Finding Forgiveness Through the Magnificence of Mercy – A Homily for the 24th Sunday of the Year

The Gospel this Sunday draws us into a remarkably sensitive area of the faith, that of forgiving others who may have harmed us. There are many who been authentically hurt and others who fear that in offering forgiveness they will become vulnerable to further harm. Forgiveness is something we experience as a very personal call; in some cases, it may be the most challenging thing we are ever asked to do.

I have titled this Homily carefully; if we read the parable closely we will come to understand that mercy and forgiveness are not something we do out of our own flesh. Rather, they are capacities we must find within ourselves. As the remarkable reality of God’s incredible mercy for us dawns upon us, our hearts are moved. Suddenly we don’t hate anyone and forgiveness flows from our broken, humbled hearts. This is a gift that the Lord offers us.

Let’s look at this Gospel in four movements.

I.  THE PRESENTATION OF THE PROBLEM – The text says, Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”

Peter’s question seems to presuppose that there needs to be a limit to forgiveness, that it is unrealistic to expect human beings to forgive without limit. Many would likely agree with Peter and might not even propose to be as generous as forgiving seven times. Jesus answers by speaking in a Jewish way, telling Peter that we cannot set limits on mercy or forgiveness, but must forgive without limit.

This of course raises many questions. Some people like to use extreme examples to illustrate that they think such a principle absurd or impractical: Do you mean to say that a wife should welcome back her physically abusive husband as long as he says he’s sorry? Should a business welcome back an embezzler and put him in charge of the cash register as long as he says he’s sorry? Should I let my alcoholic uncle stay with us and disturb my children as long as he says he’s sorry and swears he won’t do it again?

On some level these questions imply that forgiveness is to be fully equated with pretending that something never happened, or that it obligates me to maintain an unchanged relationship and let “bygones be bygones.” We are not always able to live in peace and have relaxed boundaries with people who have shown themselves to be untrustworthy in a consistent or fundamental way. Forgiveness does not obligate us to put ourselves or others at unreasonable risk or to set the sinner up for another fall.

But even though we may have to erect necessary and proper boundaries with those who have sinned against us, we are still summoned to forgive them. What does forgiveness mean in situations like this?

In effect, forgiveness is letting go of the need to change the past. Forgiving does not necessarily mean simply returning to the status quo ante, but it does mean letting go of resentments, bitterness, hatefulness, desires for revenge, and the need to lash out at someone for what he did or did not do. Forgiving means setting down ball and chain of hatred and anger we so often carry about. It means learning to love those who have harmed us and understanding the struggles that may have contributed to their harmful behavior. Forgiving can even mean being happy for the health and welfare of those who have hurt us and praying for their continued well being. Ultimately, forgiveness is freeing; a crushing weight is removed when we receive this gift from God.

How are we to receive this gift? The Lord gives an important insight for us to grasp in the verses ahead.

II.  THE POVERTY THAT IS PROFOUND – The text says, That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’

The Lord’s parable begins by describing a man who owes a huge amount. The Greek text says he owed ten thousand talents (μυρίων ταλάντων). Scripture scholars love to debate exactly how much this would be in modern currency, but for our purposes, it is a Jewish way of saying that this fellow owes a great deal of money and it’s going to take more than working a little overtime or taking on a part-time job. This is a debt that is completely beyond his ability to pay. The situation is hopeless; the man is so profoundly poor that he is completely incapable of ever making a dent in what he owes.

This man is each one of us; this is our state before God. We have a debt of sin so high and so heavy that we can never hope to be rid of it on our own. I don’t care how many spiritual pushups we do, how many novenas, chaplets, and rosaries we say, how often we go to Mass, how many pilgrimages we undertake, or how much we give to the poor. We can’t even make a noticeable dent what we owe.

People like to make light of sin today, saying such inane things as, “I’m basically a good person” or “At least I’m not as bad as that prostitute over there.” So you’ve got $500 in your pocket and she’s only got $50. Big deal; the debt owed is three trillion dollars. None of us can even come close to paying it off. Without Christ paying the difference, we’re finished; off to jail; off to Hell. We have all committed the infinite offense of saying no to a God who is infinitely holy. You and I just don’t have the resources to turn back the debt.

You may think I’m belaboring the point, but we really have to get this through our thick skulls. We are in real trouble without Christ. The more we can grasp our profound poverty and understand that without Jesus Hell is our destination, the more we can appreciate the gift of what He has done for us. Let this sink in: We are in big trouble; our situation is grave. An old song says, “In times like these, you need a savior.”

III.  THE PITY THAT IS PERSONAL – The text says, Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.

Look at that! Don’t miss this! The whole debt is paid. Complete and dramatic mercy! Notice how personal the mercy is. The text uses intensifiers: the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. This man is you. God has done this for you—you.

If we miss this point, nothing else makes sense. We have got to let it get through to us what God has done for us. If we do, it will equip us to show mercy.

One day it will finally dawn on us that the Son of God died for us. When it does, our stone hearts will break and love will pour in. With broken, humbled hearts, we will find it hard to hate anyone. In our gratitude we will gladly forgive those who have hurt us, even those who still hate us. With the new heart that the Lord can give us, we will forgive gladly, joyfully, and consistently out of gratitude and humility.

But we have to understand this. We have to know our poverty and recognize our inability to save ourselves. Then we have to know and experience that Jesus paid it all, that He saved us wholly and freely. If this will break through for us, we will forgive and love others.

If we do not understand this and we refuse to let the Holy Spirit to minister this gift to us, some pretty awful things will happen.

IV.  THE PITILESSNESS THAT IS PERILOUS – The text then relates a tragic story: When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized one of his fellow servants and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.

Apparently this wicked servant never got in touch with his true poverty and refused to experience the gift that he himself had received. As a result, his heart remained unbroken; it remained hard; it was stone. Having experienced no mercy (though mercy had been extended to him) he was willfully ill-equipped to show mercy to others. Callously unaware of the unbelievable gift he had been given, he remained unchanged. In so doing and being, he was unfit for the Kingdom of God, which can only be entered by gladly receiving mercy.

Yet many Christians are like this. They go through their life unaware and unappreciative of either their need for mercy or even the fact that incredible mercy has been extended to them. Unaware, they are ungrateful. Ungrateful, their hearts are unbroken; no light or love has been able to enter. Hurt by others they respond by hurting back, holding grudges, or growing arrogant and unkind. They lack compassion for or understanding of others and consider themselves superior to those whom they view as worse sinners than they are. They think that forgiveness is either a sign of weakness or something that only foolish people offer. They don’t get angry; they get even.

It all begins with a person who doesn’t understand the gravity of his condition or the depth of his poverty. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked (Rev 3:17). Refusing to see their poverty they do not appreciate their gift; so the terrible cycle ensues.

Scripture warns in many places of our need to experience and show mercy:

  1. 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 (Matt 6:14).
  2. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy (Matt 5:7).
  3. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you (Matt 7:2).
  4. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Luke 6:37).
  5. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart (Matt 18:35).
  6. For judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. But mercy triumphs over judgment! (James 2:13)
  7. The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance, for He remembers their sin in detail. Forgive your neighbor’s injustice, then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Can anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord? Can anyone refuse mercy to another like himself and then seek pardon for his own sins? Remember your last days, set enmity aside. Remember death and cease from sin. Think of the Commandments, hate not your neighbor, remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults (Sirach 27:30).

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to need a lot of mercy on the day of judgement. In texts like these, he Lord teaches that we can have an influence on the standard of judgment He will use. Do you want to find mercy? Then receive it now from Him and show it to others. Otherwise you will be judged with strict justice. I promise you; you don’t want that! If strict justice is the measure, we will surely go to Hell. We just owe too much to think we can make it without mercy.

This is a tough Gospel, but a freeing one. Certainly some of us find it hard to forgive. Some have been deeply hurt. In the end, forgiveness is a gift that we must receive from God. It is a work of God in us. We should, we must ask for it. Even if we feel hurt, we must seek the gift; it will bless us and prepare us to receive more mercy. Listen carefully to the warnings. If we cling to our anger and refuse the freeing gift of forgiveness, we become unfit for the kingdom of Heaven. No matter how deep our hurts we cannot justify our anger and refusal to forgive. God has just been too good to us. If that will dawn on us, our hearts will break with joy and be filled with love; and forgiveness will surely come with a new heart.

This song says, “Your grace and mercy brought me through, I’m living this moment because of you. I want to thank you, and praise you too, your grace and mercy brought me through.”

The Obligation of Clear, Compassionate Correction of the Sinner – A Homily for the 23rd Sunday of the Year


We live in times in which there is a widespread notion that to correct sinners is to “judge” them. Never mind that it is sin that we judge, not the sinner. Never mind that in accusing us of judging, the worldly-minded are themselves doing the very judging they condemn. Never mind any of that; the point of the charge is to try to shame us into silence. Despite the fact that Scripture consistently directs us to correct the sinner, many Catholics have bought into the notion that correcting the sinner is “judging” him. In this, the devil, who orchestrates the “correcting is judging” campaign, rejoices; for if he can keep us from correcting one another, sin can and does flourish.

Today’s Gospel is an important reminder and explanation of our obligation, as well instruction on how we should correct the sinner and be open to correction ourselves. Let’s look at it in four steps.

I. PRESCRIPTIONJesus said to his disciples: “If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him.” I placed “against you” in parentheses because although some ancient manuscripts contain this phrase, many do not. While some interpret this Gospel to command correction only when someone sins “against you,” none of the other texts we will review today contain this restriction. For the purpose of this reflection, I will favor those manuscripts that do not include the phrase “against you.”

Notice the brief but clear advice that when we see someone in sin, we ought to talk with him or her about it. Many, probably due to sloth, prefer to say that it’s none of their business what others do. Jesus clearly teaches otherwise.

In this teaching, Jesus is obviously speaking to the general situation; some distinctions are helpful and admissible in specific instances. For example, one generally has a greater obligation to correct people in grave matters than in less serious ones. One is more compelled to correct those who are younger than those who are older. One is more obligated to correct subordinates, less so, superiors. Parents are strongly duty-bound to correct their children, but children are seldom obligated to correct their parents. The general rule, however, remains: all other things being equal, there is an obligation to engage in Christian correction. Jesus says, “If your brother sins, go and tell him.”

There are many other Scriptures that also advise and even obligate us to correct the sinner. Some of the texts also speak to the way in which we should correct.

  • 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).
  • Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any sin, you who are spiritual should recall him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:1).
  • Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom. (Col 3:16)
  • And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thess 5:14).
  • Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him (Lev 19:17).
  • Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand (Ez 3:17).

Hence, in charity, we have an obligation to correct someone who has gone over into sin. In correcting we ought to be gentle but clear. Further, we ought to correct with humility and not fall into the temptation of acting as if we are “superior.” Our goal is to limit sin’s effects and to apply necessary medicine to the problem of sin.

We will see more “correction texts” in a moment, but for now, let the first point be repeated: if your brother sins, talk with him about it.

II. PURPOSEIf he listens to you, you have won over your brother. Here, let us just briefly note that the point of this correction is to win a brother or sister back to the Lord; it is not to win an argument or to show superiority. The point is to contend with Satan, by God’s grace, and to win the person, who is in Satan’s grasp, back for God.

III. PROCESS – The Lord next sets forth a process for fraternal correction. It would seem that the process here is generally for more serious matters and that all these steps might not be necessary for lesser ones. For addressing the general situation in which a brother or sister is in a state of serious and unrepentant sin, the following process is set forth:

1.  Go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. This first step is often omitted in our fallen, gossip-prone, human condition. If a person is in sin, too frequently we will talk to everyone except the actual sinner about it. This is usually not helpful and in fact merely compounds the sin: the sinner goes uncorrected and sin multiplies through gossip. Satan gets a high return on his investment, often netting many sinners for the price of one.

Jesus is clear: speak to the sinner himself, first. There may be situations in which we need to seek advice from someone we trust about how best to approach the sinner, and sometimes we may need to check a few facts first, but such lateral discussions ought to be few and only with trusted individuals. The Lord is clear: step one is to go first to the sinner himself.

2.  If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” This sort of option may seem difficult today in our cosmopolitan settings, but such things can occur in the right circumstances. Often these sorts of team efforts are called “interventions” and they are frequently done in the cases of addicts who resist treatment. Sometimes, too, it is used when a certain family member is engaging in hurtful practices such as demonstrating severe anger, refusing to forgive, or causing division within the family. Such interventions are usually conducted by several family members whom the person trusts and they often receive training of some sort before doing so. Depending on the gravity of the matter, these interventions are both necessary and counseled by the Lord as part of a method to end destructive and sinful behaviors.

3.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church. This presupposes that the Church is experienced in a personal way and that the individual is connected to a body of believers who matter to him in some way. The presumption is that these are people he knows (e.g., pastors, parish leaders). This is not always the case in modern parishes, which can be large and impersonal and where many can attend yet stay on the fringes. Rather than simply dismissing this step as unrealistic, we ought to see it as setting forth an ideal of what parishes ought to be.

For those who have some relationship to the Church, this step needs to be considered in cases of grave sin. As a pastor, I have sometimes been asked to speak to someone’s family member who is in serious sin. Presuming other measures have been taken, I often do speak to him or her to warn about such things as fornication, cohabitation, abortion, drug use, anger issues, and disrespect for parents.

To be honest, though, unless the individual has more than a superficial membership in the parish, such talks are of limited effectiveness. Further, the word “Church” here should not be seen merely as meaning clergy. Sometimes there are others in the Church who ought to be engaged, such as leaders of organizations to which the person belongs, older parishioners (to speak to younger ones), and so forth. I have often engaged a team to speak, especially to younger people.

4.  If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Here we come to a matter of some controversy: excommunication. Treating someone as tax collector or Gentile is a Jewish way of saying, “Have nothing more to do with such a one; let him be expelled from the community.”

Some today object to the use of excommunication and often suggest, with some superiority, that “Jesus would never do such a thing.” Yet Jesus Himself is teaching us here to do this very thing. Excommunication is not a punishment to be inflicted upon someone simply to be rid of him or her, but rather as a medicine to bring forth repentance. In addition, excommunication comes only at the end of a long process; it is not something that that Church rushes to do. But it is taught here as well as elsewhere in Scripture. Consider some of the following examples:

  • We instruct you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who walks in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us (2 Thess 3:6).
  • If anyone refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother (2 Thess 3:14).
  • It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor 5:1).
  • Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Come to your right mind, and sin no more. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame (1 Cor 15:33).
  • But rather I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? (1 Cor 5:11)

So there is a fairly strong, clear biblical mandate from both Jesus and St. Paul that excommunication may at times have to be used. It would seem from the texts we have surveyed that the purpose of excommunication is two-fold: to protect the community from the influence of serious sinners and to be a medicine to urge the wayward Christian unto saving repentance.

If any would doubt the seriousness of excommunication or think nothing of the Church’s solemn declaration of it, note that Jesus indicates that He will recognize the Church’s authoritative declaration: Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Thus, let no one make light of the Church’s solemn declaration in such matters.

Today there is increasing demand for bishops to use this measure more often, especially for those who openly support and help fund abortion. It seems clear from the Scriptures we have surveyed that such a measure can, and at times should, be used at the end of a process such as Jesus describes. If one is directly involved in abortion—either by having one, performing one, paying for one directly, or directly assisting a woman to have one—he or she is automatically (self) excommunicated.

What of “Catholic” politicians and jurists who advance the availability of abortion and vote funding for it? Most (but not all) bishops have made a prudential decision not to make use of this measure for “Catholic” politicians who support abortion (or same-sex “marriage,” for that matter). Most of them say that they are concerned that it would be perceived as a political act rather than a moral shepherding of these wayward souls, and because the action would likely be misinterpreted and falsely portrayed by the media, they consider it unwise to excommunicate.

Bare minimum – It is not my role as a priest to critique bishops on whether or not they choose to excommunicate; bishops must make prudential judgments. At a bare minimum, I would hope that every Catholic (politician or not) who even comes close to procuring an abortion or advancing its availability to others has been privately instructed and warned by his pastor (or bishop in the case of prominent individuals) that if he does not change, and dies unrepentant, he will almost certainly go to Hell. Likewise, those of any prominence who help to advance other serious moral evils should be strongly admonished by pastors/bishops to return to the truth.

It is simply too serious a situation to leave a sinner of this magnitude uninstructed, unrebuked, or in any way unclear as to the gravity of the matter. The sinner should be instructed—yes, warned vividly—to repent at once and to refrain from Holy Communion until confession can be celebrated following true repentance.

IV. POWERAgain, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.

The Lord is showing here how our unity will bring strength. How can we have unity in the Church if there isn’t agreement on basic moral principles and behavior? Thus fraternal correction not only helps the sinner, it helps the Church by helping to preserve our unity in the truth of the Gospel. Central to the truth that unites us is the moral law of Christ and His Church. Fraternal correction increases our unity and makes us and our prayer stronger.

Sadly, today it is evident that our unity and the power of our prayer as a Church is greatly diminished by the disunity among us and the way in which many continue for too long without being corrected by the Church. We are not a force for change because we are divided on the very truth that is supposed to unite us. Much of our division is further rooted in our failure to teach with clarity and correct the sinner.

Much work and prayer are necessary today to unlock the power of which the Lord speaks in today’s Gospel.

Trademarks of the True Messiah – A Homily for the 22nd Sunday of the Year

In Sunday’s Gospel the Lord firmly sets before us the need for the cross, not as an end in itself, but as the way to glory. Let’s consider the Gospel in three stages.

I.  The Pattern that is Announced – The text says, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

The Lord announces not only the Cross but also the Resurrection. In effect, He announces the pattern of the Christian life, which we have come to call the “Paschal Mystery.”

The expression “Paschal Mystery” refers to the suffering, death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus as a whole. The word “Paschal” is related to the Hebrew word for Passover, “Pesach.” Just as the shed blood of a lamb saved the people from the angel of death and signaled their deliverance, so does Jesus’ death, his Blood, save us from death and deliver us from slavery to sin.

So He is announcing a pattern: the Cross leads somewhere; it accomplishes something. It is not an end in itself; it has a purpose; it is part of a pattern.

St. Paul articulates the pattern of the Paschal Mystery in this way: We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body (2 Cor 4:10). It is like an upward spiral in which the cross brings blessings we enjoy. We often circle back to the crosses God permits, but then there come even greater blessings and higher capacities. Cross, growth, cross, growth—so the pattern continues until we reach the end, dying with Christ so as to live with Him.

This is the pattern of our life. We are dying to our old self, to this world, to our sins; but rising to new life, rising to the Kingdom of God and becoming victorious over sin. The cross brings life; it is a prelude to growth. We die in order to live more richly. An old spiritual says of this repeated pattern that “every round goes higher, higher.”

Do you see the pattern that Jesus announces? Neither the Lord not the Church announces the cross so as to burden us. No, the cross is part of a pattern that, if accepted with faith, brings blessing, new life, and greater strength.

II.  The Prevention that is Attempted – The text says, Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Notice Peter’s exact wording: “No such thing shall ever happen to you.” We ought to ask, “What such thing?” Peter, in precluding that Jesus suffer and die, also implicitly blocks the rising and glorification of Jesus, for Christ cannot rise unless He dies.

Peter, of course, is not thinking this all the way through—but neither do we when we seek to avoid crosses for ourselves or to hinder others improperly from accepting their crosses. The cross brings glory and growth; we run the risk of depriving ourselves and others of these if we rush to eliminate all the demands and difficulties of life. We may do this through enabling behaviors or perhaps by spoiling our children.

We also hinder our own growth by refusing to accept the crosses of self-discipline, hard work, obedience, suffering, consequences, limits, and resistance of temptation. In rejecting the cross we also reject its fruits.

All of this serves to explain Jesus’ severe reaction to Peter’s words. He even goes so far as to call Peter, “Satan,” for it pertains to Satan to pretend to befriend us in protesting our crosses while really just wanting to thwart our blessings. Peter may not know what he is doing, but Satan does—he seeks to become an obstacle to Jesus’ work.

Jesus’ severe reaction is rooted in protecting our blessings.

III. The Prescription that is Awarding – Jesus goes on to teach further on the wisdom of and the need for the cross. The text says, Then Jesus said to his disciples, “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 will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”

The heart of Jesus’ teaching here is the deep paradox that in order to find our life we must lose it. More specifically, in order to gain Heaven, we must die to this world. That dying is a process more so than just an event at the end of our physical life here. Although we cling to life in this world, it is really not life at all. It is a mere spark compared to the fire of love that God offers; it is a single note compared to the great symphony God directs.

Jesus instructs us to be willing to exchange this tiny, dying life for that which is true life. The Lord says that whatever small blessings come from clinging to this life and this world are really no benefit at all.

Of course what the world’s cheap trinkets offer is immediate gratification and evasion of the cross. We may feel relief for a moment, but our growth is stunted and those cheap little trinkets slip through our fingers. We gain the world (cheap little trinket that it is) but lose our souls. It’s a total loss, or to use a modern expression, it’s a FAIL!

Jesus’ final words, however, remind us that the choice is ours. The day will come when He will respond to our choice. Either we accept true life and win or we choose the passing, dying life of this world and lose.

This song speaks of life as a kind of spiraling climb between cross and glory. As the spiritual says, “Every round goes higher, higher, soldiers of the Cross.”

 

Of Peter and the Papacy – A Homily for the 21st Sunday of the Year

The Gospel today sets forth the biblical basis for the Office of Peter, the Office of the Papacy, for Peter’s successors are the Popes. The word “pope” is simply an English version (via Anglo-Saxon and Germanic tongues) of the word “papa.” The Pope is affectionately called “Papa” in Italian and Spanish as an affectionate indication that he is the father of the family, the Church.

Let’s look at the basic establishment of the Office of Peter in three steps.

I. The Inquiry that Illustrates – The text says, Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

In asking these questions, Jesus is not merely being curious about what people think of Him. He seems, rather, to be using these questions as a vehicle through which to teach the apostles (and us) about how the truth is adequately revealed and guaranteed.

Jesus’ first two questions reveal the inadequacy of two common methods:

1. The Poll – Jesus asks who the crowds say that He is. In modern times, we love to take polls; many put a lot of weight on the results. Many people—Catholics among them—like to point out that x% of Catholics think this or that about certain moral teachings, doctrines, or disciplines. Their position is that if more than 50% of Catholics believe something then it must be true; and therefore the Church should change her teaching.

As today’s Gospel makes clear, taking a poll doesn’t necessarily yield the truth. In fact, in this case all of the assertions of the crowd were wrong. Jesus is not John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets redivivus. So, running the Church by poll-taking does not seem be a model that works.

2. The Panel – Jesus now turns to a panel of experts, a “blue ribbon committee,” if you will. He asks the twelve, “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus is met with silence. Perhaps they were looking around like nervous students in a classroom, not wanting to answer lest they appear foolish. The politics on the panel leads not to truth, but to a kind of self-serving, politically correct silence.

Peter finally speaks up, but as Jesus will point out, he does not do so because he is a member of the panel, but for another reason entirely.

Hence the blue ribbon panel, the committee of experts, is not adequate in setting forth the religious truth of who Jesus is.

Through this line of questioning, Jesus instructs through inquiry. Polls and panels are not adequate in yielding the firm truth as to His identity. All we have are opinions, or politically correct silence. Having set forth this inadequacy, the Gospel now presses forth to describe the plan of God in adequately setting forth the truths of faith.

II. The Individual that is Inspired – The text says, Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”

We are taught here not merely that Peter spoke, but also how he came to know the truth. Jesus is very clear to teach us that Peter spoke rightly not because he was the smartest (he probably wasn’t), or because someone else told him (Jesus is clear that flesh and blood did not reveal this to him), or because he guessed and just happened to get the right answer. Jesus teaches that Peter came to know the truth and speak it because God the Father revealed it to him. God the Father inspired Peter. There is a kind of anointing at work here.

God’s methodology, when it comes to adequately revealing and guaranteeing the truths of the faith, is to anoint Peter.

It is not polls or panels that God uses; it is Peter.

While truths may emerge in the wider Church reflecting what is revealed, it is only Peter and his successors who can definitively set forth views whose truth is adequately guaranteed. Thus, the other apostles are not bypassed by God, but He anoints Peter to unite them and give solemn declaration to what they have seen and heard.

The Catechism says this of Peter and his successors, the popes:

When Christ instituted the Twelve, he constituted [them] in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them …. The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the “rock” of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock. The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of apostles united to its head. This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church’s very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope.

The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.

The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head. As such, this college has supreme and full authority over the universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff. The college of bishops exercises power over the universal Church in a solemn manner in an ecumenical council. But there never is an ecumenical council which is not confirmed or at least recognized as such by Peter’s successor (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 880-884 selected).

All of these truths point back to the moment described in today’s Gospel, when we see how God Himself chooses to operate.

Note, too, the dimension of faith we are called to have. We are to assent to the pope’s teaching and leadership not merely because we think he is smarter, or because he might have the power, riches, or other worldly means to impress us or compel our assent. No, we assent to the pope’s teaching because, by faith, we believe he is inspired by God. It is not flesh and blood in which we put our trust; it is God Himself. We believe that God has acted on our behalf by anointing someone to affirm the truth and adequately guarantee that truth to be revealed by Him.

III. The Installation that is Initiated – The text says, And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Jesus does not merely praise Simon for a moment of charismatic insight. He goes further, declaring that He will build His very Church upon Simon, whom He names Peter (rock). Jesus does not merely mean this is a personal gift or recognition that will die with Peter. In giving him the keys, He is establishing an office. He is not merely giving Peter a personal promotion. This will be God’s way of strengthening and uniting the Church. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus says more of this:

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, all that he might sift you all like wheat, but I have prayed for thee, Peter, that thy faith may not fail; and when thou hast turned again, strengthen thy brethren (Luke 22:31).

This makes clear once again that God’s plan for the Church is to strengthen one man, Peter (and his successors in the future), so that in turn the whole Church may be strengthened and united. Thus the Lord Jesus establishes not only Peter, but also his office. This is God’s vision and plan for His Church.

Many have objected to this teaching. There is no time here to provide a complete response to every objection, but frankly most of them amount to a kind of wishful thinking by those who want this text to mean something other than what it plainly does. Nothing could be clearer than the fact that Jesus is establishing Peter and an office, which will serve as a foundation for the unity and strength of His Church.

It is also true that we are living in times that have tested many Catholics who have traditionally been the biggest supporters of the papacy. For many, our current pope has been a source of controversy rather than unity. And yet the office endures; it remains our duty to pray for and respect him, and to seek to maintain unity. Concerns for some of his statements should be expressed with charity and manifest good will. Although St. Paul saw fit to express his dismay over some of St. Peter’s prudential decisions (see Gal 2:11), we should remember that St. Paul was a bishop and apostle. Thus Catholics who have concerns today would do well to work with bishops to express their concerns, whether their own bishop or one they know they can approach.

Truth be told, “If no one is pope, everyone is pope.” Without a visible head, there is no principle on earth for unity in the Church. The Protestant experiment tried to replace the pope with Scripture, giving it sole authority. Yet Protestants cannot agree on what Scripture says and have no earthly way to resolve their conflicts. While they say that authority resides in Scripture alone, in claiming the anointing of the Holy Spirit and thus the ability to properly interpret Scripture, they really place the locus of authority within themselves, in effect becoming the very pope they denounce.

I have read that some objectors think Catholics arrogant in asserting that we have a pope whom we trust to be anointed by God to teach us without error on faith and morals. But which is more arrogant, to claim that there is a pope or to in fact act like one myself?

In the end, the Protestant experiment is a failed one. Estimates place the number of Protestant denominations as high as 30,000. I think that this figure is exaggerated, but not by much. They all claim the Scriptures as their source of truth but differ on many essential matters: the necessity of baptism, “once saved, always saved,” sexual morality, and authority. When they cannot resolve things they simply subdivide.

Jesus has installed an individual in this role to manifest his office of rock and head: Peter and his successors.

While on Others Thou Art Calling, Do Not Pass Me By – A Homily for the 20th Sunday of the Year

The Gospel this Sunday teaches us to pray always and not to lose heart. It is about being tenacious in prayer, continuing to beseech the Lord even when the results are discouraging. It is also about the Lord’s will to extend the Gospel to all the nations and to make the Church truly catholic.

Let’s look at this Gospel in five stages.

TRAVELS – The text says, At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Jesus goes north of Israel into the territory we know today as Lebanon.

Matthew is not just giving us a quick travelogue here. We are not interested merely in Jesus’ physical location but in what it signifies. Jesus has gone up north to pagan territory. Other things being equal, this is a rather odd destination for a Jewish preacher, but remember that Jesus is preparing the Church for a mission to all the nations. Thus it makes sense that He pushes the boundaries of the Jewish world. Jesus interacted with Gentiles and Samaritans as if to say, “The racism of a Jewish-only world must now end. The Gospel must break the boundaries of nations and races and be truly universal, truly catholic.”

This vision of the Gentiles being drawn to the Lord was actually well attested to in the Old Testament, but just as is the case today, there were some texts that were well known and others that were conveniently “forgotten” or had little effect. Consider these passages that announced the entry of the Gentiles into the Holy People of God:

  1. The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, ministering to him, loving the name of the LORD, and becoming his servants–all who keep the sabbath free from profanation and hold to my covenant, them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples (Is 56:6-9).
  2. I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Is 49:6).
  3. Babylon and Egypt I will count among those who know me, Philistia, Tyre and Ethiopia, these will be her children and Zion shall be called “mother” for all shall be her children (Psalm 87:4-5).
  4. I come to gather nation of every language; they shall come and see my glory. Some of these I will take as priests and Levites says the Lord … All mankind shall come to worship before me says the Lord (Is 66:18; 23).

Hence we can see that the Jewish people’s own Scriptures spoke of a day when Jews and Gentiles together would worship the Lord and be His people.

This introductory note about Jesus’ location is essential to understanding the rest of the Gospel passage. We must grasp Jesus’ will to reach out to the Gentiles. We do this in order to appreciate that some of the harsh tone Jesus exhibits later can likely be understood as a rhetorical means of questioning racial and national divisions rather than affirming them. In effect, He is tweaking His disciples and the Church, giving voice to their fears and hostilities. In so doing, He also calls out the Canaanite woman in order to show forth one who is willing to set aside these racist notions for a greater good.

Let’s watch it unfold.

TORMENT – The text says, And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.”

Canaanites were despised by Jews and Jews were despised by Canaanites. What is it that would make a Canaanite woman reach out to a Jewish Messiah? In a word, desperation. She no longer cares who helps her daughter as long as someone helps her!

She has likely heard of Jesus’ power to save and heal. She looks past her racial hatred and, risking terrible rebuke, calls on Jesus. Her torment enables her to cross boundaries. The only enemy she cares about is the demon afflicting her daughter.

It is sad but true that a common enemy can often unite disparate factions. It should not be necessary, but the Lord will take whatever He can get in order to unite us.

TEST – The text says, But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” … “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

Jesus does a shocking and daring thing here. He takes up the voice of sin, oppression, racism, and nationalism. It is a very strange to hear such a thing from the mouth of the Lord, who has already journeyed among the Samaritans and Gentiles, healing them and often praising their faith (e.g., Lk 8:26; Mt 8:10; Lk 7:9; Matt 8:11 inter al).

The usual explanation is that Jesus is calling out the woman’s faith and through her is summoning His disciples to repentance. The disciples want the Lord to order her away. In effect, He takes up their voices and the voice of all oppression and utters the hateful sayings of the world, even going so far as to liken her to a dog.

Yes, Jesus is testing her, trying to awaken something within her. He is also giving voice to the ugly thoughts of His disciples and likely others, both Gentile and Jew, who were watching with disdain the interaction between a Gentile—a Gentile woman—and a Jew.

There is a saying, “Things do, by opposition grow.” Through this test, Jesus increases the woman’s faith and possibly that of the bystanders. Just as an athlete improves by facing tougher opponents and a musician improves by playing more difficult pieces, so does this woman grow in faith by being tested.

Remember, God tested Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Job, Esther, Susannah, Judith, Gideon, and countless others. The Canaanite woman, too, is being tested. Like those of old, she, too, will grow by the test.

We are tested as well. At times, God seems to be strangely silent; we may feel as if we are no child of God at all. Indeed, we may even conclude that dogs live better than we do.

Will we give way during the test or hold out until our change comes? Will our faith grow or wither? Will our love grow stronger or will it change to resentment?

TENACITY – The text says, But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

Note here that the woman is not put off. Whatever anger, grief, or discouragement she may feel, she perseveres.

She is even bold and creative. In a sense, she will not take no for an answer.

  1. She is like Mother Mary at Cana, who did not pause for a moment when Jesus seemed dubious of her request (Jn 2:5).
  2. She is like the widow who never stopped pestering the judge for a favorable ruling (Lk 18:1-8).
  3. She is like the blind man at the side of the road who kept calling for Jesus despite the rebuke of the crowds (Lk 18:39).
  4. She is like the parents who brought their infants to Jesus for a blessing, who withstood rebuke from the disciples and won through to the blessing (Mk 10:13-16).
  5. She is like Zacchaeus, who overcame his short stature by climbing a tree to see Jesus (Lk 19:1ff).
  6. She is like the widow with the hemorrhage, who, though weak and ritually unclean, pressed through the crowd and grabbed the hem of Jesus’ garments (Mk 5:28).
  7. She is like the lepers, who, though forbidden by law to enter the town, sought the Lord at the Gates and fell down before Him (Luke 17).

Yes, she is tenacious. She will hold out until the change (the healing she desires for her daughter) is accomplished. She will not give up or let go of Jesus no matter how unwilling He seems, no matter how politically incorrect her request appears, no matter how much hostility she encounters from the disciples, the crowds, or even Jesus Himself. She will hold out.

Here is a woman with tenacity! How about you?

TRIUMPH – The text says, Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.

Here is the victory. She has gone from torment to triumph by a tenacious and tested faith. Jesus now takes away the veil of His role and shows His true self—the merciful, wonder-working Messiah and Lord.

Jesus says to her, “Great is your faith.” But how has it become so? In the crucible of testing, that’s how. We may wonder at God’s delays, at His seeming disinterest or even anger, but in the end it is our faith that is most important to Him.

Our faith is more important to God than our finances, our comfort, or our desired cures, for it is by faith that we are saved. We are not saved by our health, by creature comforts, by money, or by good fortune. God is willing to delay. He is willing to test us and try us, if only for the sake of our stronger faith, by which He will save us. God saves us, but He does it through our faith.

Why all this delay? Why the suffering? Why the trials? Stronger faith, that’s why! God may not come when you want Him, but He’s always right on time, for His true goal is not to give us what we want, but rather what we need: stronger faith.

Having done this, the Lord gives her the triumph. We, too, must accept that God’s truest blessing for us is not better health or improved finances; it is stronger faith.

Consider well the lesson of this Gospel. Though God often seems uninterested—even cruel—He is working His purposes out and seeking to increase our faith. Hard, you say? What parent among you has not had to do the same for your child? For children, untested and untried, who get their every wish, who never have to wait, become spoiled, self-centered, and headed for ultimate ruin. God knows exactly what He is doing. Most of us are hard cases and God must often work mightily to get our attention and strengthen our faith. Do not give up on God; He is up to something good, very good.

I have it on the best of authority that as this woman saw Jesus coming up the road she sang this song:

Pass me not O gentle savior
hear my humble cry
while on others thou art calling
do not pass me by

Savior, savior,
hear my humble cry
while on others thou art calling
do not pass me by

Let me at a throne of mercy
find a sweet relief
kneeling there in deep contrition
help my unbelief.

https://youtu.be/vic58HDUeBA

 

Fix Your Focus – A Homily for the 19th Sunday of the Year

Although I am currently resting and offline, I am posting this homily from three years ago with the help of a friend.

The Gospel today is about faith and about focus. It teaches that although storms and struggles inevitably arise, we have a choice as to whether we focus on them or on Jesus. The message is clear: “Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on!”

Let’s look at this Gospel in three stages: Perceived Distance, Produced Distress, and Point of Decision. I have also included a fourth section for more in-depth study: Process of Development.

I. Perceived Distance – The text tells us that Jesus drew back from the disciples and sent them to make the crossing of the lake on their own, intending to rejoin them later. During their crossing they encountered a storm: After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone.

In this brief text we encounter the mystery of God apparently hiding His face. Jesus, in drawing back from His disciples, exhibits the mysterious truth that God sometimes seems to hide His face. Here are a few other references from Scripture:

  • How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Ps 13:1)
  • By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain; then you hid your face, and I was dismayed (Ps 30:7).
  • Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our body cleaves to the ground. Rise up, come to our help! Deliver us for the sake of your steadfast love! (Ps 44:24)
  • My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Ps 22:2)

But does God actually hide His face? To us it seems that He does, but has He actually done so in such a way that He is forgetful of us?

Note that in today’s Gospel Jesus is not away on some sort of vacation. Rather, He is praying. In so doing He is in communion with His Father, but surely also with His disciples. While the storm grows, Jesus makes his way toward them in stages.

At first they cannot see Him, but surely He sees and knows them. Later, even when they do see Him, they do not realize that it is He. They even mistake him for a ghost, for someone or something that means them harm.

So it is with us, too. We often conclude that God has hidden His face from us, that He is not mindful of the troubles we face. He seems distant, perhaps even unconcerned, and surely not visible to us.

But it is not always that God has simply hidden His face from us. It is often that we simply cannot see Him, for any number of reasons: Sometimes it is simply that our minds are weak and easily distracted. Sometimes it is our flesh, which demands to see everything physically, refusing to accept the reality of spiritual seeing. Sometimes it is that we insist on seeing and understanding only in ways that are acceptable and pleasing to us, acting as if God could not possibly speak through our enemy, or through a child, or through a painful circumstance. God is there. He is not likely hiding, but we struggle to see Him for these and other reasons.

So if God is hiding, it is usually in plain sight. In the end, where can we run from God? Where could we possibly go that He is not already there?

  • O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar…. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths of hell, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, and settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you (Ps 139).
  • Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?” declares the LORD. “Do not I fill heaven and earth?” declares the LORD (Jeremiah 23:24).

God permits us to experience His apparent distance; this is clearly attested to in Scripture. This hiddenness is mysterious because although God seems hidden, He is in fact more present to us than we are to our very selves.

What God offers us in this gospel is a faith that grows to understand this and to see God always, a faith that permits us to be in living, conscious contact with God at every moment of our day. This is the normal Christian life that Christ died to give us. If we will be open to receive it, our faith will grow. As our faith grows, so does our ability to experience this presence, beyond what our senses may or may not perceive. Yes, as our faith grows, even in the midst of storms we can know that He is near and draw strength and courage from that.

II. Produced Distress – Added to the disciples’ experience of distance from the Lord is the distress of the storm itself. The text says, Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.

To the degree that we do not see the Lord, we will be anxious about many things. In the perceived absence of God, fears increase and shadows grow longer. In this sense, many of our distresses are produced by our lack of faith and our lack of awareness of God’s abiding presence.

Bishop Fulton Sheen used the image of the red sanctuary lamp near the tabernacle, which signals the presence of the Lord. Near the light, we bask in its glow and enjoy its comforting warmth, but as we walk away from it, the shadows grow longer and the darkness envelops us.

So it is for us who lose a sense of God’s presence or willfully refuse to acknowledge it: the shadows lengthen, the darkness envelops us, and the “storms” become more terrifying.

This is why it is so important for us to accept the “normal Christian life” of being in living, conscious contact with God. Knowing God does not mean that there will be no storms, but it does mean that we can face them with courage and trust.

There is an old saying, “Stop telling God how big your storm is. Tell the storm how big your God is.” This can only come as we grow in faith and in the experience of God’s presence.

An old gospel hymn says,

When the storms of life are raging
Stand by me
When the world is tossing me
Like a ship upon the sea
Thou Who rulest wind and water
Stand by me
In the midst of tribulation
Stand by me
When the hosts of hell assail
And my strength begins to fail
Thou Who never lost a battle
Stand by me

III. Pointe of Decision The text begins with the crucial point of the drama: During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear. At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

The Lord presents them with a choice: Either focus on the storm or focus on Him. He is not just telling them not to be afraid; He is saying, It is I, be not afraid. If they will focus on Him they will not be afraid; if they will come to experience His abiding presence, their fears will dissipate.

It is the same for us. If we will accept the normal Christian life and come to more deeply and constantly experience the Lord’s presence, our fear will dissipate. It is not that there will be no storms. Rather, it is that those storms will not overwhelm us with fear.

So we also have this choice to make: Focus on the storms or focus on the Lord. The result will be that we will either live in increasing fear or we will grow in confidence and trust.

There is an old saying, “What you feed, grows.” If we feed our fears and negativity, they will grow. If we feed our faith and trust, they will grow.

So, what’s it going to be? What will we focus on? What will we feed?

Pray for the gift to focus increasingly on the Lord. Pray for the gift to feed your faith, starving your negativity and storm-focused fears.

For Further Study:

IV. Process of Development – The decision before the disciples is now clear. One of them, Peter, accepts the Lord’s offer to focus on Him and not the storm. As we see in the text, though, Peter’s decision to do this comes about gradually, as do most major decisions in life. We must grow into them by making many small decisions and proceed through a process of growth in the grace that the Lord offers. Let’s look at Peter’s process:

AcceptancePeter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” Things begin with Peter accepting the Lord’s call to shift his focus, thereby accepting courage and as a result seeing his fears diminish.

ActionPeter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. It is a truly remarkable courage that Peter receives by shifting His focus to the Lord. He walks on the water and almost heedless of the storm or the seeming impossibility of what he is doing. That he is walking “toward Jesus” is an indication that his focus is correct.

AnxietyBut when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink. Here is where Peter gets in trouble: he shifts his focus back to the storm. When he does so, his fear returns and he begins to sink. This is representative of the human condition. We seldom go from 0 to 100 all at once. Rather, we undertake a process of growth. Peter had done what was right. He had turned his focus to the Lord and his fear dissipated. But, as is often the case with the inexperienced, Peter faltered in his execution of the plan. It is similar to a young boy riding a bike for the first time: He rides twenty yards, thrilling in his newfound ability. Soon, though, his thoughts turn back to the danger and he wobbles and falls. He will be all right if he gets back up and tries again and again. Although he has failed for the moment, something in him has changed. Having felt his potential to ride, he will build on this. Gradually, riding will become second nature. So it is for Peter and for all of us. At first, faith and trust are hard. We step out in trepidation, but only for a moment; and then we fall. But something in us has changed. That change will grow in us if we get back up again, if we engage in the process.

Acclamationhe cried out, “Lord, save me!” Even in his fall, Peter still does the right thing: he calls on the Lord. Thus, his failure is not total. His faith is weak, but his instincts are right; he fell on Jesus. If you’re going to fall, fall on Jesus!

AssistanceImmediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter. If we take one step, God takes two. Jesus says, No one who calls on me will I ever reject (Jn 6:37). Peter may have fallen short of the goal, but he has made progress. Later in his life, this moment of rescue will be an important ingredient in his bold faith. But more growth and the Holy Spirit will be needed to quicken his faith. It will happen, though; Peter will grow and the process of his development in faith will continue by God’s guiding hand.

Admonitionand [Jesus] said to him, “O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?” Notice that the Lord does not say Peter has no faith, but that he has “little’ faith. Peter has stepped out in faith, but he must continue to grow. His doubts must diminish. He must come to stronger faith. As God said through Isaiah, If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all (Is 7:9). Peter’s task is clear: he must continue to grow in his faith, as must we. If we do, we will see our fears dissipate and our courage grow strong. Peter has “little” faith; that is true for most of us, too. But at least he has some faith; and so do we. So our cry is that of the Apostles: Increase our faith! (Lk 17:5)

AmazementAfter they got into the boat, the wind died down. Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” Difficult though this trial has been, it has increased their faith. They still have a long way to go, but they’re on the way.

Yes, we have a decision to make: Will we focus on the storm or on Jesus? We have to keep our eyes on the prize. The Book of Hebrews says, Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb 12:2).

That’s right, keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on!

It is Easier to Wear Slippers than to Carpet the Whole of the Earth. A Meditation on the Gospel for the 18th Sunday of the Year

We have today the very familiar miracle of the loaves and fishes. One is tempted to say, “Oh that one…and tune out.” But, if we allow it, the gospel today contains a very personal appeal from the Lord’s lips to your (my) ears: “There is no need to dismiss the crowds, give them some food yourself.”

Immediately all the objections swim through our minds, but be still, and let us allow the Lord to instruct us and apply this Gospel in five stages.

I. THE IMAGE THAT IS EXTOLLED – The text says, When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.  The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns.  When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.

The text begins with a very sad note of the death of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. We should not simply dismiss the kind of human grief he must have experienced, and the text says he wants to go apart for a while, presumably to pray and grieve. It would seem, at the pinnacle of his public ministry, he could only get apart by going out on a boat, and so he does. The text is unclear how long he was out on the water, but it implies a short time.

Approaching the opposite shore Jesus sees a large crowd, and is moved with pity. He teaches them at great length and heals the sick. And here is the image that is extolled. If Jesus has allowed himself this moment of grief, he also shows that the way out of it is love and concern for others. For it is too easy for us, in our own grief, anger, sorrow, or anxiety to retreat, to hide away. As an immediate reaction this is understandable. But it is not a disposition we ought to maintain for long. For others have need, and even in our grief and our limits, we are still called to reach out. And that very reaching out, often contains our own healing too.

That we have needs, does not mean others stop having them. Jesus shows the courage and the love to still recognize the needs of others, even in his own grief. So he goes ashore and shares love with others.

II. THE ISSUE THAT IS EVADED – The text says, When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.”

There is a human tendency, that when people are needy, we want them to go away, to disappear. Hence, the apostles, noticing the needy crowd, a crowd about to have a hunger problem, they want the crowd to go away before they become a problem.

We too, both individually and collectively, often desire the needy and poor to just disappear. If we see a beggar, we may cross the street, or refuse to look at him. If our caller ID indicates a troubled family member who may ask for money or want to talk a long time, we let the call go to voice mail. In society we tend to segregate the poor and needy. The “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) syndrome seeks to segregate the poor, the mentally handicapped and others to certain marginal sections of the city largely out of sight, and out of mind. The sick and the dying too are often relegated to nursing homes. Perhaps this is necessary for proper care, but the thought of an elderly relative living and dying in our homes is too much for many, even when it is possible. So, generally people go away to die.

Notice the threefold basis of the disciples evasion:

  1. They are DESPAIRING – for they say, this is a deserted place and it is already late.
  2. They are DISMISSIVE –  for they want Jesus to dismiss the crowd, to send them away.
  3. They are DETACHED – for instead of wanting to help, they want the crowd to go away and get food for themselves.

Yes, it is a sad human tendency to want to be rid of people who have problems. And so the disciples beg Jesus to send the increasingly troublesome crowd away. The Issue is evaded, rather than accepted as a shared problem to be solved together.

III. THE INSTRUCTION THAT ENSUESJesus said to them, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.”

Uh oh! This is starting to get personal. Jesus is not willing to keep this merely as a problem “they” have, he wants me to do something!

Yes, he rejects their premise by saying there is no need for them to go away. And he redirects plan by saying, give them something to eat yourselves.

Refusing to accept the presence of the poor and needy, is simply not a viable option for Jesus, or for us who would be his disciples. He wants and expects us to get started with a solution, a solution that includes both “them” and us. It looks like we are our brother’s keeper.

This is the instruction that ensues when the apostles, or when we, try to evade the issue.

IV. THE INSUFFICIENCY THAT IS EXPRESSED the text says, But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.”

But we can’t possibly pull this thing off, the needs are far too great! The Lord is not interested in our excuses, he just says, “Let’s get started.”

Observe two things about the five loaves and two fishes.

  1. First, as John’s Gospel notes, (6:9), the loaves and fishes came from among the poor themselves. Hence this is not mere do-goodism. The teaching here is not to be a “limousine liberal” who rolls down the window and throws money to the poor, then goes back to his mansion. Neither is it a “we’re from the government and we’re here to help you” solution. For we should not do for others what they can reasonably do for themselves. Rather we ought to work with the poor, engaging them in what they do have, in the talents and leadership they do possess, and solve problems with them, rather than merely for them. There are loaves and fishes among even the poor, there are talents and resources to be included in the solution.
  2. Secondly, wherever the loaves and fishes come from, they are not nothing, and the Lord expects all of us to be part of the solution. Simply telling God or, (these days), the government, to go and do something, is not a full or authentic Christian response.

Hence our complaints about meager resources do not impress the Lord who says, simply, bring them to me. The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. And thus we go to the principle point.

V.  THE IMMENSITY THAT IS EXPERIENCED – the text says, Then he said, “Bring them here to me, ” and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.  Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds.  They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over— twelve wicker baskets full.  Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.

Now this story is so familiar that you and I are not shocked by the outcome. But no matter how many times we hear it, we still do not really accept it’s astonishing truth:

  1. I can do all things in God who strengthens me (Phil 4:13)
  2. All things are possible to him who believes (Mk 9:23)
  3. For man it is impossible, but not with God, for all things are possible with God (Mk 10:27)
  4. 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)

Now take special note of that last quote, for this gospel is about more than caring for the poor, (and it is about that). But this Gospel is also about taking this world back for Christ.

We all know that this world is in an increasingly bad state: rampant secularism, moral relativism, and a Church with many self-inflicted wounds.  This has all led to the fact that we have a real mess on our hands. And the problems are overwhelming: sexual confusion, the culture of death, the breakdown of marriage, compulsive sin, compulsive overspending, greed, insensitivity to the poor, deep and widespread addiction to pornography, drugs, and alcohol, abortion, widespread promiscuity, adultery, corruption, cynicism, low mass attendance and on an on.

The problems seem overwhelming and our resources seem so limited to turn back the tide. What will we ever do with only five loaves and two fishes?

Jesus says, bring them to me.

Yet again, the journey of a thousand miles begins with just one step. The conversion of the whole world, begins with me. As I look the huge problems before me, I (this means you) assess my loaves and fishes:

  1. I work on my own conversion. For a holier world has to start with me. If I get holier, the world get’s holier.
  2. I look to the poor I can serve, maybe with money maybe with talents, like tutoring, counseling etc. Maybe just with the time of listening.
  3. I pick up the phone and call a family member I know is hurting.
  4. I love my spouse and children.
  5. I spend time properly raising my own children to know the Lord and seek his kingdom.
  6. I exhort the weak in my own family, and with love, rebuke sin and encourage righteousness.
  7. If I am a priest or religious, I faithfully live my vocation, and heroically call others to Christ by teaching and proclaiming the gospel without compromise.
  8. If I am a young person I seek to devoutly prepare myself for a vocation to marriage, priesthood or religious life.
  9. If I am older I seek to manifest wisdom and good example to those who are young.
  10. If I am elderly, I seek to devoutly prepare myself for death, and to give good example in this, and to witness the desire for heaven.
  11. I will pray for this world and attend mass faithfully, begging God’s mercy on this sin soaked world.

It is too easy to lament this world’s condition and, like the apostles, feel overwhelmed. Jesus just says, bring me what you have, and let’s get started. The conversion of the whole world will begin with me, with my meager loaves and fishes.

And Jesus will surely multiply them, he will not fail. Already there is renewal evident in the Church, through a faithful remnant willing to bring their loaves fishes, some of the things mentioned above and more besides. They are bringing them to Jesus and he is multiplying them. Renewal is happening, and signs of spring are evident in the Church.

There is an old saying that it is easier to wear slippers that to carpet the whole of the earth. Indeed it is. If it is a converted world you want start with yourself. Bring your loaves and fishes to Jesus, bring your slippers, and let’s get started.  It begins with me.

This song says,

If I can help somebody, as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song,
If I can show somebody, how they’re traveling wrong,
Then my living shall not be in vain.

If I can do my duty, as a good man ought,
If I can bring back beauty, to a world up wrought,
If I can spread love’s message, as the Master taught,
Then my living shall not be in vain
.

Give Me Jesus – A Sermon for the 17th Sunday of the Year

The Gospel today asks a fundamental question: “What is it that you value most?” In other words, He’s asking us what we want most. We tend to answer questions like this the way we think we should, rather than genuinely. When we’re with the doctor (and Jesus is our doctor) our best bet is to answer honestly so that we can begin a true healing process. The fact is, we all need a heart transplant; we need a new heart, one that desires God and the things awaiting us in Heaven more so than any earthly thing.

Let’s take a look at this Gospel, which sets forth in three fundamental movements the picture and price of the Kingdom of God along with a peril that reminds us that we must make a choice.

I. The Picture – The Gospel uses three images for the kingdom, two of which we will look at here (a buried treasure and a pearl), and the third of which (a net) we will examine later. Both the treasure and pearl symbols are used elsewhere in Scripture. Studying those other passages can be helpful in fine-tuning our understanding of the gift of the Kingdom, which Jesus is discussing in today’s Gospel.

Buried Treasure – The concept of treasure (buried in the case of today’s Gospel) is mentioned elsewhere by Jesus:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt 6:19-21).

Although we tend to think of treasure as a bunch of “stuff,” the image of treasure that Jesus uses in today’s Gospel is more a symbol for the heart and for our deepest desires, because our treasure is linked to our heart. One of the greatest gifts that God offers us is the gift a new heart, one that values most what He offers: holiness and Himself. One of the most fundamental prophetic texts of the Old Testament announces what Jesus has fulfilled:

Oh, my people, I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws (Ezekiel 36:25-27).

The great treasure of the Kingdom of God gives us a new heart, by choosing it our heart is changed. To have a new heart is to experience our desires changing. We become less focused on passing, worldly things and more interested in the lasting treasure of the Kingdom of Heaven. We begin to love what and whom God loves. We begin to love holiness, justice, chastity, goodness, righteousness, and truth. We begin to love our spouse, family, the poor, and even our enemies the way God loves them. Our heart becomes alive with joy and zeal for the Kingdom of God and an evangelical spirit impels us to speak what we know to be true.

Yes, the buried, hidden treasure of the Kingdom of God unlocks our heart, bringing new life coursing through our veins, through our very soul. In choosing this treasure we get a new heart, for where our treasure is, there also will be our heart.

A Pearl – The second image comes from the Wisdom tradition, in which holy Wisdom is likened to a pearl. Here, too, is described one of the most precious gifts of the Kingdom of God: a new mind through holy Wisdom. What is this new mind? It is one that begins to think more and more as God does, one that shares His priorities and vision, one that sees as He does; it is the mind of Christ (cf 1 Cor 2:16). With this new mind we see through and reject worldly thinking, priorities, and agendas. We come to rejoice in God’s truth and to grasp more deeply its beauty and sensibility. What a precious gift the new mind is, thinking with God and having the mind of Christ!

So here are two precious manifestations of the Kingdom of God: a new heart and a new mind, which is really another way of saying, “a whole new self.” God is offering us a new life, a new self, a complete transformation.

II. The Price – What are these offerings of the Kingdom worth and what do they ultimately cost? The answer is clear in today’s Gospel: they cost, and are worth, everything. Regarding the hidden treasure and the pearl, the text says that both men went and sold all they had for them. They were willing to forsake everything for these precious items.

Be careful not to reduce this Gospel to a moralism. Notice that these men were eager to go and sell, to forsake, everything else. They did this not so much because they had to, but because they wanted to. They wanted to pay the price and did so with eagerness because they were so enamored of the glory they had found. Here is the gift to seek from the Lord: a willing and eager heart for the Kingdom of God, so eager that we are willing to forsake anything and everything for it.

For ultimately the Kingdom of God does cost everything and we will not fully inherit it until we are fully done with this world and its claims on our heart.

The gift to seek from the Lord is not that we forsake the world with sullen faces and depressed spirits, as if we were paying taxes. No! The gift to seek is that we, like these men, be so taken by the glory of God and His kingdom that we are more than willing to set aside anything that gets in our way, that we are so eager for the things of the Kingdom that loss of the world’s intoxicating trinkets means almost nothing.

Do you see? This is the gift: a heart that appreciates the true worth of the Kingdom of God such that no price is too high. Scripture says elsewhere,

  What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ (Phil 3:8).

  For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor 4:17).

  I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (Rom 8:18).

  No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9).

  But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14).

Yes, the Kingdom of God is more than worth any price we must pay, and ultimately we will pay all for it. Pray for an eager and willing spirit that comes from appreciating the unsurpassed worth of the Kingdom!

III. The Peril – The final movement contains a warning about our upcoming judgment. Ultimately, we either want the Kingdom of God or we don’t. Hence the Lord speaks of a net that captures everything (referring to our summons to the judgment). Those who want the Kingdom and have accepted its value and price will be gathered in; those who do not want the Kingdom of God and do not accept its value will be cast aside.

There are clearly some who do not value the Kingdom. They may desire “heaven,” but it is one of their own making, not the real Heaven. The true Heaven is the Kingdom of God in all its fullness. The Kingdom of God includes things like forgiveness, mercy, justice, chastity, love of the poor, love of one’s enemies, and the celebration of what is good, true, and beautiful. The Kingdom of God has God, not man, at its center.

Yes, there are many who neither want nor value some or even most of these things. When the net is drawn in, our decision is made final. Though we may wish for a fairy tale ending, one in which opponents of the Kingdom suddenly love it, God quite clearly says that at the judgment one’s decision for or against the Kingdom becomes final; it is fixed forever.

An old song says, “Better choose the Lord today, for tomorrow very well might be too late.” Thus we are warned that the judgment looms and that we ought to be earnest in seeking a heart from the Lord that eagerly desires the Kingdom and appreciates its worth above all people and all things. In the end, we get what we want. Either we will have chosen the Kingdom or not.

Pray for a new heart, one that values the Kingdom of Heaven above all else. We ought to consider ourselves warned.

The Gospel today is about what we truly value, and is presented in three movements.

This song says, “You can have all this world, just give me Jesus.”