Sunday, September 25, 2022

Year C Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Amos 6:1a.4-7; Ps 146:7-10; 1 Tim 6:11-16; Luke 16:19:31

We are still in the travel narrative from Saint Luke’s Gospel. During these weeks, we are journeying with Jesus, the Twelve, and his closest disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem. Luke's travel narrative really constitutes the heart of his Gospel. Along the way, Jesus teaches about the kingdom, about what it means to follow him, even as he heals and casts out demons. Traveling by foot, as on a pilgrimage, Jesus and his band of followers are not in a hurry.

Our Gospel today follows immediately on the heels of last week’s. The subject of the Lord’s teaching is the same: the danger wealth presents to our eternal prospects. According to Jesus, to be wealthy and own a lot of things is not freedom. He clearly teaches- if you want to be truly free, like he is free, give everything away and daily trust God to meet your needs.

But even in Luke’s Gospel, where his teaching on wealth is laid out clearly, Jesus does not require everyone who follows him to give away everything and join his itinerant band. What is important is to discern God’s will for your life and then spend your life doing God’s will. But no matter what manner of life you live, if you are indeed a Christian, your life cannot be centered on mammon, that is, worldly wealth that consists of money and possessions.

You must be willing to share what you have with those in need. This is the unambiguous point of our Gospel today. Jesus makes this point by telling the very dramatic parable of Lazarus and the rich man. As with the Parable of the Good Samaritan and that of the Dishonest Steward, today’s parable is part of the material only found in Luke.

What these parables have in common is that they clearly teach what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Being a Christian, according to the teaching of Jesus found in Luke, is to selflessly serve others for the sake of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ teaching on wealth in this Gospel makes it clear that wealth cannot save you and can surely damn you. This means that wealth and prosperity are not signs of God’s favor. It’s hard to think of anything more antithetical to Christianity than any version of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel,” even in its less virulent manifestations.

Lest the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man be misconstrued, it is important to point out, as the late Catholic New Testament scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown did, that their “different fates after death are not based on the rich man having lived a life of vice, and Lazarus having been very virtuous.”1 Where they wind up is the direct result of the rich man living “a comfortable and well-fed life, while Lazarus was hungry and miserable.”2 Moreover, it was within the rich man’s ability to at least give Lazarus what he needed, as the old saying puts it, “to keep body and soul together.”

In a move echoed by Charles Dickens more than a thousand years later, in his novella A Christmas Carol, realizing the he blew it, the rich man asks Father Abraham, on whose breast Lazarus now comfortably reclines, if Lazarus can journey back to alert his five brothers to the danger they’re in by their manner of life. Unlike the grace given to Ebeneezer Scrooge, the rich man’s request, according to Father Abraham, cannot be granted. When reading this parable, I am always struck that, even in death, the rich man wants Lazarus to cool his tongue, Lazarus to go back and warn his brothers. I think this is an acute case of not getting it.

In denying the rich man’s request, Abraham points out that, like him, his brothers are able to hear and heed Moses and the prophets. What is meant by this can be seen very clearly in our first reading, which again, is from the Book of the Prophet Amos. Failing to heed the prophet’s call to return to fidelity with God’s covenant and choosing instead to luxuriate and satiate themselves with all the “good” things in life while ignoring the plight of the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, and the poor, they will be exiled.

The Rich Man and Lazarus. Illustration for The Life and Lessons of Our Lord by John Cumming (John F Shaw, c 1890)

Exile is not God punishing them directly. Rather, it is the natural consequence of their embrace of injustice, their failure to be compassionate, merciful, their lack of hesed. Hesed, which is often best translated as “lovingkindness,” is God’s defining characteristic. In other words, they refuse to live in thanksgiving for God’s goodness to them. Thanksgiving is expressed by loving your neighbor as you love yourself, just as God set forth in the Law.3

Jesus over and over again in his various disputations with the Pharisees, which is the context for this parable, insists that Law is but the means to accomplishing the ends of loving God with your whole being and loving your neighbor as another self. If you fail to recognize not only the necessity but the urgency of doing this, like the rich man, you are left without excuse. You simply make a different choice. As we all know, choices have consequences.

It’s clear that, despite presumably knowing Moses and prophets, the rich man felt he had no obligation towards this beggar, covered with sores, who sat at his gate day after day. In his parable, Jesus makes clear the consequence of this choice.

Again, this can all sound quite dire, even a little scary. What gets lost is that helping those in need is not just the way to eternal happiness but, because it makes God's kingdom present, it is a key to happiness now. Each of our lives place daily demands on us. Other people rely on us. Meeting these demands and obligations isn’t just okay, it’s necessary. But each of us and all of us together as a parish community need to see those who are in need, recognize their need, and look for ways to help them. Our recent participation in the food drive for the Bountiful Food Pantry is a good example. So is the parish council’s endeavor to distribute parish funds set aside to help those in need. Our Ladies of Charity, with eager help of many in the parish, as well as our Knights of Columbus Council, do much for those in need. Of course, there are many individual acts of charity done routinely by a lot of you.

The Lord isn’t asking you to save the world. The rich man was not held accountable for all the world’s needs, or even for all Lazarus’ needs. But, from his abundance, he certainly could’ve provided food to someone who was clearly starving and maybe paid for some medical assistance to deal with his sore-marked body.

A story is told about C.S. Lewis: one day, while walking down the street with a friend, a man approached and asked him for money. Digging into his pocket, Lewis extracted and then gave the man some money. His friend said something like, “How do you know he won’t spend that money on drink?” Lewis wittily replied, “It’s alright. That’s what I was going to spend it on.”

While funny, this tale about C.S. Lewis is a great lesson in not holding on to mammon too tightly. In contrast to the disturbing stinginess of the rich man in Jesus’ parable, Lewis gives us an example what is meant in our second reading when, as Christians, we are exhorted to “pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness,” what it looks like to “Compete well for the faith.”4

Abraham goes on to say, in response to the rich man’s request for Lazarus to pay a posthumous visit to his brothers in order to warn them, nodding to Jesus’ future resurrection, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”5

1 Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday), 250.
2 Ibid.
3 Leviticus 19:18.
4 1 Timothy 6:11-12.
5 Luke 16:31.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Year C Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Amos 8:4-7; Ps 113:1-2.4-8; 1 Tim 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13

Jesus’ teaching as handed on in the Gospels is often not as straightforward as we suppose it to be. Our Gospel reading for today, the Parable of the Unjust Steward, is an example of this. As a master teacher, the Lord used different techniques and methods depending on his subject and his audience.

The Parable of the Unjust Steward is only found in Saint Luke’s Gospel. It is material the inspired author did not take from Mark or from the source he had in common with Matthew. At first glance, the difficulty this teaching presents is that it can seem as if Jesus commends the steward’s shady business practices.

This steward’s practices are shady because, while he succeeds in hauling in a lot of income by collecting the debts owed to the master who is dismissing him, he cheats his soon-to-be former master by cutting great deals for the debtors. He does this so that perhaps one of these debtors will hire him.

What is the point of the Parable of the Unjust Steward? Well, the point Jesus seeks to make is a rather nuanced one. The difficulty with this is that we do not live a culture, whether secular or religious, that deals with nuance very well. While Jesus certainly does not commend the steward’s underhanded dealings, he praises what the late New Testament scholar Raymond Brown calls the steward’s “prudent and energetic initiative.”1

This is borne out in Jesus’ own application of the parable. The heart of his application is: “make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”2 What does Jesus mean by making “friends” with worldly wealth?

First, worldly wealth will always fail you in the end, even if only at death. This is verified by the truth of the cliché “You can’t take it with you.” It is also verified by the treasures discovered in the tombs of the Pharaohs, which were filled with wealth the ancient Egyptian religion thought they would need on the other side, as it were.

Secondly, this is where our first, very challenging reading, from Amos, bears out “Luke’s theological tenet that abundant money corrupts.”3 This comes into clearer view when you read Jesus’ very next parable about Lazarus and the rich man, which is our Gospel for next week.

Parable of the Unjust Steward, by Marinus van Reymerswaele, ca. 1540

Hence, the prudence and energetic initiative called for by Jesus it is always done in service to the Kingdom of God. In short, according to Jesus, you should spend as much time and energy making God's kingdom present as you do trying to get ahead in life. This requires you to love your neighbor in the same manner the Good Samaritan- another teaching found only in Luke- loved the man who had been beaten, robbed, and left for dead and who the religiously pious were intent on crossing the street to avoid.

When deeds lke that of the Good Samaritan are done for love of neighbor, God’s kingdom is visible because it is made truly present. In his song, taken from Saint Teresa of Calcutta’s observation that the poor and dispossessed are Jesus in a distressing disguise, Michael Card sang:
Every time a faithful servant serves
A brother that's in need
What happens at that moment is a miracle indeed
As they look to one another in an instant it is clear
Only Jesus is visible for they've both disappeared4
Inherent in Jesus’ teaching is that if you do not share your possessions, God will not entrust you with what he has in store for those who use their wealth wisely. Keep in mind the wisdom of God, as Saint Paul pointed out in his First Letter to the Corinthians, looks foolish to worldly eyes.5

Being generous with your wealth, not holding on to it tightly, is how you acclimate yourself to God’s kingdom. In this way, you make yourself fit to dwell there forever. If you don’t prepare yourself, if you jealously guard what you have, storing up riches for yourself, what makes you think you will like or want to live in God’s kingdom?

Jesus concludes this teaching by the declaration that you cannot serve two masters: “You cannot serve God and mammon.”6 According to Jesus, you are loyal to God by sharing mammon, which was defined earlier as “dishonest wealth,” with others, especially those in need.

If you are a disciple of Jesus, you cannot be double-minded, as the title of one the works by Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard exhorts: Purity of Heart is Will One Thing. That one thing is to do the will of God. Doing God's will is often challenging, perhaps even impossible without God's grace.

Teaching this challenging can easily make you feel hopeless. Be hopeful. God will give you the grace you need, if you want it. Attending our Diocesan Pastoral Congress yesterday, I was reminded that Jesus’ teaching on wealth in the part of Luke’s Gospel where he makes his single journey from Galilee to Jerusalem- the part from which our Gospel today is taken- can be summed in four interrelated points: 1) All is GIFT 2) Live in GRATITUDE for the gift 3) SHARE the gifts you’ve been given 4) Living in this way will bring you CLOSER to God.

In his Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius of Loyola identifies three types of people. First, is the person who is all talk and no action. Next, comes the person who will do everything except the one thing necessary. The one thing necessary is to discern and then do God’s will. Finally, there is the genuinely free person.7 This person does God’s will no matter what it is. It is only by doing this that you are truly free.

1 Raymond Brown. An Introduction to the New Testament, 249.
2 Luke 16:9.
3 An Introduction to the New Testament, 250.
4 Michael Card. "Distressing Disguise."
5 1 Corinthians 1:18 ff.
6 Luke 16:13.
7 Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Spiritual Exercises, sec. 149-153.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Only love liberates


Okay, I tried to post a reflection on today's readings. It was going well and then, due to being subject to some kind of parental controls, I lost it all. I don't like this reboot as much as what I was originally writing. But, in a spirit of detachment for the sake equinamity, it will have to do.

True freedom, according to Jesus, means not getting bogged down with things or even with people. It's fine to have things. You surely need some things. But having is different from possessing. The same goes for relationships. Being made in the image of God, we are relational. We need people. Hence, relationships are essential to being human, to flourshing. By contrast, to possess things or people is to cling to them tightly, to depend on them, to place your trust, that is, your hope, in them.

As a Christian, you should seek to live simply. Don't seek to possess more than you need. In addition to being kind and caring, be prudent and circumspect in your relations with others. Of course, be generous with what you have, even with those things you need because others need these things, too. This extends to being generous with yourself for the sake of others. It is by living simply and generously that you place your trust, your hope, in God.

What is death if not the ultimate entrusting of yourself to God? This is what it means when, in the Church's Funeral Rites, we "commend" the deceased to God. I can't think of a more vivid example of this than the tombs of the Pharaohs, which were filled with things these rulers were thought to want and need for eternity. I know this is to get things wrong vis-a-vis the metaphysics of ancient Egyptian religion, but to make my point with hyperbole, none of the things entombed with the bodies of the Pharoahs seem to have been used.

Much the same can be said of your relationships with people, even those closest to you, maybe particularly those closest to you. What Jesus means by "hate" in today's Gospel is not what we typically mean when we use the word, infused as it is with negativity and even violence. Rather, he is talking about who has the priority, who comes first. Jesus urges you to acknowledge your dependence on and place your trust in God. He is talking about making your relationship with God your first priority.

Our relationships, particularly those that are most intimate, often take first priority in our lives. Among other things, this places enormous pressure on those with whom you are in relationship. This also sets you up for disappointment, either ultimately or perpetually.

It's easy to conflate Jesus' Two Great Commandments. While inextricably bound together, love of God and love of neighbor must be distinguished one from the other. Of course, as scripture teaches, you can't say "I love God" and at the same time hate- in the sense we use this word- your neighbor (1 John 4:20). Jesus is saying, "Put God first. Place your trust in God, not in people or things." Given enough time, everyone will let you down, even if it's only when s/he dies.

We often use the phrase, usually about doing good things, "without counting the cost." In today's Gospel, Jesus, using two easy-to-grasp parables, tells us exactly the opposite. He urges anyone who would follow him to carefully and fully count the cost.

It's hard to trust God, especially when your life isn't going very well, or even if just not as swimmingly as you think it should going. But the cost of following Jesus is journeying with him to the cross. The Lord wants you to be clear that following him is absolutely not about living your best life now. It isn't about being rich, driving a great car, wearing great clothes, taking awesome vacations, etc. Look, for most people, life is a vail of tears no matter what. Buddha was right: to live is to suffer. The question becomes, is there any point to it?

In the first of the two parables, Jesus urges would-be followers to count the cost to have the resources to finish. To reverse the first sentence of the previous paragraph: It's easy to "trust" God when everything is going great. But what if you lost everything tomorrow? Someday, you will lose it all, guaranteed. Jesus teaches time and again that wealth and the desire for wealth are the biggest obstacles to entering God's kingdom. It is genuinely Christian logic to assert that you gain resources by refursing to possess anything or anyone. Detatchment is essential.

Our Collect for this Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, after acknowledging that God has redeemed us and, through Christ by the power of the Spirit, has adopted us as "beloved sons and daughters," we ask him to "look graciously upon us" so that we "may receive true freedom." Not only in our Gospel, but in our reading, taken from that unique text, Saint Paul's Letter to Philemon, we hear about what true freedom is.

Freedom, at least in Christian terms, is not essentially about resisting external constraints. In other words, freedom is not freedom from. Rather, freedom is for following Christ. For Christians, genuine freedom can never be taken away, not even by death. Christ's resurrection shows us that love is stronger than death. Only love liberates. God is love.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Memorial or the Passion of Saint John the Baptist

Preached on Monday's oblgatory Memorial

Readings: Jer 1:17-19; Ps 71:1-4a.5-6ab.15ab.17; Mark 6:17-29

Today, the Church celebrates the obligatory Memorial of the Beheading, or the Passion, of John the Baptist. On 24 June each year, we celebrate the Baptist's Nativity. In the Northern Hemisphere, our observance of his birth, often called St. John’s Day, is the longest day of the year, which means, of course, it is the shortest in the Southern Hemisphere.

Traditionally, John the Baptist has been much more venerated than he is now. The inspired author of Saint Matthew’s Gospel writes that Jesus proclaimed: “among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.”1 The Baptist is considered the “seal,” or the last of the great Old Testament prophets. His beheading, his martyrdom, like many prophets before him, was for, well, being a prophet.

It is not the job of a prophet to foretell the future. God calls prophets to call his people to repentance, to call them back to fidelity to God. Herod imprisoned John because John called him out for marrying his brother’s wife, something God’s law forbids. Even today Catholic canon law prohibits such a move. You cannot licitly marry your sibling’s former spouse.

Because the Baptist denounced Herod and Herodias’ illicit union, Herod, at her urging, had him imprisoned. Herod, it seems, was torn between his fascination with this strange man and Herodias' scorn for the raggedy prophet, who wore camel skin clothes and ate locusts. This episode is found in Mark’s Gospel, which is the first written of the Gospels. Both Matthew and Luke use Mark as a source. Given some its particularities, it seems pretty historicially genuine.

Beheading of John the Baptist, by Nicholas Roerich, first half of 20th century

Mark’s Gospel even includes that, while “perplexed” by John, Herod, nonetheless, “liked to listen to him.”2 Why? It’s a fascinating question. The inspired author also tells us Herod knew the Baptist “to be and righteous and holy man.”3 Could it be that someplace, deep down, Herod longed to heed John’s prophetic warning and repent? If so, what kept him from doing so? Perhaps it his situation was such that he could see no way out of it. In case you didn’t know this, sin is a trap. Sin is quicksand. Sin is enslaving. Sinful choices about big things can leave you feeling trappped by and in your circumstances, especially when a change would throw your life into what might seem unpredictable chaos.

While it is not the job of a prophet to foretell the future, it is within the prophetic scope to warn that the consequence of sin is death. It’s easy to be fascinated by religion or even be a “fan” of Jesus. Christ didn’t come to win over fans. He came to invite followers. There is a big difference between a fan and a follower.

We esteem the Blessed Virgin Mary, and rightly so, for being the preeminent disciple of her son. Veneration of John the Baptist among Christians has traditionally been almost as high as that of our Blessed Mother. In many Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches, the sanctuary is behind an iconostasis. On either side of the door are icons of Blessed Mary and the Baptist.

John the Baptist was fearless in the way Jesus invites his followers to be. We are fearless because we know that in and through Christ we will live forever. So, death has lost its sting. Faith gives birth to hope and hope, as the Baptist and other martyrs show us, les on the far side of optimism. Hope is what enables us to love God and neighbor fearlessly. Hope is what allows us to venture outside our comfort zones for the sake of God’s kingdom.

By his refusal to back down though cast into prison with the threat of death daily hovering over him, the Baptist is a sign of hope, not despair. His is the victory, not the loss. Like Jeremiah, the Baptist trusted in God’s promise: “They will fight against you, but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.4

By virtue of your baptism and relying on God's promise, like the Baptist, you are called prepare the way of the Lord, to prepare the way for his Kingdom.

1 Matthew 11:11.
2 Mark 6:20.
3 Mark 6:20.
4 Jeremiah 1:19.

Monday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: Hosea 2:16.17c.18.21-22; Ps 145:2-9; Matthew 9:18-26 Our Gospel today is Saint Matthew’s version of events first written about ...