Sep 242017
 

Matthew 20:1-16a

Jesus told his disciples this parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock, the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ So they went off. And he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, the landowner found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’ When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’ He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Let’s just set it out there again: life often is not fair. That’s one of the things that we learn early on. It’s the result of the Fall of our First Parents: Adam and Eve. Resentment was the sin of Cain that led him to kill his brother Abel. It wasn’t fair, Cain thought, that God chose Abel’s offering over his. Our Lord Jesus acknowledged this ubiquitous unfairness when He said in Matthew 5:45 “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” Why should the evil and the unjust get the benefit of sunshine and rain?

We’ve got this issue of fairness in the parable this morning from Matthew 20.

Let’s set the stage. As in so many of Jesus’ parables, the Landowner represents God and the workers represent both Israel and the Church. You see, among other things, Jesus meant this to be a warning to his disciples and by implication to us, the Faithful today, to be careful of our attitudes, especially our resentments and grudges, even in the face of obvious unfairness.

In the preceding chapter, Matthew 19, Peter showed that he was worried about fairness by stating that “We’ve left everything and followed you, so what is our reward?” Jesus promised great return for their sacrifices, but in this lesson today, he also seems to be giving a warning to the disciples and to us. Do not be resentful of folks we think are unfairly rewarded. We the faithful, the disciples of Jesus, are not to be overly concerned about whether or not things are fair. It’s right here in today’s parable.

You’re familiar with the story, so let me paraphrase:

A certain prosperous farmer needed some day laborers. At 6:00AM he went to the employment agency and picked out his crew; they agreed on a fair day’s wage and he put them to work.  At 9:00 he went back and picked up a few more. At noon he came back, and then at 3:00 and finally at 5:00, one hour before quitting time.

Now the climax of the story is the anger and resentment of the workers who put in a long twelve hours; these were the guys who bore the heat of the day, who worked harder and longer than the others and they received no more than the guys who worked only for one hour It just wasn’t fair.

Sometimes you and I have a tough time with this, especially when life is unfair and specifically when life is unfair to me. It’s bad enough when life is unfair to you, but when life’s unfair to me, that’s really awful. It’s easy to slip into this kind of thinking, isn’t it?

Some years ago I saw the movie “Amadeus.” It was the story of that great musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  The movie depicted Mozart as a really irritating spoiled and crude sophomoric brat who also happened to be a musical genius. His social skills were almost non-existent. In the royal court of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, Mozart acted the buffoon.

In contrast to Mozart was Joseph II’s chief court musician, a man named Solieri, a man of impeccable grooming and manners, but whose musical abilities were rather pedestrian compared to Mozart’s.  Solieri despised Mozart. He resented him. He obsessed over this thought “How could God permit such an obnoxious person to be so gifted? It just wasn’t fair.”

What made this story particularly interesting to me was that Solieri was a pious Catholic. He was a man of deep faith, so he was seriously anguished when he could not understand why God did not make him more gifted instead of squandering all that talent on that boor Mozart.  In a moment of despair and frustration, Solieri takes his crucifix off the wall and throws it into the fire. In his mind, Christ had forsaken him, so he was going to forsake Christ.

Most of us don’t do such dramatic gestures when we think God has forsaken us, or shown more favor to someone else who is much less worthy in our eyes. In response, we generally don’t burn our crucifixes or rosaries. But we may quit saying our prayers, we may stop attending Mass, thereby ex-communicating ourselves. After all, it’s just not fair.

Clinging to our own interpretation of fairness may very well reveal how we can easily misunderstand God’s ways. God’s kingdom is not based on fairness, it is based on love.  And God’s love is not fair. Why? Because God’s love extends to people we think should not receive it:  Muslim extremists, murderers, molesters, members of that other political party.  When we are honest with ourselves, there are a whole lot of times in our lives when we aren’t deserving of God’s love, either, but we receive it anyway.

You see, what all this means is that God is doing business on his terms, not ours. That’s the lesson from the parable. God, speaking through the voice of the landowner says “am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ I suggest that there are 4 primary difficulties in the human condition to which this parable speaks.

1. Self absorption:   This is a theme I go back to frequently. Some years back I saw a bumper sticker that described perfectly the human condition. It said: “It really is all about me.” There’s a similar phrase from my friends in Alcoholics Anonymous: “I may not be much— but I am all I think about.” This is the basis of sin. This is the manifestation of our separation from God and others. This is not always the case. We are capable of incredible altruism, but there are plenty of times when we complain and grumble about inequities. Each one of us has been known to focus more on my work, my leisure, my problems, my wants and needs and less on God and his kingdom and his overwhelming love and graces. That is what leads to alienation, especially when things go sideways. It’s so easy to be self-absorbed.  After all, it’s not fair.

2.  Comparison:  Growing up with siblings makes us constantly aware of comparison.  Like many of you, we had a rule at our house when i was a youngster, that if there was one piece of cake left and two of us kids wanted it, one would cut the cake in half and the other would have first choice.  My brother and I would literally get out a ruler to measure the cake. We were figuring height and width and depth and volume long before we ever heard of geometry. As adults we get into the comparison stuff so strongly that we all too frequently ignore God’s grace completely. We may not say the words, but we often think, “Hey, he got more cake than me.” It’s not fair.

3.  Presumption:  We often presume too much when it comes to getting rewards. Somewhere along the line we have learned to assume that we are entitled to every blessing, forgetting that blessings by definition are gifts. The biggest problem with presumption is that we neglect to say thank you from the heart and we may tend to be tightfisted with the gifts that God so generously has bestowed upon us. After all, what’s mine is mine, I’ve earned it or at least I deserve it, and if we don’t receive what we think we deserve, we get resentful and affirm in our hearts that it’s just not fair.

4.  Distortion:  When we judge others as unworthy and receiving more than they deserve, we misunderstand that the Kingdom of God is built on Grace and not on our efforts, no matter how much exertion we have extended. If we work hard and play by the rules and we are not rewarded in the way that we think we are entitled, we grouse that it’s just not fair. We identify with the people who worked all day and got paid the same as the workers who worked only one hour. It wasn’t fair. This kind of thinking brings a distorted view of God’s kingdom.

Here again are the 4 reasons why we so often think things are not fair:

  1. Self-absorption
  2. Comparison
  3. Presumption
  4. Distortion

So in closing, it’s not fair that folks should suffer, it’s not fair that little kids get cancer and that old people get ripped off and their retirement funds are embezzled, it’s not fair that folks are victims of terrible abuse and that all too often perpetrators go free. It’s not fair that earthquakes and hurricanes and forest fires should savage so many. And I would remind you that it’s especially not fair that God gave his only son to die on a cross for our salvation, but that’s what love does. It forgoes and sacrifices and serves in the midst of such horrible unfairness. That is the way of love. It’s not about fairness, it’s about gratitude and grace.

 

 

 

 

 

Sep 192017
 

Sirach 27:30—28:7

Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. The vengeful will suffer the LORD’s vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the LORD? Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself, can he seek pardon for his own sins? If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins? Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin! Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor; remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.

Matthew 18:21-35

Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

 

I’ve been thinking about prudence. The Catechism tells us that prudence is “The virtue which disposes a person to discern the good and choose the correct means to accomplish it.” It goes on: Prudence “dispose(s) the Christian to live according to the law of Christ,” and “provides…guidance for the judgment of conscience.” (CCC p895-6)

To repeat, the Catechism tells us that prudence disposes us “to live according to the law of Christ” and it provides us “guidance for the judgment of conscience.” For Catholics, the conscience is the ultimate guide. This is from the Vatican II document Gaudium et spes (16), the Pastoral Constitution of the Church:

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment…For man has in his heart a law ascribed by God…His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.

Without the proper guidance however, we can confuse conscience with other things: the voice of the world, the flesh and or the devil. There may have been some indoctrination that is counter to Church teachings. Events in life can warp our perspectives. Perhaps there was an issue of abuse in our early years. Or we might be victim to some mental illness. There are many things that can lead us to slip into thinking that our consciences are instructing us to do something contrary to the laws of God and the Church.

To give insight into this Pope Saint John Paul II wrote several things on the topic including the encyclical Veritatis Splendor or “The Splendor of Truth.” He teaches that the conscience is not subjective, but is the conveyor of objective truth. There cannot be a moral truth for one person and a different one for someone else. Abortion can’t be killing a child for one person and a good moral choice for another. St. John Paul tells us that the conscience actually represents the overcoming of subjectivity because it brings us into direct contact with the moral truth revealed by God.

Once we know and embrace the teachings of the Church on moral issues we realize that the conscience embraces the truth of moral norms and when that happens, you and I appreciate that these norms are not alien or imposed from the outside. Rather they orient us to our own good and personal fulfillment.

For example, when our consciences perceive the intrinsic value of marriage, then we subscribe to the norm forbidding adultery not because it is some burdensome external command, but because following this norm is in harmony with our own nature and the objective order of goodness willed by God. When we know the truth of the Church, then our consciences are at peace when we practice this truth.

According to St. John Paul, the “conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil.”  Rather, the conscience must act in conformity with the objective moral norms given to us by God, and if this does not happen, then our conscience is in error. Conscience is always subordinate to moral truth. It is crucial, therefore, to dispel the myth that conscience is a lawgiver or represents the final subjective determination of what’s good or what’s evil.

Conscience, therefore, is far more than a rational judgment process. Through our consciences we are open to the demands of moral truth and the voice of God who speaks to us through that truth. Our consciences provide all of us with the capacity to transcend our own egos so that we can grasp those objective truths that perfect us and consequently we are lead to fullness of life.  Saint John Paul emphasizes that our consciences need to be tutored; we need instruction from the teachings of the Church and we need to be instructed especially from the scriptures.

As an example, today we have scriptures before us that instruct our consciences. We must take them to heart if we are to be faithfully prudent. This is God’s instruction for our consciences.

We can start at the opening lines from our first lesson from Sirach: “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail.”

A well-tutored, prudent conscience does not permit vengeance, even though there are times when we want to give into the very sinful notion of “I don’t get mad—I get even.”

In the Gospel lesson we hear something more. Here we have Saint Peter asking how many times he needs to forgive his brother. And in response, Jesus tells the parable of forgiveness of monetary debt, which in fact deals with the nature and state of our hearts.

It’s appropriate for each of us to ask, ‘What is the state of my heart, the place where my conscience lies?” Remember the teaching of Gaudium et Spes, we have in our hearts “a law ascribed by God.” This is heart-level faith. I regularly will ask someone in confession if they are suffering from hardness of heart, the state that blocks the holiness of our consciences. I’ve found over the years that when one suffers from hardness of heart there are generally two causes.

The first is the heart that is calloused over. This generally comes from a sense of competency and efficiency. A person may be quite good at accomplishing tasks and gets very impatient with those who are less competent, who get in the way, who mess things up. This kind of hardness of heart, this callousness blocks compassion and gives way to a seriously critical and oftentimes resentful nature.

A second reason for hardness of heart is scar tissue. This is from old wounds that have caused the heart to be scarred. And this scarring prevents one from being compassionate. These old wounds that have been scarred over and often prevent us from being kindhearted to someone who reminds us of the old times of wounding.

The penance I regularly assign to this hardness of heart is for the penitent to ask our Blessed Mother to come and gently massage the callous or the scar tissue and break it up, so that the heart can be soft and supple. When this happens the heart is open to the instructions of God for our consciences and enables us to be more sensitive and more receptive to prudence.

Back to the Gospel lesson.

Peter asks: “Lord if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” The Greek here is a little ambiguous and I think the translation is a bit misleading. It implies that Jesus is saying that there is a finite number of times we are to forgive someone. So if somebody sins against you 78 times, you no longer have to forgive him because he’s already used up the allotted 77 times.

I think there is a better translation of this passage, one that speaks to the intent of our Lord, It is to replace the number 77 with the number 7 to the 70th power. I asked my son the engineer to calculate this for me. He said it was 1.435 followed by 59 zeros. I’m not going to check his math, but remember that a million is 1 followed by 6 zeros. 59 zeros represent a really, really big number. That’s the point.

Once again Jesus is using hyperbole, extreme exaggeration, to teach us. We are to forgive always with no finite number attached. We are never to run out of forgiveness. Why? Because God never runs out of forgiveness for us—never.

And just as we are forgiven, we are to forgive. It’s a critical part of the prayer Jesus taught us “Forgive us our trespasses, as, AS,AS, we forgive those who trespass against us.” Being forgiven and forgiving others are so intertwined they cannot be separated, a basic Catholic teaching.

The New Testament speaks with one voice on the subject. Forgiveness is not like a Christmas present that a kindly old grandfather gives to a sulky kid, even if the grandchild hasn’t bought a single gift for anyone else.

Forgiveness is more like blood in your heart. There’s only room for blood to come in if your heart has pumped the blood out. Your heart pumps out blood and takes in more blood. You can’t separate one from the other.  Whatever the spiritual, moral or emotional equivalent of a heart may be, it’s either open or closed. If it’s open, able and willing to forgive others, it will be open to receive God’s love and forgiveness, and instruction for our consciences.

But if it it’s locked up to the one, it will be locked up to the other. Jesus finishes the parable by making it clear; if you don’t “forgive from the heart,” you are not going to be forgiven.

You can feel it along with your heartbeat: forgiveness out—forgiveness in—forgiveness out—forgiveness in. In fact it’s actually love in—love out—love in—love out—love in—love out. It’s a major rhythm of the life of the Faithful.

Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer says it all: If you are still counting how many times you’ve forgiven someone, you’re not really forgiving them, you’re probably just postponing revenge.

What Jesus is talking about is simple.  Don’t even think about the number of times you forgive, just do it from the heart. It’s the best way to assure your own forgiveness and to honor Christ who died for the forgiveness of your sins and mine. We have no higher calling. It’s the ultimate expression of prudence.

I close with more of God’s instruction from Sirach:

Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay and cease from sin!  Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor; remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults. This is real prudence.

 


 

September 10, 2017 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Sep 102017
 

Ezekiel 33:7-9

Thus says the LORD: You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me. If I tell the wicked, “O wicked one, you shall surely die, ” and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.

Romans 13:8-10

Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet, ” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.

 

St. Paul lays it out for us right here in today’s Epistle lesson:  Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.( Romans 13:9) 

Paul is intentionally using the metaphor of debt to make his point that there is an obligation which is owed by everyone. It’s the extension of Christ’s loving gift of himself on the Cross, and our fullest and most proper response, in fact, our only response is to love others as a sign and symbol of Christ’s love for us.

Paul was reinforcing the point that Jesus made. To refresh your memories, we read in the 12th chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel that Jesus had a particular encounter with a scribe who wanted to know about the greatest law. There are 613 laws in the OT and it was common to debate which one was supreme. Jesus quotes Dt.6:4-5 (Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is one!) This passage goes on to tell us that we are to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and all our strength. The implication is that a love for God does not arise spontaneously but by conscious commitment that stems from every ounce of our energy and aspect of our being.

Again to remind you, the second part of Jesus’ response to this scribe quotes Lev. 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus finishes by saying that “There is no other commandment greater than these.” St. Paul is picking up on this theme.

As we know, the Greek term for this love is Agape, and this emphasis on Agape love is foundational for all the Faith of the Church. We read much about this throughout the New Testament and the writings of the Church Fathers. Perhaps the most famous passage is found in the 13th Chapter of First Corinthians where Paul writes that “faith, hope, love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”

What does agape love mean?  My New Testament professor in seminary defined agape love as “unconditional positive regard.” This means that we need to love with no reservation. But neither Jesus nor Paul were naïve in making this requirement. So in the chapter before today’s Epistle lesson, Chapter 12 of Romans, St. Paul emphasizes that love must be “genuine.” (Rom. 12:9) The actual Greek translation tells us that love must not be “hypocritical.”

So how do we do this? Here’s how. If we treat someone we thoroughly dislike and mistrust as if we hold them close to our hearts with the deepest of affection. if we do everything we can to imagine and remember all the difficult things that have happened in their lives that made them so very hard to love, then it may well happen that authentic sympathy and even affection may arise.  And with God’s Grace it will be sincere, not hypocritical, something truly loving that stems from our hearts. It’s the practical implementation of that old statement from 12 step programs that we see so often on bumper stickers: Fake it ‘til you make it. Often times acting as if we are loving is sufficient; the actions will bring along the sincerity.

This love is tough; not simply in the sense of the “tough love” that is sometimes needed when dealing with a recalcitrant teen who has succumbed completely to addiction and rebellion. Rather, this love springs not from the emotions but from the will. This love grits its teeth and sets its jaw and behaves in loving ways, no matter the feelings, all the while trusting that eventually the feeling will come trotting along at the appropriate time and place. If we reduce this holy love to our emotions and feelings, we lose not only consistency but any kind of true piety.

Perhaps no one knew this better that Saint Theresa of Calcutta. To remind you her feast day is September 5th and we’ve just celebrated the 20th anniversary of her death. As you know, it came out after her demise that she suffered terribly from a profound darkness, perhaps a clinical depression. Much of the time she did not feel loving, but she chose to act in a loving manner. This was conveyed both by her actions and the words she wrote. For example:

“I realized that I had the call to take care of the sick and the dying, the hungry, the naked, the homeless…to be God’s love in action to the poorest of the poor.” That was the beginning of the Missionaries of Charity [the religious order she founded.]”

She continued: “I see God in every human being. To God there is nothing small. The moment we have given it to God, it becomes infinite. When He was dying on the cross, Jesus said, ‘I thirst.’  Jesus is thirsting for our love, and this is the thirst of everyone, poor or rich alike. We all thirst for the love of others, that they will go out of their way to avoid harming us and to do good to us.”

What a remarkable woman! As I reflected on her statement “I see God in every human being,” I immediately made a mental list of people in which I have a lot of trouble seeing God…terrorists, abortionists, child molesters, the guy who cut me off in traffic, and then I realized that St. Theresa, Mother Theresa, would have no trouble seeing God in these people and I am chagrinned.

She had amazing vision. Not only did she see God in despicable people, she saw God even in the rich and the powerful who turn a blind eye to the perils of the poor and the helpless. Amazing.  As her reputation grew, she was a perennial guest of the most powerful leaders in the world, largely, I think because these leaders needed to be seen with her for political reasons more than she needed to be seen with them for economic support.

In many ways, Mother Theresa was like the appointed Watchman mentioned in today’s lesson from Ezekiel. His job was to warn the inhabitants of Jerusalem of impending danger. The citizenry had the right to exercise free will in ignoring the warnings, but they did so at the risk of their own jeopardy. From the passage today we hear:

…if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.

These are pretty uncomfortable words, but I think, in many ways Mother Theresa embraced them…and we are the recipients of her warnings.

One of her favorite themes was this: “We are called to be faithful; we are not called to be successful.” We may fail in the eyes of the world; we may not have the well paying job, the perfect smile, the attentive spouse. But if we are faithful to God by loving others, then that is enough. Being faithful is more important than accumulating material wealth.

That was a message not well received by many here in the United States. So, rather than backing off, Mother Theresa pushed it.  She said, for example, that on the streets of Calcutta, the dying were suffering only from material poverty. In fact, she said, these street people were far richer than most Americans.  For the street people, in all their misery, loved one another. They tended one another as best they could. And they did it day in, day out, week in, week out. It was the way they lived. They tended one another.

In contrast to this, she said, the individual competitive drive is so intense here in the States that we will be supportive for the short term, but we get weary and even annoyed with giving long term support because there doesn’t seem to be much return on our investment of time and perhaps other resources. In our system things are supposed to get fixed quickly; if they are not, then something is really wrong and we need to back off.

Mother Theresa said that we do things well for the short term, but how many are excluded because they cannot meet our expectations for the long run?  With very few exceptions, we are good at dealing with crises; we are not so good at dealing with chronic, long term problems. Think about Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.  We’re willing to give storm relief, but we continue to build on flood plains and we are reluctant to spend the money to fortify the infrastructure of dikes and so forth that would lessen the damage of such terrible storms.

Among other things, the result of our attitude is that there is a myriad of very lonely people here in the states. Prophetically a Watchman like Mother Theresa pointed out something obvious: loneliness in America is epidemic. Just think of the number of people who live alone or who are institutionalized and have no one to really love them, and who, in turn, are not encouraged to love others. You see, love is about the long haul, not just the short term.

This was the theme of her life, and she would be fierce about it. And she took it to places that made many of us really uncomfortable. Her eyes would blaze as she talked of what she called the holocaust of abortion.  At the National Prayer Breakfast, shortly before her death, she made her point crystal clear. Here she was at her prophetic, watchmanlike best:

She said:“A nation that destroys the life of an unborn child, who has been created for living and loving, who has been created in the image of God, is in tremendous poverty.” She pulled no punches as she continued:

“I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion because it is a direct killing of the innocent child. Abortion is murder in the womb. A child is a gift from God. America needs no words from me to see how your decision in Roe V. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men.  It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships.  It has aggravated the derogation of the father’s role in an increasingly fatherless society.  It has portrayed the greatest of gifts…a child…as a competitor, an intrusion and an inconvenience.’

“It has nominally accorded mothers unfettered dominion over the dependent lives of their physically dependent sons and daughters. And in granting this unconscionable power, it has exposed many women to unjust and selfish demands from their husbands or other sexual partners.”

“Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government. They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his [or her] humanity.  The right to life does not depend, and must not be contingent, on the pleasure of anyone else, not even a parent…You must weep that your own government seems blind to this truth.”

As an aside, Oregon House Bill 3391, signed into law by Governor Kate Brown, requires all insurance companies to provide free abortions, and provides free, taxpayer- funded abortion for undocumented residents. 117,000 valid signatures are required to qualify our pro-life measure for the next statewide ballot, to reverse the expansion of taxpayer-funded abortion mandated by HB 3391. After mass there will be opportunities to sign a petition to have this horrendous law overturned. If you are a registered voter, and have not signed this petition, we implore you to do so.

It is one thing to have this intense, some would say pushy, little nun doing unpleasant things with unpleasant people over in that unpleasant country on those most unpleasant streets. It’s quite another to have her come over here to the land of the free and the home of the brave and the incredibly generous and tell us that those wretchedly impoverished people are richer than we are and that we should be weeping for our sins. She told us what it is really like to be loving. She said: “Keep the joy of loving God in your heart and share this joy with all you meet, especially in your family. Be holy…” We are indebted to St. Theresa of Calcutta and we owe it to her to love and protect these little ones in particular.

 

 

 

 

September 3, 2017 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Sep 032017
 

Matthew 16:21-27

Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised. Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Then Jesus said to his disciples, For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”

We have one of the harder sayings of Jesus in our Gospel lesson. Whoever wishes to come and follow me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

This is one of those passages that makes most of us pretty uncomfortable if we take it seriously. We prefer passages like Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Mt.11:28) or God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not parish, but have eternal life. (Jn. 3:16)

These are comfortable words, words that generate good, secure feelings of affirmation. But to tell us that we need to “deny” ourselves and take up our crosses, that’s hard. Especially when it’s tough enough just to keep the bills paid and to put food on the table; when it’s hard enough just to get up in the morning to face the challenges of an ordinary day.

We may hope that this was just a message for the disciples back then and not for us. Surely we get a pass, do we not?

And we all know folks who have taken this hard saying and made it their mission statement. They put themselves down all the time and they shun comfort as if it were poisonous to their souls. They deny themselves even the smallest pleasures of life and view themselves like death row prisoners, as if human happiness were somehow a deep betrayal of God’s Grace. Do we really have to die to show our love for him? Isn’t there some way to show our love for him by living fully?

This whole conversation came about because St. Peter was asking the same kinds of questions. The disciples were off by themselves with Jesus, taking a breather between rounds with their critics. In the passage just before this one, Jesus asks his disciples who they thought he really was. Peter gave the right answer: you are the Christ, the Son of the living God. It was then that Jesus proclaimed that Peter was the rock on which he, Christ would build his Church.

But Peter’s glory doesn’t last long. Jesus begins to tell all his disciples what is going to happen to him, how he is about to walk right into a trap set for him in Jerusalem, where he will suffer and be killed and then be raised from the dead. Peter explodes. “God forbid, Lord” he shouts. “This will never happen to you.” It is simply too much for Simon Peter to imagine Jesus coming to such an ignoble, bloody end. There’s a bit of scolding here as well. Peter’s outburst is not so subtle criticism and Jesus unloads on him. Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.

What a shock that must have been not only for Peter, but for the other Disciples as well. To hear Jesus call Peter, the foundation rock of the Church, a stumbling block is startling. What did Peter do wrong? What was his sin? All he did was protest the forecast that Jesus was to suffer and die. All he did was to say out loud that there had to be another way.

But as far as Jesus was concerned, it was Satan talking. Satan the ancient tempter, from the beginning of time has offered alternatives to the directives of God: easier alternatives, often flashier alternatives, all of them temptations for us to do and be something other than what God has called us to do and be.

In this particular case, the temptation for Jesus is to play it safe, to skip the trip to Jerusalem and to find another way to bring salvation to the human race. Perhaps he could direct the effort from a safe and secure place, to elude his enemies, staying just out of reach and leading his holy revolution without placing himself in jeopardy.

We need to assume that this was real temptation for Jesus, or why else does he rebuke Peter so harshly? Like the tempter in the wilderness at the start of Jesus’ ministry, Peter is offering Christ a way out, a detour around Jerusalem with all its risk of pain and death. For a moment at least, the possibility may have seemed real to Jesus, real and desirable. And then his head clears and the desire to shirk vanishes. Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.

There is something troubling about this. Does Jesus mean that those of us who pray to be delivered from suffering and death are on the side of fallen humanity and that the side of God is reserved only for those who are ready and willing to suffer and die? If true, then that is troubling.

If we step back, we can see that this is not the point. The point is that God cares more about our quality of life than he does the quantity of life. Although biological human life is precious and we are to fiercely defend the life of every person from conception to natural death, it must be said that God is not primarily interested in the continuation of my breath, the health of my cells, rather he is vitally interested in the depth of my life, the heft and zest of my life. And he is particularly interested in my life of faithfulness.

The deep secret of Jesus’ words for us in this passage today is that our fear of suffering and death robs us of life, because fear of death always turns into fear of life, into a stingy, cautious way of living that is not living at all. The deep secret of Jesus’ hard words is that the way to having abundant life is not to save it but to spend it, to give it away, because life cannot be shut up and squirreled away any more than a kitten can be put in a shoebox and stored on a closet shelf.

It seems to me that Peter wanted Jesus to do that. He wanted Jesus to become cloistered, perhaps like some Eastern Guru and who had people climb the mountain to come to his cave to obtain wisdom and enlightenment.

Let’s look again at the first sentence of our Gospel lesson, Mt. 16:21: Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

When we ponder this, we often get stuck on the suffering and death part. We get that far and then say “God forbid Lord! This shouldn’t happen to you and I especially don’t want it to happen to me!” When we do this, we are ignoring the final words that on the third day there is resurrection.

We don’t get there if we let the suffering and death throw us off track, if we let fear of those things keep us from sticking our necks out from taking the appropriate risks that make life worth living. We can try to stockpile it, being very, very cautious about whom we let into our lives, frisking everyone at the door and letting only the most harmless, benign people inside, and being very, very wary about going outside ourselves, venturing forth only under heavy guard and ready to retreat at the first sign of trouble.

We can live that way, but if we do, then we mustn’t expect to enjoy it very much or to accomplish very much. And if we do, then we’d best not expect to be missed when our safe, defensive life finally comes to an end and no one notices that we are gone. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose itBut Jesus doesn’t stop there. He continues— but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Living the life of faith is not about being a daredevil. It’s not about signing up for bungee jumping at 90, however, for some that might be fun. Jesus is talking about living the life that matters. A life for Christ’s sake, a life about refusing to put our own comfort and safety ahead of living a life that pours itself out for others as an act of gratitude to the one who poured his life out for us. It’s a life that is generous without counting the cost, knowing that there is always more life where our own life comes from and that even when our own lives run out, God has more life for us, more than we can ask or imagine.

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me—said Jesus. These will never be easy words to hear, but they are not, in the ultimate and final analysis, an invitation to follow Jesus into eternal death, rather it is an invitation to follow him into everlasting life, both now and later on. We can only follow him if we do not get tripped up on the suffering and death part; if we get so frightened and anxious and preoccupied by all this that we forget “who we are” and “whose we are” and why we are alive in first place.

There is a certain amount of pain involved in being a human being, and a good bit more involved in being a human being dedicated to being fully faithful, especially in a world that counts on our fear of death and uses it to keep us in line. Jesus’ enemies counted on his fear of death to shut him up and to shut him down, but they were wrong. He may have been afraid, but he did not let it stop him. He did not get stuck on the suffering and death part. He saw something beyond them, something more wide and glittering than the sea, something worth every risk required to reach it, and he did not stop until he got there.

To follow Jesus with our crosses on our shoulders means going beyond the limits of our own comfort and safety. It means receiving our lives as gifts instead of hoarding them as our own possessions. It means that each of us is to share the life we have been given instead of bottling it up for our own consumption. It means giving up on the notion that we can build dams to hold back the bright streams of our lives and letting them flow instead, letting all the streams of living water swell their banks and spill their wealth until they carry us down to where they run, full and growing fuller into that wide and glittering sea.

 

 

 

August 27, 2017 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Aug 272017
 

Matthew 16:13-20

Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

The Gospel lesson we just heard is pivotal for Roman Catholic self-understanding. It’s the foundational scripture for St. Peter becoming Christ’s Vicar here on earth. Jesus proclaims: so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Every successor of St. Peter has inherited this promise and it is the bedrock of the Church’s authority.

At the beginning of this passage we hear Jesus asking his disciples: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

The responses were interesting: John the Baptizer, who had recently been killed by Herod, Elijah the OT prophet who was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot and who would usher in the Messiah, the Christ. Or some thought the Son of Man might be Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. But Jesus presses them: “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter’s response is among the most important in scripture.

Among other things, this Gospel lesson is a story about conversion, the conversion of Simon Peter and by implication it’s a call to conversion for all who would serve Christ in His Church. This is the underlying message of the “New Evangelization” that the Church is emphasizing so strongly. We know that Simon Peter wasn’t a newcomer to following Christ, but this revelation depicted in the Gospel lesson was a call for Peter to recognize Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God and for Peter to receive him fully and to serve him with the entirety of his being. For the faithful thereafter, this was and is a call for all of us. We are to commit to Jesus deeply, strongly and with fervor. To embrace the fact that he is the Christ the Son of the living God.

The Catechism defines conversion as “A radical reorientation of the whole life away from sin and evil, and toward God. This change of heart or conversion is a central element of Christ’s preaching, of the Church’s ministry of evangelization, and of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.” (p 873)

It’s important to remember that for us Christians, our conversions start at baptism but they continue until we reach the throne of Grace. Even time spent in Purgatory is time spent in conversion, in changing whatever would separate us from God until we finally enter heaven. This is the process. The goal is to put our full faith, love and trust in Christ. This is the basic message of Evangelization.

As just mentioned, we Catholics are so blessed to have a Church which provides us with a sacrament that is focused entirely on conversion: the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. To lay our sins out to God in the presence of a priest as we repent them fully and then to have the words of absolution and pardon and peace proclaimed to us is so sacred, and so dear. Conversion in this sense is mostly course correction to make sure that we are walking on the path Christ has set out for us and when we deviate from it by our sins, God lovingly calls us back.

As we read through the rest of the New Testament, it is really evident that Peter’s conversion was to be a very long process. From denying our Lord 3 times to battling with St. Paul, St. Peter kept having to repent in order to stay the course. And for each of us, conversion is a long process too, a lifelong process if you will, and so often repentance is the only means that gets us back on course when we stray in thought, word or deed.

Other Christian traditions, especially evangelical Protestants, put more emphasis on a particular event in life which is frequently called “being saved.” When for example, a Baptist is asked when he or she was saved, often a specific point in time is mentioned. The Catholic Church acknowledges the validity of these experiences that turn one’s heart to Christ. So back in 1988 the Catholic Church and the World Baptist Confederation actually put out a statement of mutual agreement on the nature of conversion.

Here, in part, is what they said:

“Conversion is turning away from all that which is opposed to God, contrary to Christ’s teaching, and turning to God, to Christ the Son through the work of the Holy Spirit. It entails turning from self-centeredness of sin to faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. Conversion is passing from one way of life to another new one, marked with newness in Christ. It is a continuing process so that the whole life of a Christian should be a passage from death to life, from error to truth, from sin to Grace.”

“Individuals respond in faith to God’s call, but faith comes from hearing the proclamation of the Word of God and it is to be expressed in living together in Christ, that is the Church.”

I rather like this statement.

It’s important to keep in mind the primary purpose of Jesus’ declaration to St. Peter. He, Peter, would be the rock upon which the Church would be built; it was more about the Church and less about St. Peter. Individual Christians do need to engage in that long and important process of conversion, but as the Church teaches, the emphasis on personal conversion must be for the well being and furtherance of our community.  For us, conversion always takes place in the context of community. We Catholics think “we” rather than just “me.”

Put another way, conversion is personal but not private. Not only is conversion for individual piety and holiness, it is also to enhance the Church, sometimes this is even done from the grave.

The story is told of the Emperor Charlemagne, who according to legend, was buried sitting upright on his throne. He had commanded that the crown remain on his head and that his scepter be in his right hand. He also gave instruction that the royal cape was to be draped around his shoulders and an open Bible be placed in his lap.

Nearly 200 years later, the emperor Othello determined to see if the burial instructions had been really carried out— so he ordered the grave to be opened. They found the skeleton just as Charlemagne had commanded. But what was most interesting was that the bone of the index finger of his left hand was pointed to a passage in Scripture six verses farther from the end of our Gospel lesson today: Mt 16:26: What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? It was message from the grave as a reminder to us all. It was a faithful response from a converted king.

The combined task of the individual believer, the Church, all the angels and saints and the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is to see that one does not forfeit one’s soul. Individuals need to be engaged in the long process of conversion, all the while being surrounded and supported of such a vast community of faith. And all this is set secure on the solid rock of the Church.

 

 

 

August 20, 2017 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Aug 222017
 

Matthew 15:21-28

At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.

In our Gospel lesson we read that a Canaanite woman called out [to Jesus], “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

For background it is important to note that the Canaanites were a loose federation of tribes who occupied the “Promised Land” before Abraham arrived to claim it in the name of God. The Canaanites had a long history of conflict with the Hebrew people dating back to Noah shortly after the flood, centuries before Abraham.

The story is that Noah got drunk, took off all of his clothes, and passed out. His son Ham walked in on him and ridiculed him to his brothers. Noah was so humiliated and infuriated that he put a curse on Ham and all his descendants, who later became known as the Canaanites. An aspect of this curse was that the Canaanites were to be slaves of Noah’s two other sons, Shem and Japheth. As you may guess, the Canaanites weren’t too keen on this. (Gen. 9:20ff)

Several centuries after Abraham, when Moses was trying to retake the Promised Land after the Children of Israel escaped from their Egyptian slavery, it was the Canaanites with whom they often engaged in battle. There was no love lost between Jew and Canaanite.

To make it even worse, there’s a passage in Deut. 20:17 in which God calls for the destruction of all Canaanites and in Zech. 14:2, Canaanites are specifically excluded from worship. You can see the basis of a pretty deep seated animosity. So in light of all this, it would not be possible to overestimate the “chutzpah,” the brass, the audacity of this Canaanite woman. She ruffled a lot of feathers by approaching Jesus as she did.

We read in the text that this woman rushed up and knelt before Jesus, begging for help for her demon tormented daughter. He couldn’t ignore her any longer, so said in reply: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

This is a significant exchange; in Biblical times, dogs were not the revered pets that they are today in our society. In the Sermon on the Mount, Mt. 7:6, Jesus states, Do not give dogs what is holy… And then in the Revelation to St. John of Patmos, chapter 22 verse 15, it says, that some will be excluded from the heavenly city and the list includes…dogs, and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”

The Greek word for dog is Kuon, it is the basis for our word “Cur.” Even now, as then, in much of the mid-east, dogs are slinking street creatures that function as scavengers and sentries. These curs were and are nobody’s pets.  To add to the insult, the word Jesus used in the Gospel lesson is kunaria, the diminutive form and it means yappy little dog.

I think that with a twinkle in his eye, Jesus was comparing the Canaanite woman to the yappy little lap dogs that many Canaanites had as pets, something that disgusted Jews of that day. And the woman was quick enough to get it.  By implication, He was referring to her. He was comparing her loud persistence to a little dog that would not shut up. And this is what’s fascinating to me, she agreed. Note her esponse: “Yes Lord, yet even the kunaria, the yappy little dogs, get to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”

I think Jesus then laughed. And then I think that with great warmth and humor in his voice he said, “‘Woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.”

In contrast, recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, are not a laughing matter.

One of the more insightful statements about that horrible situation came from Archbishop Charles Chaput (SHAP-you) of Philadelphia who said: “Racism is a poison of the soul. It’s the ugly, original sin of our country, an illness that has never fully healed.” * I find his words uncomfortable, but we have to listen to them. Getting personal, I was raised in a family in which racial and ethnic slurs were commonplace. I suspect that many of you were too. When that kind of language permeates our psyches when we are young, it tends to stay put indelibly. It affects us both consciously and unconsciously, individually and our society as a whole.

Let’s take a minute to look at Archbishop Chaput. He is a member of the “Prairie Band of the Potawatomis;” He’s the second Native American bishop and the first Archbishop. His father is French Canadian and his mother is a member of the Potawanomi nation.

The Archbishop’s words have a political import, but they are also theological.

To talk about the original sin of the United States makes perfect sense. Not far from Charlottesville is Monticello, the estate of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence. He is the one who declared that all men are created equal, and he enunciated a doctrine of human rights, but he also owned slaves, including Sally Hemings who was the mother of his six children, who were also slaves. That he mistreated not only numerous black people, but his own flesh and blood as well, represents the most breathtaking hypocrisy. This manifests the original sin of which Archbishop Chaput speaks; a Constitution that speaks of liberty for all, but which denies it to some on grounds of race.

Ironically Charlottesville is named after Queen Charlotte, the consort of King George III of England. Evidently she was a black Queen whose ancestors came from Africa, which is irony indeed.

When Archbishop Chaput speaks of original sin, he refers not just to the sin at the beginning, but the sin that endures. America today, despite the promise contained in the Constitution, is not a land of equality and great social mobility, despite having had an African-American President. Things are better along racial lines, but they are a long way from being fixed.

Archbishop Chaput, of course, is of Native American stock on his mother’s side, and therefore has a special insight into questions of race. We should not forget that our country existed before Europeans “discovered” it, and that their settlement of the land was anything but peaceful.

Our current troubles, of which Charlottesville represents but the tip of the iceberg must make anyone sad, but the question remains: “What is to be done? The Archbishop rightly points out: “We need more than pious public statements.” He goes on to say: “If our anger today is just another mental virus displaced tomorrow by the next distraction or outrage we find in the media, nothing will change. Charlottesville matters. It’s a snapshot of our public unravelling into real hatreds brutally expressed; a collapse of restraint and mutual respect now taking place across the country. We need to keep the images of Charlottesville alive in our memories. If we want a different kind of country in the future, we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts, and an insistence on the same in others. That may sound simple. But the history of our nation and its tortured attitudes toward race proves exactly the opposite.”*

I find this “original sin of our country” of which Archishop Chaput speaks is manifest in other areas. It’s tied up with what punsters are calling “identity politics.” I interpret this to mean that we are getting tribal in our country; we want to be with folks who are just like us and we are suspicious of anyone who is different. There is also a strong reaction to what I like to call the politics of guilt and pity. Many are tired of being blamed for the problems of others, particularly if it has to do with being “politically correct.” Unfortunately, all too often, there is an overreaction to folks of color who have a legitimate beef because of serious discrimination. Yeah, I get it. We don’t like aspersions of guilt being thrown on us and we often over react. But we do have a problem. The oppression against others, especially against people of other races is real.

The Sin of Adam and Eve, the Original Sin, led to dissension between these first two human beings and it has been passed on to us. The reconciliation that heals such dissension comes from Christ Jesus, himself. He is the one who undoes the damage inflicted by our first parents. Moreover, He is the great sign of unity, as He died and rose for all, black, white, brown, Canaanite and Jew . The Redemption wrought by Jesus is the foundation of human dignity as it shows that He thought we were all worth dying for. So the Archbishop is right to call for conversion of heart.

Ours is a deeply religious nation. A reflection on the foundations of our expressions of faith would be a good place to start to address the injustices of racism. And we can look to Jesus and the Canaanite woman as an example.

*STATEMENT OF ARCHBISHOP CHARLES J. CHAPUT, O.F.M. CAP. REGARDING RACIAL VIOLENCE IN CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA

Racism is a poison of the soul.  It’s the ugly, original sin of our country, an illness that has never fully healed.  Blending it with the Nazi salute, the relic of a regime that murdered millions, compounds the obscenity.  Thus the wave of public anger about white nationalist events in Charlottesville this weekend is well warranted.  We especially need to pray for those injured in the violence. 

 But we need more than pious public statements.  If our anger today is just another mental virus displaced tomorrow by the next distraction or outrage we find in the media, nothing will change.  Charlottesville matters.  It’s a snapshot of our public unraveling into real hatreds brutally expressed; a collapse of restraint and mutual respect now taking place across the country.  We need to keep the images of Charlottesville alive in our memories.  If we want a different kind of country in the future, we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts, and an insistence on the same in others.  That may sound simple.  But the history of our nation and its tortured attitudes toward race proves exactly the opposite.

+Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

Archbishop of Philadelphia 

 

 

 

 

 

 

August 13, 2017 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Aug 132017
 

Matthew 14:22-36

After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone. Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear. At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” After they got into the boat, the wind died down. Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

As we look closely at today’s Gospel lesson from the 14th chapter of Matthew, we read that Jesus wanted to be alone. Following the miracle of the feeding of the multitude, Jesus needed to restore his spiritual energy, so as our text said, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.

His disciples went on ahead of him in a boat to get to the other side of that fresh water lake called the Sea of Galilee. They probably thought that Jesus would either catch a ride in another boat, or take his time and walk around.

It wasn’t a long voyage for the disciples, 5 miles at the most. If it remained calm, they could row across in under two hours; if the wind came up they could sail across in half the time; after all many of them were experienced fishermen and boatmen and they knew the waters well. What we assume began as a routine evening crossing, soon turned into a nightmare. Even today, Galilean fishermen fear the treacherous storms caused by cold winds blowing off the surrounding mountains. They create a sudden tempest in the warm air covering the low lying waters.

The storm that broke on the disciples so unexpectedly that evening came from the direction in which they were heading. Against such a head-wind it was nigh on impossible to make much progress. But the disciples knew that they dared not allow the boat to be driven back to the shore they had just left. The waves could dash their craft against the rocks, endangering it and everyone on board. Their only hope was to ply the oars as long as the storm continued, trying to remain a good distance from the rocks. You can almost hear them uttering what I like to call the “Please, Oh Please, Oh Please God Prayer: “Oh Please God, we gotta stay in deep water, gotta stay away from the rocks, gotta stay in deep water, Oh Please, Oh please, Oh please God!” Most of us know that prayer pretty well.

Our story is set in the “4th watch of the night.” The night in those days was divided into four equal parts or watches. So if there were 8 hours of darkness, each watch would be two hours in length. Assuming they had embarked before nightfall, they would have been in the boat at least six hours. They’ve been battling the storm and they are exhausted, soaked to the skin, cold and frightened. Small wonder, then, that they cry out in fear as they see a figure approaching across the wind-whipped waves. It is Jesus, coming to them walking on the water. “Take courage,” he calls out. “It is I; do not be afraid.”

Acting in his typically impetuous manner, Peter shouts back, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” Jesus replies. Peter’s willingness to do the unthinkable at the command of his Lord enables him to experience the impossible. He climbs out of the boat and starts to walk to Jesus across the storm tossed waves. “But when he saw how strong the wind was,” Matthew tells us, “he became frightened. And beginning to sink [and] he cried out, “Lord, save me.”

“Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him and said, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” They both got into the boat and the wind died down.” Those in the boat did our Lord homage, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Now to us, as far as we know, walking on water wasn’t something members of the early Church expected to do themselves. So we can assume that Matthew expected us, his readers, to hear this story in terms of our own journeys and our own times of doubt, especially when we have stepped out in faith.

We all know what it’s like to start something with confidence and then right in the middle things happens and down we go: maybe we were crossing a stream on a fallen log, stepping carefully on the mossy surface, doing just fine until we look at the rocks and rushing water below and fear takes a grip and balance is lost and we wobble or freeze, and we lose our balance, and down we go into the water, or if we catch ourselves, we sit down and scoot the rest of the way on our backsides.

Or maybe we we’ve been learning to ride a bicycle and we’ve gained enough speed that we’ve suddenly stopped wobbling and we’ve started flying and as the grin grows larger and the heart is rejoicing, a rock is hit, confidence gives way and we lose balance and crash into the neighbor’s hedge. We all know what this is like.

So, how many times have we asked ourselves “Why don’t I have more faith? Why can’t I trust God more? Why am I afraid to let go and let God take care of this? I believe I’m in God’s hands and that they are really good hands, but then I lose my job and can’t find another and as the interviews go on and on and our savings disappear, my faith seems to go with them and I begin to sink.

And we do have the hope of heaven and a bright future with all the Angels and Saints but then sickness sets in and no healing miracles occur and the doctor says six, maybe nine months and we all pray for a miracle and no miracle comes and the waves start to creep up our legs and we begin to sink.

Personally, I have no doubt that God is all powerful and lovingly present and active in this world, but as I look at the situation with Christians being driven out of Iraq and there is still the incredible barbarity of the those rogues who are trying to establish a pure Islamic state out of Syria and Iraq, or I look at those poor kids from central America who have gone through unspeakable hardships to flee from atrocities in their home countries, only to find such incredibly mixed messages once they arrive here in the United States; with all this I have to confront my own sinking doubt.

So why do we doubt? There are a bevy of reasons, but at the top of the list is cynicism which is usually a mask for fear, because the sea is so vast and we are so small, because the storm is so powerful and we are so easily sunk—AND— because we do have a modicum of faith, we have at least some. Like St. Peter, we do have at least a little, and a little is a whole lot better than nothing, even though there are times when it does not seem to be enough to save.

Like Peter, we have faith and we doubt. We take a few shaky steps and then we sink.

So I ask you, “What if Peter had not sunk? What if he had jumped out of the boat with perfect confidence, landed with both feet on the water and strolled across the waves to Jesus without a moment’s hesitation? What if the other disciples had followed suit, piling out of the boat after him and all of them with perfect faith, sauntering toward Jesus on top of the water while the storm raged and the wind beat the sails of their little ship and the lightning split the dark night above their heads and the thunder cracked all about them?

Well, it would be a different story. It might even be a better story, but it would not be a story about us. The truth about us is more complicated. The truth about us is that we are both obedient and we fear; we walk and we sink; we believe and we doubt. It is not one or the other. Our faith and our doubt are not mutually exclusive, they both exist in us at the same time, one buoying us up and the other beating us down, giving us courage and feeding our fears, supporting our weight on the wild seas and sinking us like stones.

This is why we need Jesus.

This story assures us that when the storms of life rage and the night is the blackest, when we cannot see the way ahead, when we are bone weary and life’s struggles are beating us down and our hearts are failing because fear is emerging victorious, there is good news, Jesus is close. As Catholics, we know this—we really know this—after all, we are here gathered as his Body, eagerly anticipating receiving him fully, completely, unequivocally in the Holy Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith. We don’t doubt that and that is enough to give us the hope of salvation, no matter how strong the storm.

 

August 6, 2017 The Transfiguration of the Lord

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Aug 062017
 

2 Peter 1:16-19

Beloved: We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain. Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts

 

Both Latin and Eastern rite Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration today. It’s the traditional date on both calendars.

For Eastern Catholics, the Feast of the Transfiguration is especially significant. It is among their 12 “great feasts.”  Eastern Christianity emphasizes that Christ’s transfiguration is the prototype of spiritual illumination, which is possible for the committed disciple of Jesus. This Christian form of “enlightenment” is facilitated by the ascetic disciplines of prayer, fasting, and charitable almsgiving.  A revered hierarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, the late Archbishop Joseph Raya, described this traditional Byzantine view of the transfiguration in his book of meditations on the Biblical event and its liturgical celebration, entitled “Transfiguration of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  “Transfiguration,” Archbishop Raya wrote, “is not simply an event out of the two-thousand-year old past, or a future yet to come. It is rather a reality of the present, a way of life available to those who seek and accept Christ’s nearness.”

For us in the Latin or Western Rite Church, the Transfiguration is also an important Feast Day. In his address before the Angelus in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI described how the events of the Transfiguration display Christ as the “full manifestation of God’s light.”  This light, which shines forth from Christ both at the transfiguration and after his resurrection, is ultimately triumphant over “the power of the darkness of evil.”  The Pope stressed that the Feast of the Transfiguration is an important opportunity for believers to look to Christ as “the light of the world,” and to experience the kind of conversion which the Bible frequently describes as an emergence from darkness to light.   “In our time too,” Pope Benedict said, “we urgently need to emerge from the darkness of evil, to experience the joy of the children of light!”

This feast commemorates one of the pinnacles of Jesus’ earthly ministry. On Mt. Tabor Christ revealed his divinity by means of a miraculous and supernatural light to three of his closest disciples: Peter, James and John. A couple of decades later, St. Peter shares his experience in today’s epistle lesson, the second letter which bears his name. It is the only place in the Scriptures outside the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, where anyone refers to the “Transfiguration.”

To refresh your memories, it’s the occasion when Jesus suddenly becomes radiant with divine light as he converses with Moses and Elijah. And then, behold!—Jesus is standing alone. And all of a sudden, God’s voice came from heaven proclaiming: “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” In a rather matter-of-fact way, Peter remembers that We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.

We can presume that by the time of Peter’s writing in mid-first century that some of the opponents of the faith were scoffing at the extraordinary tales that were going around about Jesus. Peter insists that the “transfiguration” actually happened. He was a personal eye-witness.  The result of this eye-witness testimony is that the apostles could look back on the entire world of biblical prophecy; that grand, untidy seemingly chaotic collection of stories which revealed as one story the series of sign posts pointing to what was to come and by divine revelation through the teaching of the Church, it all somehow made sense.

Among the prophecies was one from Numbers 24 which referred to the star that would arise from Jacob. This was widely understood to be a prophecy of the Messiah and it may very well have supplied Peter with the inspiration for his statement at the end of our lesson today that Jesus is the “morning star.” (Num. 24:17)  Peter’s point in this little discourse is that the stories of Jesus reach something of a climax in the extraordinary revelation of glory at the moment of transfiguration. In part because of this event, the Church is now enlightened to read the entire Hebrew scriptures in the light of Christ.

Peter is addressing the new reality that has come about by the Incarnation of Christ. The Transfiguration bears witness to this. God had come in the flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and the transfiguration gives us a glimpse of his divinity. This was something incredible, something that culminated in the Cross and Resurrection. Everything had been straining forward to the day when God’s glory would be revealed.

But nobody thought that there would be this tremendous lag time between the Messiah’s appearance and the time of his return which would mark the beginning of the new age and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. There were no speculations what this interim period would be like or even why such a period would exist.

So Peter and the other Apostles went about the business of explaining. They shared why and how the scriptures were being fulfilled even yet and what the faithful should be doing in the meantime. Christians then and now are in need of solid teaching as St. Peter stated in verse 19 from today’s reading.  He writes… we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

As mentioned earlier, this “morning star” is most certainly a reference to the messianic proclamation from the OT book of Numbers, which speaks both to prophecy in general and specifically to one of the main reasons for the transfiguration; it was an act of enlightenment to show the faithful the way to true holiness in the glory of God.

For the faithful, Christ’s coming, his teaching and miracles, this transfiguration, his death and resurrection are to be held on to, like people clinging to a bright light in the most oppressive darkness, all the while awaiting the coming of Christ in the fullness of Glory.

So, let us step back a bit and take another look. We must remember that things were tough for the early Church. St. Peter’s ideas and practices confront a striking resemblance to our own day. He was confronting skeptics who questioned God’s direct intervention into the affairs of the world, especially those of the faithful. He also took to task those who refuted Christ’s imminent return in Glory to judge the living and the dead and to establish a new heaven and a new earth.

Peter was also calling to judgment an extremely permissive age, an age of excesses of appetites of all forms in the name of personal freedom.

Peter was also reminding the reader of God’s divine activity in our day to day endeavors and that ours’ is not just a God who is remote, far off in heaven—transcendent if you will—but a God who is also imminent, who is near and active in our lives.

For a good illustration of what things were like, I quote from the introduction to the “Student Bible.”  First-century apostles must have felt like pioneers in a mosquito-infested swamp. A pest attacked them—Slap—They’d kill it and instantly another would land. Wherever they went new dangers swarmed up.   One group denied Jesus was God; then another declared him God but not fully human. The apostles denounced scrupulosity, only to encounter free-swingers who assumed “anything goes.” Members of one congregation quit work and huddled together to await Jesus’ return; those of another gave up on his returning at all.

Second Peter was written in response to the young Church’s jumpy tendencies. Whereas First Peter centered on fearsome dangers from outside, this letter speaks of dangers from within. False teachers were stirring dissent, questioning basic doctrine, and leading Christians into immorality. 2 Peter’s purpose is to set the record straight and to call people to the holiness of observing the one true faith.

And from St. Peter’s second letter, it is the Transfiguration in particular that we honor today. It helps to enlighten us and show us Christ’s divinity and our hope of the glory of celestial holiness and to affirm the solid teaching of the Church, especially in the bedrock found in the Hebrew Scriptures, the teaching that keeps us faithful when there are so many forces that yearn to lead us astray.

 

 

 

 

 

July 30, 2017 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Jul 302017
 

1 Kings 3:5, 7-12

The LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream at night. God said, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” Solomon answered: “O LORD, my God, you have made me, your servant, king to succeed my father David; but I am a mere youth, not knowing at all how to act. I serve you in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a people so vast that it cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong. For who is able to govern this vast people of yours?” The LORD was pleased that Solomon made this request. So God said to him: “Because you have asked for this— not for a long life for yourself, nor for riches, nor for the life of your enemies, but for understanding so that you may know what is right— I do as you requested. I give you a heart so wise and understanding that there has never been anyone like you up to now, and after you there will come no one to equal you.”

 

Much wisdom comes from experience and common sense.  But there is another kind of wisdom; the wisdom that is a gift from God. As you know, the Church teaches that Wisdom is one of the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Catechism tells us that holy Wisdom enables us to know the purpose and plan of God…(p. 903)  I like this observation: “Wisdom is the God-given ability to see life with rare objectivity and to handle life with rare stability.” Today, the OT reading from I Kings tells of God granting the gift of Holy Wisdom to Solomon.

As background, Solomon, the son of King David and Bathsheba, has inherited the throne after the death of his father. He has gone to a place called Gibeon to pray and to worship God.  Solomon eventually falls asleep and God appears to him in a dream. God said, “Ask anything of me and I will give it to you.”

Solomon answered: I am a mere youth, not knowing how to act…Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.  This petition to distinguish right from wrong, good from evil, is very important; it is the key ingredient of wisdom. A truly wise person can see the subtle distinctions.

For those without the gift of holy wisdom, this may seem too black and white. So many things seem gray; after all, good and bad do seem to blend together.  At another level we also tend to avoid rigid folks who claim to know the truth; we often question their insight. More often we don’t like it when they point out things that make us uncomfortable.

Holy Wisdom empowers us to see through the grayness and tells us, “This is black and this is white; this is right, this is wrong; this is good and this is evil.”

For practical usage, this gift is to be applied more to ourselves and less to others. Knowing what’s black and what’s white, what’s good and what’s bad, is more for our own conduct and less for judging others. Having the Gift of Wisdom does not mean that we will always use the Gift of Wisdom. Our consciences kick in and we discern the differences between right and wrong; we have the wisdom to do the right thing or to avoid doing the wrong thing, but we fall into the sins of commission or omission.

Sometimes we do it out of defiance,  “I’m gonna do this or I’m not gonna do that.” The motivations for sin are legion, but often we have the God given wisdom not to sin for this is when the Holy Spirit prompts our consciences, but we either plunge in or back away. We often ignore or don’t follow through on the wisdom that we have.

Solomon asked for and received the gift of Holy Wisdom but eventually he quit following through on his part of the bargain. He let his conscience get calloused over and eventually it led to his downfall. He gave into temptations of political intrigue, sexual misadventures and personal glory.

Let’s develop this a bit. Solomon’s father King David made Israel into one of the political powerhouses in that region of the world. And Solomon tried to carry on with the work of his father. After becoming king, one of his first acts was to engage in some political intrigue by sealing a pact with Egypt by marrying one of Pharaoh’s daughters, a common enough practice. Historically marriage has been a key means by which countries made treaties and formed alliances. But it was against God’s specific instructions and Solomon went ahead anyway.

Eventually Solomon developed an insatiable sexual appetite, and soon he was to have 700 wives and three hundred concubines. Aside from the obvious problems of polygamy and sexual license, these foreign wives brought their pagan religions with them.

And as folk wisdom tells us, “There’s no fool like an old fool.” As he grew older, Solomon gave into the pressures of his wives and concubines. In the 1lth chapter of First Kings, we learn of Solomon’s problems. We read: “Was it not because of [these] marriages…that Solomon sinned? Among the many nations, there was no king like him. He was loved by God and God made him King over all Israel, but he was led to sin by foreign women.”

Solomon put up lavish altars to various gods to please these very strong, very smart, very demanding foreign women: The Sidonian wives worshipped Ashtoreth, a goddess of war and fertility; the Ammonites worshipped Milcom or Maloch, a fierce god who demanded child sacrifice, and for the Moabite wives their God was Ba’al Pe’or, whose worship included drunken revelry and debauchery. Solomon not only built the altars to these false gods, he actually engaged in these horrific immoral acts of idolatry with his various wives and concubines.

The Lord became furious at Solomon. He vowed to destroy Israel as punishment. However, because of His great love for David, he waited until Solomon died before He tore Israel apart.

Solomon also succumbed to great self-aggrandizement. He engaged in a huge building program, ostensibly for the Glory of God, but it turned out to be more for his own ego. Although he constructed a magnificent Temple in which to worship God, he built an even more magnificent palace for himself and his wives and concubines.

The price of all this ran pretty high and it was his subjects who had to pick up the tab. One of the ironies is that he eventually enslaved his own people much as the Egyptians had done to the Children of Israel centuries earlier. He forced these people to do the actual building of the two great monuments, without pay. And those who weren’t enslaved were taxed unbearably. And like so many of us, Solomon got pretty good at rationalizing his sinful behavior. The temple and the palace got built, but Solomon broke his people in the process.

There it is: political intrigue, sexual license, general unfaithfulness to God and the quest for personal glory; they all became more important than using the great gift of Holy Wisdom God had given him.

That was the there and then message, let us go to the here and now application. We all get caught up in worldly things, the sins of various appetites, our own self-centeredness, our own quest for power and glory. And sometimes they can be all consuming, even traumatic for us.

We do have free will, but we often don’t use it very well. As I’ve shared frequently, we are like sheep; we frequently just nibble ourselves astray. We like this bunch of grass here, we go over the hill just to see what’s on the other side, a little bit here, a little bit there, and next thing you know, we are over in the next county, focusing on our own agendas and ignoring or at least trying to avoid what God has for us. We turn down the volume on the voice of our consciences. Unfortunately, all too often, the little venial sins can lead to mortal sins and then we are in real trouble.

But here’s some really good news, news that I that I talk about regularly. The Church teaches that each of us has a guardian angel to assist us in all our needs. We have the intercessions of the saints, especially the Blessed Virgin. St. Paul tells us in Romans that we have the Holy Spirit who intercedes on our behalf with “sighs too deep for words,” and most especially we have the Lord Jesus himself who intercedes to the Father on our behalf. And of course we have the Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. God does provide.

The Church also makes clear that there is a tempter who does his best to have us abandon the faith and the world can be so seductive. But Christ wins and with Him, so do we.

So for our reflection, I think I need to close with this. God gives us gifts and we are to use them for his glory and the good of others and for our own holiness. But we lose track and either ignore our gifts or think they are to be used solely for our convenience and gratification. The key is to focus more on the giver and less on the gift, and in so doing we can keep our perspective and claim the blessing.

If we misuse our gifts, specifically today the gift of Holy Wisdom, there is often significant repercussions for others. I like to call it the splatter factor; our misuse is like chucking a big rock into a mud puddle. The splattering mud usually hits someone else. Solomon was hardly cold in his grave when revolution split his kingdom in two.

Our decisions, with few exceptions, don’t have that kind of impact. But there are repercussions for us and for others if we do not use God’s Gifts faithfully. Knowing this and implementing it, is true wisdom, in itself a wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit.

 

 

 

 

 

July 23, 2017 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Jul 232017
 

Matthew 13:24-30

Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field.  While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.  When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well.  The slaves of the householder came to him and said, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?   Where have the weeds come from?’  He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’  His slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’  He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them.  Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”‘”

St. Matthew focuses largely on what scripture scholars call the “Eschaton.” Eschaton is the 50-cent word that refers to the time of the return of Christ, the final judgment, the end of the world and the dawning of the new age. In Matthew, Jesus speaks of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew’s is the only Gospel that mentions wise and foolish virgins or the separation of sheep from goats or in today’s lesson, the separation of weeds from wheat. Note the reference to harvest and weeds, the burning of the weeds, and the ingathering of the grain into the barn. This all speaks of the Day of Judgment, the Eschaton, the day in which people will be deemed faithful or wicked, blessed or cursed.

It all is something that is clearly in the teaching of the Church but there is a particular emphasis in Matthew. In this Gospel, Jesus speaks of those who have ears to hear and those who do not. In this day and age when there seems to be a great preponderance of weeds in the ripening field of the Lord, this whole theme is causing a great deal of reflection and conversation.

Matthew in particular seems to depict Jesus as saying that there are only two kinds of people in the world: wheat and weeds. Each of us can ask “What am I—wheat or weed? Am I blessed or am I cursed? Am I faithful or am I among the wicked?”

In pondering this, it must be said that there is more than one way to deal with this stark question. One of the lovely and mysterious aspects of parables is that they prompt us to ask such questions and yet they give no clear-cut answers. You see, parables are not mathematical formulas. The Catechism tells us that Parables are simple images or comparisons which confront the hearer or reader with a radical choice about [Christ’s] invitation to enter the Kingdom of God. (p891) The Catechism goes on to say that Words are not enough; deeds are required. The parables are like mirrors for [us]; will [we] be hard soil or good earth for the word? What use [have we] made of the talents [we have] received?…

The catechism then tells us that [one must become] a disciple of Christ in order to “know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. For those who stay “outside,” everything become enigmatic. (CCC #546)

To remind you, an enigma is somebody or something that is not easily explained or understood. It’s a mystery. However, the Church is clear: the way we live out this mystery is to identify with Christ, confess him as Lord and follow him as a disciple. This is the backbone of all parables, in fact of all the faith. And those who choose not to follow will be mired down in the confusion.

We much prefer explanations over mysteries, particularly in matters of faith. And yet here we have these wonderful stories of Jesus, these parables that wash over us like a wave full of light and life, but not giving explanation. A parable confronts us as a tool that enables us to grow in the faith and to improve the conditions of the world; they don’t directly answer questions, however much we may want “yes” or “no” answers. This speaks to their unique, timeless power. They usually teach us something different, however small, each time we hear them, speaking across great distances of time and place and even understanding.

In short, parables help us become better disciples. In contrast, an explanation gives us something to put in a Church bulletin: a short, snappy answer to life’s most compelling issues. Explanations may deal with the short answer, but they often offer little challenge for taking up our crosses and following Christ to Golgotha.

But we can look and reflect on some of the possible answers the parables offer. For example, we can look at the slaves in today’s Gospel reading. They are so eager to please. They know something is awry in their Master’s best field, the wheat is overrun with weeds and they offer to fix it. They say to him ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

In this parable, our Lord was not talking about weeds plural. Rather he was referring to a specific plant, a particular weed, zizania in Greek. It has a Latin name, “Lolium Ter-mu-lentum,” and in English its name is Darnel. It is a particularly nasty, noxious plant, a weed with poisonous seeds and roots like nylon cord. And while growing, Darnel is almost impossible to distinguish from the wheat.

The householder replied, “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with it. Let them grow together until the harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, ‘First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into the barn.’”

Now Jesus’ explanation of this parable to the disciples is clear. This is about the final judgment. There will be those who will be included in the Kingdom as represented by the wheat and there will be those who will not be included, represented by the Darnel.

As we look more closely, however, we find there are some more subtle implications to this parable for us to consider.

Upon reflection we can see that the servants weren’t skilled enough to separate the Darnel from the wheat, the faithful from the unfaithful. I reiterate, it is really hard to tell Darnel from wheat. These slaves probably would have gotten frustrated and jerked on something that looked like Darnel, only to discover that it was a wheat plant. Or, as Jesus points out, the roots were intertwined and carefully pulling out a weed probably would have brought a wheat plant with it.

According to the householder, it is more important for the wheat to live, than to kill the Darnel.

This does speak to us Catholic Disciples. We frequently have done significant harm when our intent is to be agents of God’s judgment. An example is in the first crusade over a thousand years ago when the goal was to drive the Muslims out of the Holy Land. Hundreds of knights and thousands of other warriors set off from Western Europe to Jerusalem to do the Lord’s bidding as they understood it.

These men of war blew through the territories of the Eastern Mediterranean. Unfortunately they had a tendency to make assumptions about the inhabitants of some of the communities that they found there. On several occasions they would raze a village or town, thinking it to be Muslim, only to find that when they turned over the bodies that the corpses had crosses fastened around their necks. It never occurred to these crusaders that Christians would come in colors other than white.

An effect of this is that people remember. A thousand years later, what we now call Eastern Orthodox Christians still remember the atrocities done to their ancestors by these crusaders from the Latin Church. Many of these descendents are still angry.  At the root of much of our ongoing problems in the Middle East is the fact that many Muslims suspect that “Westerners” are engaging in another crusade. Those folks also remember and are suspicious of our motives.

This leads to another observation. An added reason to let the weeds grow is that they may be useful in unexpected ways.

Listen to the words of the Master: “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles…” This speaks of the final judgment, but there is more. Let me suggest a further interpretation. In first century Palestine, fuel was hard to come by. Wood was scarce, so folks had to make do. A primary source for heating and cooking was dried weeds. They were tied tightly together in bundles that gave size and density, so that they would be more efficient as fuel.

Here’s an irony. By letting the weeds and wheat grow together, farmers had two of the major ingredients for making bread: wheat for the flour and weeds for the fuel to bake the bread. For us, this has clear Eucharistic implications.

This metaphor of weeds and wheat also speaks of God’s wonderful ability to turn evil and pain and rebellion into something useful. It speaks most clearly to the fact that God is in control and we are not. When we get impatient and frustrated, we need to know that God does have a master plan, and when we are faithful, we help implement his plan, and when we are not faithful we become impediments.

This has a finer point, as St. Augustine observed, “many at first are weeds and then become good seed …[and if the slaves had] not endured with patience, they would not have attained the praiseworthy change.” This is the purpose of Evangelization, sharing the Good News of Jesus with folks, a sharing that may bring about conversion, often miraculously turning Darnel into wheat.

God does not want us to weed too recklessly—or too soon— and consequently destroy the wheat along with the weeds, knowing that some of the noxious Darnel is being transformed into the finest wheat.

Jesus wants his followers to live with the tension of believing that the kingdom was indeed arriving in and through his own work. He wanted them, and now us, to know that this kingdom will come, will fully arrive, both with a bang, and with the process of the slow growth of crops in the field, in the time of bread dough to rise and then to be baked in celestial ovens. Such is the nature of the Eschaton, the final judgment. And such is the Kingdom of God.