So we have faith as an essential aspect of our relationship with God. Here in our psalm we have a second aspect of faith: of responding in faith to God. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” We need to respond in faith to what God instructs us to do: to give more generously; to stop for someone who needs help; to fight some habit of sin in your life, or begin building a new good habit; in short, to trust that God is guiding you to do what you need to do, and in faith to obey that guidance.

Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the desert; Where your fathers tempted me; they tested me though they had seen my works.” Meribah and Massah was a point along the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, when the Israelites had just recently received the beginning of the manna, the miraculous bread from heaven, in response to their complaint of hunger. And now they were quarreling with Moses about being thirsty. And they said, “Is God in our midst or not?” What a bunch of ungrateful jerks! So in this place, God guided Moses to tap the rock with his staff, and water came out to quench the thirst of the Israelites. Moses named the place Meribah and Massah, meaning the place of “tempting” and “testing.” Although God conceded to their whining, he also said that because of their unfaithfulness—their hardness of their hearts—none of them would enter the Promised Land. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

In the verses immediately before our Gospel reading, Jesus implored his disciples to forgive their repentant offenders. Something we know is often difficult to do. And their response is the beginning of our reading: they asked Jesus for more Faith so that they could meet this demand. In addition, the Apostles were asking for greater confidence and trust, so that they might work the miracles which they had seen Jesus perform. Jesus responds by telling them of the power of faith, even a little faith.

Related imageA handful of mustard seeds looks like a handful of ground black pepper. A mustard seed, like faith, is easy to lose if we’re not careful. It not necessarily the smallest of all seeds, but it was an expression for something very, very small. And yet, when planted, it grows into a large strong bush. It doesn’t always look pretty, but it doesn’t take much to make it grow, like a weed. Like faith.

The mulberry tree’s famous feature was its very strong and expansive root system. There were rules in Israelite city planning, so-to-speak, that trees couldn’t be planted within 30 feet of a well, so that the tree roots wouldn’t damage the well. Image result for mulberry tree rootsBut for mulberry trees, the distance was doubled to 60 feet, because of how notoriously spread out their roots would grow.

And yet, Jesus says, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” God needs us to leave the door open for him to work through us and in our lives. If we’re cynical, pessimistic, and unbelieving, about God’s desire to heal us and give us abundant life, we’re tempted to close the door on him… to rashly decide he just doesn’t answer prayers.

So the first two aspects of faith were subjective—aspects of faith within us (our faith in God, and our response of faith). This third aspect is objective: the doctrine of The Faith, what we believe as the Church, and who we believe in as God. It is the content of the Christian Faith, contained in Sacred Tradition, which includes Sacred Scripture. So when we profess the creed, the first two words are subjective: “I believe,” and the rest is objective: the core beliefs of Christianity that I believe.

So also in this objective faith is the moral teaching of the Church that has developed to guide people in living out the faith. Jesus gives us clear moral teaching, built on the law and the prophets of the faith of Israel. And the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, interprets and applies the moral truth to the new situations and controversies as they have occurred, from the first century to the twenty-first century, since Christ. The understanding of faith and morals develops, it grows, in more detail and precision over time, but it doesn’t evolve and deform into something it wasn’t before. The truth is unchanging, but our understanding of it develops.

And finally, at the end of our gospel reading, Jesus gives us a very humbling instruction. He teaches us that if we are doing great works of generosity and kindness, and if we are faithfully living the teaching of the Church, and we’re fighting against sin… we shouldn’t be bragging about our greatness, and expecting a gold star sticker. Living out the truth God gave us is simply the expectation. And our response should be, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.”

That can be a bit deflating if we’re feeling high on God’s consolations and blessings. But it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to help us along with what St. Therese called “The Little Way.” To embrace our smallness, and marvel at God’s greatness, and what He can do with us if we offer him our humble mustard-seed, childlike faith. It’s the joy we receive from experiencing the great works being done through us as certainly greater than we could do ourselves, and how wonderful God is to bless us as his instruments of his great works… like commanding a mulberry tree to plant itself in the sea.

If we are obedient to the life of Faith, if we are faithful to the moral and spiritual teaching of the Church, if we learn to trust, even (or especially) when it seems almost impossible, if we allow God to grow our hearts and souls in humility, that we might in acknowledging our littleness, make room in us for his greatness, then we are truly doing what we are obliged to do: to faithfully live the cross and the glory of the Christian life.

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Homily: The Clever Steward

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The Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113:1-2, 4-6, 7-8
1 Timothy 2:1-8
Luke 16:1-13

There are a million stories, in fiction and reality, of people coming up with clever schemes to get rich, or to guard their possessions, or to provide for themselves when the stuff hits the fan.

Our Gospel reading today is our third weekend in a row that Jesus gives us a difficult parable. This time, not just difficult to apply, but even difficult to understand. The great scripture scholars of past and present have struggled with the parable in today’s Gospel. Often in the parables of Jesus, God is symbolized by the Father, or by the Master. And here, the Master commends, (compliments) his dishonest steward for his clever scheme. Are we supposed to steal and cheat, like worldly people? Is that what Jesus is teaching us in this reading?

Well…No. But if not, then what’s the lesson God has given us today? It is actually pretty clever. And we can put it together when we consider the other readings. The lesson is, God takes particular care of the poor, and we must take particular care of the poor, on God’s behalf. Christ is the head, and if we are members of the body, we have to commit to what the head instructs us to do.

Let’s put off the gospel for a moment. First, we’ll look at the first reading. “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land! ‘When will the new moon be over,’ you ask, ‘that we may sell our grain, and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat? We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating…” And the ending is very important: “The LORD has sworn…: Never will I forget a thing they have done!” Amos was the earliest of the biblical prophets to write his own message. At the time, the northern kingdom was enjoying great prosperity, but there were sharp contrasts between rich and poor, and many instances of injustice: the spirit of true religious devotion was difficult to find. Amos condemns the social injustice and the insincerity of religious worship.

It’s a good thing those times are past, right? When was the last call you received to renew your car warranty? How many calls were received from people pretending to be from the IRS? How many hackers are there, and new online scams? Oh, those evil people out there, right? When will the new moon be over,’ you ask, ‘that we may sell our grain; and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat?When will the Mass be over, so we can get ahead of the others, out of the parking lot? How many people sit in the church while Mass is going on, but they’re on their phone, or reading the bulletin, or daydreaming of something else, and not really present to the Mass? Or how many should be here and aren’t, because they don’t honor their holy obligation to attend Mass? “The LORD has sworn…: Never will I forget a thing they have done!” First, we have to be his people, then we have to be filled with him in mind and heart, then we have to live that way …especially when it comes to being generous and being holy.

Our Psalm echoes God’s care for the poor… Praise the Lord who lifts up the poor!” “He raises up the lowly from the dust; from the dunghill he lifts up the poor to seat them with princes…” How does he do that? Through us; by our listening to the prophets, by focusing our lives on God and his instructions to care for the poor, by having integrity and not sinning, especially against the poor and vulnerable.

St. Paul says in our second reading, “First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.” We pray for, and we help, not just our own people, but the whole world, from our leaders, to our homeless. We follow God’s will by our prayers for them, and our actions to help them, teach them, encourage them, provide for them. This is what our intercessions (the “Prayers of the Faithful”) are directed toward. We pray for civil leaders to protect the natural rights of religion, and of the faithful, and to seek the common good, which is both the collective good of the many, and the individual good of each person.

So now we’re back to the gospel reading. So the master commends the dishonest steward for his prudence. He’s impressed with the plan the steward carried out to make use of his resources to accomplish his goal. That’s what the master is commending. Not the dishonesty, or the theft. The steward was using the master’s money to pay off his clients, and making friends, who are now in debt to himself. It was all done with the master’s money. And that’s the key to the parable.

The gospel isn’t telling us to become friends of dishonest wealth. It says to use dishonest wealth to make friends. And dishonest wealth, or untrue wealth, is the resources of this world, stuff that isn’t eternal and really important, in order to serve the higher, eternal purposes.

There is an interesting concept in our tradition, that goes back to our Jewish roots, that the poor that we serve with love and generosity are our heavenly treasure. And they in turn will intercede for us at our judgment. We don’t do this with an attitude of exploiting the poor with selfish intent, to buy our salvation. It is out of love for them. And they then, in love and gratitude, help us.

Now connect that with the idea of stewardship, rather than ownership. We don’t own our money or possessions. They all belong to God. It’s all his wealth, and we are merely entrusted with using it for God’s purposes. The material things, the wealth of this world, which are technically from God, are what is being called “dishonest wealth,” wealth that is not the true wealth of heaven. And the moral of the parable is to spread that everywhere. One might say, to be prodigal with it—spending it with wild carelessness—on the poor—on those who most need help. And thus the dishonest wealth at our disposal is converted from dishonest wealth (wealth that doesn’t last), into true wealth. And thus we benefit by then having our friends who can help us later, when we’re at judgment, and the poor we have helped say to the master, “this is a good person, my friend, who was generous and loving toward me when I was poor and needed help. And now I intercede on their behalf, when they need help.” That’s what our stewardship of the master’s wealth is for. To use our master’s temporal wealth as he would—with generosity. So by our trustworthiness in the small matters of temporal wealth, which is God’s, we show ourselves to be trustworthy with the true wealth, which is our salvation.

The things of this world, dishonest wealth, are meant to be tools, instruments for us. The same is true of our time: we can use it on things that don’t matter as much (hobbies, extra money, sports), over the things that truly matter, like our life in God. The Mass is how God continually purifies us to be his people. We also have daily mass, for those who are able to do so (and if you are able, you are encouraged to do so!) But without the Mass, we allow the sins and errors of this world to attack our minds and hearts unchallenged. They grow in us like an infection. Mass is the life-saving antivirus to the sinful influence of the world. You cannot be the servant of both God and the world. Only one gives eternal life.

And so Paul ends our second reading, “It is my wish, then, that in every place people should pray, lifting up holy hands…

Let us put first things first: the worship of God, and the care of our neighbor, especially those in need. That we might not have hands that are made unholy by sin, greed, and disorder; but hands that are employed in holy works of mercy, that we may be good stewards of all that is entrusted to our care, as God’s holy people.

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Homily: Lost and Found

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The Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-32

Our Gospel reading we just heard is a parable in three images, tied together with the theme of “Lost and Found.”

The first image is the shepherd who leaves his flock of 99 sheep in the wilderness to go after one stray sheep. Jesus tells his listeners, “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” And the answer is, no one would do that! The parables of Jesus share two universal features: the twist, and the upshot. Almost all his parables have a twist, or maybe even more than one, where he says something striking to catch people’s attention, and gets them to listen and remember his parable. Then he ends with the upshot, in Hebrew, the nimshal, which is the teaching-point of the parable. There’s the twist: no shepherd would leave 99 sheep vulnerable in the wilderness to find one single sheep. So, Jesus grabs their attention with something unexpected. Then he continues, “And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’” Ok, a second twist. Sheep and cows get lost all the time. Fences break, animals wander, it happens. And when they’re found, the farmer doesn’t call all his farmer friends and have a party. Then finally, Jesus finishes this first image: “I tell you, in just the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” There’s the nimshal, the upshot, the teaching point. Jesus reveals that he is using this image to teach us that heaven rejoices over the lost being found, more than over the righteous who were never lost.

Of course, it’s obvious Jesus isn’t talking about sheep. Remember the beginning of the reading, the occasion for Jesus to give this parable. “Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So to them he addressed this parable.” These sinners gathered around Jesus are people breaking the law of Moses in a public and grave way. Prostitutes and harlots openly broke the sixth commandment against adultery and fornication. Tax collectors openly broke the seventh commandment about stealing, getting rich on collecting more than what the Romans taxed. That’s the situation Jesus is in. The Pharisees are scandalized. This might be like a bishop being criticized for having dinner with a “Catholic” politician whose political actions consistently violate Catholic teaching, causing scandal to the upright and holy people of the Church.

One of the things I love about this is how Jesus gets in a dig at the Pharisees. They are of course sinners, too, because we’re all sinners. But they see themselves as righteous, having no need of forgiveness. But Jesus ends the parable saying, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” Why? Because the Pharisees are too self-righteous to recognize their sinfulness. The self-righteous don’t cause any joy in heaven, because their pride will keep them from heaven. So Jesus is also chastising them to recognize that they also need repentance.

And it’s a beautiful image Jesus gives us, of the joy the truly Good Shepherd has at finding his lost lamb, setting it on his shoulders with great joy, and carrying it home. And I love the quote I saw online that said…
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The second image Jesus gives is similar. This coin was about the worth of a day’s wages. So not a winning lottery ticket, but not something you’d want to lose, either. It might have been one of the ten coins that made up the nuptial headdress, like a wedding ring. Houses were not well lit, so it would be difficult to find. And when she finds it, she’s filled with joy—this coin that has much more sentimental value than its cash value. And Jesus ends this image like he did the first. The lost coin is like the lost sinner who is now found, worth more to God than most people would reasonably value. And there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents. Again, Jesus is also making an invitation to the Pharisees, not just the other people. God wills that all people would seek His mercy and be saved.

And finally, after the parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, we have the Lost Son, which we often call the Prodigal Son. Jesus packs a lot into this story, and we’re not going to unpack it, because the Gospel reading was so long. We’re just going to touch on one thing: the older brother. The older brother can symbolize a lot of things. In our specific gospel reading, he represents the Pharisees. He was resentful of the younger brother, who foolishly and sinfully chose to get himself lost. So when the older brother finds out the younger brother has decided to return, and that The Father has forgiven and restored him with joy and mercy, the older brother has a choice. He can hold on to his resentment, or he can share in the joy and mercy of the Father.

The Father came outside to find the older brother, too, so that he would not be lost. But the hard-hearted resentment of the older brother is a warning from Jesus. If we take the attitude of the older brother (or the Pharisees) that those who got themselves lost deserve to stay lost, then we risk turning ourselves away from the joyful heavenly banquet feast over the lost one who was found.

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Homily: “…But God’s First”

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The Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Wisdom 9:13-18b
Psalm 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14, 17
Philemon 9-10, 12-17
Luke 14:25-33

Our gospel reading we just heard today, is another one of Jesus’ “difficult sayings,” like we heard last week, when he said, “When you hold a dinner, do not invite your friends or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors. Rather, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” There’s often the temptation when preaching on difficult passages like these to explain how Jesus didn’t really mean what he said, and so we don’t really need to make any big changes from what we’re already doing, because we’re already basically good people.

St. Thomas More was the Lord Chancellor of England, when Henry VIII was the King. More was a successful lawyer and a renowned spiritual and political writer. Image result for saint thomas moreHaving failed to have a son with his wife Catherine, and frustrated that the pope would not grant him an annulment so he could marry Lady Anne Boleyn instead, Henry passed into law the “Act of Succession,” and required his public officials to swear an oath which a) recognized the child of Henry and his second wife Anne Boleyn as the heir to the throne; b) declared Henry’s first marriage with Catherine as null and void, and c) repudiated the authority of the Pope, and declared the king the head of the Church in England. Thomas More refused to take the oath. He spent fifteen lonely months imprisoned in the Tower of London. His family implored him, for his sake and theirs, to take the oath, but Thomas refused. He was convicted of treason and was beheaded. On mounting the scaffold, Thomas More proclaimed that he died as his majesty’s good servant… but God’s first.St. Thomas More put his discipleship of Christ above his employment, king, security, reputation; above his wife, children, and even his own life. (I highly recommend the movie called “A Man for All Seasons,” which is based on St. Thomas More.)

So we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. It’s true that most of us won’t have to choose between life and death for our faith. Maybe. It’s also true that the secular culture is falling farther and farther away from the true Teaching of the Church, the Scriptures, and God, and we might indeed have to make the choice between the demands of our Faith and the demands of secular society.

In our gospel reading we might get hung up on the actual words Jesus gives us, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus didn’t mean “hate” in this context the way we normally mean, “hate.” Certainly, we shouldn’t hate anyone. Obviously. To understand any verse of scripture, we need to look at its context and meaning in relation to all of scripture. Just a little while ago, Jesus taught we must love our enemies, we must love our neighbor as ourselves. As the Ten commandments require, we must “Honor thy father and mother.” What’s even better, is that this same scene in our gospel from Luke also appears in a very similar form in Matthew, where Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.” So if we take all this together, we have a much better understanding of what Jesus is teaching us.

However, as we can tell from the martyrdom of St. Thomas More, “better understanding” doesn’t necessarily mean “easy.” “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Criminals condemned to death had to carry their own cross to their execution. They knew they were going to die, and that the suffering was going to be humiliating and painful. It’s potentially true physically, that we may fulfill these words as so many other martyrs have. And it’s definitely true spiritually, that we must die to our disordered appetites, our pride, our apathy, and all of our other favorite sins. And we must forgive and love, especially when we least want to.

As Christ tells us, we had better take stock of what we’re willing to let go of to be a disciple of Christ, because nothing in this world is worth losing heaven. Jesus ends our gospel reading with two images. First, the man who started building a tower without knowing that he would have the resources to finish the project. That of course doesn’t mean that we have to fully understand God’s plan, fully have everything cash in hand, and fully rely on ourselves and not on trust and faith. It means to take stock of what it means to be Christian, and what it could cost, and whether you have the resolve to follow Christ wherever he might lead you, and do whatever he might ask of you. Do you have the trust that, where he leads you and what he asks of you, is for your salvation, even if you don’t understand it at the time? And perhaps a more difficult question, do you believe that the Catholic Church has the divine authority to teach the truth necessary for your salvation, worthy of your sacrifice, as Saint Thomas More did?

The second image Jesus gives is the king with the wisdom to determine whether his army can successfully oppose an attacking enemy who has a greater army. The fool who is proud and impulsive is going to rush in, without considering the losses that would be endured, or the wisdom of planning a successful strategy. The Christian life is not something to be taken lightly. The cost could be everything. We must have the detachment to let go of it. “In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” That doesn’t mean that we have to give everything away; but it does mean that we have to be willing to do that, if that’s what the Lord asks us to do.

As Jesus, and the entire Word of God, reiterates over and over, the most important thing is the discipline and detachment to seek (to love) the heavenly long-term that we cannot see over the earthly short-term which is always grabbing our attention. We need the assistance of divine wisdom. That wisdom tells us, in our first reading, “The deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans. …  And scarce do we guess the things on earth. And what is within our grasp we find with difficulty; but when things are in heaven, who can search them out?” Even the limited earthly things we don’t really understand; how could we possibly hope to reach heavenly things, without trusting God? Our psalm reaffirms that the things of this world, and life in this world, are so short and fragile (trivial), yet the things of heaven are true and eternal.

The ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates said, “Before you heal someone, ask him if he’s willing to give up the things that made him sick.” Our Lord loves us. He wants to heal us, to show us his mercy. We must be willing to give up everything for Him.

It’s not a question of what you say you believe, it’s not what devotionals you read, it’s not what sermons you hear. It’s not what goes into a person, but what comes out. It’s a question of, do you completely give yourself to believing and trusting and following Jesus, as his disciple, in his Church, over all else… or do you not?

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Homily: Banquet Etiquette

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The Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29
Psalm 68:4-5, 6-7, 10-11
Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24A
Luke 14:1, 7-14

When I put together this homily, I approached it a different way than I usually do, which is that, I knew how I wanted to end it, so I wrote that first, and then waited to see what space I had left for the rest. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but the ending took up about 80% of the homily. So, before I get to that, here’s the 20%, which I guess is basically just an introduction to the ending.

In our Gospel, Jesus makes two statements. In his first statement, to the guests, his message is about humility. Don’t be narcissistic, thinking you’re the most interesting person in the room, always promoting yourself. As the comedian Brian Regan says, don’t be a “MeMonster”, the one who’s conversation is, “Me, myself, and I, and me, me and mine, my story, about me…”. Jesus said, be humble. Take a low, unimportant position, and maybe you’ll be invited to a better seat. If you exalt yourself, you will be humbled, but if you humble yourself, you will be exalted. That’s the thrust of the first reading, too. “My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.  Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.”

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The second part of Jesus’ message, he directs to the host of the banquet, and Jesus shifts his focus from the virtue of humility, to the virtue of charity. When you give a banquet, don’t just invite your friends and family and those you want to honor; invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame, those who cannot return your hospitality and generosity. Why? Because we shouldn’t think of them as strangers, but as our brothers and sisters, like ourselves. Spiritually, we are poor (we foolishly amass useless trinkets, but are not rich in the things of God), we’re crippled (we fail to go and do what we ought to), we’re blind (we don’t see things and others as we ought to), we’re lame (broken with the sins we’ve committed against our own human dignity).  

Jesus frequently uses the metaphor of a banquet to refer to the joy of heaven, the Supper of the Lamb, which we share in, even now, as the celebration of the Eucharist. Our participation is meant to inspire us to go invite others, the “poor, crippled, blind, and lame” to this communion banquet that is healing us, so they may be healed also. And as you may know, those who have suffered humiliation and poverty, often become the most humble and generous people toward others.

So now the super-deluxe ending. As some of you may know, I went to Saint Vincent Seminary, which is run by the Benedictine monks of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe. Image result for saint vincent seminarySaint Benedict, who lived in Italy in the 6th century, is widely regarded as the father of Western Monasticism. In his Rule of Life that he wrote for his Benedictine monks, one of the most famous chapters in the book is on humility. Benedict anchors his teaching on humility in today’s gospel reading. In the beginning of the chapter, he says [paraphrasing for brevity], “Brothers, the sacred Scriptures cry out to us and say: ‘Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.’ Brothers, if we wish to reach that heavenly exaltation which is attained through humility we must set up that ladder which appeared in Jacob’s dream and by which angels were shown to be both descending and ascending; as descending by exaltation and ascending by humility. For that ladder set up is our life in this world which, when the heart has been humbled by the Lord, is set up to heaven. And we say that the rungs [are those] of humility and discipline by which we may ascend.” St. Benedict goes on to give 12 steps. You thought the twelve step program was invented in the 20th Century for people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs, but St Benedict invented the first 12 step program, and it’s for those of us who are addicted to ourselves. Here are the steps that St. Benedict gave, in brief:

Step 1: Obeying all of God’s commandments. He says: “To set the proper fear of God always before our eyes, to keep from sins and faults of thought, of the tongue, of the eye, of the hand, of the foot, or of self-will.” In other words, act like God is God and you’re not.

Step 2: Don’t bother to please yourself. In other words, don’t take the best seat (at church, at dinner, anywhere). Don’t take the biggest slice of pie. Look for opportunities to grow in self-denial. (Of course, in church, it seems a bit reversed… the most coveted seats are in the back… so to grow in humility, everyone should move toward the front… and to have the humility to leave only when mass is finished, not to decide on their own to leave when they want to leave…)

Step 3: Obedience to your superior. Obeying parents, teachers, supervisors; obeying the laws, etc. If we always agreed with what they say, it wouldn’t be humility and discipline. But to bend our will to their proper authority over us can teach us humility.

Step 4: Patient and quiet perseverance in suffering. In other words, no complaining. If you meet somebody who complains all the time, you can basically rest assured that they’re not humble. The reason people complain is they think they don’t deserve it. “Why is this happening to me? I don’t deserve this.” The wages of sin are death. We have all sinned, what we deserve is death, and then separation from God. We don’t want what we deserve! Enduring suffering without complaining, and even showing gratitude for God’s mercy that we deserve much worse than what we’re suffering, is to grow in humility and holiness. The fallacy of liberation theology is that those suffering unjustly have the right to rise up with violence against their oppressors. But the Church says that we may not sin as a response to sin. Yes, we should resist injustice, but we can also grow in humility while we suffer it.

Step 5: Humble and thorough confession of your sins and faults. The more you go to confession, the more your conscience is attentive to sin. I know it’s humbling to go to Confession. And what a blessing comes from that trust and humility!

Step 6: The acceptance of crude and harsh tasks. No grumbling. Grumbling is also a sign of pride. Related imageYou have to do something you don’t want to do, that’s beneath your dignity? Watch Mike Rowe’s “Dirty Jobs.” There’s a saying, “If serving is beneath you, leadership is beyond you.” Get down in the muck and do what has to be done.

Step 7: Don’t only confess that you are inferior to others but believe it in your heart. Look for ways that others are better than you, and praise them, especially to others. Start to see everyone else’s virtues as greater than yours. Pray the Litany of Humility. Instead of judging others as less than you, exalt them above you. That’s the cultivation of real humility. Don’t just seek the lowest place at the banquet, seek the lowest place in your own eyes.

Step 8: Strict observance of a Rule of Life. The monks have this code of rules to follow. It’s obedience. The same thing could be true in our lives: certain rules for the household, or workplace. Or even a personal code of rules. No internet after 9, lights out at 10. No meat on Fridays. Exercise 3 times a week, pray 30 minutes every day. Follow a rule of life as a way of conquering your will and improving yourself. I love the quote that “Discipline is choosing what you want most over what you want now.”

Step 9: The practice of silence. People who never stop talking are usually not very humble, because they think what they have to say is so important that everyone needs or wants to hear it. The Me-Monster. Also, being in silence. Turn off the TV and music, have some silence in your life. Wrestle with the big questions, the big problems in your life. Learn to listen for the gentle voice of God.

Step 10: Restraint from laughter and frivolity. This one might be more fitting to a monk in religious life, and maybe not even then; I’ve met a lot of very jolly and laughter-prone monks. Certainly though in the matter frivolity, which the dictionary describes as being self-indulgently carefree and unconcerned about any serious purpose, we don’t want that. We don’t want to waste the gifts and opportunities we are given, or not take into account that we will answer to God for how we live and make our choices. Laughter is healthy and good. We’re called to celebrate the Mass. We honor the mysteries and saints of our faith as Feast days! We’re called in this life to participate in the joy of the heavenly wedding banquet! It’s good to be joyful. Just don’t be stupid. 

Step 11: Speaking few words, simply and seriously. Jesus said, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’ Or as the 80’s song goes, “why don’t they do what they say, say what they mean, one thing leads to another.” Or as the bishop says in the Mass of Ordination, “Believe what you read. Teach what you believe. Practice what you teach.” So being a person of few words, being simple and direct, is also an act of humility. Not just talking to talk. And finally…

Step 12: Showing humility in your heart and in your appearance and actions. In other words, being a visible reminder to others of humility and simplicity. Living below your means, paying off your debts, dressing simply and inexpensively, etc. It’s not only humble, it’s also very freeing, and we are made to be free. But first we have to humbly submit to God’s wisdom and mercy in getting free from our earthly captivity, both morally and materially.

So that’s Saint Benedict’s 12-step program for humility. I just thought it was fascinating, because here’s a simple saying of Jesus: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” And the Church Fathers, our Sacred Tradition, draws out the deep meaning of just this very short saying, to teach us how we as disciples of Jesus, can live this out so that we can grow in the virtue of humility. And if just this short saying can yield all this wisdom, what a feast the entire word of God can be for us. And if we do those things (hopefully), we’ll get a good seat at the banquet table of Heaven.

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