Sunday, October 15, 2017

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

For the third Sunday in a row, we hear another parable that Jesus tells the chief priests and elders in the temple in Jerusalem.  This parable is the most powerful yet; there is a king and a royal wedding feast and people being killed and a city being burned down and someone at the end being bound and thrown out into the darkness.  The parable is a wake up call, a final offer for those listening to realize who it is standing before them.  They are even told how dire the consequences will be if they continue in their obstinacy and rejection. 

The king giving the wedding feast is God the Father and the groom is Jesus.  Many of the Jewish people have not accepted Jesus’ preaching.  Their ancestors have mistreated and abused the prophets sent to them.  And yet, all are still invited to the wedding feast.  But some of those invited have other priorities and do not attend.  Consequently, even more people are invited, bad and good alike, and finally the hall is filled.  As in the parable, the Church, the bride of Christ, welcomes all into the joy of the eternal wedding feast that awaits us who are faithful in following Jesus.

At the end of the parable, the king, as he welcomes guests, sees someone without a wedding garment, and questions the person, who, having no answer, is cast out into the darkness.  It is a stark reminder that each of us will face a judgment at the end of our life.  More will be expected from us than having been baptized.  As the baptism rite says, we need to have lived so as to have our baptismal garment unstained and our light still burning brightly when Christ comes again.  To those who have been given much, much is expected.  As Jesus says, “Many are invited, but few are chosen.” We need to be sure we are among the chosen.

With this parable, Matthew reminds his community that the Church welcomes all people, Jews and Gentiles.  He also reminds the community that there is more to the Christian life than accepting Jesus as Lord and Messiah.  Members of the Church also have to do works of righteousness and charity.  As Jesus did, they have act justly and charitably and do all that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount.  Their righteousness has to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees.  All this, of course, is true for us as well.

We have to ask ourselves some serious questions:  Do we continue to respond to God’s invitation to live as sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus?  Or are we putting off our response to the invitation, as some in the parable did, due to worldly concerns or selfishness?  Do we seek first the Kingdom of God or are there other priorities that are more important to us?

It is not enough to go to Mass on Sunday. God demands faith and action, words and deeds. We need to have a relationship with Jesus and be active members of the Church.  We have been invited and have responded with our baptism.  Are we also now working we to guarantee that we will be chosen as well? 

Isaiah describes the heavenly banquet in the first reading at which God will wipe the tears from our eyes.  Choice wine, always a symbol of joy, will be in abundance, and all of our hungers will be satisfied and death will be destroyed.

But until then, we have work to do, and, as Paul writes in the second reading, it will at times be humbling and distressing, but we can put our trust in Jesus who will supply everything we need.  With Paul we are confident that we “can do all things in him who strengthen us.” 

When we choose to say yes to God, no matter what is asked, we are promised a white robe of righteousness and a place at the royal wedding feast in heaven.  When we choose anything other than that, we risk being cast into the darkness.  We need to choose wisely each and every day, for we know neither the day nor the hour when we will stand before Jesus and have to give an account of what we have done.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Pondering Isaiah’s story about the vineyard and Jesus’ parable about the vineyard, I was reminded that there is something that God cannot do.  God gave us the gift of free will and therefore God cannot make us do something that we do not want to do.  The story of the vineyards illustrates the refusal of the people of God’s people to produce the fruit that would result from doing the will of God.  In Isaiah’s time people had fallen away from following the Lord God and therefore the vineyard of the Lord was in ruins.   And with Jesus standing before them, the religious leaders in the temple were unwilling to accept him and therefore were missing the opportunity to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

As a teacher, I have known the frustration and anger that results when students won’t do what they have to do in order to succeed.  No matter how much help they are offered, if students are unwilling to do their part, there is nothing more a teacher can do.  Certainly, parents have the same experience with their children at times.  And being human, we may give up or get upset and make threats.  At times in the Scriptures God is portrayed at having some of those same reactions and that can leave us with a wrong impression about God.

Our God is love and will never condemn us or give up on us.  Quite the contrary, the Word of God became one of us and died to save us so that we might live forever.  The Holy Spirit has been poured into our hearts so that we might bear fruit and grow in holiness.  God is always reaching out to offer us grace so that we might lead a virtuous life.  God does nothing but love us, and once we turn away from our sins and ask forgiveness, as Jesus told his disciples, the angels rejoice, as God restores us to our rightful place as loved sons and daughters of God the Father. 

So the choice is always ours and when we make bad choices and do nothing to repair the damage, we will suffer the consequences.  But that will be the result of our actions; it is not God finally having had enough and abandoning us.  Rather God waits and watches and never stops trying to break through our resistance and rebellion. 

As Mother Teresa said, God does not call us to be perfect, but to be faithful.  As followers of Jesus, we are faithful to doing the best we can, and when that is not enough, we are faithful to seeking the merciful face of Jesus in prayer and sacrament so that we may continue on the Way. 

Strengthened by God’s compassionate faithfulness, we take to heart Paul’s words to the Philippians in the second reading.  Rather than give in to anxiety, we make our requests known to God with prayer, petition and thanksgiving, and the peace of God then will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. And then we head back to work in the vineyard.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time

It has been my experience that when people are in a tough place in their lives, if they are honest, there is reason to hope for better days.  Honest people can more readily admit when they have been wrong or have made a mess of their lives than those who are not honest.  Dishonesty is often accompanied by denial and those who aren’t willing to face the truth are unable then to make any changes.  They are trapped within their own selfishness that led to the lying in the first place. 

In the short parable in today’s gospel, Jesus was speaking to to the chief priests and elders in the temple.  When the father of two sons tells the first son to go to work, he simply said, “I will not.”  He was honest; he didn’t lie.  But upon reflection, he changed his mind, and ended up doing what the father had asked.  When his brother was given the same order, he told his father, “Yes, sir,” but he did not go.  He was dishonest and there was no change even considered.  The honest son, who was able to change, is the one who did the father’s will.

Jesus addressed the parable to the religious leaders who had rejected both John the Baptist and Jesus.  They couldn’t see themselves honestly and they certainly saw no need for change.  But when John the Baptist came preaching repentance, the tax collectors and prostitutes realized what John was saying was true; they were sinners who needed to change, so they responded to his call.  Similarly, when Jesus began his preaching, being honest people, these so-called “sinners” were open to him and became his followers as well.  They let Jesus and his words and works change them.

Honesty is needed for us to live according to God’s will.  When honesty forces us to examine our lives and see what needs changing, it produces humility.  And once we begin to be humble, God’s grace can do even more within us. 

The second reading today from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one of the most beautiful passages in the Scriptures, for it tells of God’s humility, present in Jesus who becomes one of us and then humbles himself all the more by dying on the cross for us.  And when Jesus humbles himself unto death, God raises him on high.  To be a Christian is to follow Jesus’ example.  We need to be humble in order to be holy.  We need to bow low in order to be raised up.

Humble people have no delusions about who they are.  They know who they are and more importantly, they know who God is.  When we are humble, we can see when pride tempts us to believe that we can do it on our own.  We realize that any good that we are or any good that we do is only possible because of God, who needs to come first in our lives.  And when we are weak and fall and make mistakes and sin, our honesty and humility leads us back to God.

And it doesn’t matter how many times we need to ask God for another chance.  God is delighted each and every time we turn to him, willing again to do God’s will.  As Cardinal Newman said, to live is to change and to change often is to become perfect.  When we are honest and humble, we are on the road to perfection that leads to heaven.  We have begun to become wholly the person God created us to be, and that person will be holy.God humbled himself to share our humanity so that we might share in his divinity.  

Jesus has shown us how to live in order to get there, and so we set out on the path of honesty and humility each day, knowing that it leads to holiness and eternal happiness in heaven.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matthew, a tax collector, called to be an apostle by Jesus, knew two things well: money and the mercy of God, and two parables in Matthew's gospel combine the two.  Last week we heard the parable about a servant who was freed from an impossible debt by a merciful king, but then refused to do the same for someone who owed him money. 

This Sunday we hear a parable about a generous vineyard owner who is criticized when he gives a full day’s pay to those who worked only a short time.  We know that Matthew was saved from being swallowed up by a love of money by the mercy of Jesus.  It’s not surprising then that he is the only evangelist who includes this parable in his gospel.

In the first reading today, Isaiah tells us that God’s ways are not our ways and that even the wicked will find mercy after turning to God who is generous in forgiving.  But as we learn in the gospel, if God is too generous, we can get annoyed and want more because it’s not fair that others easily obtain what we have worked so hard for. 

I had the occasion years ago to give all of the students in my English class an A on their report card.  I did it for two reasons: one, simply because I could, and two, because I wanted to see what the reaction would be. 

Many in the class were excellent students and were expecting an A, but that was not the case for all of them.  Some of them didn’t do much work, and others simply weren’t as bright.  But they all got an A, every single one of them.  Long story short, it was today’s gospel come to life.  Many of the students were thrilled, but some, who would have gotten an A anyway, said it was not fair and wasn’t right.  I knew then that Jesus’ parables are powerful because the Lord really did know the human heart and what we learn in the parables is as true today as when Jesus first told them.

Think of how often we appeal to justice when we think people are getting off easy.  “That’s just not right.”  We can be envious because we have worked hard to be good and have earned and deserve what is due to us.  Yet, God’s word tells us “mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13) God’s ways, indeed, are not our ways.  God can do anything God wants and does not owe any of us anything.  Everything we have is gift.  But God is good and will do anything to help us be holy.  Our part is be open to what God offers and then accept it.  One thing God won’t and can’t do is violate our free will. 

Keep in mind the two criminals crucified alongside Jesus.  One of them knew he deserved to be there and recognized that Jesus had done no wrong.  And he humbly and simply asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus came into his kingdom.  That was all it took.  Jesus promised then and there that they would be in paradise together that day.  Amazing.  It is never too late.  We are never so bad.  The mercy of God waits for every single one of us every moment of our lives.  Mercy triumphs over judgment.

St Paul experienced the mercy of God in his life.  He knew that he was the least of the apostles.  He knew that he was a sinner.  But more importantly, he came to realize that nothing could separate him from the love of God.  In today’s second reading as he writes to the Christians in Philippi, he is so free, as only a person who has been changed by God’s mercy can be, that he says he doesn’t know whether he wants to live or die.  He has no fear of dying or judgment, for love casts out fear.  But he also knows that there is more he could do to help others, so perhaps there was still work for him to do.  He leaves it up to God.  Such holy indifference flows from his humility.  We need to desire and seek the same gift. 

God’s ways are not our ways.  God is unbelievably merciful and overwhelmingly generous to us and to everyone.  When we experience God’s goodness, we ought to rejoice when we see God’s goodness to others.  We should be grateful and happy for them, not envious. 

St. Matthew and St. Paul and, indeed, all the saints trusted in Jesus’ merciful love.  They knew that God’s goodness was greater than their faults and failings.  They wanted only to do God’s will each day, regardless of how few or how many days they would be given. 

We ought to desire to do the same, and we will be able to do so, provided we trust God’s love and grace, which is ours for the asking.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Forgiveness is serious business.  When Jesus ends the parable in today’s gospel with, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from the heart,” there should be no doubt that we have some soul searching to do.  We have to forgive or risk losing everything we hope for. 

The first and most important thing about forgiveness then is that it is not optional.  We have to do it.  It’s an essential part of being a Christian.  If we say we are followers of Christ, then we have to extend mercy to everyone.  Our good God has shown mercy to us and will continue to show mercy to us each and every time we ask for it.  And having been shown mercy, we then are to be merciful to all those in need of it from us.  That’s the deal, and it’s a good one, so we ought to make sure we are doing our part.

That having been said, the second thing about forgiveness is that often it is not easy.  When someone hurts us in a serious way, we are angry and bitter.  As the first reading from Sirach says, we hug our wrath and anger tight.  We have a death grip on our pain and to be asked to let go and move on is not something that comes easily or naturally.

And those deep, heartfelt feelings don’t leave us anytime soon.  Years later, the thought of what was done to us, or sometimes, even worse, someone close to us, pops into our head, and we feel it all over again.  That’s not good for many reasons, but the most important one is that if we don’t do something about it, our chances for peace and happiness here and in the life to come are compromised.  Remember the first point – forgiveness is not an option.  We have to do it.

The third thing about forgiveness, though, offers some help, and that is that forgiveness is not about feelings.  If we had to wait until our emotions become warm and fuzzy after we have been betrayed or abused or mistreated, we would all be waiting a long time and there would be no forgiveness.

Forgiveness is an act of the will.  To forgive is a choice we make, despite our feelings and is in no way dependent on our feelings.  We forgive because we have been forgiven.  And when we find ourselves unwilling to forgive, we ask the Lord to make us willing, or willing to be willing, or willing to be willing to be willing.  All the Lord needs to have grace work in us is the smallest opening, and then we are on the path to forgiveness.  Patience is often needed, for sure, but with God’s grace, we can get there.

We might ask the Holy Spirit in the days ahead to bring to mind anyone whom we may need to forgive.  The Spirit desires to make us holy, so He will do that.  And once we know who needs our forgiveness, we make the decision to forgive them, and in time, the emotions lessen and even disappear, thanks to God’s healing grace.  

Sunday, September 10, 2017

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Christian life is not meant to be lived alone.  We need others.  At the heart of our faith is the call to love and to be of service.  Paul tells us in the second reading that we owe nothing to anyone, except to love them.

Our Catholic tradition has seven corporal works of mercy and seven spiritual works of mercy.  When we perform the corporal works of mercy, we are being loving and giving glory to God through our service of those in need: the hungry, thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the sick, the imprisoned, and even the dead. 

With the spiritual works of mercy, we are helping those who are in need due to often unseen miseries.  Those in need spiritually offer us an opportunity to help them to grow in holiness: the sinner, the doubtful, the suffering, the ignorant, the offensive, those in need of forgiveness, as well as all the living and the dead.

Today’s Scriptures from both the Old Testament and the Gospel of Matthew speak to one of the spiritual works of mercy: to admonish the sinner.  This work of mercy is one that many of us, myself included, shy away from for various reasons.  We tell ourselves that too much can go wrong when we attempt to do this.  Perhaps we question our motives or even our right to admonish someone when we ourselves are sinners.  We fear we will make things worse rather than help the person.  So we avoid doing it and hope that someone else will step in and let us off the hook. 

God was quite clear to Ezekiel about all of this and that should call us to reconsider our fears and hesitations.  The Lord God told Ezekiel he was to be a watchman for the house of Israel.  Having spoken God’s word to them, Ezekiel also had to warn them about what could happen if they didn’t heed God’s ways.  And if Ezekiel does not warn them and the wicked die because of their wicked ways, God would hold Ezekiel responsible.  This is serious business.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is speaking to his disciples, the future leaders of the community,  and he tells them how he wants them to proceed, just as God gave instructions to Ezekiel centuries before.  First, the person who has done wrong ought to be spoken to one-on-one in private.  Ironically, don’t we often do the exact opposite?  We won’t speak to the person directly, but will tell everyone else what kind of life that person is living.  We need to take Jesus’ word seriously and out of love sit down with someone in need before we tell anyone else.

Jesus then tells the disciples that if the private talk doesn’t work, then two or three others should join in the conversation, just as the Jewish law required.  If that doesn’t work, the person is to be treated as a tax collector or a Gentile.  In other words, since they won’t make the change needed to live as an authentic member of the community due to obstinacy in serious sin, they need to begin again with a careful consideration of what is needed to be a follower of Christ.  And since the disciples will be held responsible for those whom they serve, what they decide will be bound and loosed on earth and in heaven.  As with Ezekiel, this is very serious business.

When we love someone and want the best for them, and that person, for whatever reason, has chosen a life of serious sin rather than a Christian life, we need to show them mercy and warn them of the danger they are facing.  It is an act of mercy and is a much needed way we show our love.  It is imperative that we warn them that they are in spiritual danger and need to change their lives. 

We need to seek the Lord’s help and guidance, rather than act on our own, because what we do is so crucial for the life and well-being of the other.  We have to wait for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as to the right time and the best words.  We can’t risk being judgmental or superior lest we will not being listened to or taken seriously.  But when others, especially those we love, endanger their spiritual lives to such a degree that their eternal life is at risk, we need to act.  Just as we wouldn’t leave someone struggling with a deadly addiction alone, so too we ought not leave someone drowning in sin alone either.  The Lord asks us to do what we can to help and an admonishment or warning is the first step.

Pray about this and let the Lord lead you.  To admonish the sinner is a work of mercy that is much needed today.  The Holy Spirit will give us the words and even arrange for the time and place.  All we need to do is be sensitive to the Spirit’s prompting and then offer ourselves as an unworthy, but willing, instrument of God’s healing mercy. 

Saturday, September 2, 2017

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

In last week’s gospel, Simon Peter was praised for his belief in Jesus and was given a new name.  Simon would now be Peter, the rock upon which Jesus would build the Church.  In today’s gospel, Jesus calls Peter “Satan” – an adversary – and the Lord tells him he is an obstacle – a stumbling stone – on the path of God’s will.   We have to acknowledge that we are like Peter.  What happened to him can happen to each of us.  All of us are capable of both wonderfully holy and strong moments as well as frightening harmful words and actions, when we couldn’t be more wrong. 

And yet the Lord does not give up on us, as he did not give up on Peter.  God will set us straight, for sure, in various ways, and help us to learn and grow through our mistakes, but even in all that, the Lord’s dealings with us, like those of a good parent, are done with love and have no condemnation.

At the start of today’s gospel, before Peter interrupted the Lord, Jesus began to show his disciples the way that he has to follow: to Jerusalem, where the passion, cross and death awaits him, but then he will be raised on the third day.  As disciples who have chosen Jesus as their master, it is imperative that the disciples follow Jesus and imitate him.  As disciples, they look to him in order to learn from him how they are to live their lives. 

Jesus never calls those who follow him “believers” because one can believe in Jesus without then becoming disciples.  It is disciples that the Lord needs, not believers.  There are many today who believe in Jesus, but are unwilling to be his disciples.  Belief, of course, is a necessary step in following Jesus, but for the true Christian, it doesn’t end with belief.  There has to be action. 

Being a disciple demands much more than being a believer. Discipleship is a daily endeavor.  It requires more than going to Mass on Sunday and going to confession once a year.  Disciples have a personal relationship with Jesus and are active members of the Church, the community that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit carries on the mission of Jesus, building the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. 

Today’s gospel raises a question we need to ask ourselves, “Are we committed each day to being disciples, seeking to follow and imitate and learn from Jesus?”  Again, it echoes what many of us memorized as children from the Baltimore catechism.  Being a disciple is the reason we were created, for “God made me to know, love, and serve him in this world so as to be happy with him forever in the next.” 

St. Paul writes to the Romans in the second reading today with a similar message, namely, that God wants us to offer him everything we have and are as a living sacrifice.  We know that Jesus has offered the one, perfect sacrifice with his death on the cross.  We enter into that mystery each time we celebrate the Eucharist.  But now, as Jesus’ disciples, we too give everything that we have and are to God in loving response.  In doing that, Paul assures us, our minds are renewed and we are transformed and able to do God’s will.  Doing God’s will is genuine, faithful discipleship, which is, as St. Paul says “good and pleasing and perfect.”

The challenge, of course, is what made Simon Peter rebuke the Lord.  No one wants to suffer or see someone they love suffer.  It goes against our human nature.  Yet, in the mysterious ways of God, suffering and death is the way to eternal life and perfect happiness.  Jesus is very clear that we all have to take up our cross and follow after him.  There is no way around it.  Everyone has to suffer, but as with Jesus, the suffering can be redemptive and powerful and a source of great grace for ourselves and for others. 

It can be exhausting and seemingly impossible at times.  That’s what Jeremiah is expressing in today’s first reading.  He has been faithful to all that God has asked of him and it has brought him nothing but pain and persecution.  He feels as if he has been tricked.  But he knows that he has to carry on and speak God’s word, for it is, as he says, “like fire burning in my heart.”  God has been with him the whole time and will bring him through the worse of it.

Jesus calls us to be faithful disciples, willing to give everything we have and to walk the path of suffering, trusting the whole time that it all ends in glory.  One day at a time, with God’s help, we can follow Jesus.  No other road will end with the unimaginable joy and peace this one will.