See What the End Shall Be – Palm Sunday

The Passion, which we read in the liturgy for Palm Sunday, is too long to comment on in detail, so we will only examine a portion of it here.

It may be of some value to examine the problems associated with the more moderate range of personalities involved. The usual villains (the Temple leaders, Judas, and the recruited crowd shouting, “Crucify him!”) are unambiguously wicked and display their sinfulness openly. But there are others involved whose struggles and neglectfulness are more subtle, yet no less real. It is in examining these figures that we can learn a great deal about ourselves, who, though we may not openly shout, “Crucify him,” are often not as unambiguously holy and heroic as Jesus’ persecutors are wicked and bold.

As we read the Passion we must understand that this is not merely an account of the behavior of people long gone, they are portraits of you and me; we do these things.

I. The Perception that is Partial – Near the beginning of today’s Passion account, the apostles, who are at the Last Supper with Jesus, are reminded of what the next days will hold. Jesus says,

This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed.” But after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.

Note that the apostles are not being told these things for the first time; Jesus has spoken them before on numerous occasions:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life (Matt 16:21).

When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief (Matt 17:22-23).

We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life” (Matt 20:18-19).

Thus we see that the Lord has consistently tried to teach and prepare them for the difficulties ahead. He has told them exactly what is going to happen and how it will end: not in death, but rising to new life. But even though He has told them over and over again, they still do not understand. Therefore He predicts that their faith in Him will be shaken.

Their perception is partial. They will see only the negative, forgetting that Jesus has promised to rise. Because they cannot see beyond the apparent defeat of the moment they will retreat into fear rather than boldly and confidently accompanying Him to His passion and glorification (for His passion is a lifting up; it is His glorification). Instead they will flee. He has shown the “what the end shall be,” but they can neither see nor accept it. Thus fear overwhelms them and they withdraw into a sinful fear, dissociating themselves from Jesus. Only a few (Mary, His Mother; John; Mary Magdalene; and a few other women) would see Him through to the end.

As for the rest, they see only what is gory and awful, missing what is glory and awesome. Their perception is quite partial. Paradoxically, their blindness comes from not hearing or listening to what Jesus has been telling them all along.

We, too, can easily suffer from a blindness caused by poor listening. The Lord has often told us that if we trust in Him, then our struggles will end in glory and new life. But, blind and forgetful, we give in to our fears and fail to walk the way of Christ’s passion boldly. We draw back and dissociate ourselves from Jesus, exhibiting some of the same tendencies we will observe in the people of that day.

Next, let’s examine some of the problems that emerge from this partial perception and forgetful fear.

II. The Problems Presented – There are at least five problems that emerge. They are unhealthy and sinful patterns that spring from the fear generated by not trusting Jesus’ vision. Please understand that the word “we” used here is shorthand and does not mean that every single person does this. Rather, it means that collectively we have these tendencies. There’s no need to take everything here personally.

1. They become drowsy – A common human technique for dealing with stress and the hardships of life is to become numb and drowsy; we can just drift off into a sort of moral slumber. Being vigilant against the threat posed to our souls by sin or the harm caused by injustice (whether to ourselves or to others) is just too stressful, so we just “tune out.” We stop noticing or really even caring about critically important matters. We anesthetize ourselves with things like alcohol, drugs, creature comforts, and meaningless distractions. Prayer and spirituality pose too many uncomfortable questions, so we just daydream about meaningless things like what a certain Hollywood star is doing or how the latest sporting event is going.

In the Passion accounts, the Lord asks Peter, James, and John to pray with Him. But they doze off. Perhaps it is the wine. Surely it is the flesh (for the Lord speaks of it). Unwilling or unable to deal with the stress of the situation, they get drowsy and doze off. Grave evil is at the very door, but they sleep. The Lord warns them to stay awake, lest they give way to temptation, but still they sleep. Someone they know and love is in grave danger, but it is too much for them to handle. They tune out, much as we do in the face of the overwhelming suffering of Christ visible in the poor and needy. We just stop noticing; it’s too painful, so we tune out.

The Lord had often warned them to be vigilant, sober, and alert (Mk 13:34, Matt 25:13, Mk 13:37; Matt 24:42; Luke 21:36, inter al). Other Scriptures would later pick up the theme (Romans 13:11; 1 Peter 5:8; 1 Thess 5:6, inter al). Yes, drowsiness is a serious spiritual problem.

Sadly, God described us well when He remarked to Isaiah, Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep (Is 56:10).

We do this not only out of laziness, but also out of fear. One strategy is to try to ignore it, to go numb, to tune out. But despite the sleepiness of the disciples, the wicked are still awake; the threat does not go away by a drowsy inattentiveness to it. Thus we ought to be confident and sober. Life’s challenges are nothing to fear. The Lord has told us that we have already won if we will just trust in Him. The disciples have forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same. So they, and we, just give in to the stress and tune out.

2. They seek to destroy – When Peter finally awaken, he lashes out with a sword and wounds Malchus, the servant of the high priest. The Lord rebukes Peter and reminds him of the vision: Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me? (John 18:11) Jesus then heals Malchus, who tradition says later became a follower.

In our fear, we, too, can often lash out and even seek to destroy our opponents. But if we are already certain of our victory, as the Lord has promised, why do we fear? Why do we need to suppress our opponents and enemies ruthlessly? It is one thing to speak the truth in love, boldly and confidently. But it is quite another to lash out aggressively and seek to win a debate. In so doing, we may lose a soul. The Lord healed Malchus, seeing in Him a future disciple. The Lord saw what the end would be. Peter did not. In fear, he lashed out with an aggression that did not bespeak a confidence in final victory.

It is true that we are required to confront evil, resist injustice, and speak with clarity to a confused world. But above all, we are called to love those whom we address. There is little place for fear in our conversations with the world. The truth will out; it will prevail. We may not win every encounter, but we do not have to; all we must do is plant seeds. God will water them and others may well harvest them. In Christ, we have already won. This confidence should give us serenity.

Peter has forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same. So Peter, and we, give in to fear and lash out, driven by a desire to win when in fact we have already won.

3. They deny – Confronted with the fearful prospect of being condemned along with Jesus, Peter denies being one of His followers or even knowing Him at all. He dissociates himself from Christ. And we, confronted with the possibility of far milder things such as ridicule, often deny a connection with the Lord or the Church.

Regarding one of the more controversial Scripture teachings (e.g., the command to tithe; the prohibition against divorce, fornication, and homosexual activity) some might ask, “You don’t really believe that, do you?” It’s very easy to give in to fear and to respond, “No,” or to qualify our belief. Why suffer ridicule, endure further questioning, or be drawn into an unpleasant debate? So we just dissociate from, compromise, or qualify our faith to avoid the stress. We even congratulate ourselves for being tolerant when we do it!

Jesus says, If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels (Mk 8:38). But too easily we are ashamed. And so, like Peter, we engage in some form of denial. Peter is afraid because he has forgotten to “see what the end shall be.” He has forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same. We lack confidence and give in to fear; we deny in order to avoid suffering with Jesus.

4. They dodge – When Jesus is arrested, all the disciples except John “split.” They “get the heck out of Dodge.” They are nowhere to be found. After Jesus’ arrest, it is said that Peter (prior to his denials) followed the Lord at a distance (Mk 14:54). But as soon as trouble arose, he “scrammed.”

We, too, can run away. Sometimes it’s because of persecution by the world. But sometimes it’s our fear that following the Lord is too hard and involves sacrifices that we are just not willing to make. Maybe it will endanger our money (the Lord insists that we tithe and be generous to the poor). Maybe it will endanger our playboy lifestyle (the Lord insists on chastity and respect). Maybe we don’t want to stop doing something that we have no business doing, something that is unjust, excessive, or sinful. But rather than face our fears, whether they come from within or without, we just hightail it out.

The disciples have forgotten that Jesus has shown them “what the end shall be.” In three days, he will win the victory. But, this forgotten, their fears emerge and they run. We too, must see “what the end shall be” in order to confront and resist our many fears.

5. They deflect – In this case our example is Pontius Pilate, not one of the disciples. Pilate was summoned to faith just like anyone else. “Are you a king?” he asks Jesus. Jesus responds by putting Pilate on trial: “Are you saying this on your own or have others been telling you about me?” Pilate has a choice to make: accept that what Jesus is saying as true, or give in to fear and commit a terrible sin of injustice. The various accounts in Scripture all make it clear that Pilate knew Jesus was innocent. But because he feared the crowds he handed Jesus over.

Note that Pilate did this. The crowds tempted him through fear, but he did the condemning. Yet notice that he tries to deflect his choice. The text says, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility” (Mat 27:24). Well actually, Pilate, it is also your responsibility. You had a choice and you made it. Your own career and your own hide were more important to you than justice was. And though you wanted to do what was right and were sympathetic with Jesus, merely wanting to do what is right is not enough.

So, too, for us. We also often favor our career or our hide over doing what is right. And in so doing, we often blame others for what we have freely chosen. “I’m not responsible because my mother dropped me on my head when I was two.”

We are often willing to say, in effect,

“Look, Jesus, I love you. You get my Sundays, and my tithe, and I obey you (generally, anyway). But you have to understand that I have a career; I need to make money for my family. If I really stand up for what’s right, I might not make it in this world. You understand, don’t you? I know the company I work for is doing some things that are unjust. I know the world needs a clearer witness from me. I’ll do all that—after I retire. But for now, well, you know… Besides, it’s really my boss who’s to blame. It’s this old hell-bound, sin-soaked world that’s to blame, not me!”

We try to wash our hands of responsibility. We excuse our silence and inaction in the face of injustice and sin.

And all this is done out of fear. We forget “what the end shall be” and focus on the fearful present. We lack the vision that Jesus is trying to give us: that we will rise with Him. We stay blind to that and only see the threat of the here and now.

III. The Path that is Prescribed – By now you ought to know the path that is prescribed: see what the end shall be. In three days we rise! Why are we afraid? Jesus has already won the victory. It is true that we get there through the cross, but never forget what the end shall be! Today we read the Gospel of Friday, but wait till Sunday morning! I’ll rise!

We end where we began with this Gospel: This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed;’ but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.

Yes, after He has been raised He goes before us into Galilee. And for us, Galilee is Heaven. Whatever our sorrows, if we are faithful we will see Jesus in the Galilee of Heaven. Never forget this vision. After three days, we will rise with Him and be reunited with Him in the Galilee of Heaven.

So take courage; see what the end shall be! The end for those who are faithful is total victory. We don’t need to drowse, destroy, deny, dodge, or deflect; we’ve already won. All we need to do is to hold out.

I have it on the best of authority that Mother Mary was singing the following gospel song with St. John for a brief time while at the foot of the cross, as they looked past that Friday to the Sunday that was coming:

It’s all right, it’s all right.
My Jesus said he’ll fix it and it’s all right.

Sometimes I’m up sometimes I’m down.
But Jesus he’ll fix it and it’s all right.

Sometimes I’m almost on the ground.
My Jesus said he’ll fix it and it’s all right.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: See What the End Shall Be – Palm Sunday

Counting the Cost of Condemnation

This Sunday’s Mass features the well-known Gospel of the woman caught in adultery. In it, the Lord intimates to the men of His day that the severe punishment they want to mete out to this woman may be unwise given that they themselves must prepare for their own judgment.

Before we examine the details, let’s consider a few background texts that may help us to better understand what Jesus is teaching. After each verse, I provide a brief commentary in red.

  • Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy (Matt 5:7). Notice that it is the merciful who will obtain mercy. Those who have shown proper mercy will be granted mercy on the Day of Judgment. By implication, the severe and merciless will be judged severely by the Lord.
  • Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you (Luke 6:37-38). The text clearly states that if we use a severe standard of judgment, that same strict standard will be used by the Lord when He judges us. On the other hand, if we are forgiving, merciful, and generous then we can expect a merciful, generous, and kind judgment from God.
  • Speak and act as those who are going to be judged under the law of freedom, for judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:12-13). James gives us three warnings. First, he reminds us that we are going to be judged by the Lord. Second, he intimates that because we are free, we are responsible for what we do. Third, because we are going to face this judgment, in which we will not be able to blame others for what we have freely done, we’d better realize that our judgment will be without mercy if we have not shown mercy. Conversely, if we have shown mercy then we stand a chance on our own judgment day, for mercy will triumph over strict judgment.
  • For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Mat 6:14-15). This warning seems clear enough: if we want to find forgiveness on the Day of Judgment, we had better seek the grace to forgive others.

All these texts teach the bold truth that we can influence the standard against which the Lord will measure us on the day of our judgment. The measure we use for others will be measured back to us. If we have been merciful then we will find mercy, but if we have been harsh, unbending, and unmerciful, the Lord will judge us far more strictly.

We need to be sober about this. We are storing up things for the Day of Judgment by the way we treat others. Because we are all going to need so much mercy and because we cannot endure strict standards of judgment, we should consider carefully the need to be merciful and forgiving to others. And now, on to today’s Gospel!

I. COLLABORATORS IN CONDEMNATION – The Pharisees and the teachers of the law bring forward a woman caught in the act of adultery. (There is something curious about this, though: If she was caught in the act, the man involved must also be known. Why has he not be brought forward? The Law of Moses indicates that the man should be stoned as well.)

The accusers want to “throw the book” at her. They want the strictest punishment meted out: stoning. They also hope to discredit Jesus by putting Him in what they think is a no-win situation.

In their accusatory stance, they have become collaborators with Satan. Scripture describes Satan in this way: the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God (Rev 12:10). Thus, these Pharisees, in seeking to hand her over, join Satan.

When we have been hurt in some way, many of us may wish to both accuse and demand punishment of the person before God; this is unnecessary and unwise.

It is unnecessary because Satan is already accusing them “day and night” before God. In addition, God sees and knows all things anyway!

It is unwise because by demanding harsh punishment for others we set ourselves up to judged by the same strict standard. It’s always a better policy to cry for grace and the conversion of sinners.

II. COUNTING THE COST – As God, Jesus knows the sins of all the men gathered. He must be amazed; surely, they cannot be serious in demanding such a harsh punishment for the woman knowing that the day of their own judgment awaits!

Jesus bends down and traces His finger on the ground, almost as if tracing along with the words of a book He is reading about their deeds. Some suggest that perhaps He is writing down their sins. Some liken it to the finger of God tracing the commandments on stone. Still others recall the mysterious hand in the Book of Daniel, which traces the words MENE, TEKEL, PERES on the wall, announcing doom to the Babylonian king.

Whatever the case, it isn’t good. You don’t ever want Jesus to be writing things down about you!

These Pharisees are slow to appreciate the significance of the gesture, so Jesus tries to reason with them, saying,Let him among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” Then He bends down again and continues writing on the ground.

It is almost as though Jesus were saying,

Reason with me, men. If you demand strict justice, if you insist that I “throw the book” at her, you’d better first look and see what is written about you in “the book.” If she is to be judged strictly and without mercy, then you, too, will face the same standard.

Gentlemen, there are things in the book about you—serious things. Have you counted the cost of condemning this woman? Are you sure that you want to demand that I “throw the book” at her?

Think about it, men. Think very carefully.

One by one they go away. It begins with the older men, who are presumably less rash than the younger ones (and may well have committed more sins).

The message for us is clear: we will face judgment. We need to be sober about this. We must count the cost of being unmerciful, unforgiving, and vengeful. The measure that we measure out to others will be the measure that God uses for us.

What kind of judgment are you preparing for yourself? Condemnation comes at a high cost. Are you willing to risk storing up wrath and strict justice for the day of your own judgment?

On the other hand, gentleness, compassionate correction, and merciful love will also be given to us if we show it to others. Remember your upcoming judgment. Be like the wise man, who knows he will need grace and mercy on that day because he will not be able to withstand a strict adjudication of his crimes.

III. CORRECTING WITH COMPASSION – The departure of the accusers leaves Jesus alone with the woman. Though He speaks gently, Jesus is clear: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

This Gospel, therefore, does not make light of the woman’s sin. Jesus knows what she has done and so does she. He is clear that she must turn away from sin; she must not commit it anymore. What Jesus does set aside is the condemning “hang-’em-high” mentality that seeks the harshest measures for every situation.

Yes, we must sometimes correct sinners and mete out punishment. This is particularly true if we are a parent, a juror, or someone in a supervisory role.

Before rushing to extreme measures, however, we do well to show mercy and to attempt lesser measures first.

St. Paul has good advice: Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should gently set him right. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted (Gal 6:1).

Gentle and clear correction is the best course. More significant punishments should only be a later recourse. We must be careful not to be tempted to harshness, anger, mercilessness, and lovelessness.

OK, you get the point: count the cost. Be very careful to remember that the measure you measure out to others will be measured out to you. Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Counting the Cost of Condemnation

There Was a Man Who Had Two Sons – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent

The Gospel this Sunday is about a man who had two sons, both of whom forsook him and refused to relive in relationship with him. Although the sons seem to have very different personalities (one outwardly rebellious, the other outwardly obedient), their internal struggles are similar. In effect, neither of them really wants a relationship with his father. Both prefer what their father has or can give them to their father himself.

In the end, one son repents and finds his way to the father’s heart. We don’t find out what happens to the second son. The parable didn’t tell us what happened to him because the story is really about us; it is we who must finish it. The question we must answer is this: What do I really want? Do I want the consolation of God, or the God of all consolation; the gifts of God, or the giver of every good and perfect gift?

Let’s look at this Gospel in four parts.

Renegade Son – Most of us are familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We tend to focus on the younger (and obviously sinful) son rather than the older one. This is interesting because the Lord Jesus seems to have His focus on the older son (the parable is addressed to the scribes and Pharisees, who see themselves as obedient). Nevertheless, let’s observe three things about this renegade son, this prodigal son.

Corruption – This is an angry young man, alienated from his father. He wants what his father has yet wants nothing to do with him. In effect, he tells his father, “You’re not dying fast enough. I want to be done with you and get what’s coming to me right now.”

His effrontery is even more astonishing given where and when it happened. Today, reverence for parents and elders is sadly lacking, but if our times are extreme in the one direction, ancient times in the Middle East were so in the other. In telling this parable as He does, Jesus shocks His listeners, who lived in a culture where no son would dream of speaking to his father in this way. Indeed, a son could be killed by his father for such insolence! Even to this day, so-called “honor killings” still occur in parts of the Middle East. If a child brings dishonor to the family, it is not unheard of for the father to kill him or her. While most governments forbid these practices, in many cultures people will look the other way and the perpetrators are seldom prosecuted.

Yes, Jesus must have shocked His listeners with such a parable. Here was a son who did something so insolent, ungrateful, and daring as to be practically unthinkable.

Even more astonishing than the son’s behavior, however, is the fact that the father actually gives him his inheritance and allows him to leave.

This is Jesus’ veiled description of the patience and mercy of the Father, who endures even greater insolence from us, His often-ungrateful children. We demand His gifts and take them with ingratitude; we want what God gives us but do not want Him.

Consequences – The renegade son sets off to “a distant country.” It is always in a distant country that we dwell apart from God. The consequences of the son’s behavior are great indeed.

This parable does not make light of sin. The Lord Jesus describes well a young man who chooses to live apart from God and in sinful rebellion. The result is that this renegade son lives in anguish and depravity. When he runs out of money, he finds he has no friends, no family, and no experience of his father.

So awful is his state that he becomes hungry for the disgusting mash that pigs eat. Yes, he is lower than the most unclean animal Jews can imagine: a swine.

Sin debases the human person and if its effects are not avoided, it orients us increasingly toward depravity. What was once unthinkable becomes easier and easier.

St. Augustine wrote of sin’s hold on individuals in his Confessions: “For of a forward will, was a lust made; and a lust served, became custom; and custom not resisted, became necessity. By which links, as it were, joined together (whence I called it a chain) a hard bondage held me enthralled” (Confessions, 8.5.10).

The renegade son is suffering the consequences of his sinful choices. He is debased, debauched, and nearly dead.

Conversion – In an almost miraculous turn of events, he comes to his senses. Too many, especially today, suffer a darkened intellect due to the debasing effects of their sin; it would seem that no matter how debased, confused, and even enslaved they become, they still do not come to their senses, for their senseless minds have become darkened (cf Romans 1:21).

Thanks be to God, the renegade son does come to his senses, thinking, I shall arise and go to my father. In this passage, the Greek text uses the word anistemi, here translated as “arise”—the same word used to describe the resurrection of Jesus. The young man’s father will later joyfully describe him as having been dead but then coming back to life.

St. Paul reminds us that we were dead in our sins, but God made us alive in Christ (cf Col 2:13). Thanks be to God for His mercy and for the conversion that He alone can effect in all of us, His renegade children, who ourselves have been debased and debauched and are dead in our sins. The conversion of this renegade son, we pray, is also our conversion, our rising and going back to the Father.

Rejoicing Father – The astonishing nature of this parable is only just beginning, for Jesus goes on to describe a father who is shockingly merciful. He does things that no ancient father would ever do. As Jesus describes this father, so filled with love and mercy that he sacrifices his personal dignity, we must remember that He is telling us that this is what His Father is like.

As the parable continues to unfold, we hear that the father sees the son while he is still a long way off. This tells us that he was looking for his son, praying and hoping for his return.

Such mercy is rare. Most people who are hurt and have their dignity scorned would be resentful, saying, “Never darken my door again!”

How shockingly different this father is, lovingly and longingly awaiting the day when his son will appear on the horizon.

Upon seeing his son, the father runs out to meet him, something no ancient nobleman would ever do. Running was a sign of being in flight or of being a slave out on an errand. Further, in order to run, the ancients (who wore long garments) had to bare their legs—a disgraceful thing for nobility. Only common workers and slaves had their legs exposed.

Yes, this is the portrait of a father willing to debase himself so that he can run and greet his returning son. When we take one step, God takes two or more; He comes running to us!

In the parable, the robe and the ring that the father puts on his son are signs of family belonging or restoration. This is the full restoration of a young man willing to live as a slave in his own father’s house. The father will have none of it. “You are my son whatever your sins. They are forgotten. You are my beloved son!”

What kind of father is this? No earthly father would behave this way. This is the heavenly Father. Jesus is saying, “This is what my Father is like!”

Resentful Son – Now we turn our attention to the older brother. His sinfulness is more subtle. Outwardly, he follows his father’s rules; he does not sin overtly. Unlike his prodigal brother, he has never openly rejected his father; inwardly, though, he is not so different. Like his younger brother, the older son wants his father’s goods, not his father himself. To understand the subtlety of his struggle, let’s look at some of the details of the story. Notice the following fundamental issues with the resentful older son:

He is distant. It is interesting that the older son is the last person to find out about the feast. This is a son who is distant from his father, unaware of the happenings in his father’s life.

Off on some far-flung part of the property, he is going about his duties, which he seems to fulfill adequately. However, we get the feeling that there is a sense of distance between father and son.

Why doesn’t he know that his father, worried about his younger brother, has been looking for him each day? Even the slaves in the household are drawn into the preparations for this celebratory feast; the older son is the only one who knows nothing about it. Even more telling is that he is unaware of his father’s joy at his brother’s return.

Yes, the resentful son is distant, miles away from the heart of his father.

He is disaffected. When the older son learns of the feast and the reason for it, he becomes sullen, angry, and resentful. He is disaffected. He stays away from the feast, refusing to enter.

So bitter is he that his father hears of it and comes out to plead with him.

Do not be too quick to scorn him, however, for we are too like him. We die the death of a thousand cuts as we see other sinners finding mercy. We become envious when others are blessed.

He is disconsolate. The father emerges from the feast to plead with his older son to come in. Again, such a thing would be unheard of in the ancient world! Any father in those days would have commanded his son to come in to the feast, expecting immediate obedience.

This father is different, for he represents the heavenly Father, rooted in love more than in prerogatives and privileges. He has already demonstrated his love for his renegade son and now does so for his resentful older son.

The fact is, he loves both of his sons. Yes, the heavenly Father loves each one of us.

Tragically, the resentful son is unmoved by this demonstration of love. He remains disconsolate and must be confronted in his resentful anger.

He is disrespectful. Now we see the ugly side of the apparently obedient son. He doesn’t truly love or respect his father; he doesn’t really know him at all. He disrespects his father to his face. He speaks of him as if he is a slave master, saying, I have slaved for you … I have never disobeyed any one of your orders.

Orders? I have slaved for you? Where is his love for his father? He does not see himself as a son but rather as an unwilling slave, one who follows orders only because he must. In effect, he calls his father a slave master, a despot.

Further, he accuses his father of injustice. He views the mercy his father has shown to his brother as evidence of a lack of due mercy shown to himself. He considers his father unreasonable, unjust—even despicable. How dare his father show mercy to someone that he, the “obedient” son, does not think deserves it!

In calling his father an unjust slave owner and taskmaster, the son disrespects him to his face. The father stays in the conversation, though, pleading with his son to reconsider.

He is disordered. Among the older son’s complaints is that his father never gave him so much as a kid goat so that he could celebrate with his friends. Our goal in life is not to celebrate with friends; it is to celebrate with the heavenly Father.

Note how similar the two sons actually are. Previously, the renegade son saw his father only in terms of what his father could give him; his father was only valuable in terms of the “stuff” he could provide. Despite his outward obedience, the older son has the same problem, seeming to value only what his father can give him. It is not his father he really loves or even knows. He is interested only in what his father can give him.

In this way, the resentful son is disordered. He misses the whole point, which is not the “things” his father can give him but their relationship. The goal in life is to live with the Father forever in a relationship of love.

Again, be careful before you condemn the resentful son. It is so easy for us to want the good things of God but not God Himself, to want God’s blessings and benefits but not His beloved self, to want the gifts of God but not Him who is the giver of every good and perfect gift.

Yes, the disorder of this resentful son is too easily our disorder. There is something about our flesh that wants God to rain down blessings, yet once we have received them, we want to keep our distance from God. Relationships are complicated and dynamic. Our flesh prefers trinkets. We prefer to receive gifts on our own terms. Our flesh says, “Give me the priceless pearls, but begone with the powerful person who gives them!”

Response – The father is outside pleading with his resentful son to enter the feast. At this point, Jesus abruptly ends the parable. Yes, the story ends! Does the resentful son enter the feast or not? Why is the story left unfinished?

Simply put, it is because we must finish the story, for we are so easily the resentful son.

Right now, the heavenly Father is pleading with us to enter the feast. Too easily we brood and say that we have our reasons for not wanting to go. After all, that renegade son is in there, our enemy is in there. If Heaven involves meeting our enemies and celebrating with them, we don’t want anything to do with it.

Here is the great drama: will we enter the real Heaven? The real Heaven is not of our own making, defined by our own parameters.

Are we willing to enter on God’s terms, or will we stand outside resentfully, demanding that Heaven be on our own terms? Further, do we see Heaven as being with the Father, or do we just view it as a place where we get the things we want?

The heart of Heaven is to be with the Father, with the Holy Trinity. The danger, even for the religiously observant, is becoming the resentful son. The Father is pleading with us to enter the feast, to set aside our prejudices and notions of exclusivity.

To the resentful son the father says, your brother was lost and is found, was dead, and has come back to life.

The Father is pleading with us to enter the feast—not some made-up feast where we choose the attendees—but the real, actual feast of Heaven, where some surprising people may be in attendance.

This parable is unfinished; you and I must finish it. Will you enter the feast? The Father is pleading with you, saying, “Come in before it’s too late.” What is your response to His plea? Answer Him!

Just for fun, here is a retelling of the parable in the “key” of F:

Feeling footloose and frisky, a feather-brained fellow forced his fond father to fork over the farthings and flew to foreign fields and frittered his fortune, feasting fabulously with faithless friends.

Fleeced by his fellows, fallen by fornication, and facing famine, he found himself a feed-flinger in a filthy farmyard. Fairly famishing, he fain would have filled his frame with foraged food from fodder fragments. “Fooey! My father’s flunkies fare finer,” the frazzled fugitive forlornly fumbled, frankly facing facts. Frustrated by failure and filled with foreboding, he fled forthwith to his family. Falling at his father’s feet, he forlornly fumbled, “Father, I’ve flunked and fruitlessly forfeited family favor!”

The farsighted father, forestalling further flinching, frantically flagged the flunkies to fetch a fatling from the flock and fix a feast.

The fugitive’s fault-finding brother frowned on fickle forgiveness of former folderol. But the faithful father figured, “Filial fidelity is fine, but the fugitive is found! What forbids fervent festivity? Let flags be unfurled. Let fanfares flare.”

And the father’s forgiveness formed the foundation for the former fugitive’s future faith and fortitude.

 

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: There Was a Man Who Had Two Sons

Sooner or Later Judgment Must Come – A Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent

There’s an old Johnny Cash song (“God’s Gonna Cut You Down”) that is rooted in today’s Gospel:

You can run on for a long time … Sooner or later God’ll cut you down … Go tell that long tongue liar, Go and tell that midnight rider, Tell the rambler, the gambler, the backbiter, Tell ’em that God’s gonna cut ’em down.

These verses go directly to the end point (judgment), but there is more to the story. First, there is mercy offered, then patience, and finally judgment.

Many today either dismiss judgment entirely or believe that judgment will result in instant entrance to glory.

Today’s Gospel contains a necessary balance. It speaks of God’s patience and care now but also of the day of reckoning, of judgment. On that day, He will adjudicate our “case”; the decision will be final; there will be no turning back.

Let’s look at this Gospel in two main parts:

The Proclamation of the Problem

The Gospel opens with these lines:

Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. Jesus said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

What Jesus is saying is that is easy to focus on the sins of others, failing to discern our own need for repentance and mercy. Before God we are all beggars; all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (cf Romans 3:23). Every one of us is in need of boatloads of grace and mercy. While we may rightly distinguish that there is a difference here on earth between the sanctity of a Mother Theresa and the wretchedness of a Hitler, before God we all fall far short.

Sin surely affects the lives of others and we are not asked to be blind to that. It is important to learn from the example of others, both good and bad; the point is to learn. We miss the point if all we do when we see someone suffer the effects of sin is to say, “My, my, God don’t like ugly!” What about the ugly in us? What about our own sin?

To our all-too-eager question “What about them, Lord?” Jesus replies, “What about you? Work on your own issues and leave their final fate to me. Punishment doesn’t just come to others; if you don’t watch out it will come to you as well.” Just to make sure we get it, the Lord adds, “I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

In effect, the Lord tells us to get serious about our sin and what it can do to us. The most serious problem in life is not the fact that we die or the manner of our death. The most serious problem we face is not Pilate or any political misfortune; it is not falling towers or any physical threat. It is not financial setback, or suffering, or losing our job, or losing our possessions. The most serious problem we face is our own sin.

We don’t tend to think like this. Instead, we minimize the maximum and maximize the minimum. We get all worked up about lesser things while ignoring greater ones. We are forever worrying about passing things like health and money but paying little attention to the things of eternity and to getting ready to meet God. Let our physical health be threatened and we are instantly on our knees begging God for deliverance, but let our sins pile up and sinful drives be eating at our very soul and we take little notice. We don’t seem to care about being delivered from things that are far more serious than mere cancer.

The Lord says, If your right hand causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body cast into hell (Matt 5:30). Pay attention, the Lord is saying that it is worse to sin than to lose your right hand!

If I were to lose my right hand, I think I would lament it for the rest of my life. The very thought of it gives me stabbing grief. Why don’t we think of our sin this way? Do you see how obtuse we are, how distorted our priorities?

One day the Lord looked at a paralyzed man and decided to cure his most serious problem. He said, “Your sins are forgiven.” Could the man’s sins have been more serious than his paralysis? Yes!

Thus, the Lord warns us that we ought to be more serious about our sins lest we perish, not merely losing our earthly life but our eternal life. The fact that the solution to our problem required the death of the Son of God indicates that we are in far worse shape than we think. Without our repentance and the magnificent mercy of God, something far worse than having a tower fall on us or our enemies kill us might happen. Elsewhere in Scripture the Lord says, I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him (Lk 12:4-5). The Lord is not counseling a cringing and avoidant fear but rather a respectful fear such that we are serious about judgment and understand that the result on that day will be eternal, unlike the passing quality of any earthly encounter.

Having portrayed the problem and underscored its seriousness, the Lord then reminds us that He is willing to help us, with His grace and mercy, to get ready. He sets forth a process in which we must cooperate, for judgment will surely come.

The Portrayal of the Process

The Lord tells a parable that sets forth the process in which we are currently engaged: a process of patience and mercy that leads to the finality of judgment. Note the following three steps:

1. ASSESSMENT There was once a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard and when he came in search of fruit on it and found none said to the gardener, “For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this tree and have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?”

Faith is a fruit-bearing tree. It is to bear the fruits of love, justice, and the keeping of the commandments. The Lord looks for these fruits and often, through our conscience and by His Word, assesses whether they are present.

Many claim to have faith, to be fruitful in what the Lord seeks, but it is He, as owner of the field, who sets the terms. We are not the judge in our own case. It is the Lord’s ongoing work to assess our progress and fruitfulness. He determines whether the necessary fruits are present.

Today, many people claim the right to assess their own status. They make bold proclamations that God would not “dare” to find them to be lacking in anything substantial. In presumption, many declare themselves to be safe, fruitful, and righteous.

This is not for us to say, however. In the parable it is the owner, the Lord, who makes the assessment; and note that in this parable He proposes that something significant is lacking.

Yet some interlocutor, here called the gardener but let’s call her the Church, asks for mercy and time. As we shall see, such mercy and time is granted, along with necessary supplies (grace) to help accomplish what is sought: the fruit of faith.

2. ASSISTANCE The text goes on to describe the prayers and requests of the gardener (in this case, Mother Church): Sir leave it for this year also. I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it. It may bear fruit in the future.

The Lord, the owner of the garden, not only grants the request but will also be the one to supply the necessary help to draw forth the fruits patiently awaited.

Indeed, the Lord sends us help and graces in so many ways:.

      • He speaks in our conscience.
      • He has written His law in our heart.
      • He gave us the law.
      • He sent us prophets.
      • He punishes our wrongdoings in order to bring us to repentance.

* Before I was afflicted, I strayed. But now I have kept your word (Ps 119:67).
* But God disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Heb 12:10).

      • He sent us His Son, who established the Church and gave us grace and the sacraments.
      • He gave us grace and the sacraments.
      • It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. [That we be] no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ (Eph 4: 11-17).

Do you see how much God has done for us? He has graced us in every way. He has entrusted to the Church, in answer to her pleas, every necessary grace to bear fruit. Now He patiently waits. He looks to return again to seek the fruits that are necessary for those who claim to have saving faith, fruits that are necessary to be able to endure the day of His coming, fruits that are necessary for us to have the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). Indeed, we cannot see or endure His presence without the fruit of holiness by His grace, for as Scripture says, Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Or Who may stand in his holy place? Only he who has clean hands and a pure heart (Ps 24:3-4). Only God can accomplish this, but He who made us without us will not save us without us. Thus, we must, by His grace, renounce our sin and accept His grace.

3. ACCEPTANCE – The parable ends very simply with this line: If not you can cut it down.

I’ve chosen the word “acceptance” carefully. Judgment is not so much God’s decision as it His acceptance of our decision to bear fruit or to refuse to do so; to accept or refuse His offer of the fruits of faith such as chastity, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, love of the poor, and appreciation of the truth.

On the day of judgment God accepts our final choice. It is not so much the passing of a sentence as it is the final recognition of the absolute choice that we have made. At this point it is no longer possible for us to change; what we are remains forever fixed.

As we get older it is harder and harder to change. We are like concrete that sets over time; like pottery, which begins moist and malleable, but whose shape is fixed when subjected to the fire.

Thus, the Lord teaches us to be serious about sin and about judgment. For now, there is mercy and every grace available to us, but there will come a day when our decision will be accepted and forever fixed.

The Gospel today teaches beautifully of God’s patience but also of our need for mercy. It warns us that the decision we make by the way we live our life will finally be accepted. Yes, there is a day of judgment closing in on each of us.

Pointing out how often we sang “Kumbaya, My Lord” will not suffice.

In today’s second reading, St. Paul warns us against presumption and trying to serve as judge in our own case:

Our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ. Yet God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert. These things happened as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil things, as they did. Do not grumble as some of them did, and suffered death by the destroyer. These things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall (1 Cor 10:1:ff).

For now, there is mercy, but there will come a day of ratification, of judgment; a day when the question will be asked and the final answer supplied, not so much by God as by us.

Your flesh says, “No worries,” but the Lord says, “Repent!”

Here are more of the lyrics from the Johnny Cash song “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”:

You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down

Well, you may throw your rock and hide your hand
and hide your hand
Workin’ in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What’s down in the dark will be brought to the light.

You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down

Go tell that long tongue liar
Go and tell that midnight rider
Tell the rambler, the gambler, the backbiter
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut you down
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut you down
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut you down

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Sooner or Later Judgment Must Come – A Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent

The Cross Is a Fruit-Bearing Tree – A Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent

The Second Sunday of Lent always features the Transfiguration. The first reason for this is that the trek up Mt. Tabor was one of the stops Jesus made with Peter, James, and John on His final journey to Jerusalem. It is commonly held that He did this to prepare His apostles for the difficult days ahead. There’s a line from an old spiritual that says, “Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down, sometimes I’m almost to the ground … but see what the end shall be.” That is what the Lord is doing here: He is showing us what the end shall be. There is a cross to get through, but there is glory on the other side.

There also seems a purpose in placing this account here in that it helps describe the pattern of the Christian life, which is the Paschal mystery. We are always dying and rising with Christ in repeated cycles as we journey to an eternal Easter (cf 2 Cor4:10). This passage shows the pattern of the cross in the climb, the rising, and in the glory of the mountaintop; then it is back down the mountain again only to climb another one (Golgotha) and through it find another glory (Easter Sunday). Yes, this is the pattern of the Christian life: the Paschal mystery. Let’s look a little closer at three aspects of today’s Gospel passage.

The Purpose of Trials Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray.

We often pass over the fact that they had to climb the mountain, no easy task. Anyone who has been to Mt. Tabor knows just what a high mountain it is. The climb to the top is almost 2000 feet and steep as well. It would have taken the better part of a day and probably had its dangers. Looking down from the top is like looking from an airplane window out on the Jezreel Valley (a.k.a. Megiddo or Armageddon).

So, here is a symbol of the cross and of struggle. The climb was up the rough side of the mountain; it was exhausting, difficult, and tested their strength.

I have it on the best of authority that as they climbed they were singing gospel songs like these: “I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain, and I’m doin’ my best to carry on!” and “My soul looks back and wonders how I got over!” and “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder; every round goes higher, higher.”

This climb is like our life. We have often had to climb, to endure, to have our strength tested. Perhaps it was the climb of earning a college degree. Maybe it was the climb of raising children or building a career. What do you have that you really value that did not come at the price of a steep climb, of effort, of struggle?

Most of us know that though the climb is difficult there is glory at the top if we but persevere. Life’s difficulties are often the prelude to success and greater strength.

Though we might wish that life had no struggles, the Lord intends a climb for us, for only the cross leads to true glory. Where would we be without some of the crosses in our life? Let’s ponder some of the purposes of problems in our life.

God uses problems to DIRECT us. Sometimes God must light a fire under you to get you moving. Problems often point us in new directions and motivate us to change. Is God trying to get your attention? Sometimes it takes a painful situation to make us change our ways. Proverbs 20:30 says, Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inner most being. An old gospel song speaks of the need for suffering to keep us focused on God: “Now the way may not be too easy, but you never said it would be. ’Cause when our way gets a little too easy, you know we tend to stray from thee.” It’s sad but true: God sometimes needs to use problems to direct our steps toward Him.

God uses problems to INSPECT us. People are like tea bags: if you want to know what’s inside them, just put ’em in hot water! Has God ever tested your faith with a problem? What do problems reveal about you? Our problems have a way of helping to see what we’re really made of. Through trials, I have discovered many strengths I never knew I had. There is a test in every testimony. Trials have a way of purifying and strengthening our faith as well as inspecting it to see whether it is genuine. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure (1 Peter 1:6).

God uses problems to CORRECT us. Some lessons we seem to learn only through pain and failure. When you were a child your parents told you not to touch the hot stove, but you probably really learned by getting burned. Sometimes we only realize the value of something (e.g., health, a relationship) by losing it. Scripture says, It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees (Psalm 119:71-72), Before I was afflicted, I strayed. But now I keep you word (Psalm 119:67).

God uses problems to PROTECT us. A problem can be a blessing in disguise if it prevents you from being harmed by something more serious. A man was fired for refusing to do something unethical that his boss had asked him to do. His unemployment was a problem for him and his family, but it saved him from being sent to prison a year later when management’s actions were discovered. In Genesis, Joseph says to his brothers, You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives (Genesis 50:20).

God uses problems to PERFECT us. Problems, when responded to correctly, are character-building. God is far more interested in your character than your comfort. Scripture says, We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us they help us learn to be patient. And patience develops strength of character in us and helps us trust God more each time we use it until finally our hope and faith are strong and steady (Romans 5:3), and You are being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it and your faith is far more precious to God than mere gold; so if your faith remains strong after being tried in the fiery trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day of his return (1 Peter 1:7).

So, the climb symbolizes the cross, but after the cross comes the glory.

The Productiveness of TrialsWhile he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he did not know what he was saying. While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”

All the climbing has been worth it. Now comes the fruit of all that hard work! The Lord gives them a glimpse of glory. They get to see the glory that Jesus has always had with the Father. He is dazzlingly bright. A similar vision from the Book of Revelation gives us more detail:

I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned, I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars … His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said, “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades (Rev 1:12-17).

Yes, all the climbing has paid off. Now comes the glory, the life, the reward for endurance and struggle. Are you enjoying any of the fruits of your crosses now? If we have carried our crosses in faith, they have made us stronger and more confident. Some of us have discovered gifts, abilities, and endurance we never knew we had. Our crosses have brought us life!

The other night I went over to the church and played the pipe organ. It was most enjoyable, but it was the fruit of years of hard work.

Not only have my own crosses brought me life, but the crosses of others have done the same for me. I live and work in buildings that others scrimped, saved, labored to be able to erect. I have a faith that martyrs died to hand on to me and that missionaries journeyed long distances to proclaim. See, trials do produce!

St. Paul says that this momentary affliction is producing for us a weight of glory beyond all compare (2 Cor 4:14). In Romans he says, For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom 8:18).

An old gospel song says, “By and by, when the morning comes, and all the saints of God are gathered home, we’ll tell the story of how we’ve overcome. And we’ll understand it better, by and by.”

So, the glory comes after the climb. This is the life that comes from the cross. This is the Paschal mystery: Always carrying about in ourselves the dying of Christ so also that the life of Christ may be manifest in us (2 Cor 4:10).

The Pattern of TrialsAfter the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. They fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen.

Notice that although Peter wants to stay, Jesus makes it clear that they must go down the mountain and then walk a very dark valley to another hill: Golgotha. For now, the pattern must repeat. The cross has led to glory, but more crosses are needed before final glory. An old spiritual says, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder … every round goes higher, higher, soldiers of the cross!”

Yes, this is our life: Always carrying about in ourselves the dying of Christ so also that the life of Christ may be manifest in us (2 Cor 4:10).

There are difficult days ahead for Jesus and the apostles, but the crosses lead to a final and lasting glory. This is our life, too: the Paschal mystery, the pattern and rhythm of our life.

Here is a rendition of the song “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” The lyrics say that “every round goes higher, higher.” One can picture a spiral staircase as each round is pitched higher and higher musically. This is the pattern of our life: we die with Christ so as to live with Him, and each time we come back around to the cross or glory, we are one round higher and one level closer to final glory.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Cross Is a Fruit-Bearing Tree — A Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent

The Gospel Train Reaches Temptation Station – Stay on Board, Children! A Homily for the First Sunday of Lent

There’s an old gospel song tradition that speaks of the Christian life as a ride on the “gospel train.” The gospel train is not always an easy ride with perfect scenery, but you’ve gotta get your ticket and stay on board.

Mysteriously, the train sometimes passes through difficult terrain, but just stay on board! On His way to glory, Jesus faced trials, hatred, and even temptation (yet without sinning).

Today the gospel train pulls into “Temptation Station” and we are asked to consider some of life’s temptations. The three temptations faced by Jesus are surely on wide display in our own times. What are these temptations and how do we resist them?

In this desert scene, the Lord Jesus faces down three fundamental areas of temptation, all of which have one thing in common: they seek to substitute a couch for the cross.

In a way, the devil has one argument: “Why the cross?” His question is a rhetorical one. He wants you to blame God for the cross, and in your anger, to reject Him as some sort of despot.

Well, pay attention, Church! The cross comes from the fact that you and I, ratifying Adam and Eve’s choice, have rejected the tree of life in favor of the tree that brought death. We, along with the devil, may wish to wince at the cross and scornfully blame God for it, but in the end the cross was our choice.

If you think that you have never chosen the tree of death and that God is “unfair,” then prove to me that you have never sinned. Only if you can do that will I accept that you have never chosen the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil over the Tree of Life and that you deserve something better than the cross. Only then will I accept that you have never insisted on “knowing” evil as well as good.

If you can’t, then you’ve made the same self-destructive, absurd choice that the rest of us have. It is not God that is cruel but we who are wicked and are to blame for the presence of the cross. The cross comes not from God but from us. We ought to stop blaming God for evil, suffering, and the cross, and instead look in the mirror. The glory of this gospel is that the Lord Jesus came into this twisted world of our making and endured its full absurdity for our sake. If there is evil in this world, it is our choice, not God’s.

Have we finished blaming God? Are we ready to focus on our own issues? If so then let’s look at some areas of temptation that the devil can exploit because we indulge them. Let’s also see the answer that the Lord Jesus has for these temptations; for He, though tempted, never yielded.

Pleasures and Passions – The devil encourages Jesus to turn stones into bread. After such a long fast, the thought of bread is surely a strong temptation. In effect, the devil tells Jesus to “scratch where it itches,” to indulge His desire, to give in to what His body craves.

We, too, have many desires and are told by the devil in many ways to “scratch where it itches.” Perhaps no generation before has faced such strong temptation. We live in a consumer culture that is highly skilled at eliciting and then satisfying our every desire. All day long, we are bombarded with advertisements that arouse desire and then advise us that we simply must fulfill those desires. If something is out of stock or unavailable in exactly the way we want at the instant we want it, we are indignant. Why should I have to wait? Why can’t I have it in that color? The advertiser’s basic message is that you can have it all. This is a lie, of course, but it is told so frequently that we feel entitled to just about everything.

Some of our biggest cultural problems are ones stemming from overindulgence. We are a culture that struggles with obesity, addiction, sexual misconduct, and greed. We experience overstimulation that robs us of a reasonable attention span; boredom is a significant issue for many who are too used to the frantic pace of video games and action movies. We have done well in turning stones into bread.

Jesus rebukes the devil, saying, Man does not live on bread alone. In other words, there are things that are just more important than bread and circuses, than creature comforts and indulgence. Elsewhere Jesus says, A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions (Lk 12:15). I have written further on this in another post: The Most Important Things in Life Aren’t Things.

Popularity and Power – Taking Jesus up a high mountain, the devil shows Him all the nations and people of the earth and promises them to Him if Jesus will but bow down and worship him. This is a temptation to both power and popularity; the devil promises Jesus not only sovereignty but glory.

Because most of us are not likely to become sovereigns and because temptation is only strong in those matters that seem remotely possible for us, I will focus instead on popularity—something we deal with regularly in this life. One of the deeper wounds in our soul is the extreme need that most of us have to be liked, to be popular, to be respected, and to fit in. We dread being laughed at, scorned, or ridiculed. We cannot stand the thought of feeling minimized in any way.

For many people the desire for popularity is so strong that they’ll do almost anything to attain it. It usually starts in youth, when peer pressure “causes” young people to do many foolish things. They may join gangs, get tattoos, pierce their bodies, and/or wear outlandish clothes. Many a young lady, desperate to have a boyfriend (and thus feel loved and/or impress her friends), will sleep with boys or do other inappropriate things in order to gain that “love.” As we get older, we might be tempted to bear false witness, to make “compromises” to advance our career, to lie to impress others, to spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t really need, and/or to try to impress people whom we don’t even like. Likewise, we may be tempted to be silent when we should speak out for what is right.

All of this is a way of bowing before the devil, because it demonstrates that we are willing to sin in order to fit in, to advance, or to be popular. Jesus says, You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.

The real solution to this terrible temptation of popularity is to fear the Lord. When we fear God, we need fear no one else. If I can kneel before God I can stand before any man. If God is the only one we need to please, then we don’t have to expend effort trying to please anyone else. I have written more on this matter elsewhere: What Does It Mean to Fear the Lord?.

Presumption and Pride – Finally (for now) the devil encourages Jesus to test God’s love for Him by casting Himself off the highest wall of the Temple Mount. Does not Scripture say that God will rescue Him? The devil quotes Psalm 91: With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone. In our time the sin of presumption is epidemic.

Many people think that they can go one behaving sinfully, recklessly, and wantonly and that they will never face punishment. “God is love,” they boldly say. “He would never send people to Hell or punish them!” In saying this, they reject literally thousands of verses of Scripture that say otherwise; they have refashioned God and worship a man-made idol. “God doesn’t care whether I go to Church,” they claim. “He doesn’t mind if I live with my girlfriend.” The list of things God “doesn’t mind” continues to grow.

The attitude seems to be that no matter what I do, God will save me. It is presumptuous to speak or think like this. Hell and punishment are surely difficult teachings to fully comprehend and to reconcile with God’s patience and mercy, but He teaches of them and therefore we need to stop pretending He doesn’t.

I have written elsewhere on the topic of Hell and why it makes sense in the context of a God who loves and respects us: Hell Has to Be.

A mitigated form of presumption is procrastination, wherein we constantly put our return to the Lord out of our mind. About this tendency it is said,

There were three demons summoned by Satan as to their plan to entrap as many human beings as possible. The first demon announced that he would tell them there is no God. But Satan wasn’t too impressed. “You’ll get a few, but not many and even those atheists are mostly lying and know deep down inside that someone greater than they made them and all things.” The second demon said he would tell them there is no devil. But Satan said, “That won’t work, most of them have already met me and know my power.” Finally, the third demon said, “I will not tell them there is no God or no devil, I will simply tell them there is no hurry!” And Satan smiled an ugly grin and said, “You’re the man!”

Jesus rebukes the devil by quoting Deuteronomy: You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test. We ought to be very careful about presumption, for it is widespread today.

This does not mean that we have to retreat into fear and scrupulosity. God loves us and is rich in mercy, but we cannot willfully go on calling “no big deal” what He calls sin. We should be sober about sin and call on the Lord’s mercy rather than doubting that we that really need it or just presuming that He doesn’t mind.

The train is leaving the station soon. I hope that we’ve all benefited from this brief stop and have stored up provisions for the journey ahead: insight, resolve, appreciation, understanding, determination, and hope.

The journey ahead is scenic but difficult and temptation is a reality, but as an old gospel song says, “The gospel train’s comin’, I hear it just at hand. I hear the car wheel rumblin’ and rollin’ thro’ the land. Get on board little children, get on board. There’s room for many more!”

Never heard the song? Here’s a rendition of it:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Gospel Train Reaches Temptation Station – Stay on Board, Children!

Bite Your Tongue! A Homily for the 8th Sunday of the Year

The first reading this Sunday reminds us that our speech discloses our character:

When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do one’s faults when one speaks. The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had; so too does one’s speech disclose the bent of one’s mind.

Praise no one before he speaks,
for it is then that people are tested
(Sirach 27:4-7).

What we say reveals a great deal about us—more than we imagine. Speech is among our greatest gifts, yet self-mastery in speech is among the rarest. Some of the most common sins we commit are related to speech: gossip, idle chatter, lies, exaggeration, harsh attack, and uncharitable remarks. With our tongue we can spew hatred, incite fear, spread misinformation, tempt, discourage, promote error, and ruin reputations. With a gift capable of bringing such good, we can surely cause great harm!

The Letter of James says this:

We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what he says is perfect, able to keep his whole body in check. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, and thus we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.

Consider how a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be (Jam 3:2-10).

Although one may conquer any sin by God’s grace, those associated with speech are among the hardest to overcome. Sometimes it seems as if our speech is being controlled by a separate, baser part of our brain. We can be halfway through saying something before realizing how foolish and sinful we are being. Scripture speaks artistically of the sinful tongue.

Here are some common sins of the tongue:

The Lying Tongue – speaking falsehoods with the intention of misleading others.

  • The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy (Prov 12:22).
  • A false witness will not go unpunished, and one who utters lies will not escape (Prov 19:5).
  • Not every story should you believe (Sir 19:14).

The Backbiting Tongue – talking about others behind their backs, injuring their reputations through detraction.

  • A man’s tongue can be his downfall. Be not called a detractor; use not your tongue for calumny (Sir 5:13-16).
  • Never repeat gossip, and you will not be reviled. … Let anything you hear die within you … (Sir 19:5).

The Indiscreet Tongue – spreading confidential, unnecessary, or hurtful information about others.

  • He that goes about as a tale-bearer reveals secrets, therefore keep no company with such a one (Prov 20:19).
  • A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much (Prov 20:19).
  • He who repeats an evil report has no sense. Never repeat gossip… Let anything you hear die within you; be assured it will not make you burst. But when a fool hears something, he is in labor, like a woman giving birth to a child … (Sir 19:5, 14).
  • Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people (Lev 19:16).

The Flattering Tongue – exaggerating the good qualities of others in order to ingratiate ourselves to them.

  • May the Lord silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue (Ps 12:4).
  • Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses (Prov 27:6).

The Proud Tongue – speaking boastfully or in an overly certain way.

There is a saying that a proud tongue comes with two closed ears. Those of proud tongue are not easily corrected and do not qualify or distinguish their remarks as they should.

  • May the Lord silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue, Those who say, “By our tongues we will prevail; when our lips speak, who can lord it over us?” (Ps 12:4-5)
  • An evil man is trapped by his rebellious speech, but a righteous man escapes from trouble (Prov 12:13).
  • The prudent man does not make a show of his knowledge, but fools broadcast their foolishness (Prov 12:23).

The Overused Tongue – saying too much, which usually ushers in sin by its excess.

  • A fool’s voice [comes] along with a multitude of words (Ecc 5:2).
  • When words are many, sin is inevitable, but he who restrains his lips is wise (Prov 10:19).

The Rash Tongue – speaking before one should, often without having all the information.

  • Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter anything before God (Ecc 5:1).
  • Be swift to hear, but slow to answer. If you have the knowledge, answer your neighbor; if not, put your hand over your mouth (Sir 5:13).
  • Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue (Prov 17:28).

The Quarrelsome Tongue – speaking in an overly opinionated way, attacking others personally, and/or provoking unnecessary division.

  • Fools’ words get them into constant quarrels; they are asking for a beating (Prov 18:6).
  • A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions (Prov 18:2).
  • Drive out the mocker, and out goes strife; quarrels and insults are ended (Prov 22:10).

The Cursing Tongue – wishing harm upon others, often that they be damned.

  • He loved to pronounce a curse—may it come back on him. He found no pleasure in blessing—may it be far from him (Ps 109:17).
  • Whoever curses his father or mother, his lamp will be extinguished in deepest darkness (Prov 20:20).

The Piercing Tongue – speaking unnecessarily harshly or severely.

  • The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil (Prov 15:28).
  • Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing (Prov 12:18).
  • Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity (1 Tim 5:1-2).

The Silent Tongue – failing to speak up when we ought to warn people of sin, call them to the Kingdom, and announce the truth of Jesus Christ.

In our age, the triumph of evil and poor behavior has been facilitated by our silence. As prophets, we are called to speak God’s Word.

  • Proclaim the message; persist in it in season and out of season; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching (2 Tim 4:2).
  • Israel’s watchmen are blind; they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark (Is 56:10).

Yes, our speech is riddled with what it should not have and lacking in what it should. How wretched is our condition! Well, James did say, Anyone who is never at fault in what he says is perfect. Indeed, if anyone masters his tongue, he is a spiritual superman!

Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips (Ps 141:3).

Yes, help me, Lord. Keep your arm around my shoulder and your hand over my mouth! Put your Word in my heart so that when I do speak, it’s really you speaking.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Bite Your Tongue! A Homily for the 8th Sunday of the Year

Be Different, Be a Christian – A Homily for the 7th Sunday of the Year

Are you a Christian? Before you answer, consider these other questions: Do you love your enemy? Do you do good to them who hate you? The honest answers to these questions are at the very heart of Christianity and represent what distinguishes a Christian from others. Let’s follow Jesus’ teachings in several stages. In so doing, we can learn our truest identity and how He seeks to transform us.

The ATTITUDE of a Christian

Jesus said to his disciples, “To you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic. Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

In effect, Jesus is telling us to put an end to the cycle of injustice and violence, by His grace. The Christian is to stand in the gap and say, “It ends with me.” This is Jesus’ game plan, his battle strategy. Defeat Satan’s cycle and thwart his plan to get two birds with one stone. Satan’s usual tactic is to inspire hatred or vengeance in someone, who then attacks us; in response, we lash back and become just like our enemy. In this way, Satan has captured two disciples for the price of one. The Lord tells us not to fall for that. We are to kill our enemies with kindness, get them with goodness, and lure them with love.

Note, then, four attitudes that the Lord distinguishes:

Merciful Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. We ought to remember how merciful God has been to us. Even when we mistreated Him and were His enemies through sin, God show[ed] his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). Allow God to make you aware of His abundant mercy so that you are deeply grateful and thus equipped to love your enemy and mercifully withhold your wrath and vengeance toward him.

Meek To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic. Meekness is the virtue that governs anger. It is the proper middle ground between too much anger and not enough. Even when anger is an appropriate response, meekness moderates it, steering it away from destructive ends to helpful ones. It takes a strong person to control his anger, to refrain from retaliating or seeking revenge. Through meekness, we can also direct our anger toward the proper target: Satan. Use the energy of anger to defeat Satan’s plan!

Magnanimous Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back. We are too easily angered when people seek our time, talent, or treasure; this anger can give way to wrath. Those who are magnanimous are open to being asked, at peace with saying no when necessary, and generous in sharing their gifts. Christians graced by Christ are less apt to say, “This is mine; leave me alone” and more likely to realize that God has been good to them. This joy in what God has given them disposes them to generosity with others. Joy is like an energy that fuels magnanimity.

Meet Do to others as you would have them do to you. An old meaning of “meet” is suitable, proper, fitting, correct, or just. Christians are aware that if we want the world to be more just, it has to begin with us. We understand that we are going to need the help of others in countless ways and therefore treat others as we hoped to be treated. We sow justice, mercy, and patience in order to reap them in others.

The ALTITUDE of a Christian

For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners and get back the same amount. But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Christians are supposed to stand out. By God’s grace, we are to rise above mere human norms. Note what Jesus expects of us:

We are to Excel – In effect, Jesus asks us these questions: How are you excelling? What makes you different from a virtuous atheist or pagan? What credit is it to you if you only do what they do? What makes you different from a sinner? The mark of a Christian is

  • that we love our enemies,
  • that we do good to them who do ill to us,
  • that we lend even when we expect to get nothing back, and
  • that we stop the cycle of injustice and violence.

We are to Exemplify – The text goes on to say, and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Mat 5:44-45). Thus, we are to exemplify, to show forth who God is. We are to demonstrate that we are true children of the Father by doing what He does.

The ASSETS of a Christian

Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give, and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.

Jesus teaches that, by His grace, we should do the following to store up treasures in Heaven:

Forego CondemnationJesus says, Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Condemning means quickly and routinely seeking the worst of punishments for others. There are no second chances, no tempering of punishment or consideration of the context or background of people’s struggles; “Hang ’em high” is the cry of condemnation. Punishment is meant to be remedial. There are times when the strictest of punishments must be meted out, but typically only after lesser measures have been unsuccessful. However, correcting an erring brother is a spiritual work of mercy.

  • My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins (James 5:19-20).
  • Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom (Col 3:16).
  • Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in fact rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him (Lev 19:17).
  • Brethren, if someone is detected in sin, you who live by the Spirit should gently set him right, each of you trying to avoid falling into temptation himself (Gal 5:25).

Nevertheless, be careful. The Lord says, The measure that you measure to others will be measured back to you (Mat 7:2). James also warns, Merciless is the judgment on the one who has shown no mercy (James 2:13). Thus, among our assets in Heaven will be mercy stored up for us at our judgment if we show mercy to others.

Forgive Transgressions – Jesus says, Forgive and you will be forgiven. If we do this, there is the promise of forgiveness being shown to us at our judgment. For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Mat 6:13-15).

Freely Give – Jesus says, Give, and gifts will be given to you. Paradoxically, one of the ways we keep something in the Kingdom of God is by giving it away. When we give it away, we thereby store it up in Heaven.

  • I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much (Luke 16:9).
  • Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. … As it is written, “He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” 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. You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God (2 Cor 9:6-11).
  • Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt 19:21).
  • Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matt 6:19).

Fully Receive a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you. Here, then, is the promise of our assets if we become, by God’s grace, true Christians. In effect, your yardstick will become a boomerang. Let it come back to bless you. If you have been merciful you will find mercy. If you have forgiven you will find forgiveness. If you have given it shall be returned to you many times over. These are the assets of the Christian. Invest wisely!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Be Different, Be a Christian