Of Friends and Foes: A Homily for the 26th Sunday of the Year

In this Sunday’s Gospel there is a certain tension between legitimate freedom and truths we must insist upon. We also have a lot to learn in sorting out friends and foes.

I. Foe or Friend? – The text begins, John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” Jesus replied, “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us.”

The Apostle John’s consternation bespeaks confused priorities. Task number one is to advance the Kingdom of God, taking back territory from the Evil One. If someone can drive out demons in Jesus’ name, we ought to praise the Lord! Such a one is not a foe; the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

The apostles seem more concerned with pedigree and control. Perhaps notions of personal advancement, power, prestige, and pride beset them as well. Souls being set free seems to have been a secondary concern.

Misplaced priorities! There should be more about Jesus and His Kingdom, less about me and my glory. Don’t stop others from driving out demons. Help them, or at least get out of the way!

This command not to prevent him is of course a general norm not an absolute one. There are certain things that the Lord gave only for the apostles to do. It was they, not just anyone, who were to preach and formally teach in Jesus’ name, to baptize, to confirm, to celebrate the Eucharist, to forgive sins, to lead with authority, and to appoint successors and helpers by the laying on of hands. In addition, the Rite of Major Exorcism is reserved to appointed priests, though many lay people have charisms to heal and to drive away the influence of demons through approved methods such as unbound and other forms of deprecatory prayers.

Thus, even though priests have certain exclusive duties, it is foolish to think that every gift is reserved for the priesthood. Lay people bring many gifts: prayer, holiness, and the abilities to teach and to share leadership in parishes. They bring practical skills, too, such as administration, organization, and works of charity.

“Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth” are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.” Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to “Catholic unity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #819).

Indeed, I have found that many wonderful Catholics come to us from the evangelical denominations. They bring some many gifts with them. They love Scripture. They love Jesus. They have a wealth of zeal. In the Rite of Reception, we thank God for the communities where they first learned of Christ even as we welcome them to full unity with the Church.

Thus, some whom we see as foes are actually friends in the Lord’s eyes. We should rejoice in the graces of Christ wherever we find them and seek to find full unity in the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.

II. Friends are Fundamental – The Lord admonishes the apostles, Whoever is not against us is for us. Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will surely not lose his reward.

This, of course, implies that the apostles will in fact need help, encouragement, and basic necessities as they undertake to proclaim the gospel. Scripture says, Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up (Ecclesiastes 4:10).

The attitude of wanting to do everything oneself is not only prideful, it is foolish and impossible. We must accept that one of the provisions necessary for those who would be prophets is the help and support of others.

Neither can the Church blithely reject the help of medical science, psychotherapy, or of the business or government sectors. Other things being equal, there can and should be a proper partnership with these areas of human knowledge and expertise. While distinctions must be made and errors rejected, there is a partnership that should not be rejected. When the ship is sinking (and it is, since the fall of man) it’s all hands on deck.

III. Falsehood is the Fiercest Foe – Through the use of several analogies, the Lord illustrates just how serious it is to lead others into sin by scandal or false teaching: Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’

Here, then, are the worst enemy of all: false teachers and those who give scandal. The “little ones” Jesus refers to here are not just children; all of his disciples are His “little ones.” The Lord uses the strongest language possible here to express His wrath at those who lead His disciples into sin by false teaching or seduction. It would be better for them to die or be maimed than to do such a thing. The Lord says in Jeremiah, Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, declares the LORD. … You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the LORD (Jeremiah 23:1-3). My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray and caused them to roam on the mountains. They wandered over mountain and hill and forgot their own resting place (Jeremiah 50:6).

Yes, to mislead or give scandal to God’s people is so awful that Jesus says being cast into the sea with a millstone around one’s neck is a better option. Otherwise, hellfire and worms will be their lot. Jesus says that it is more serious to sin in this way than to lose a hand or a foot or an eye! Elsewhere, Jesus calls false shepherds “wolves.”

The ancient prophets held up the sins of the people before them and called them to return to the Lord wholeheartedly. What about us? In the midst of a moral meltdown and a cultural collapse there are too many silent pulpits. Even more deplorable are those shepherds who outright mislead the faithful through false teaching, deliberate ambiguity, and bad example. Too many today make light of, or excuse, what God calls sin. These problems are not limited to the clergy. They are found in Catholic schools where the faith is contested rather than taught. They are also found among parents who have strayed from the faith and mislead their children.

All of us in any leadership position should consider the strong language Jesus uses here. We do well to ponder whether we are a friend of the Lord or an enemy. The Book of James warns, You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:4). A false or misleading teacher or one who gives scandal to God’s people is the worst sort of enemy to God.

The Gospel opened with John seeing a foe where there was really a friend. Jesus says, in effect, “That’s not what an enemy looks like. He’s driving out demons, and that’s good work for the Kingdom. Do you want to know what an enemy really looks like? Anyone who causes one of my disciples to sin is an enemy in my eyes.”

True friends of the Lord drive out demons by holy teaching, good example, and prayer. Enemies of the Lord drive in demons by false teaching, bad example, and outright seduction. True friends of the Lord lift Him up for all the world to see.

Enjoy this old hymn; try not to tap your toe while you listen!

Don’t exalt the preacher,
don’t exalt the pew,
Preach the Gospel simple,
full, and free;
Prove Him and you will find his promise is true,
“I’ll draw all men unto Me.”

Lift Him up, lift Him up;
Still He speaks from eternity:
“And I, if I be lifted up from the earth,
Will draw all men unto Me.”

Not Your Average Messiah – A Homily for the 24th Sunday of the Year

Jesus is Messiah and Lord, but He confounds every notion we have ever had about these titles. His power reaches perfection in “weakness” and He reigns from the cross. To the world this is utter absurdity, but the Lord insists that we meet Him at the cross. He chooses the foolish to shame the wise; He chooses the weak to shame the strong; He chooses the lowly and despised things of the world—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are (cf 1 Cor 1:27-28). Let us journey to the cross and meet Him there; let us endure a little of His “folly.”

Our journey begins at Cesarea Philippi, a town “way up yonder” in pagan territory.

I. Confusion – Jesus begins by asking the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.”

First, note that not only are many different opinions put forth, but all of them are wrong.

There are many today who think it advisable for the Church to change her teachings based on what “the people” are saying or think is “right.” Yes, we should just take a poll and find out what the people want! So often we are called out-of-date because we do not conform to current (passing) opinions.

The premise, of course, is that we live in “enlightened” times and that if only the Church would just conform to current “wisdom” her halls would be full. Any look at most of the mainline liberal Protestant denominations puts the lie to this. For all their conformity to modern sensibilities, they are far emptier than any Catholic church (or those of the Evangelical denominations).

Further, the “poll” results delivered by the disciples in this passage are all wrong—every one of them. Collecting everyone’s opinion does not produce the truth.

Thus, we ought to acknowledge that there is a lot of confusion and divided opinion in the world; we should be careful about taking cues from the world when it comes to religious, moral, and lasting truth. Even in the physical sciences, which claim to be so objective, there is a considerable shifting of even fundamental premises over time. Further, there is often division among scientists and medical experts over even basic matters.

We do well to approach this world’s teachings and claims soberly, realizing that even in worldly matters, let alone religious ones, the world is divided and sometimes just plain wrong.

The question remains: Who is Jesus Christ and how will the answer be given?

II. Committee – Having rejected poll results as a valid way of determining the truth, Jesus tries to sample the experts. Surely even if the general populace cannot supply the answer, they can. The question now gets posed to the “blue-ribbon panel,” the twelve Apostles: And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Now we may wish to rush ahead to Peter’s answer, but first let us note that, as a body, the apostles are not able to return a verdict. What we get is silence.

III. Confession – Finally the correct answer comes forth: Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Christ.” Then [Jesus] warned them not to tell anyone about him.

The manner in which God provides the correct answer to us is developed more fully in Matthew’s version, which adds the following: Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:17-19).

Hence, we are taught that God the Father anointed Peter with this knowledge and inspired him to speak it for the others. This is the basis of our confidence that Peter and his successors, the popes, are inspired to proclaim the faith infallibly, not on account of their own learning but on account of the grace of God. And while the pope generally works with the college of bishops, his affirmation of their deliberations is essential for formal teachings on faith or morals.

Peter’s declaration is true and correct: Jesus is the Christ. However, Peter and the others still need to grow to a deeper understanding of the full implications of the true Faith. Just as Jesus will lead them to understand it, so too has He led the Church to a deeper understanding over the centuries.

IV. Clarification – Jesus draws them to deeper understanding: He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly.

Although Peter has spoken rightly, calling Jesus the Messiah, the term “Messiah” was widely misunderstood at that time. The misunderstanding was rooted in an incomplete reading of messianic prophecy. Most Jews of the time thought of the Messiah as a powerful military figure who would usher in a bloodbath, a career of conquest against the Romans; that is how this “Messiah” would reestablish the Kingdom of David in all its glory. It was a worldly and political view of the Messiah, one which Jesus rejected. Instead, He would more likely refer to passages such as these:

The Lord GOD opens my ear that I may hear; and I have not rebelled, have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. The Lord GOD is my help; therefore, I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame. He is near who upholds my right; if anyone wishes to oppose me, let us appear together. Who disputes my right? Let that man confront me. See, the Lord GOD is my help; who will prove me wrong? (Is 50:5-9)

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Is 53:5)

Jesus clarifies what the Messiah must be: a suffering servant who dies so that His people don’t have to.

V. The Cross – Then things get tense for a moment: Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”

Peter, correct just a moment ago, now needs rebuke, but Jesus is willing to work with him. He was right that Jesus was Messiah, but now he needs to understand more deeply what that really means. The Lord calls him away from the world’s notions and the opinions of sinful humanity.

After this, Jesus gets personal. He now tells them that not only will He take up a cross, but so must they.

Talk about not taking an opinion poll! Could anything rate lower on an opinion poll than the cross? Indeed, if one were to take a poll today, there would likely be no crosses at all, only pillows and buffet tables.

The cross is a paradox if there ever was one: from the cross comes life.

Even the world once had some notion of this. What do we have (that we value) that does not involve some sacrifice? A college degree, a career, children, a home, a television—all of them are the fruit of labor, of sacrifice. Too many today want blessings without sacrifice. If we want something, we “charge it.” We spend money we don’t have in order to possess things we have not earned. Welcome to $13 trillion in U.S. household debt, which of course no one should have to “suffer” to pay down. Indeed, the cross has largely been set aside.

But not for Jesus and not for us. To be true Christians we must embrace the cross. Oftentimes this means doing what is hard. It is easy to give way to temptation; it is harder to withstand it. It is easy to be greedy; it is harder to be generous. It is easy to fornicate; it is harder to be chaste. It is easy to file for divorce; it is harder to work things out. It is easy to do what everyone else is doing; it is harder to be a witness or a martyr. It is easy to do what is sinful and self-serving; it is harder to do what is right.

Yes indeed, the cross is what it is—hard, but there is life that comes from it. I am a witness (and I hope you are too) that to the degree I have embraced the often-harder choice of following God’s way, I have been blessed. The chaste avoid lust’s fires, not to mention child support, alimony, and sexually transmitted diseases. The generous have powerful friends in the poor, not to mention being less addicted to money and possessions. Those who fear the Lord have simpler lives than those who must ingratiate themselves to often-contradictory crowds, compromising at every moment.

In today’s Gospel reading we have been led to a deeper understanding of Jesus Christ. Who is He? Does He hold a worldly kingdom and offer merely passing prosperity? Is He just a divine butler who “steps and fetches” to meet our needs? Or is He the Lord, whom we must obey and who tells us to meet Him at the cross? Ask the martyrs; inquire of the saints. They will tell you of the cross, but they will also shout of the victory.

Jesus is Lord and Messiah, but He will not fight on the world’s terms. He conquers darkness with light, hatred with love, and pride with humility. He gives life by dying and bestows joy by sacrifice. He is Messiah, but on His terms not ours. His “weakness” conquers the strong; His “folly” confounds the learned and clever.

No, He’s not your average Messiah.

This song says, “If you can’t stand a little disappointment … if you think you should always be up and never down, I’ve come to remind you: No cross, no crown.”

The Love of the Law and the Law of Love – A Homily for the 22nd Sunday of the Year

This Sunday’s readings teach a proper understanding of God’s Law and its relationship to our hearts. The readings go a long way toward addressing the false dichotomy that many set up between love and the Law, as though the two were opposed; they are not. If we love God, we want what He wants and love what He loves. The Law describes well what God wants and loves. Indeed, the Law is letting love have its way.

God is Love and His Law (no matter how averse we are to “rules”) is ultimately an expression of His love. In all the readings today, God asks—even commands—that we let love have its way. Let’s look at four teachings on the relationship of Law to God, who is love.

I. The PROTECTION of the Law – Note that the text from today’s first reading frames the Law and the obedient hearing of it in terms of a promise of God, seeing the Law as a doorway to the loving blessings and promises of God. The text says, Moses said to the people: “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you.”

So, the Law comes with a promise. It is the basis of life and the doorway to the further blessings of the land. Many today see God’s Law as prison walls, as a limitation on our freedom to “do as we please.” The walls are not prison walls; they are defending ones.

Every ancient city had walls, not to imprison its citizens but to protect them from the enemy. Within the walls there was security and the promise of protection. Outside the walls lurked danger; there was no promise of safety there.

It is like this with God’s Laws. For those who keep them, they are a great source of protection; they also contain the promise of ultimate victory. Outside these protective walls there is every danger and there is no promise of victory.

In his famous book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton wrote,

Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground …. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the center of the island; and their song had ceased [1].

God didn’t give the Law to take away our fun, but that we might find life and happiness. The devil is a liar; he tells us that we’ll be happier if we sin, that God is limiting our freedom by hemming us in with His Law. Sin does not make us free. Jesus says, Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34). Indeed, how much suffering and pain would vanish if we all just kept the commandments? Most of our wounds are self-inflicted, by insisting on journeying outside the walls of God’s loving and protecting commandments.

Moses reminds us that our decision for or against the Law brings either blessing or curse:

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Deut 30:15-20).

II. The PRECISION of the Law – Regarding the Law of God, Moses says, In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.

We might liken Law to a set of directions to a destination. If you give me directions to get to your house, I am probably not going to get there if I only follow half of them. The compliance must be complete to bring me to the right place. Similarly, we are directed the follow the Law of God wholly. Scripture says,

  • Instruct me O Lord, in the way of your statutes, that I may exactly observe them (Ps 119:33).
  • I intend in my heart to fulfill your statutes always to the letter. I have no love for half-hearted men, my love is for your law (Ps 119:112-113).
  • For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it (James 2:10).

Here we must see God as a healer who is exacting and precise not for His sake but for ours. Imagine a man with two broken legs who goes to the doctor. The doctor says, “We’re going to aim for 50% here. I’ll set one leg but leave the other one broken. Don’t worry about the broken leg; that’s why God gave you two!” We would surely hold such a doctor in contempt. God, who is our healer, points to full health, not partial or crippled health.

When Jesus says, You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48), He is indicating the kind of healing He offers. St. Paul adds, [God who] began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6).

Thus, the precision of the Law is taught to indicate the healing power of God’s Law with grace.

III. The PRIORITY of the Law – In today’s gospel, Jesus rebukes the Scribes and Pharisees, saying, “[You] teach as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

Now, as then, many people set aside the priority of God’s Law in favor of human thinking. Politics has become a pernicious influence in this regard. Many Catholics of both parties are more passionate about their political views than about God’s teachings as revealed through Scripture and Church teaching. If there is a conflict between what God teaches and the political party’s view, guess which gives way and which gets unquestioning allegiance?

Be it questions of abortion, immigration, or same-sex “marriage,” all too easily Catholics will turn a deaf ear to what God teaches. They never rebuke their own political party when correction is needed, and even cheer as their political leaders champion positions contrary to God’s Law. Too many Catholics place political priorities, popularity, human traditions, and human agendas over God’s Law.

The Lord Jesus goes on to say, Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus says, [You] make void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do (Mk 7:13).

Be very careful. The pernicious effects of partisan political thinking, worldviews, and mere cultural preferences have caused too many Catholics to cease to be the leaven, the prophetic voice they are supposed to be in this world. All political parties, most worldviews, and many cultural trends need purification. A Catholic must be a Catholic before he is a Democrat, a Republican, or a Libertarian; before he is a fan of a celebrity; before he raves about the latest trends. None of these things typically stand blameless before God, and the unquestioning, unqualified, and silent allegiance from Catholics and other Christians toward such worldly things is a huge problem. We are too easily compromised and have often elevated human teachings and movements above God’s Law.

To all of this, the Lord gives rebuke and reminds us that His Law must the standard by which everything else is judged. A Christian should see everything by the light of God’s Law, exposing error and evil, approving goodness and truth wherever they are found. Nothing has priority over what God teaches.

In the end it is a question of what and whom we love more: God and His Law or this world and its ways of sin and compromise.

IV. The PLACE of the Law – The Lord goes on to indicate that our fundamental problem can be that the Law of God is not in our heart. He warns that the heart, as the locus of human decision and action, must be the place of His Law for us. The Lord says, Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.

Hence, we need to have God’s Law in our heart. It is not enough to have a cursory and intellectual awareness of His Law; it must drop the foot or so from our intellect to our heart.

What is the human heart? While there are ambiguities in the biblical text distinguishing mind and heart, this much is clear: the heart is the deepest part of the human person, the place where we are alone with our thoughts and deliberations. The heart is the place where we discern, ponder, and ultimately decide. The heart is “where we live.” It is in this deepest part of us that the Law of God must find a home.

Jesus makes it clear that it is from the heart of the individual that come the behaviors that determine our character and our destiny. It is here that the Law of God must find a home. It will only find a deep home in the heart through prayer and meditation; through the careful, persistent, and thoughtful reading of God’s revealed truth, coupled with gratitude and love of God.

It is no mistake that the summary of God’s Law is simply, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as your very self.” It is only love that unlocks the door of our heart. In loving God, we begin to love what and whom He loves. To love God is to love His Law. Scripture says,

  • My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times (Ps 119:20).
  • Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors (Ps 119:24 24).
  • The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold (Ps 119:72).
  • For I love your commands more than gold, however fine (Ps 119:127).
  • I open my mouth and sigh, longing for your commands (Ps 119:131).

Yes, in the end, the Law comes from love, the God of love, who is Love. Thus, it is love that unlocks the Law. It is love that makes us realize that the Law is a gift of God’s love. He gives us His law to protect us, to guide us, and to heal us. Therefore, He asks us to make His Law our wholehearted priority.

Two Hard Sayings in One Day – A Homily for the 21st Sunday of the Year

Hard Sayings

Hard SayingsThe readings this Sunday feature two “hard sayings,” one on the Eucharist, the other on marriage. One is hard because it defies our sensibilities, the other because it is out-of-season and politically incorrect. This is a long reflection. What I present here is really two separate sermons, but both merit some attention.

The first “hard saying” is Jesus’ insistence that the Eucharist is actually His Body and Blood. He says that we must eat His true Flesh and drink His true Blood as our true food, as our necessary manna to sustain us on our journey through the desert of this life to the Promised Land of Heaven.

We have examined this teaching extensively in previous weeks and it is clear that the Lord is not speaking figuratively or symbolically. His listeners understand Him to be speaking literally; He is insisting that they eat His flesh, really, truly, and substantially. The severe reaction of His listeners can only be explained if they believe that Jesus is speaking literally. The listeners scoff and murmur, but Jesus only doubles down, insisting that unless they gnaw (trogon) on His flesh and devour His blood they have no life in them (cf Jn 6:53-54).

This leads to the crowd’s response: This saying is hard; who can accept it? The Greek word translated here as “hard” is Σκληρός (skleros) and does not mean hard in the sense of being difficult to understand. Rather, it means hard in the sense of being violent, harsh, or stern. It describes a position (or person) that is stubborn and unyielding; it describes something (or someone) that won’t bend or submit.

Despite every protest, Jesus will not back down. He will not qualify what He said or in any way try to minimize its impact. So essential is the food of His Flesh and Blood that He will not even hint that there is some way out of this “hard saying.”

The upshot is that many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Knowing this and seeing it, Jesus still sticks to His teaching. He poses this question: Do you also want to leave?

The Eucharist remains a “hard saying” because it goes against our senses. Of the five senses, four are utterly deceived, for the Eucharistic elements still look, taste, smell, and feel like bread and wine. Only the sense of hearing is safely believed: “This is my Body … This is my Blood … The Bread that I will give is my flesh.”

Yes, it is hard; will you leave? Maybe you won’t leave, but will your faith in the Eucharist be tepid, the kind of faith that is not devoted? Will you drift away from regular reception of the Eucharist? Where do you stand on this “hard saying”?

How consoled the Lord must have been by Peter’s words: Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God. How joyful He must be hearing your “Amen” each Sunday as you are summoned to faith: “The Body of Christ.” Yes, you stand with Christ.

Sadly, others leave. Only about a quarter of Catholics today go to Mass. Further, many others reject the dogma of the True Presence in the Holy Eucharist even though Jesus paid so dearly to proclaim it to us. In light of the recent scandals and the loss of trust, I am immensely grateful that many of the faithful can look beyond the mess and still find Jesus. He is still here and some live beautifully this old saying: “Don’t leave Jesus because of Judas.”

Is it a hard saying? Yes, but say Amen anyway! Stand with Jesus!

The second “hard saying” is hard for a different reason: it is (way) out-of-season and politically incorrect. It insists not only on headship within marriage but male headship. The Holy Spirit and the apostles apparently never got the memo that this teaching is a “no go” in our modern, “enlightened” age. Indeed, the text Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord is like a stick in the eye to most moderns. Talk about a hard saying!

There are cultural and worldly notions that underlie the rejection by many Catholics and Christians of the biblical teaching on the headship of the husband. This concept is unpopular in our culture, which usually gets pretty worked up over questions of authority in general, but that is because the worldly notion of authority usually equates it with power, dignity, rights, and being somehow better than someone else.

That is not the biblical view of authority. Consider what Jesus says about authority:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority and make their importance felt. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:41-45).

Jesus sets aside the worldly notion of authority, wherein those in authority wield their power by “lording it over” others using fear and the trappings of power. In the Christian setting there is authority (there must be), but it exists for service.

Consider a classroom teacher. She has authority; she must, so that she can unify and keep order. However, she has that authority in order to serve the children, not to berate them and revel in her power over them. The same is true for a police officer, who has authority not for his own sake but for ours, so that he can protect us and preserve order.

Having authority in a Christian setting does not make one person better than another, for authority is always exercised among equals. Our greatest dignity is to be a child of God, and none of us is more so just because we hold a position of authority.

Worldly notions of authority do affect Christians. Many harbor resentments against authority because they think of it in worldly ways. Further, many who have authority (and most of us have some authority in some capacity) can fall prey to these worldly notions and abuse their leadership role.

The key to understanding the authority of a husband and father within the home is to set aside worldly notions of authority and see the teaching in the light of the Christian understanding of authority: that it exists for love and service, to unite and preserve.

With that in mind, let’s turn to the highly unpopular and politically incorrect notion of wives being submissive to their husbands. The teaching is found in several places in the New Testament: Ephesians 5:22ff (today’s text); Col 3:18; Titus 2:5; and 1 Peter 3:1. In all these texts, the wording is quite similar: wives are to be submissive to, that is under the authority of, their husbands. In each case, however, the teaching is balanced by an exhortation that the husband is to love and be considerate of his wife.

The most well-known of these passages is today’s text from Ephesians 5: Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is Head of the Church … so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything (Eph 5:20-21, 23).

This may grate on your nerves, but don’t just dismiss what God teaches here. One of the great dangers of this passage is that it is so startling to modern ears that many people just tune out after the first line and miss the rest of what God has to say. There is text that follows. And before men gloat over the first part of the passage, or women react to it with anger or sadness, they should pay attention to the rest of the text, which spells out the duties of a husband.

You see, if you’re going to be the head of the household there are certain requirements that must be met. God is not playing around here or choosing sides. He has a comprehensive plan for husbands that is demanding; it requires them to curb any notions that authority is about power and to remember that, for a Christian, authority is always given so that the one who has it may serve. Before we look at submission we might do well to look at the requirements for the husband:

Love your wife – Pay attention, men! Don’t just tolerate your wife. Don’t just bring home a paycheck. Don’t just love her in some intellectual sort of way. Love your wife with all your heart. Beg God for the grace to love your wife tenderly, powerfully, and unconditionally. Do you hear what God says? Love your wife! He goes on to tell husbands to love their wives in three ways: passionately, with a purifying love, and with a providing love.

Passionate love – The text says that a man is to love his wife even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her. The Greek word παραδίδωμι (paradidomi), translated here as “handed over,” always refers in the New Testament to Jesus’ crucifixion. Husbands, are you willing to give your life for your wife and children? Are you willing to die to yourself and give your life as a daily sacrifice for them? God instructs you to love your wife (and children) with the same kind of love He has for His Bride, the Church. That kind of love is summed up in the cross. Love your wife passionately. Be willing to suffer for her. Be willing to make sacrifices for her and for your children.

Purifying love – The text says of Christ (and of the husband who is to imitate Him) that He wills to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Now a husband cannot sanctify his wife in the same way that God can, but what he is called to do is to help his wife and children grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ. First, he is to be himself under God’s authority, thus making it easier for his wife and children to live out their baptismal commitments. He ought to be a spiritual leader in his home, praying with his wife and children, reading scripture, and seeing to it that his home is a place where God is loved and obeyed, first of all by him. His wife should not have to drag him to Mass. He should willingly help her to grow in holiness and pray with her every day. He should become more holy himself as well, thus making it easier for his wife to live the Christian life. He should be the first teacher of his children, along with his wife, in the ways of faith. In too many American homes, the man does not act as the spiritual leader of his household. If anyone at all is raising up the children in the Lord, it is usually the wife. Scripture has in mind that the husband and father should be the spiritual leader to his wife and children. Scripture says, Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4). Fathers and husbands need to step up and not leave all the burden on their wives.

Providing love So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it. Husbands, take care of your wife in her needs. She needs more than food, clothing, and shelter. These days, she can get a lot of that for herself. What she needs more is your love, understanding, and appreciation. She needs for you to be a good listener. She needs an attentive husband who is present to her. Like any human being, she needs reassurance and affirmation. Tell her of your love and appreciation; don’t just assume that she knows. Show care for your wife; attend to her needs just as you do instinctively for your own. Encourage her with the children. Confirm her authority over them and teach them to respect their mother. Show her providing love by taking up your proper role and duty as a father who is involved with his children. That is what God is teaching here.

So, scripture does teach that a wife should submit to her husband, but what kind of husband does Scripture have in mind? A husband who really loves his wife, who is a servant-leader, who makes sacrifices for his wife, who is prayerful and spiritual, who submits to God’s authority, and who cares deeply for his wife and her needs. The same God who teaches submission (and He does) also clearly teaches these things for the husband. The teaching must be taken in its entirety, but all that said, there is a teaching on wives submitting (properly understood) to their husbands.

There is just no way around it. No matter how much the modern age wants to insist that there doesn’t need to be headship, there does. Every organization needs a head. Consider your own body. With two heads you’d be a freak; with no head you’d be dead. The members of your body need a head to unify the parts, otherwise there would be disunity, decay, and decay. Every organization needs headship. It needs an ultimate decision maker, a person to whom all look when consensus on a significant issue cannot be reached. The Protestants have tried to have a “Church” without a head, without a Pope, and behold the division. Even this country, which we like to call a “democracy,” is not actually a pure democracy. There are legislators, judges, law enforcers, and many other people and mechanisms that exercise local, state, federal, and final headship and authority.

Thus, in a family, where consensus and compromise may often win the day, there nevertheless must be a head, a final decider to whom all look and submit, in order to resolve conflicts that cannot otherwise be worked out. Scripture assigns this task to the husband and father. Headship just has to be, but remember to shed your worldly notions of it when considering the teaching of Scripture. Headship (authority) is for love and service; it is for unity and preservation not for power, prestige, or superiority.

Believe What Jesus Says – A Homily for the 19th Sunday of the Year

The Gospel this Sunday amounts to a summons to faith by Jesus. He is summoning us to faith in Himself and in the truth He proclaims about His presence in the Holy Eucharist. Last week’s Gospel ended with Jesus declaring that He was the bread come down from Heaven. This Sunday’s Gospel opens with His Jewish listeners grumbling because He claims to have come from Heaven. Throughout the Gospel Jesus stands firm in His call to faith; He teaches them of the necessity of faith, its origins, and its fruits. Let’s look at what the Lord teaches in four stages.

I. The Focus of FaithThe Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

Their lack of faith is a scandal. In addition, it shifts our focus to the need for faith and emphasizes how difficult it is to have faith. Both the scandal and the difficulty are illustrated in the background to the crowd’s lack of faith.

Recall that Jesus had just fed over 20,000 people with five loaves and two fishes, leaving 12 baskets full of scraps. It was this very miracle that led many of them follow Him to the other side of the lake. All the miracles Jesus worked were meant to summon people to faith and to provide evidence for the truth of His words. The Gospel of John recounts Jesus saying, for the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing, bear witness that the Father has sent me (John 5:36).

Yes, their lack of faith, their grumbling, and their murmuring was scandalous. The multiplication of the loaves and fishes was not the first miracle Jesus had worked to this point and it would not be the last. Recall that he had

Changed water into wine, healed lepers, healed the centurion’s servant, cast out demons, healed the lame, healed the woman with a hemorrhage, raised Jairus’ daughter, cast out blindness, cured the man with a withered hand, walked on water, calmed storms at sea, healed the deaf and mute, caused miraculous catches of fish, raised the widow’s son, and raised Lazarus!

What do they focus on? On what Jesus does or on where He is from? It seems clear they are more focused on His human origins: where He is from and who His human kin are.

How many people today really put their focus on what God is doing, on the many daily miracles of simple existence, and on the many ways that even defeats become victories?

Jesus focuses on faith because we humans are a hard case and our faith needs to grow.

II. The Font of Faith – Noting their lack of faith, Jesus rebukes them in these words: Stop murmuring among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day. It is written in the prophets: They shall all be taught by God. Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.

Jesus teaches two things here: that our faith in Him comes from the Father, and that we are a hard case.

First, Jesus teaches that His Father is the source of our faith in Him. Scripture teaches this truth elsewhere as well:

  • For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God (Eph 2:8).
  • This is my beloved son, listen to him (Matt 3:17).
  • But the testimony which I have is greater than that of John; for the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing, bear me witness that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness to me (John 5:36).
  • I bear witness to myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness to me (John 8:18).

The central work of the Father is to save us by drawing us to faith in His Son, whom He sent to redeem the world.

Jesus also teaches that this work of God generally meets considerable resistance from us. This is evident in Jesus’ words: the Father must “draw” us to the Son. The Greek word used here is ἑλκύσῃ (helkuse), which means to drag, draw, pull, or persuade; it implies that the thing being drawn or dragged is resisting. This same word is used in John 21:6 in describing drawing a heavily laden net to shore.

Thus, Jesus points to their stubbornness in coming to faith. We are stubborn and stiff-necked, so the Father must exert effort to draw—even drag—us to Jesus.

Yes, we’re a hard case and sometimes we have to be “drug.” Someone once said,

I had a drug problem when I was young: I was drug to church on Sunday morning. I was drug to church for weddings and funerals. I was drug to family reunions and community socials no matter the weather. I was drug by my ears when I was disrespectful to adults. I was also drug to the woodshed when I disobeyed my parents, told a lie, brought home a bad report card, did not speak with respect, spoke ill of the teacher or preacher, or if I didn’t put forth my best effort in everything that was asked of me. I was drug to the kitchen sink to have my mouth washed out with soap if I uttered a profane four-letter word. I was drug to pull weeds in Mom’s garden and to do my chores. I was drug to the homes of family, friends, and neighbors to help some poor soul who had no one to mow the yard, repair the clothesline, or chop some fire wood. And if my mother had ever known that I took a single dime as a tip for this kindness, she would have drug me back to the woodshed. Those drugs are still in my veins and they affect my behavior in everything I do, say, and think. They are stronger than cocaine, crack, or heroin. If today’s children had this kind of drug problem, America might be a better place.

III. The Functioning of Faith Jesus goes on to teach about how faith functions and what its fruit is: Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.

Regarding the functioning of faith, the Greek text is clearer than the English translation. The Greek word used here for “believes” is πιστεύων (pisteuon), a present, active participle. This construction signifies an ongoing action and is better translated as “He who goes on believing” or “He who is believing.”

The danger is in reducing faith to an event or an act. Some say that they answered an altar call; others point to their baptism. That’s good, but what is going on today? What is prescribed here by the Lord is lasting, ongoing faith. It is a lasting faith because faith is more than a one-time event; it is an ongoing reality. Faith is more than something you have; it is something you do, daily. It involves learning and trusting in God. It is a basing our whole life on His Word, the daily obedience of faith.

Here are a few other Scripture passages about the ongoing need for faith:

  • But you must hold fast to faith, be firmly grounded and steadfast in it. Unshaken in the hope promised you by the gospel you have heard (Col 1:21ff).
  • Brethren I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and in which you stand firm. You are being saved by it at this very moment provided you hold fast to it as I preached it to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain (1 Cor 15:1).
  • He who perseveres to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13).

IV. The Fruit of Faith – Having taught of the ongoing quality of faith, Jesus also speaks of its fruit: eternal life.

The Christian use of the word “eternal” does not refer only to the length of life but to its fullness or quality. The Greek word that is used here is αἰώνιος (aionios), from which we get the English word (a)eon). According the Greek lexicon of Scripture, the word does not focus on the future per se, but rather on the quality of the age.

Note, too, that the Greek word translated here as “has” is ἔχει (echei), which is a present, active indicative. Thus, it does not refer just to something that we will have but something we now have. Believers live in “eternal life” right now, experiencing this quality of God’s life now as a present possession. We do not enjoy it fully, as we will in Heaven, but we do have it now and it is growing within us.

Thus, Jesus teaches that the believer enjoys the fullness of life in him even now, and in a growing way each day. One day we too we will enjoy the fullness of life, to the top, in Heaven.

Here, then, is Jesus teaching on the functioning of faith (its ongoing quality) and the fruit of faith (eternal life, i.e., the fullness of life).

V. The Food of Faith – Having set forth the necessity of faith, Jesus now prepares to turn the heat up a bit and test their faith. Not only does He tell them that He has come from Heaven, but also that He is Bread they must eat. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died but this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.

This final verse points to next week’s Gospel, in which this concept will be developed more fully and more graphically.

Having warned them of the necessity of faith, Jesus now points to one of His most essential teachings: the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.

Without faith, they cannot grasp or accept this teaching. As we shall see in next week’s Gospel reading, most of them turned away and would no longer follow Him because they could not accept what He was saying; they did not have the faith to trust Him in this matter. Instead, they scoff and leave Him. We will say more about this next week as John 6 continues to unfold.

For now, let the Lord ask you, “Do you have faith to believe what I teach you on this?” Perhaps, like the centurion, we can say, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” Perhaps, like the apostles, we can say, “Increase our faith.” Perhaps we can imitate St. Thomas Aquinas and say,

Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur, (Sight, touch and taste, in thee fail)
 Sed auditu solo tuto creditur. (But only the hearing is safely believed)
 Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius; (I believe whatever the Son of God says)
 Nil hoc verbo veritátis verius. (Nothing is more true than this word of truth)

In the end we either have faith or will be famished. We will have the faith to approach the Lord’s table or we will go unfed. Jesus says later, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood, you have no life in you (Jn 6:53). In other words, we starve spiritually without the faith that brings us to God’s table.

How few come to the Lord’s table today, in these times when faith is so lacking. Only about a quarter of American Catholics attend Mass regularly. How can we stay away if we have faith in the Eucharist? We cannot. If we truly we believe, we will never deliberately miss Sunday Mass. Our devotion to the Lord will grow daily and our experience of the fullness of life (eternal life) will grow.

It’s faith or famine. Do you believe?

Come Over Here Where the Feast of the Lord Is Going On – A Homily for the 18th Sunday of the Year

All of the readings in this Sunday’s Mass speak of human desire. In the first reading, the Israelites in the desert are hungry, so are the people by the lakeside with Jesus in the Gospel reading, and in the Epistle, St. Paul warns of deceitful desires. In all these passages, God teaches us that our desires are ultimately directed to Him, who alone can truly satisfy us. Why is this? Because our desires are infinite, and thus a finite world cannot satisfy them.

Let’s look at what the Lord teaches by focusing on the Gospel, but also including insights from the other readings. There are three basic parts to the teaching on desire.

I. THE HUNGER OF DESIRE – Today’s Gospel begins where last week’s left off. (To refresh your memory, Jesus had multiplied the loaves and fishes and satisfied the crowd with abundant food but then slipped away and headed across the lake to Capernaum.) Today’s text begins, When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

We begin by simply noting the hunger of the people. Allow hunger to represent all of our desires. Desires, of themselves, are good and God-given. It is the people’s hunger, their desire, that makes them seek Jesus. Further, their desire is deep and strong; they are willing to journey a significant distance to find Jesus.

Desire has something important to teach us. It is easy to see that our desires motivate us, but we should also recognize that they are infinite, unlimited. No matter how much we get, we always want more. We may experience some temporary satisfaction, especially with things like food, but it doesn’t last long. Taken together, our desires are limitless.

This limitless, infinite quality demonstrates God’s existence, for a finite world cannot give what it doesn’t have. Our infinite longings point to God and must come from Him. Our hearts, with all their infinite longings, teach us that we were made for God and will not find rest apart from Him.

Purification is needed. The journey of the people around the lake to find Jesus is good in itself, but their hunger needs purification and a more proper focus. They do not seek Jesus as God, but rather as the “bread king.” They seek food for their stomachs, but the Lord wants to teach them that their desires really point higher.

II. THE HEALING OF DESIRE – As already noted, desire is good and God-given, but due to our fallen condition, our desires are often unruly, and our darkened minds often misinterpret what our desire is really telling us.

Desires are unruly because we desire many things out of proportion to what we need, and to what is right and good.

Our minds are darkened in that we consistently turn to the finite world in a futile attempt for satisfaction, and, when it fails, we keep thinking that more and more of the finite world will satisfy our infinite longing. This is futile and is the sign of a confused and darkened mind, because the world cannot possibly satisfy us. More on this in a moment.

For now, Jesus must work with these bread-seekers (us) and help them to realize that their desire for bread is about much more than mere food; it is about God. He is the Lord whom they really seek. Let’s observe how He works to heal their desires.

The Doctor is in – The text says, And when they found him across the sea they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?Their question is somewhat insincere, because they know exactly when He got there; they are simply trying to strike up a conversation in order to get more bread. As we shall see, Jesus calls them on it. Note this much, however: they are looking for Jesus and they do call him “Rabbi.” Their desire, though imperfectly experienced, has brought them to Jesus, who can now teach them about what their longing is really telling them.

The Diagnosis – The text says, Jesus answered them and said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” In other words, you are not looking for me because you saw signs and want to believe in me but because you want your bellies filled.

This is our essential problem: we focus on our lower desires, our bodily needs, while neglecting our higher, spiritual desires. We have a deep, infinite longing for God, for His love, goodness, beauty, and truth. Instead of seeking these things, though, we think another hamburger will do the trick; or if not that then a new car, a bigger house, a better job, more money, more sex, more power, or more popularity. We think that if we just get enough of all this “stuff” we’ll finally be happy—we will not. A finite world cannot possibly satisfy our infinite longing.

In today’s second reading, St. Paul warns, I declare and testify in the Lord that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds … that you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds (Eph. 4:17, 20-23).

Note St. Paul’s use of the word “futility.” The Greek word is ματαιότης (mataiotes), here used to mean unreality, purposelessness, ineffectiveness; a kind of aimlessness due to a lack of purpose or any meaningful end; nonsense because it is not enduring.

This is exactly what the Lord is getting at in telling them that their desires are “messed up.” It is the sign of a darkened mind to amass finite, earthly goods in a futile attempt to satisfy infinite desires.

St. Paul goes on to say that some of our desires are deceitful. They are so because they bewitch us into thinking that our life is about them and that if we attend to them only we will be happy—we will not. Simply getting more food, sex, money, power, etc. will not cut it. These are finite things while our desires are ultimately infinite.

So the doctor, along with his assistant, St. Paul, has made the diagnosis: You and I are seeking mere bread when we should also be seeking Him who is the true Bread of Life. They say to us, in effect, you seek the consolations of God, but not the God of all consolation; you want good things, but do not seek the giver of every good and perfect gift.

We have our diagnosis: Our desires are our out of whack and/or our darkened minds misinterpret the message that our lower desires are really giving us.

The Directives – The Lord gives three essential directives:

Fix your focus – Jesus says, Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.

The point is that we should attend more to things that endure unto life eternal than to the passing things of this world.

Most of us do just the opposite. The passing world and its demands get all our attention and things like prayer, Scripture, the sacraments, building our relationship with the Lord, learning His will, and obeying His will, all get short shrift. We attend to “the man” while telling God to “take a number.” It’s kind of dumb, really.

The passing world, a sinking ship, gets all our attention. Calling on the one who can rescue us and learning and following His saving directives gets little attention. Instead we “rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic,” indulge ourselves on the “lido deck,” and get angry that we don’t have a first-class cabin.

The Lord tells us, fix your focus; that ship is going down and then what will you do? Why obsess about those things? Turn to me and listen carefully because I alone can save you.

Fix your focus: worry less about things that perish and focus more on the things that last and can save.

Firm Up your Faith – Jesus goes on to say, For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.” So they said to him, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”

The ship is going down; the world is perishing. So how do we get saved from it? The answer is faith.

Faith here must be understood as more than just answering an altar call or reciting a creed. Surely it is more than “lip service.” Faith here is understood as being in a life-giving, transformative relationship with Jesus Christ.

Real faith puts us into a relationship with the Lord that changes the way we walk, that gives us a new mind, a new heart, and new priorities; indeed, a whole new self. To be in a relationship with Christ, through faith, is to be changed by Him. It is this change, this obedience of faith, this transformation, that saves us and gets us ready to meet God.

Find your Food – As the discussion with them continues, they show themselves to be a stubborn lot. They say, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”

In effect, they are back to demanding bread. It’s as if to say, all that higher stuff is fine, but we want bread for our bellies; give us that first and then we can talk about all that higher stuff and that bread that endures and does not perish; if you want us to have faith, first give us bread for our bellies.

They’re still more interested in the stuff of a sinking ship.

So Jesus says to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

Jesus is in effect saying, Don’t you see that the ancient bread in the wilderness was about God? It was not merely food to fill their bellies; it was food to draw them to deeper and saving faith. It was food to strengthen them for the journey to the Promised Land. So it must be for you. You must understand that even your lower desires are ultimately about God. If mere grain is your food, you are doomed, for food perishes and you along with it. If God Himself is your food, you can be saved, for I, the Lord and the Bread that endures, will draw you with me to eternal life.

III. THE HEART OF DESIRESo they said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

The Lord now makes it plain: I AM your food. I AM the fulfillment of all your desires. I AM the only one who can fulfill your infinite longings, for I AM the Lord and I AM infinite. Yes, I AM your true bread.

What does the Lord mean in saying we will never again hunger or thirst? To some extent we must understand that Jesus is employing an ancient Jewish way of speaking, which looks to the end of things and adopts them as now fully present. There is no time to fully develop this concept here and describe how it is used elsewhere, but in short it is the capacity to see things as “already but not yet,” and to begin to live out of the “already” while in the here and now.

In more modern language Jesus is saying, To the degree that you enter into a life- changing and transformative life with me, to the degree that I become your bread, to the degree that I become that which satisfies you, your desires will come into line and you will find them being satisfied more and more with each passing day. You will find in your life a satisfaction that the latest smartphone could never give; that money, power, sex, possessions, and all other passing goods could never give. One day, this satisfaction will be full and will never pass away when you are with me in Heaven.

Of this I am a witness, for with each passing day in my life of faith with the Lord, I can truly say that I am more and more satisfied. The things of this passing world are of less interest to me and the things of God and Heaven are increasingly the apple of my eye. I have a long way to go, but the Lord has been good to me and His promises are true, for I have tested them in the laboratory of my own life.

The old song is increasingly mine, which says, “I heard my mother say, Give me Jesus. You may have all this world, just give me Jesus.”

In the Gospel readings in the weeks ahead, the Lord Jesus will develop how He is bread for us in more than a metaphorical way. Rather, He is our True Bread in the Eucharist and the Bread He will give is His flesh for the life of the world. Yes, His Body and Blood are our saving food for the journey to the Promised Land.

I am mindful of an old gospel hymn that I’d like to give a Catholic spin, for I have it on the best of authority that when Jesus was speaking to the crowd in today’s Gospel, He started to tap his toe and sing this song:

What Are Your Five Loaves and Two Fishes? A Homily for the 17th Sunday of the Year

We have in this Sunday’s Gospel the very familiar miracle of the loaves and the fishes. One is tempted to say, “Oh, that one …” and then tune out, but it contains a personal appeal directly from the Lord’s lips to our ears: “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?”

Immediately, objections begin to pop up in our minds, but let’s be still and allow the Lord to instruct us by applying this gospel in three stages. I would like to apply it in such a way as to illustrate our need to evangelize the culture in which we live. It is an immense task, one that can easily overwhelm us, but the Lord still bids us to get busy and join Him in feeding the multitudes.

I. THE IMAGE THAT IS EXTOLLED – The text says, Jesus went up on the mountain and there he sat down with his disciples. The Jewish feast of Passover was near. Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him.

The text says that Jesus saw a large crowd. Do we? Often when we think of the Church, declining numbers come to mind. This is because we tend to think in terms of the number of members. Jesus, however, thinks in terms of those who need to be reached. As we know that is a staggering number today. While it seems clear that the gospel is currently “out of season,” we must never forget that everyone is precious to the Lord; He wants to reach all and feed them with His grace, mercy, truth, and love.

So, the image that is extolled is that of need, not of believers and non-believers. Is this how we see the world? Jesus sees it as a vineyard, a mission field. He sees all as hungry, even if they insist they are not. Unfortunately, many reject the food that we in the Church offer. Many deny that they are hungry, but they are hungry, and Jesus is about to ask our help in feeding them. While we may see such people as opponents to the faith, this text presents an image that is rooted in the universal human problem of hunger, physical and spiritual.

II. THE INSUFFICIENCY THAT IS EXPRESSED – The text says, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” Jesus said this to test Philip, because he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fishes; but what good are these for so many?”

It is easy for us to feel overwhelmed. This is understandable, as the task of evangelizing and feeding the world is a daunting one to say the least.

Note that in this gospel, the apostles are not without any resources at all with which to feed the crowd. What they have may seem insufficient, but it is not nothing.

Similarly, we today may feel overwhelmed by the cultural meltdown taking place before our very eyes. It seems that every number we want to go down is going up, and every number we want to go up is going down. The cultural war is occurring on multiple fronts: family, marriage, sexuality, life issues, religious freedom, schools, church attendance, the rise of secularism and atheism, and the lack of personal responsibility and self-control. The list could go on and on. It is not difficult to see the disrepair in our culture. The task of evangelizing our culture may seem far more difficult than coming up with two hundred days’ wages.

Notice that Jesus says, “Where can we” get enough (food in this case) to solve the problem. It is not only up to us mere mortals to resolve the grave issues of the day. The Lord asks us to work with Him. With Him we have a fighting chance!

III. THE IMMENSITY THAT IS EXPERIENCED – The text says, Jesus said, “Have the people recline.” Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted. When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples,” Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.” So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves.

By now this story is so familiar that we are not shocked by the outcome, but no matter how many times we hear it, it’s still hard to accept its astonishing truth. These Scripture passages also speak to that truth:

  • I can do all things in God who strengthens me (Phil 4:13).
  • All things are possible to him who believes (Mk 9:23).
  • For man it is impossible, but not with God, for all things are possible with God (Mk 10:27).
  • Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness (2 Cor 9:10).

We all know that this world is in an increasingly bad state and the problems feel overwhelming. In addition, the resources we have seem so limited to be able turn back the tide. What will we ever do with only five loaves and two fishes?

Jesus says, “Bring them to me.”

Remember that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The conversion of the whole world begins with each one of us. As we look at the huge problems before us, each of us must assess our “loaves and fishes”:

  • I can work on my own conversion. A holier world must start with me. If I get holier, the world gets holier.
  • I can serve the poor, perhaps with money, maybe by using my talents to instruct or counsel, perhaps just by giving of my time to listen.
  • I can pick up the phone and call a family member who I know is hurting.
  • I can love my spouse and my children.
  • I can spend time raising my children to know the Lord and to seek His kingdom.
  • I can exhort the weak in my own family. With love, I can rebuke sin and encourage righteousness.
  • If I am a priest or religious, I can faithfully live my vocation and heroically call others to Christ by teaching and proclaiming the gospel without compromise.
  • If I am young, I can prepare myself devoutly for a vocation to marriage, the priesthood, or religious life.
  • If I am older, I can seek to manifest wisdom and to provide a good example to the young.
  • If I am elderly, I can prepare myself for death devoutly and display the desire for Heaven.
  • I can pray for this world and attend Mass faithfully, begging God’s mercy on this sin-soaked world.

It is too easy to lament the condition of the world and, like the apostles, feel overwhelmed. Jesus says tells us that we should just bring Him what we have so that we can get started together. The conversion of the whole world will begin with each of us, with our own meager loaves and fishes.

Jesus will surely multiply them; He will not fail. Already there is renewal evident in the Church through a faithful remnant who are willing to bring their “loaves and fishes.” They are bringing them to Jesus and He is multiplying them. Renewal is happening; signs of spring are evident in the Church.

It’s been said that it’s easier to put on slippers than to carpet the whole world. Indeed it is! If it’s a converted world that you want, start with yourself. Bring your loaves and fishes to Jesus; bring your slippers and let’s get started. It begins with each one of us.

Four Teachings on Personal Prayer – A Homily for the 16th Sunday of the Year

The Gospel this Sunday speaks to us of the priority of personal prayer. In last week’s Gospel, Jesus sent the apostles out two by two to proclaim the Kingdom. Now they return, eager to report their progress and the graces they encountered.

As Jesus listens, He urges them (perhaps because they are so overjoyed) to come away and rest awhile, for they have labored long. In so doing, Jesus also teaches us about prayer. Let’s consider four teachings on prayer that are evident in today’s Gospel.

I. The Practice of Praise-Filled Prayer – As the text opens, the apostles are with Jesus, joyfully recounting all they experienced on their missionary journey. In a similar text in Luke (10:17), the apostles return rejoicing, saying that even demons are subject to them (through Jesus’ name). Thus, their first instinct is joyful gratitude before the Lord.

Is your prayer filled with praise and thanksgiving? Are you grateful to God for all He has done? Do you tell God what is happening in your life and give Him thanks for all He has enabled you to do?

Too many people think of prayer only in relation to petition, but praise is also an essential component. When Jesus began His instruction on prayer, He said, When you pray, say, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven hallowed be thy name’ (Mat 6:9). In other words, “Father, your name is holy. You are a great God, a wonderful God. You can do all things and I praise you! Thank you, Father; your name is holy, and you are holy.”

Praise the Lord. Thank Him for what He is doing and tell Him everything that you are experiencing. Scripture says that we were made for the praise of his glory (Eph. 1:16). So, praise the Lord in your prayer. How? Take a psalm of praise. Pray or sing the Gloria from Mass. Sing or recite a hymn. No matter how you do it, praise Him!

II. The Peace of Personal Prayer – Jesus invites the apostles to come away by themselves to a quiet place and rest for a while. Most people don’t think of their personal prayer as a privileged invitation from the Lord, nor do they think of it as rest.

Yet, consider that the Lord invites us to come aside and spend personal and private time with Him. Most people would relish personal attention from a famous person. Why not from the Lord? An old song says, “What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.”

Note the description of this time as “rest.” Most people think of prayer more as a task than as a time of rest. Yet to pray is to rest, to withdraw from this world for a brief time and enjoy the Lord’s presence. Scripture says, For thus the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, has said, “In repentance and rest you will be saved. In quietness and trust is your strength” (Is 30:15).

An old hymn says,

Sweet hour of prayer! Sweet hour of prayer!
That calls me from a world of care,
And bids me at my Father’s throne
Make all my wants and wishes known.
In seasons of distress and grief,
My soul has often found relief,
And oft escaped the tempter’s snare,
By thy return, sweet hour of prayer!

Learn to think of prayer as quiet time, as rest with the Lord, when He soothes, strengthens, refreshes, and blesses us.

III. The Primacy of Prioritized Prayer – The text says that people were coming in great numbers seeking the attention of the Lord and the apostles; they could not even get a moment to eat!

There is no doubt that the people had critical needs. They needed to be taught, healed, fed, and cared for in many ways. Yet despite this Jesus said, in effect, “We have to get away from all this for a while.” He directed the apostles to go off in the boat to a deserted place.

Indeed, one of the few places they could “get away” was out on the water. There, the crowds could not follow them, and they could be alone and quiet for a short time.

Jesus made prayer a priority. Scripture says of Him, But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed (Luke 5:16). Scripture also speaks of Him rising early to pray (Mark 1:35), praying late into the night (Matt 14:23), praying all night long (Luke 6:12), and praying in the mountains (Matt 14:23) and other deserted places.

Understanding prayer as rest helps us to understand why prayer must be a priority in our lives. If we are going to engage in the work to which God has called us, we need to be replenished and refreshed daily by spending time with Him.

If we were to engage in physical work without ever stopping to rest, we would collapse. The spiritual life has a similar law. Resting with God in prayer fills us with His presence, grace, and strength so that we can be equipped, empowered, and enabled unto the tasks that He has given us.

No one can give or share what he does not have, so if we aren’t praying and experiencing God’s presence, how can we share it? To share grace, we must first receive it. To speak the Word, we must first receive it. To witness to the Lord, we must first know Him.

Jesus often had to hide in order to pray. Sometimes the only quiet place He could find was out on the lake, but He did make time for prayer. He invites the apostles and us to do the same, not only despite the busyness of life, but because of it.

A Brief Story –

A priest friend of mine told me that back in the 1970s he once gave spiritual direction to a religious sister. At that time, it was common for people to say, “My work is my prayer.” When this priest inquired about the good sister’s prayer life she answered, “Oh, I’m too busy to pray, but that’s OK because my work is my prayer; that’s my spirituality.” He replied, “Sister, if you’re not praying, you don’t have a spirituality.” He got her to start praying for one hour a day. Some years later, he ran into her at the airport. By now, she had moved on to become a major superior in her order. “How are you doing, Mother?” he asked. “Oh,” she replied, “I am very busy!” He cringed, but then she added, “I’m so busy these days that I have to spend two hours a day praying!”

Now there’s a smart woman! When we’re being foolish we say, “I’m too busy to pray.” When we’re smart we say, “I’m so busy that I need to pray more.”

Jesus made prayer a priority. Prayer is the rest that strengthens us for the task; it is the refreshment that gives us new vigor and zeal.

IV. The Power of Pious Prayer – The text says that after Jesus spent this time alone with the apostles on the boat, they reached the other shore. Sure enough, the crowd was there waiting for them, but Jesus and the apostles had been refreshed and were now well-rested. Jesus, renewed and refreshed, saw the vast crowd and began to teach them at great length.

Prayer has that effect. In drawing close to God, who is love, we are better equipped to love others. Jesus, though He never lacked love for them, models this renewal for us. The text says that upon seeing the crowd, His heart was moved with pity for them. The Greek word translated as “pity” is σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomai), which means “to be moved with compassion.” The word “pity” often carries with it a condescending tone, but what happens here is that Jesus sees them, loves them, and has compassion for their state. The religious leaders in Jerusalem have largely abandoned them, considering them “the great unwashed,” but Jesus loves them and teaches them at great length.

It often takes many years and a lot of prayer to equip our hearts in this way. One of the signs that grace and prayer are having their effect is that our love for others, even for the multitudes, grows deeper, more compassionate, more patient, and more merciful. This takes great prayer and long hours of sitting at the Lord’s feet learning from Him.

Here is the power that prayer bestows: we are more fully equipped for our mission, more zealous, and more loving. The rest afforded by prayer rejuvenates our better nature and helps it to grow.

So, here are four teachings on prayer. Jesus found time to pray; He made it a priority. How about you?