Archive for the ‘Parables’ Category

Forgiving others is crucial (and maybe easier than you think.)

September 12, 2020

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

In Jesus’ parable today, a servant owes his king a huge debt, more precisely (in the original Greek) 10,000 silver talents. This was an amount equal to 150,000 years’ worth of labor in the ancient world, something akin to $4.5 billion today. It’s an unrepayable debt, but the servant’s king is rich in compassion; he feels pity and forgives the man’s entire loan.

Now, this servant was a creditor himself, and one of his fellow servants owed him a significant but much smaller amount, literally 100 denarii, which was 100 days’ wages back then. Think of it like $10,000. The newly debt-free man sought out this fellow servant and started to choke him, demanding, “Pay back what you owe!” Despite pleading for patient mercy, that first servant put the second into debtors’ prison until he should pay back his debt.

Now when other servants witnessed all of this they felt deeply troubled by it. They went and reported the whole situation to the king and master of them all. The king summoned the unforgiving servant and pronounced a swift judgment: “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 threw him into debtors’ prison as well until he should pay back his whole debt.

The king was clearly angry. One rarely-considered reason for his anger is that all of these servants were his own. The 100 denarii debtor suffered by being tossed into prison, his fellow servants suffered from witnessing the scandal, and all of this impacted the king personally. Their distress affects him deeply, for the king is compassionate, but it affected him in another way as well: his servants being detained or disturbed by this unhappy affair kept them from doing his important work. They’re all his servants, but the actions of one impeded the others from freely and fully fulfilling his will.

Of course, the king and master in this parable represents God. Who on earth forgives someone’s $4.5 billion personal debt like our Lord forgives the debt of our sins? And we are each his servants, like St. Paul says, “whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” So, if we are to learn a lesson from the servant whose great debt was forgiven, how can we avoid imprisoning or impeding our fellow servants? Through merciful love.

When someone is angry with you, yells at you, or criticizes you, when you know someone dislikes or despises you, how does that affect you? Does your tension and anxiety go up? Do you think about that person and the situation obsessively? Do you run scenarios in your mind about what you wish you had said or done previously, or what you’ll do the next time you cross paths? Do you avoid that person, or the places they could be, and feel uncomfortable in their presence? Do you gossip to others about your ongoing bitter conflict, thereby spreading the scandal to them? If so, then you’re being imprisoned, partially impeded in your peaceful service of our Lord.

We can easily have this effect on others by how we treat them. And cherishing and nurturing our own anger makes a prisoner of yourself to anger. When you experience some slight or shortcoming from another, be gracious. Maybe just let it be; let it pass. Give their actions a most-generous interpretation. Mistakes are more common than malevolence. And you yourself have bad days, too.

Sometimes, though, we need to address matters for the common good. As we heard about last week, love sometimes calls us to do fraternally correction. But when we do it, let’s do it with a kindly, gentle spirit, sharing the truth in love that they might be able to receive it. Merciful love is necessary to keep each other out of prison, the prison of unrepentance and the prison unforgiveness.

In the Our Father, we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus teaches his disciples, “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” And at the end of today’s parable, Jesus warns us that our fate will be like that of the unforgiving servant ‘unless you forgive your brother from your heart.’ Now many Christians find this teaching deeply disconcerting. They’re troubled because they believe they just can’t forgive. But I usually find they think this because they imagine forgiveness means something it’s not.

Forgiving is not the same thing as forgetting. You can’t force yourself to have amnesia and forget. You might remember the misdeed for the rest of your life. And forgiveness doesn’t mean saying what someone did wasn’t serious or wrong. The offense committed may have been a grave sin and to say otherwise would be a lie. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that what someone did no longer hurts. Only grace and time can heal some wounds, but we can forgive even with lingering pains. Forgiveness doesn’t require you to pretend nothing happened. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that everything must go back to the way it was before. Forgiveness might lead to full reconciliation, but not always. You can forgive someone even before they can be trusted. You can forgive even before they are sorry for what they did. Why? Because forgiveness means loving someone despite the wrongs that they have done.

Forgiveness is loving someone despite their sins. Is there someone you’re worried that you haven’t forgiven? Then pray for them, because you can’t hate someone and pray for them at the same time. Is there someone you find it hard to pray for? Then that’s whom you should pray for, for their sake and for yours. Jesus came to reconcile us to one another and to the Father. So have mercy. Jesus works to heal the wounds of sin and division. So have mercy. And Jesus intercedes for us with our Father. So have mercy, too.

Finding Your Treasure Map

July 27, 2020

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.”

Jesus gives us few details but I imagine his first story like this. A traveler is walking a dusty road he has gone down many times before, but today as he looks out at a field nearby he notices a sunlit glint coming from the dirt. Now curious, he investigates and discovers a broken wooden crate full of gold and silver coins, apparently uncovered by recent plowing and rain. (Reportedly, in the turbulent conditions of the Holy Land in that era, it was not unusual to safeguard valuables by burying them in the ground.) Shoving the coins back inside, the man reburies the treasure on the spot with handfuls of dirt and then joyfully goes off to sell all he has in order to buy the entire field with the treasure in it. But why doesn’t he simply carry the treasure away? Who would ever know? Because that would be stealing, and in the words of our psalm the commands of God are “more precious (to him) than thousands of gold and silver pieces.” True happiness is not to be gained through evil, and one cannot come to possess the riches of God’s Kingdom using wicked means.

In Jesus’ second story today, a pearl merchant comes across a high-priced pearl for sale. Its price, let’s say, is a hundred thousand dollars. Others may have beheld this beautiful jewel before, but this pearl merchant has a discerning, expert eye. He recognizes that this pearl’s worth is significantly more than its cost and shrewdly sells everything he owns to possess it. To onlookers, he seems crazy. “Selling everything you own just for one pearl?” But the man knows what he’s about and that he will profit from this transaction.

Obviously, these two parables are similar. In both stories, men find things of great value and sell everything that they have to possess them. In this, both the traveler and the merchant display courage; courage against others’ judgments, and courage against their own natural fears. Onlookers might tell them, “What are you doing? Are you nuts? You’re giving up everything just for that?” And because we all have an incredible ability to doubt ourselves, the traveler and merchant might wonder, “What if I’m mistaken and the thing I found is a worthless fake? Or what if sell all I own and return to find the thing has disappeared?” These men will only possess the treasure or the pearl (and the profit which come from them) if they do not give in to their own unfounded fears or the misplaced criticisms of others.

We can also learn from these two stories’ differences. The fact that Jesus gives us two parables instead of just one suggests he’s teaching through their unique details. For instance, both the traveler and the merchant find valuable things, but the pearl merchant knows and actively seeks out what he’s looking for in market after market, while the traveler stumbles upon his treasure. As Jesus says, both of these parable stories describe aspects of the Kingdom of Heaven. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” he says.

Humanity seeks after Jesus and his Kingdom; some knowingly, but many without knowing. Some seek him everywhere and rejoice to find him. Others love truth, beauty, and goodness, and are surprised to find these in Christ in his Church. His parables tell us that when we find Jesus, he expects of us a total commitment, an all-in investment; that we would love and serve him more than all else, and that we would love everyone and everything in light of him. We do this especially by embracing and living out our vocation.

The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word “vocare,” which means “to call.” Your vocation is your life’s calling from God. Your vocation is the means by which he intends for you to become holy and a great blessing. Some people find their vocation like the traveler on the road – stumbling upon it without having sought it. I think this is often true for marriages. A man and woman can be drawn to each other, fall in love, delight in each other, and decide to spend their lives together with or without much discerning God’s purpose for their lives. Yet, since “we know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose,” as St. Paul says in our second reading, leading us to where he wants us even despite ourselves. If you are in the sacrament of marriage, your vocation is clear: your primary mission in life is to be the best spouse and parent you can be and to help lead your spouse and children to Heaven. There will be other works to do and people to bless through your life, but your treasure is not to be found in different fields or shops; your means to holiness is already in your midst and in your grasp.

On the other hand, some people are still searching for their vocation, like the merchant for his pearl. One does not become a priest, a religious sister or brother, or a holy celibate person in the world without a firm commitment to live one’s life for God. To others, such a choice may seem crazy: “You won’t be happy! You’re throwing your life away! We want grandchildren!” And within ourselves, it’s possible to feel cold feet and doubts toward any real commitment in this life. (“What if… what if… what if?”) But when God calls us to our vocations, we will only possess the treasure or the pearl and the profit which come from them if we do not give in to their own unfounded fears or the misplaced criticisms of others. To find and embrace your vocation requires prayerful discernment, courage, and desire for what’s truly valuable, for what ever endures.

In today’s first reading, the Lord appears to Solomon in a dream and tells him, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” Solomon the new, young king, feels overwhelmed by his high office, and says, “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.” Solomon’s request of wisdom for the benefit of the kingdom of God pleased the Lord, so God granted him great wisdom and all the gifts he had not asked for as well. Likewise, Jesus says, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.

Pray to God for the wisdom to find your vocation and, having found it, to joyfully embrace it (like the traveler and the merchant) with the investment of everything you have. In this way, you will come to possess treasure and the pearl of great price – Jesus Christ and his Kingdom.

Prophetic Parables

July 19, 2020

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Why does Jesus speak in parables? Why does he use symbolic stories to teach about our salvation and the Kingdom of God? One reason Jesus employs parables is revealed by the story arc of Matthew’s Gospel.

After being baptized by St. John the Baptist and spending forty days in the desert, Jesus begins preaching and calling his first disciples. Then he proclaims his famous Sermon on the Mount through chapters 5, 6, and 7. As with parables, Jesus’ teachings in that sermon employ images – such as putting a lamp under a bushel basket, or serving two masters at once – but Jesus tends to explain his symbolisms there pretty clearly: your good deeds must shine before others, and you cannot serve both God and wealth. After his great sermon, Jesus works amazing miracles, healings, and exorcisms for two chapters, increasing his renown. Next Jesus commissions and sends forth his twelve apostles but warns them of coming persecutions. His disciples must be courageous; division and sacrifice will be inevitable, but they are promised great rewards. And then, Jesus faces doubters, answering John the Baptist’s disciples, chastising the disbelief in the familiar towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, and finally (in chapter 12) the Pharisees appear in force.

The Pharisees were those whom St. John the Baptist had called a “brood of vipers,” that is, a family of poisonous snakes; cunning predators, quick and deadly. They see Jesus’ hungry disciples picking and eating grains and complain, “Your disciples are doing what is unlawful to do on the sabbath.” They see a man with a withered hand in the synagogue and question Jesus, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath,” so that they might accuse him. And after Jesus performs an exorcism, the Pharisees denounce him, “This man drives out demons only by the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” It is in Matthew chapter 12 that the Pharisees first take counsel against Jesus to put him to death. When Jesus realizes this he withdraws from that place and begins to teach in parables without explaining them to the crowds.

Today’s gospel says, “He spoke to them only in parables.” When his disciples asked him last Sunday, “Why do you speak to (the crowds) in parables,” Jesus’ response might have confused us: “This is why I speak to them in parables, because they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.” Doesn’t Jesus want to be understood? Yes, by any of good will. Those who approach him with love, or at least an open mind, can ponder his parables and gain from them, while those who hate him will ignore his stories as being (in their eyes) irrelevant nonsense. As Jesus says, “To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” If Jesus had come out and announced “I am the Christ, and I am not only the Messiah but also God incarnate in your midst,” his earthly ministry would not have lasted three Passovers. His parables allow the humble to become enlightened while providing his haters no ammunition against him. In Jesus Christ (and St. Paul after him in the Acts of the Apostles) we see that we should be shrewd against opponents in the midst of doing good, while recognizing that conflict with the mob may ultimately prove impossible for us to avoid.

Another reason Jesus preaches with parables is because we human beings love stories. Stories stick with us better than bare teaching alone. And the images Jesus uses are relatable for all generations – sowing and harvesting, wheat and weeds, bushes and birds, and making bread. All these things are very likely to exist until Jesus comes again, even if that proves to be thousands of years from now.

Yet today, some sixty-six generations after Jesus preached, one might wonder during moments of discouragement whether the promises Jesus makes in his parables will ever come to be. We see good and evil growing side by side. Will the Son of Man ever come with his angels to gather the good and confront the wicked? Will those who cause others to sin and all evildoers ever be compelled to stop and the righteous be blessed to shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father forever? If that feels improbable now, consider how impossible Jesus’ prophetic parables must have seemed in the era when he first preached them.

The Kingdom of Heaven,” Jesus said, “is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds (that any passing bird might gobble up), yet when fully-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.” Jesus is a mustard seed buried in the earth – who would have imagined anything more to come of him after he died? His Church is also a mustard seed, threatened to be consumed by the nations from the beginning. Yet today the Church of him who rose from the dead has members that dwell in her from every nation.

The Kingdom of Heaven,” Jesus said, “is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.” Three measures of wheat flour weighs about fifty pounds, yet the admixture of a little yeast can change and raise up the entire batch of dough. So it has been with Christianity mixed into this world by the Bride of Christ, the Church. To take one example, slavery was ubiquitous in Jesus’ time, but today it is condemned around the world today because of the influence of Christianity. Wicked human traffickers still exists in our day, the Chinese government is operating concentration camps with slave laborers right now, and that is unacceptable. But these perpetrators must hide their deeds from the world only because Jesus Christ and his Church have changed and raised up the world’s understanding of human dignity.

Jesus’ prophetic parables have been proven true. His words have been fulfilled in history despite every earthly expectation. Whoever has ears ought to hear. Whoever has eyes ought to see. And whoever has an open mind can accept that Jesus Christ will come again with judgment on this world and salvation for his people.

“Take My Yoke (Instead)”

July 5, 2020

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

What is Jesus telling us? For starters, what’s a yoke? A yoke is made of wood or metal and lays around the necks or shoulders of beasts of burden in order to pull something behind them, such as a plow or a wagon. Though there exists single yokes for animals working alone, yokes are typically designed for pairs of animals to work side-by-side, together. A wise farmer might pair a mature animal with a less experienced animal to help guide and train the junior one. Looking down from above, a yoke that connects two animals and the attached tongue beam connected to the implement behind them bears a likeness to the Cross.

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…
I am meek and humble of heart.”

Jesus criticized the proud and learned Pharisees for (in his words) tying up heavy burdens hard to carry and laying them on people’s shoulders without lifting a finger to help them. Do not imagine that Jesus is asking you to bear a yoke by yourself. Instead, Jesus asks us to share his yoke with him, to share in his labors and learn from his example.

“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
for although you have hidden these things
from the wise and the learned
you have revealed them to little ones.”

Jesus’ invitation to bear his yoke will seem unattractive to us if we mistakenly imagine ourselves being presently unyoked, totally free and unencumbered. But no one’s neck or shoulders are unyoked — everyone bears a burden. Some are yoked to serious sins. As St. Paul says, those who sin are slaves to sin. Other people yoke themselves by trying to do lots of good things which the Lord is not asking of them and they find it overwhelming. Both of these yokes are heavy and hard and chafe against us because they are not God’s will for us. Is the yoke you now carry Jesus’ yoke for you or one of your own fashioning? Perhaps bring that question to prayer to find relief.

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

When animals’ shoulders are yoked together as a team, their work is the same. They plow through the same field or walk along the same road. Jesus wants you, wherever you are, to share in his labors. Jesus desires you to work alongside him with your family, with your friends, at your job, in all that you do. Ask the Lord to put you to salvific use, then be open and see what opportunities and encounters he sets before you. Ask Jesus that you may share in his works.

When two animals’ necks are yoked, facing forward together, their perspectives are the same. Jesus wants us, wherever we are, to share perspective, his outlook. To look up, and see the Father as Jesus sees him. To look out, and see other people and the world as he sees them. To look within, and see ourselves as Jesus sees us. “No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.” And no one sees you and the rest of humanity more clearly and truly than Jesus Christ—and he loves us. Ask Jesus that you may share his sight.

So in conclusion, if you labor and feel burdened, go to Jesus and he will give you rest. Wear his yoke and learn from him, he’s a meek and humble partner. And you will find rest for yourself, for his yoke is easier and his burden is lighter.

Strong Reactions — 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time—Year A

March 3, 2020

My childhood memories of summer include the Osseo City Pool. I remember having fun in the water with friends, the 80’s songs playing from the lifeguards’ boombox, and the big brown door with red letters, warning something like: “Danger, Deadly Chlorine Gas, Staff Only!” As you might imagine, I never ventured into that room. Another memorable experience from my youth involving chemicals happened some years later. My science teacher, Mr. Hall, placed a bucket of water into the snow outside of our high school. Then, using tongs, he carefully dropped into it a chunk of pure sodium, and quickly backed away. The water steamed and bubbled and exploded a couple of times. It was intimidating and awesome. Two potent chemicals: chlorine and sodium. What happens when you combine them? You get sodium chloride. Today, this compound is present in the environment and inside of our homes. It’s in the oceans, on our streets, and even in the food we eat. Sodium Chloride may sound dangerous, but you know this common compound by another name: it’s salt.

Sodium Chloride (a.k.a. Salt)

Salt preserves, salt disinfects, and salt also adds flavor. Salt can preserve food from spoiling. In the days of sailing ships, unrefridgerated salted-pork could safely feed a crew for three months at sea. Salt has been used as a disinfectant and cleaning product since ancient times. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans employed salt water to treat cuts, wounds, and mouth sores. Even in 2010, a study from the Mayo Clinic found that gargling warm salt water reduces cold symptoms, including sore throat pain and mucus. And you know firsthand from a lifetime of eating that the addition of salt can make an otherwise bland dish taste much better.

Today, Jesus tells his disciples: “You are the salt of the earth.” Like salt, Christianity is found all over the world, preserving its good, purifying its evil, and adding flavor to what would otherwise be bland, meaningless life. And yet, like Sodium Chloride, Christianity is irrationally feared. This is nothing new. Listen to this second century Letter to Diognetus describing how Christians are present throughout the world, both helpful and good, and yet feared and opposed:

“Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. … With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign. And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose [their children to death]. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh.”

“They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of Heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.”

Why does the world oppose devout Christianity? One reason is they imagine believing Christians behave like sodium in water, boiling hot with hatred and intolerance and violent in their reactions. Yet Christians’ allegiance to Jesus and his teachings on mercy, love, and the value of every human person are the best antidotes to mankind’s natural hatred and indifference toward others. Who is more responsible for sharing bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, and clothing the naked in world history than Christians in general and the Catholic Church in particular?

Another reason why worldly people oppose Christianity is that they think our faith is lethal to life’s pleasures; they fear that embracing Christianity would asphyxiate their happiness, like breathing chlorine gas. This too is nothing new. In Roman times, Christians were charged with “hatred of humanity” because the Romans believed ‘a lover of man should love what men love.’ The Early Christians would not partake of common sins for passing pleasures while, at the same time, living joyful lives. Joyful even at their martyrdom. As Diognetus’ pen-pal observed in the second century: “The world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because [Christians] are opposed to its enjoyments.” And so it is today. When we tell the world some things it loves are false roads to happiness the world hates us for it.

Jesus said, “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. … In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” So what are we to do? First, realize that the modern animosity to Christianity is nothing new. Don’t wait for that cultural hostility to pass; it won’t pass in our lifetimes. Next, never accept or act like your faith is a shameful thing. Jesus declares: “You are the light of the world. Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” If you are a Christian, Jesus wants the people around you to see something different in you and wonder, “What’s your secret.” Be unafraid to tell them the truth, “It’s my personal relationship to Jesus Christ and his Holy Church.” Cooperating with Christ to live like this saves souls and transforms our world.

There is another, more literal translation of Jesus’ words in our gospel: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world”: “You are the salt of the ground… You are the light of the cosmos.” Through your life, and every Christian life however humble, Jesus would reveal his divine light to the world, the glory and love that sustain the cosmos.

A Well-Nourished Tree — Funeral for Lois Eastman, 93

November 9, 2019

I offer my personal sympathy and the condolences of St. Paul’s parish at the passing of Lois, whom you know and love. In this church, 69 years ago, Lois married Jerry, her husband of 42 years. They went on to be blessed with six children. Today, we pray for Lois to have a special place among God’s children at the wedding feast of Heaven. No brief homily can capture the full mystery of a Christian life. At funerals, I just try to preach about one true aspect of the departed person’s life that reflects an important lesson for us with Jesus Christ and his Church.

Lois’ family told me a number of stories about her, and one theme I noticed was her fierce independence. For many years now, until quite recently, Lois always lived on her own. Not long ago, when her children suggested she use something to help her keep her worsening balance, she replied, “Canes and walkers are for old people.” Lois was 93 years old. Lots of people are set in their ways or stubborn, but here’s the really remarkable thing: not long after that remark to her kids Lois actually took their advice and started using a cane. In this and other things, Lois’s independence did not prevent her from accepting the help she needed.

Years before she absolutely needed a cane, Lois had trouble negotiating steps. But she would drive somewhere, by herself, with a plan: ‘someone will help me up and down the stairs when I get there.’ She would show us and say to someone she saw, “Hey, you over there, can you help me?” If the streets were icy in the wintertime, she would stand by her car until a person came along to help her up the curb and across the sidewalk to where she was going.

Lois was fiercely independent, but she acknowledged her need for help – and Lois knew she needed Jesus. Lois prayed every night, and until a couple years ago went to Mass every day, every day of the week except Sunday. (That’s because she went to the Sunday vigil Mass on Saturday night.) She sat in front pew to hear Jesus’ word and receive his very self. Lois knew that other people needed him too, so she would pick people up to bring them to church and brought our Lord in the Holy Eucharist to others at their houses or nursing homes.

We all want to be free. We all want our lives to be full and fruitful. And Jesus wants that, too. But people imagine that living their best life means keeping Jesus away while we do our own thing. Do you keep Jesus at arm’s length? Hear then the Parable of the Solitary Tree:

Once upon a time, there was a tree. This tree wanted to be free, to be its own tree, free to do its own thing, and not rely on anyone. So it told the Sun to go away, along with the rain clouds above it, the air all around it, and the ground beneath it. And the tree soon found itself in cold darkness – thirsting, gasping, and falling. Realizing its serious error, the tree asked, the tree begged them all to return, and they returned to the tree; which then lived and grew and produced much fruit.

In the same way, you and I were never meant be completely independent. Almighty God, the source and the sustainer of the universe, is not a solitude, but a Trinity, a loving communion of persons. So we are most fully ourselves when we’re connected to God and each other through Jesus Christ.

Pray for Lois, but do not fear for her. You know how she loved and relied on Jesus. And if you’ve been away from Jesus, I urge you to call him back and return to his house, his Church. Do not be afraid to rely on our Good Lord. To quote one of Lois’ favorite songs:

If you wonder how long he’ll be faithful
I’ll be happy to tell you again
He’s gonna love you forever and ever
Forever and ever, amen.

Generous Stewards — 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year C

September 21, 2019

Of all of Jesus’ parables, today’s is among the most peculiar: “Hey disciples, listen to my story about a dishonest steward who successfully swindles his boss. You can learn from him!” Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus says, “You shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud… Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.” So what lesson does Jesus want us to learn from this antihero?

Well, we have a lot in common with that fellow. We are in a similar situation. Our Creator God, the sustainer of the universe, is like the rich man, to whom by right belongs everything in the heavens and the earth. We are his stewards, the managers of his possessions, who each must present an account of our stewardship once our positions here on earth are taken away from us. Knowing this day of reckoning approaches, what shall we do? We have often squandered what has been entrusted to us. We are too weak to dig ourselves from the grave of death. And we are too proud, for if we lived fully in the truth, about who God is and who we are, we would not sin. Jesus urges us to follow the dishonest steward’s example, to be very generous, so that after this life, when we are removed from our present stewardship, we may live happily together with friends forever.

The dishonest steward calls in his master’s debtors individually. To the first he says, “How much do you owe my master?” That man replies, “100 measures (that is, 800 or 900 gallons) of olive oil.” He says to him, “Here’s your bill. Sit down and quickly write one for 50 (measures.)” Then the steward says to another, “And you, how much do you owe?” He replies, “100 kors (that is, 10 or 12 hundred bushels) of wheat.” The steward says to him, “Here’s your debt note; write one for 80 (kors.)”

Elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, the forgiving of sins is likened to the forgiving of debts. Every sin creates a debt because it is depriving another of what is rightfully owed to them. Stealing deprives others of property, lying deprives them of the truth, and rudeness deprives them of the respect and kindness they deserve. Sin forms a debt, first and foremost with God, but also towards the people we trespass against. Luke’s version of the Our Father says, “Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us.”

Some have suggested that the steward in today’s parable was simply forgiving the portion of his master’s accounts which was his own rightful commission as steward. If we are prudent, we will quickly take the present opportunity to forgive our debtors the share of debts they owe us by forgiving the sins they have sinned against us. For we have it on Jesus’ word, “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” Forgiveness means loving those who have wronged you, it means, at the very least, praying for them. The person you have a hard time praying for is who you need to pray for.

This lesson about forgiveness is true, but I am not convinced that the steward here was an upright servant merely forgoing his fair share. His urging that the debtors “quickly” write new invoices suggests that he and they are doing something that they don’t want to be discovered. Jesus himself called him dishonest, and the varied commissions of 50% off of the olive oil while getting a 20% commission from the wheat are strange. More likely, this steward is covering the tracks of his embezzlement. If the steward had given every debtor the same write-off, say, a 50% markdown for everyone, the master could have easily undone the scheme by doubling all the figures back. But because of these varying percentages (20% here, 50% there) the deed cannot be reversed, and even the master cannot help but to admire the steward’s cunning craftiness.

Forgiveness is always timely, but this parable is really about being generous with the material possessions God has entrusted to your care. Jesus ends today’s gospel declaring, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” That is to say, you cannot love God and riches. Like a servant with two masters, or an employee with two bosses, you will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. A person who is trustworthy in small things will be trustworthy in great ones; and a person who is dishonest in small things will be dishonest in great ones. If we are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, with these passing things on earth, how can we be entrusted with the true wealth of Heaven where everyone loves their neighbor as themselves?

When I consider that we’re arguably living in the all-time wealthiest country in the world, living in the greatest technological comfort of any stage of human history, I wonder if I am being generous enough with the possessions given to me. This question concerns me. I think about these powerful words of St. Basil the Great, from a 4th century homily he preached:

When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor. Thus, the more there are whom you could help, the more there are whom you are wronging.” St. Basil delivers this gut punch to his hearers who always say, “I have nothing to give. I am only a poor man”: “A poor man you certainly are, and destitute of all real riches; you are poor in love, generosity, faith in God and hope for eternal happiness. Give to a hungry man,” St. Basil urges, “and what you give becomes yours, and indeed it returns to you with interest. As the sower profits from wheat that falls onto the ground, so will you profit greatly in the world to come from the bread that you place before a hungry man.” St. Basil notes, “You are going to leave your money behind you here whether you wish to or not. On the other hand, you will take with you to the Lord the honor that you have won through good works. In the presence of the universal judge, all the people will surround you, acclaim you as a public benefactor, and tell of your generosity and kindness.”

This Sunday is our parish Fall Festival. I invite you to come, to enjoy it, and to generously support it. I am not ashamed to ask you to give generously to our parish because I believe in the great importance and the great goodness of what we do here. But supporting the work of Christ in our parish is not the end of our calling to generous stewardship in this wide world of needs, both spiritual and material. Give like a saint so that someday you may hear the Lord declare to you, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come share your master’s joy.”

Three Parables for Us — 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year C

September 14, 2019

It was not without design that Jesus, St. Luke, and the Holy Spirit place before us today a trio of Gospel parables: that of a sheep that strayed and was found, that of a coin that was lost and then recovered, and that of a son dead through sin but then returned to life. The lost sheep is joyfully brought back by the Shepherd. The missing coin (specifically a Greek silver drachma worth one day’s wage) is joyfully found by the woman. And the son, repenting of his sinful wandering, retraces his footsteps to his father and is joyfully embraced.

The Pharisees and scribes had complained about Jesus: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus replies with these three parables, three allegorical stories teaching spiritual truths about God, the Church, and us. So where are we symbolically in these parables? We are that sheep, we are that coin, and we are that prodigal son.

Who is the good shepherd in today’s parable? This Good Shepherd is Jesus Christ, who took upon Himself your sins and bears you upon His own Body because he treasures you. And who is the woman who has lost her silver coin, a coin perhaps from an ornamental belt which held her sentimentally-valuable marriage dowry? This woman, this bride, is the Church, who searches and longs for you, because you are precious to her. And who is the merciful father? The merciful father is God the Father, the Father who receives you back.

Consider how, amongst our Good Shepherd’s riches, we are but one one-hundredth portion. Besides us he has vast, sprawling flocks: the angels and archangels, thrones and dominions, and possesses in himself every divine attribute and glory. But he stepped away from these in a mysterious way to save us. In the words of St. Paul, ‘though was in the form of God, Jesus emptied himself, coming in human likeness; he humbled himself for us, even facing death.’ “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says. “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Consider how that ancient drachma coin would bear an image, perhaps the likeness of a god or of the king who had minted it. In whose image are we minted?

God created mankind in his image;
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”

The Bride of Christ rejoices in every coin she picks up and holds, because each one bears an image of her beloved, uniquely shows his face, and enriches her all the more with him.

And consider how living in our Father’s house is better than life in a country distant from him. The word “prodigal” means to spend wastefully, and the son’s time spent away was truly wasted. After paying to enjoy sinful pleasures in the dark of night what did he have left to show for it in the new day’s light? But living in the Father’s household bears good fruit, “fruit that will remain.” And there is more than enough food to eat. “Whoever comes to me will never hunger,” Jesus says, “and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” And the joyful celebrations his Father’s house are not regretted after.

These three parables today are about us. We are the sheep; let us heed our Good Shepherd’s voice. We are precious coins; let us believe our great worth. And we are beloved children; let us live in our Father’s house.

Chihuahuas & Heavenly Glory — 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year C

September 1, 2019


Saturday Night Live used to have a running bit called “Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handy,” and this was my all-time favorite Deep Thought:

I hope if dogs ever take over the world, and they choose a king, I hope they don’t just go by size, because I bet there are some Chihuahuas with some good ideas.

Imagine if our human social standing in the world were based upon size. What if we were looked up to, or looked down upon, because of our height? I imagine that more men would wear big boots and more women would wear high heels. Guys would don tall hats and gals would keep their hair up. Basketball would be the sport of kings. And some unfriendly folk would say, “I don’t want no short people round here.”

Or, what if our worldly status were based upon the alphabetical order of our last names? A, B, and C families would have every honor and advantage, and the middle letter households would be considered middle class. I suspect there would be more romantic stories and fairy tales about Andersons marrying Zwiefelhofers. And I can picture lots of people legally changing their last names, until perhaps this practice got outlawed by a new law signed by President Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.

These are silly and unjust ways to structure a society. But what is the basis for social standing and status in our real world? Money comes to mind. Now people usually work for their pay or profits, so personal wealth is a personal trait that – to some degree – is earned. But how much have we really merited all the wealth that we possess? Compared to international averages, all of us here are very rich. I try to do my best in ministry, but do I really work five times harder than a priest in Bolivia? Am I actually twelve times more productive than a priest in The Philippines? Am I truly twenty-five times more fruitful than a parish priest in Nigeria? I doubt it. So how proud can I be of my being rich? How much should I be enamored by, or how much should I look up to, people wealthier than me? And how much should I look down on people with less than me? Other sources of status and standing in our society include political power or physical attractiveness. But history teaches us that people in positions of power are often not admirable. And sometimes the wicked in this world can be very attractive, while the good can look quite plain or even ugly.

Our second reading today speaks of a society quite different and far better than this broken world we live in. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us we approach ‘the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.’ Who lives there? God the judge of all, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant. All are happy who live in Heaven, happy to their fullest, but their individual weights of glory are not the same. It is like how thimbles and small cups can be as completely full as buckets and tubs while holding different amounts of water. We know that glory differs in Heaven because, for starters, who among us could possess as much glory as our Lord? Within the hierarchy of the angels some have more glory than others. And glory varies amongst the human saints in Heaven as well.

The salvation of every saint is only possible through Jesus’ precious blood—the blood of his sacrifice we could not and did not deserve; sprinkled blood which speaks more eloquently than that of Abel, because Abel’s blood cried out from the earth for punishment on his murderer, while Jesus’ blood cries out to God for mercy on us all. Yet, once redeemed by Christ’s blood, we can merit, because God promises to reward our good deeds done in Christ. Jesus promises that he, “the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct.” He tells us today, “When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind… for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” St. Paul speaks to this in various places in the New Testament. He says, “…A person will reap only what he sows… Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest, if we do not give up.” And St. Paul says elsewhere, “Consider this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.

Our gracious good deeds transform us more and more into God’s likeness, allowing us to receive more and reflect more of his glory, both now in this life and forever in Heaven. So what is the best way to sow bountifully in this life for the greatest possible reward in the next? We can look to and imitate the lives of the saints. We can learn from them and we are wise to befriend them. Yet the saints were first and foremost imitators and friends of Christ; who, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself to became human like us. Jesus deserved to be our king on earth, but he took the form of a servant. He humbled himself, even to the point of death on a cross. And because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed upon him the name and honor and glory that is above and before all.

Like in today’s parable, Jesus took the lowest place, and the Father called him up to a higher place, to be seated at his right hand in Heaven. Jesus calls us to be like him, in what we respect and in who we honor, in what we value and in who we treasure, in how we live and in how we treat others. You may or may be considered a big dog in this world, but you must follow our good Master, loyally heed his commands, and show kindness to all the Chihuahuas.

How Many Will Be Saved? — 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year C

August 25, 2019

Someone asks Jesus from the crowd, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” And Jesus replies, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” Instead of quoting some particular figure, like ten thousand or ten billion souls, Jesus says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate…” Jesus dodges the question. So we are left wondering: in the end, will the number of people saved be small or large?

In the Book of Revelation, St. John witnesses a vast number of saints worshiping God in heaven. He beholds “a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” Note that this ‘countless multitude’ is different and much larger than the “144,000 marked from every tribe of the Israelites” that John observes several verses before. Jesus came to save people not only from the twelve tribes of Israel, but from the whole world. As the Lord declares through the Prophet Isaiah in our first reading, “I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory.” Based on this, we can confidently say that a very large number will be saved.

On the other hand, in our gospel’s parallel passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” The ‘few’ who enter the narrow gate to life sounds like less than the ‘many’ who do not. From this, it would seem that the number saved will be comparatively small.

However, the words “few” and “many” are relative terms which depend upon the context. For example, nearly 19,000 medals have been awarded in the modern Summer and Winter Olympic Games, and that is indeed many. But how many Olympic gold, silver, or bronze medalists have you personally met? If any at all, probably only a few. In a more tragic example, around 130,000 Americans die each year in accidents, and that’s awfully many. But at the same time, roughly 99.96% of Americans do not die in accidents each year, making the 0.04% who do relatively few. The word “many” sometimes refers to a majority of people, but not always.

Jesus suffered, died, and rose to redeem all of mankind. Even if there had been only one sinner on earth in all of human history, it seems that Jesus would have become man in order to offer himself to save him or her, me or you. Suppose that the number of human souls condemned to Hell on Judgment Day turns out to be only a dozen. Knowing how much our Lord loves each and every person, will not those lost twelve feel like many in the heart of Jesus and those saved billions feel like few? In any case, Jesus never tells us whether the majority of the human race will be saved or lost. Either outcome is possible.

Why isn’t Jesus more clear about exactly how many people will be saved? Because Jesus knows how such knowledge would be harmful for us. If we were told that most people will be saved in the end, we would fall into dangerous presumption. We’d say to ourselves, “I haven’t robbed any banks or murdered anybody; I sure I’m good enough.” And if we were told that most people will be lost in the end, we would fall into poisonous despair. We’d say to ourselves, “With my sins, what’s the use in me even trying?” St. John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus “did not need anyone to testify to him about human nature. He himself understood it well.” So, instead of giving us some precise statistic, some number or percentage about how many will be saved, Jesus gives us this much more beneficial advice: ‘Strive to enter through the narrow gate (for whether you are saved or not depends, in part, on you.)’

Almighty God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth,” in the words of St. Paul, but upon coming to know that truth, the Lord requires our personal response. He respects our freedom, and we are free to ignore him, to our own harm. As Jesus tells us, after the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, you may stand outside knocking and saying, “Lord, open the door for us.” He will say to you in reply, “I do not know where you are from.” (In other words, “You’re a stranger to me.”) And you will say, “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets” (as happens at every Holy Mass.) Then he will say to you, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!” In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus declares, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in Heaven.

For adults like you and me, entering through Jesus’ narrow door requires more than merely wishing or have vague aspirations about going to Heaven someday. Striving to enter through the narrow gate entails sacrifices and discipline. As our second reading tells us, to those who are trained by it, discipline brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness. “So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet.” Consider:

What sacrifice does Jesus ask of you?
What is Jesus asking you to remove from your life?
What is Jesus asking you to add to your life?
What sin does he want you to cease?
What gift does he want you to give?
Think about it. Pray about it.
Jesus has answers for you.

Let us intentionally cooperate with God and his grace. Let us accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ in our lives, so that we may be numbered among ‘the few‘ who are saved in the end.

“The Prince” or the Christ? — 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year C

August 3, 2019

In the 6th century B.C., the Romans had a king named Tarquin the Proud who declared war on a city eleven miles east of Rome called Gabii. When the king was unable to take the city by force, he plotted to take it by deception. His son, Sextus, pretending to be ill-treated by his father and bearing fresh wounds from being flogged, fled to Gabii. The infatuated inhabitants entrusted him with the command of their troops, and when he had obtained the full confidence of the citizens, he sent a messenger to his father to learn what he should do next. The king, who was walking in his garden when the messenger arrived, spoke no words, but kept striking off the heads of the tallest poppy plants with his stick. His son understood the unspoken reply, and put to death or banished on false charges all the leading men of Gabii, after which he had no difficulty in compelling the city to submit to his father.

I was reminded of this story of political power and deceitful scheming this week while listening to Niccolò Machiavelli’s 16th century Italian book, “The Prince.” In this pragmatic, cynical treatise, Machiavelli discusses how a ruler can most effectively rule his realm. For example, upon conquering another king or noble’s territories, Machiavelli recommends exterminating that ruler’s family members to prevent future revolts. Machiavelli also encourages leaders to always appear merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, and religious to appear so but not always be so, because he holds that no ruler can be successful without, at times, deliberately doing evil as circumstances require.

Machiavelli provides numerous historical illustrations, like the story of an Italian ruler whose newly acquired territory was full of corruption, robbery, and violence. He appointed a cruel and efficient man as their governor, entrusting him with full authority to act. This governor quickly restored order with his iron fist, but then his lord had less use for him and saw him as a possible threat. Machiavelli writes that the ruler, “to clear himself [of guilt] in the minds of the people and make them entirely loyal to him, … desired to show that if any cruelty had been practiced it had not originated from him but came from the personal cruelty of the governor. Under this pretense [he arrested the governor] and one morning had him killed and left in [the city square] with the block and a bloody knife at his side. This terrible sight,” writes Machiavelli, “caused the people to be at the same time satisfied and worried.”

Listening to his stories, hearing his advice, I wondered what sort of person would ever want to be such a prince or ruler. Besides the iniquity, Machiavelli himself acknowledges that the prudent leader, when not fighting wars, should constantly focus on preparing for wars. But like King Solomon asks in our first reading, ‘what profit comes to [a ruler] from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun? Even at night his mind is not at rest. This is vanity.’ And furthermore, like Jesus says, ‘What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?’

Machiavelli’s advice and methods for maintaining power by any means might work in one sense here in this world, but in the long term all these things are futile. The rich fool says to himself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!” But God says to him, “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.

Jesus once asked, “What king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with 10,000 troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with 20,000 troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms.” That’s simply basic strategy, yet how many people march towards the inevitable end of their lives — when they will approach the all-powerful King of kings and the Lord of hosts — without consideration of how ill-prepared they are to face him?

Who and what are we loving? And are we loving them as we should?

St. Paul is often quoted from his 1st Letter to Timothy as saying, “The love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains.” But something about this passage never made sense to me. Does the root of all evil really reside in the love of money? For instance, does every act of adultery stem from a love of money? I don’t think so. But while studying Greek in seminary I discovered that this passage can be justifiably translated a different way: “The love of money is a root of all evils,” and that is very true.

Money, wealth, is a tool, like fire. It’s a neutral thing; good when used rightly but potentially destructive and deadly when mishandled. The love of money, that is to say greed, is rightly called “idolatry” by St. Paul in our second reading, because the greedy person serves and trusts in wealth as their god, their savior and source of blessings. While urging us never to worry, our Lord does call us work, to make material provision for ourselves and our households. St. Paul taught the Thessalonians that “if anyone was unwilling to work neither should that one eat.” And on another occasion he wrote, “whoever does not provide for relatives and especially family members [of his household] has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Yet Jesus does not wish us to make work and wealth our idol: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”

One day, perhaps sooner than we imagine, our lives will be demanded of us and all the property and possessions we leave behind will be left to others. It is a good thing for us to have a will prepared for this foreseeable event, and I would ask you to remember St. Paul’s Parish and our endowment in your estate. But as praiseworthy as it is to prepare inheritances for that day, it is not as meritorious as giving during your lifetime. How much generosity is there in giving away what you cannot possibly take with you or keep? How generous is it to give away what is no longer of any use to you? Unavoidable giving is a small sacrifice and exercises small trust in God.

And so I recommend to you the practice of tithing, to the Church and to charities. Chose some percentage to tithe to the mission of Jesus Christ in our parish, for needs in our community, and to help people far beyond. In the Old Testament, God commanded his people to tithe 10% of everything, and they were much poorer than us. I urge you to prayerfully discern a number for yourself. Giving in this way practices trusting in the Lord and allows him to show you his providence and his power to provide. Though we do not believe in a “prosperity gospel” which claims believers will never experience trials, Jesus does promise a prize for our every given gift: “Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you. … And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple—amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.”

Our short life here on earth is an audition and a training ground for life in the Kingdom of Heaven. Through his gracious, saving work, Jesus Christ has extended an invitation to everyone to become a citizen of his Kingdom, now and in the age to come. Presently here on earth, his Kingdom, the City of God and her citizens, exist alongside and amidst the City of Man with its Machiavellian-minded members. But in the coming age, there will be no place for those sinners who live for themselves, and the virtuous meek who are generous to God and their neighbor shall inherit the earth. The choice before us all is for “The Prince” or for the Christ.

The Good Samaritan — 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year C

July 14, 2019

Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan is among his most famous and familiar. Yet, like Jesus Christ himself, it has still more to teach us. Today I will share contexts and symbolisms of this parable that you’ve probably never heard before.

Jesus’ story begins, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” In Wisconsin, we talk about going up to Canada or going down to Madison; for us north is “up” and south is down. But in Israel, the city of Jericho lies fourteen miles east of Jerusalem. The man went down to Jericho because Jerusalem has a much higher elevation. Have you ever seen the Sears Tower (now called the Willis Tower) in Chicago? Picture its height from street-level to the top of its two antennas; now imagine stacking another Sears Tower standing on top of those antennas. From top to bottom, that’s how much a traveler descends when going from Jerusalem to Jericho.

Jerusalem was the Holy City, the place of God’s dwelling. But Jericho, as you may recall, was the city which Joshua at God’s command marched the Hebrews around in a circle for seven days, before blowing their horns and shouting, causing its walls to collapse. They conquered the city which symbolizes sin, human fallenness, and rebellion from God. Jericho, incidentally, is not far from the Dead Sea, the shore of which is the lowest dry land on the surface of the earth—the furthest you can be from heaven above.

The robbers stripped and beat the man and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. In the same way, a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side.” Who were these men? The Jewish priest would have offered sacrifices at the Temple while the Levite would have assisted there like a sacristan. Why did both men pass by ‘on the opposite side of the road’ as they walked in the direction of Jericho? Perhaps that they thought the motionless body on the shoulder of the road was already dead. Under the Law of Moses, touching a dead body made a person ritually unclean. Whether this was their reason, or they just did not care enough to be bothered, a third man comes along who is both willing and able to help.

A Samaritan traveler came upon him and was moved with compassion at the sight.” We know that Jews and Samaritans didn’t like each other, but why? Who were the Samaritans? Some five hundred years before the coming of Christ the Babylonians were the superpower of the ancient world. When the Jewish king decided he wasn’t going to pay tribute to Babylon anymore, the Babylonian king was not pleased. He sent his army, sieged Jerusalem, conquered it, and carried off the region’s inhabitants into what is called the Babylonian Exile. Not everyone was taken though; some of the poor laborers, the farmers and vine-dressers, were left behind. To ensure that this Jewish remnant did not rebel again, and to make sure the good land did not go idle, the Babylonians resettled the people of five pagan nations among them.

Seventy years after this catastrophe, after the Babylonians themselves were conquered by the Persian Empire, the king of Persia gave the Jews permission to return to their homeland. When they arrived they found that those who had been left behind had intermarried with the pagans and adopted some of their religious practices. The Jews looked down on these people, these Samaritans, as unfaithful to the Lord. It’s no mere coincidence that the Samaritan Woman at the Well with whom Jesus speaks in John’s Gospel has had five husbands—just like the five resettled pagan nations. This real woman symbolizes her people, with whom Jesus desires to be reconciled and whom he wants to save.

Jesus’ chosen hero for this parable, the Good Samaritan, “approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him.” In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the scholar of the law (and us) to be like “the one who treated him with mercy.” That’s a very important, famous, and familiar lesson, but there is symbolism within this parable which teaches even more.
The man who fell to the robbers represents our human race. Traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, we were descending from the height of communion with God to the depths of sin. We fell to robbers, to evil spirits and wicked desire. They stripped us naked, depriving us of our previous glory. They beat us and left us half-dead; biologically we were still living, but spiritually we were dead. No one could or would help us. But then our Good Samaritan came – Jesus Christ.

He looked upon us and was moved with compassion. He approached us and poured His blood over us, like wine, to cleanse the wounds of sin. He poured the Holy Spirit on us, like oil, to strengthen us. He bandaged our members with his teachings; and though these disciplines bind us they are for the freedom of full health. He lifted us up on his beast of burden, his own flesh in the Passion, to bring us to the inn. This inn, where the robbers’ victim is cared for until he comes again, is the Church.

You and I are represented by the robbers’ victim brought into the inn for care. But you and I are also represented by the inn-keeper, for we are likewise called to care for others. The Good Samaritan provides two coins to the inn-keeper along with an instruction and a promise: “Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.” In the parable, these are two coins are Roman silver denarii, equal to two day’s wages. Jesus provides for our mission to serve him and our neighbor, for today and for tomorrow, and whatever we expend in time, talent, or treasure in his inn, the Church, will have his divine repayment.

In light of this great parable, ask Jesus to show you your neighbor, who he has entrusted to your care, then “Go and do likewise.” The command which he ‘enjoins on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. …No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.’ You shall love the Lord your God supremely, and love your neighbor as yourself.

A Parable on Pushing Boulders

January 24, 2018

Once upon a time, a Christian hermit lived in a cabin on a wooded mountainside, devoting himself to prayer. One morning, as he quieted himself and opened himself receptively to God, he sensed Jesus speaking to him – hearing him not with his ears but in his mind. The Lord said, “Go to that large boulder outside your house.” The man got up and went. Then the Lord said, “I want you to push this boulder for a half-hour every day.” The man obeyed, daily exerting his body in every manner against the smooth, massive stone, yet even after months of pushing the boulder remained completely unmoved.

The man asked himself, “Why am I failing? What am I doing wrong? The Gospels say that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains, but I can’t even budge this boulder an inch. Why does God demand this of me when he knows I can’t do it?” At this, the man became quite angry and (wisely) voiced his frustration, confusion, and hurt to the Lord.

The man heard Jesus reply, “Do you have reason to be angry? I told you to push the boulder, but I never asked you to move it. Look at your arms, look at your legs – by your faithfulness to me you have become strong. Now you are prepared for my next task for you. Though you thought you were failing, you were succeeding in fulfilling my will.”

“The Ten Virgins & Wedding Party Prudence” — 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year A

November 13, 2017

Learning about first century Jewish marriage customs helps us understand the Gospels better, including the Parable of The Wise and Foolish Virgins. In Jesus’ day, when a young man wished to marry a woman, he would journey from his father’s house to hers. He and her father would agree upon a dowry and once this dowry price was paid the marriage covenant was established. This event was called “betrothal” and the man and woman thereafter were considered husband and wife. The groom, however, would not then begin to live with his bride. He returned to his father’s house for twelve months, manifesting his respectful self-restraint and honorableness toward her. (Betrothal was the situation St. Matthew described: “When Mary… was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.” So Mary was never an unwed mother, but she knows the experience of having a crisis pregnancy.) During their year apart, the man and woman would prepare for their new life together. One of the groom’s most important tasks in this period was to prepare living accommodations for them at his father’s house.

Once their time of separation was over, the groom would return to his bride’s house with his groomsmen, usually at night with a torchlight procession. She would be expecting him but not know the exact hour of his arrival. That is why the groom’s second coming would be preceded by his messenger’s shout. Then the bride and her female attendants and the groom and his groomsmen would return to his Father’s house (their new home) for a wedding feast with their other gathered friends, family, and neighbors. There the husband and wife would consummate their marriage, and seven days of feasting and merriment would begin.

In the Gospels, Jesus is declared and calls himself “the bridegroom.” The New Testament names the Church his “bride.” The relationship between Christ and his Church parallels a Jewish marriage. For instance, in the Incarnation, God the Son left his Father’s house in Heaven to journey to our dwelling place on earth. Jesus paid our dowry price with his own blood. And after establishing his covenant, Jesus ascends to his Father’s house for a time until his second coming. This is why Jesus says at the Last Supper:

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.”

This Sunday’s second reading describes this return.  As St. Paul tells the Thessalonians, “The Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven…” Notice how the Lord’s angelic messenger announces to the bride that her bridegroom is at hand. St. Paul continues, “And then the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord.”

In the Book of Revelation we see this nuptial union of Christ and his Church continues above. St. John hears Heaven sing:

Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory. For the wedding day of the Lamb has come, his bride has made herself ready. She was allowed to wear a bright, clean linen garment.” (The linen represents the righteous deeds of the holy ones.) Then the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who have been called to the wedding feast of the Lamb.‘”

The virgin, young women in today’s parable are the bride’s attendants awaiting the bridegroom. Five are called wise and five are called foolish. The important distinction between them is not one of I.Q.—of being naturally intelligent or unintelligent—but in being thoughtful versus thoughtless. In the 1994 Best Picture Winning film, Forrest Gump is a man of below-average intelligence who, by his simple virtue, lives an admirable and remarkable life. A couple of times he’s asked, “Are you stupid or something?” and Forrest replies, “Stupid is as stupid does, sir.” I didn’t know what this meant when I was a kid, so I asked my dad. He explained that if you’re blessed with intelligence, but keep doing bad or foolish things, then you’re stupid. On the other hand, even if you’re not that bright but you make good and smart choices, then you are wise.

What is the meaning of the oil lamps that play such a significant role in Jesus’ story? The consensus of the Church Fathers is that they represent good works. Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus likens lamps to good deeds:

No one lights a lamp and then put its under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.

(But doesn’t Jesus warn us, just a few verses before in his Sermon on the Mount, “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father”? What reconciles these two teachings The answer is in whose glory is being sought. If I pray, fast, and give alms for my own glory, then some people may think well of me for a little while until they forget, and I will have received my reward. But if I do good works for the glory of God, then he will be glorified and he will reward me and I will share in his glory.)

The two types of virgins in the parable represent two types of people awaiting Christ the bridegroom. All the virgins fall asleep. Likewise, all of us (unless Jesus comes again first) will experience the falling asleep of death. The virgins are roused from sleep. Likewise we will be roused from sleep in the Resurrection. All of the virgins have at least a little oil, some light. At the Judgment, I suspect everyone will have some good deeds to point to – even murderous dictators have loved their dogs. But is that love sufficient? Are those good deeds enough? For the thoughtless, foolish virgins, their little oil is not enough.

They say, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise ones reply, “No, for there may not be enough for us and you.” (Apparently, their oil and abundance is not something that can be shared or transferred between persons.) “Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.” That’s where the wise virgins would have bought their oil in preparation, but remember what time it is. The bridegroom’s arrival was announced at midnight. All the stores are closed. Where are the foolish virgins going to find a merchant to sell them oil? They won’t. It’s too late.

Who are these merchants that we must buy our oil from now, before it is too late? These merchants are your neighbors in their need. At the judgment of the world, the Lord Jesus will say the righteous, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked & you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then these righteous ones will wonder when this happened. And our king will say in reply, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” And elsewhere, Jesus tells us, “Whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple — amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.” Our neighbors, near and far, are the merchants from whom we obtain the oil of good works now for our lamps of glory later. We pay our neighbors with our time, our talents, and our treasure to purchase our good deeds.

This opportunity to do good on earth will not last forever. In Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” old man Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley.

[Standing in his bed chamber, Scrooge] became sensible of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The [ghost of Jacob Marley], after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated out upon the bleak, dark night. Scrooge followed to the window: desperate in his curiosity. He looked out. The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few…were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a doorstep. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.”

We know the souls in Heaven can help effect good on earth – that’s why we pray for their intercession. The souls in Purgatory may or may not be able to pray and intercede for us – that’s an open question in Catholic theology. The souls in Hell definitely do not help us, but both they and those in Purgatory regret and lament having failed to do more good on earth when they had their chance in life.

When the foolish virgins finally arrive late to the wedding feast they find the door is locked. They cry, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us!” But the bridegroom says in reply, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.” This echoes what Jesus teaches elsewhere:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’”

Jesus is teaching us that we are not saved by faith alone, by the mere acknowledgment that he is “Lord, Lord.” Nor are we saved by the vast accumulation of good works, for one could even prophesy, drive out demons, or do mighty deeds without having a saving relationship with him. We are saved by Jesus’ love for us and our loving him in return; by both faith in him and good works in him.

So what was the foolish virgins’ great sin? Who hasn’t accidentally forgotten to pack something on occasion? It’s hard to imagine Jesus condemning people for a mere accident. I think the virgins’ oversight in this parable suggests a far more serious fault. These young women heard there was going to be a big party and that a lot of people were going. They jumped on the bandwagon but were just going along for the ride. They did not really know the bride or groom and didn’t really care about them. If they had loved the couple, they would have put more thought into being their good guests and true friends, they would have been more serious in their personal preparations, and that prudent diligence would have saved them from being locked out in the end.

I do not wish to unsettle you, but Jesus preached this parable to the crowds and ensured that it was included in Matthew’s Gospel because he wanted us to consider this question: am I loving the bridegroom and his bride, am I loving the Church and her Lord? Are you dedicating your time, talents, and treasure to God and your neighbor? Are you striving for the narrow path and the narrow door that Jesus tells us few attain? Or are you, like many, just going with the flow in comfortable complacency? Jesus’ final warning in today’s gospel is, “Stay awake, (be vigilant, be diligent,) for you know neither the day nor the hour.” The bridegroom and bride request the honor of your presence at their banquet. So let us wisely be diligent, doing good works in Christ, while this precious daylight remains.

Defending our Vineyard from our Enemy’s Servants

October 12, 2017

Today’s parable has a straight-forward interpretation: God is the landowner. He establishes his people Israel like a man who sets up a vineyard. God entrusted the care of his vineyard to the chief priests and elders of the people. They are the tenants. Then God sent his servants – the prophets – to obtain the good harvest. But the Jewish leaders resisted and persecuted the prophets; sometimes beating them, sometimes killing them, sometimes stoning them. Finally, God, in the crazy twist to our story, sends his own Son to them. The chief priests and the elders will go on to seize Jesus, condemn him, and see to it that he is taken outside the walls of Jerusalem and killed on a cross. “Therefore,” Jesus says to them, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.” The authority of the Jewish leaders will be handed over to the Apostles and priests of Jesus’ New Covenant Church; a Church that will baptize and embrace Jews and Gentiles alike, forming a new people in Christ who will produce much fruit.

That is the straight-forward meaning of Jesus’ tale, but I would like to turn your attention back to those wicked tenants in the parable, because they, in a certain way, can serve as an example for us. Now I would not dare to suggest such a thing – I would fear it being scandalous to use the wicked as a Christian example – if Jesus himself had not once used a dishonest steward as someone we could learn from.

As you may recall, the dishonest steward, knowing that he would soon be losing his job, wrote off the debts of his boss’ debtors so that, once he got fired, these new friends of his would welcome him into their homes. Jesus used the shrewdness of this bad man as an example to teach his disciples to ‘make friends for yourselves with the wealth of this world, so that, when these passing things fail one day, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.’ Likewise, I believe we have something valuable to learn from the shrewdness of the vineyard’s wicked tenants in today’s parable.

What if, when the servants of the landowner had arrived at the vineyard, the tenants did not promptly beat them, kill them, or stone them? Imagine if the tenants, instead of turning them out, welcomed the servants’ arrival; giving them food to eat and somewhere to stay on the grounds. Now the wicked tenants’ prior plans to never deliver any of the harvest to the landowner would still be in place, but can you imagine what might happen to their resolve over time?

The good servants staying with the tenants would keep speaking with them so kindly and pleasantly and persuasively, encouraging them to do the right thing. The good servants would encourage the tenants to imagine their possible reward: “If you do what is just, our good master will be even more generous with you! If you will not give him the total amount, could you perhaps give him the least little bit? Surely that wouldn’t hurt and it wouldn’t cost you very much.” If allowed to stay, the servants may well convince the tenants to give up some or all of what they have. However, if the tenants wish to remain faithful to their original intentions, then when their enemy’s servants arrive they should be neither fed nor lodged, conversed with nor welcomed in any friendly manner, lest their persuasion change minds and hearts and plans.

There is a spiritual battle in our midst. You can hear about it on the news and see it in the headlines, hidden behind every divisive controversy and murderous atrocity. (For instance, if no demons played a role in the rise of ISIS, then the demons are not doing anything in our world these days.) But the spiritual battle in our midst is not only fought out there; it is fought within us.

How do temptations come into our minds? From our senses, what we see and hear; from our invisible spiritual enemies, the demons; from our own human brokenness; or any combination of these. However our temptations come, in whatever form they take, our response to them should be as unfriendly at their arrival as those wicked tenants were at the arrival of the landlord’s servants.

Do not welcome temptation when it arrives. Do not feed it. Do not give it a place to dwell and lodge within you. Do not converse with it. Do not fantasize at its suggestions. Do not compromise with it, not even a little. Do not allow it to change your mind, your heart, your plans. Do not befriend temptation, but violently turn it out as a servant of your enemy.

Now temptations may come in our direction even against will – sensations, sights, sounds, thoughts, feelings, memories – these can seem to pop up out of nowhere. Remember that an unwilled temptation, in and of itself, is not a sin. A saint is not someone who never experiences temptation. A saint is someone who chooses what is right and good and loving even amid temptation.

What should you do when temptation comes? First, pray. Pray now, and then again when temptation arrives. Prayer opens the door to Christ and lets him take the lead in our daily lives because he respects our freewill. Pray every day and call on the Lord in times of temptation. He is stronger than all the demons put together and mightier than your weaknesses.

A second helpful thing to do regarding temptation is to change your environment. Sometimes people in confession lament to me about always confessing the same sins. I try to encourage them by pointing out, “Well, thank goodness it’s not something totally different every time: ‘Father, last month I committed arson and this week I robbed a bank! I have no clue what I might do next!‘” Human beings, for better or worse, are creatures of habit, so we can learn a lot from our repeated failures. By changing your environment can do much to avoid temptation. For example, if you’re always gossiping with the same gathering of people, then perhaps avoid that group. If you are always unchaste using the same media, then block, limit, or cut out that technology. If you always get drunk at the same establishment, then stop going there. When you have traveled the same road many times you know well where that road leads. When you find yourself walking on that road, then stop and turn around or take another path. Changing your environment can lead you away from near occasions of sin.

A third and final thing to do amid temptation is to change your focus. The human mind is made to process ideas, to chew on thoughts; we cannot think about nothing. (If I were to tell you not to think about flying alligators, I bet you couldn’t do it for sixty seconds—you’d either be thinking about flying alligators or checking to see whether you’re thinking about them.) What should you think about instead when tempted? Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, praiseworthy, think about those things, and you will persevere in doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in Jesus Christ.

Some people only think of temptation as enticements to pleasurable things. But temptation can also be towards unpleasant things, like shame, despair, fear, and anxiety. The devil not only wants you to fall, but to stay down and not get back up. And if he cannot make you fall into sin, he wants you to be neutralized and paralyzed by fear and confusion. What is the antidote for such negative temptations? St. Paul offers this prescription for anxiety: “Brothers and sisters: Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Let’s break that down.

Have no anxiety at all.” Concern is of good use. If you were not concerned about going to church you wouldn’t come. I were not concerned about my homily then I would have nothing to say. Concern is useful, but worry is worthless. Have no anxiety at all, “but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.” In everything, whether you are anxious or not, make your requests known to God; not because he doesn’t know, but because it opens you up to him and invites him to work. Pray prayers of praise for who he is, voice your petitions for what you need or want, and do so with thanksgiving – without which you feel impoverished and embittered despite your innumerable blessings. ‘Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding

will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.’ We do not have the big picture, long-term perspective of God to see how God will work all things for the good of those who love him, but by prayer comes a peace that surpasses our limited understanding. This peace will guard your mind and heart in Jesus Christ amid temptation.

God entrusted the Garden of Eden to Adam and Eve to tend and to protect. By the devil’s temptation, they lost their great treasure. Among the many treasures Jesus has given, he has entrusted to you the vineyard of your mind. Tend it and protect it. Do not fall to temptations but drive them out as your enemy’s servants. May your vineyard remain at peace and bear much fruit in Jesus Christ.