Standing in Need of Prayer – A Homily for the 30th Sunday of the Year

There’s an old saying that goes, “Faults in others I can see, but praise the Lord, there’s none in me.” One is snared in sin by the very act of claiming to have no sin! In fact, it’s the biggest sin of all: pride.

In the Sunday Gospel, the Lord illustrates this through the parable about two men who go to the temple to pray. One man commits the sin of pride and leaves unjustified. The other, though a great sinner, receives the gift of justification through his humility. Let’s look at what the Lord teaches us.

Prideful Premise Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness. When it comes to parables, it’s easy to gloss over the introductory statement, which often tells us what prompted Jesus to tell the parable. Many people simply see this parable as being about arrogance, but there is more to it than that.

Jesus is addressing the parable to those who are convinced of their own righteousness. They are under the illusion that they are capable of justifying and saving themselves. They think that they can have their own righteousness and that it will be enough to save them.

However, there is no saving righteousness apart from Christ’s righteousness. I do not care how many spiritual pushups you do, how many good works you perform, or how many commandments you keep; it will never be enough for you to earn Heaven. On your own you are not holy enough to enter Heaven or to save yourself. Scripture says, One cannot redeem himself, pay to God a ransom. Too high the price to redeem a life; he would never have enough (Psalm 49:8-9).

Only Christ and His righteousness can ever close the gap, can ever get you to Heaven. Even if we do have good works, they are not our gift to God—they are His gift to us. We cannot boast of them because they are His. Scripture says, For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).

The Pharisee in this parable has a prideful premise: he is convinced of his own righteousness. Notice that he uses the word “I” four times in his brief prayer.

        • I thank you
        • I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous
        • I fast
        • I pay tithes

It is also interesting that the Lord indicates that the Pharisee “spoke this prayer to himself.” Some think that this merely means that he did not say the prayer out loud. Others suspect that there is a double meaning, if you will. In effect, the Lord is saying that the Pharisee’s prayer is so self-centered, so devoid of any true appreciation of God, that it is actually spoken only to himself. He is congratulating himself more than he is praying to God, and his “thank you” is purely perfunctory; it is more for his own prideful self-adulation. He is speaking to himself, all right. He is so prideful that even God can’t even hear him!

We see here a prideful premise on the part of the Pharisee, who sees his righteousness as his own, as something that he has achieved. He is badly mistaken.

Problematic Perspective … and despised everyone else. He looks on others with contempt, perceiving them as beneath him. Notice that the Pharisee is glad to report that he is not like the rest of humanity.

Not only is his remark foolish, it is also impertinent. One will not get to Heaven merely by being a little better than someone else. No indeed, being better than a tax collector, prostitute, drug dealer, or dishonest businessman is not the standard we must meet. The standard we must meet is Jesus. He is the standard. Jesus said, Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48). Now, somebody say, “Lord, have mercy!” It is dangerous (and a waste of time) to compare oneself with others because it misses the point entirely.

The point is that we are to compare ourselves to Jesus and be conformed to Him by the work of His grace. Any honest comparison of ourselves to Jesus should make us fall to our knees and cry out for grace and mercy, because it is the only way we stand a chance.

It is so silly—laughable, really—to compare ourselves to others. What a pointless pursuit! What a fool’s errand! What a waste of time! God is very holy, and we need to leave behind the problematic perspective of looking down on others and trying to be just a little better than some other poor (fellow) sinner.

There’s a lot of talk today about being “basically a nice person,” but being nice isn’t how we get to Heaven. We get to Heaven by being like Jesus. The goal in life isn’t to be nice; the goal is to be made holy. We need to set aside all the tepid and merely humanistic notions of righteousness and come to understand how radical the call to holiness is and how unattainable it is by human effort. Looking to be average, or a little better than others, is a problematic perspective. It has to go; it must be replaced by the Jesus standard.

Let’s put it in terms of something we all can understand: money. Let’s say that you and I are on our way to Heaven; you have $50, while I have $500. Now I might laugh at you and feel superior to you. I might ridicule you and say, “I have ten times as much as you do!” But then we get to Heaven and find out the cost to enter is $70 trillion. Oops. Looks like we’re both going to need a lot of mercy and grace to get in the door. In the end, we are both in the same boat; we’re woefully short. All my boasting was a waste of time and quite silly, to boot. We have a task so enormous and unattainable that we simply have to let God grant it and accomplish it for us.

Prescribed Practice But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Given everything we have reflected on, we can only bow our head and cry from the heart, “Lord, have mercy!” Deep humility coupled with lively hope is the only answer.

Being humble isn’t something we can do on our own. We have to ask God for a humble and contrite heart. Without this gift we will never be saved. In our flesh, we are just too proud and egotistical. God needs to give us a new heart, a new mind. Notice that the tax collector in today’s parable did three things; we should do them as well:

Realize your distancehe stood off at a distance. The tax collector realizes that he is a long way from the goal. He knows how holy God is and how distant he himself is. Let’s be clear: the image of a tax collector is shocking. Such men did not get their posts by being “nice guys.” They were often ruthless thugs who didn’t hesitate to use fear and extortion. But his recognition of his distance is already a grace and a mercy. God is already granting the humility by which he stands a chance.

Recognize your disabilityhe would not even raise his eyes to heaven. Scripture says, No one can see on God and live (Ex 33:20). We are not ready to look on the face of God in all its glory. That is evidenced by the fact that we are still here on earth. Scripture also says, “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God” (Matt 5:8). This tax collector recognizes his disability, his inability to look on the face of God, for his heart is not yet pure enough. In humility, he looks down. His recognition of his disability is already a grace and a mercy. God is already granting him the humility by which he stands a chance.

Request your deliverancehe beat his breast and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Notice that the tax collector’s humility is steeped in hope. He cannot save himself, but God can. He cannot have a saving righteousness of his own, but Jesus does. This tax collector summons those twins called grace and mercy. In this man’s humility, a grace given him by God, he stands a chance. For by this humility, he invokes Jesus Christ, who alone can make him righteous and save him. Scripture says, The humble, contrite heart the Lord will not spurn (Ps 51:17). Jesus says, whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Beware of pride, our worst enemy. Beg for the gift of humility, for only with it do we even stand a chance.

I have it on the best of authority that as he left the temple, the tax collector sang this spiritual: “It’s Me, Oh Lord, Standing in the Need of Prayer.” In the video below it is sung by a German choir, which explains their unusual pronunciation of the word “prayer.” I can’t complain, though; I don’t pronounce Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung (speed limit) very well either!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Standing in Need of Prayer – A Homily for the 30th Sunday of the Year

The Practices of Prayer

This Sunday’s readings speak to us of the power of persistent prayer. The first reading (Exodus 17:8-13) in particular depicts prayer quite powerfully. In it, we can discern six fundamental teachings on prayer.

I. The Problem for PrayerIn those days, Amalek came and waged war against Israel. None of us like problems, but one good thing about them is that they help to keep us praying. Israel was at war and her enemies were strong; it was time to pray.

The Gospel concerns a widow who is troubled about something, and this problem keeps her coming back to the judge. Sometimes God allows us to have problems in order to keep us praying. Problems also keep us humble and remind us of our need for God and others.

Problems aren’t the only reason we pray, but they are one important motivator. It shouldn’t be necessary for us to have problems, but they certainly have a way of summoning us to prayer.

II. The Priority of PrayerMoses, therefore, said to Joshua, “Pick out certain men, and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle. I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses told him: he engaged Amalek in battle after Moses had climbed to the top of the hill with Aaron and Hur.

Notice that Joshua and the army did not go forth until after Moses took up his position of prayer. Prayer ought to precede any major decision or action.

We often rush into things without praying. We should begin each day with prayer. Important decisions should also elicit prayer from us. Prayer needs to come first; it has priority.

Too many people use prayer as a kind of rear-guard action through which they ask God to clean up the mess they’ve made. We end up doing a lot of things we shouldn’t because we didn’t pray first. We also end up doing a lot of things poorly that prayer might have clarified or enriched.

Prayer isn’t just about asking for this or that specific thing. It involves an ongoing relationship with God, through which we gradually receive a new mind and heart, and our vision and priorities are clarified and purified. The new mind and heart that we receive through prayer and the study of our faith are an essential part of the prayer that precedes decisions and actions.

III. The Power of PrayerAs long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight.

As long as Moses prayed, Israel got the better of the battle, but when fatigue caused his prayer to diminish, Israel began to lose.

Prayer changes things. Here in this world, we may never fully know how our prayers helped to change history, but I am sure that one of the joys of Heaven will be to see what a difference our prayers—even the distracted and poor ones—made. In Heaven, we’ll tell stories of prayer’s power and will be able to appreciate the difference it made for us and for others. For now, much of this is hidden from our eyes, but one day, we’ll see with a glorious vision what prayer accomplished.

I suppose, too, that one of the pains of purgatory might be seeing the negative effects of our failure to pray and realizing that it was only God’s mercy that counteracted our laziness.

In this passage, Moses struggles to pray—so do we. Remembering prayer’s power is an important motivator to keep us on our knees and at our beads.

IV. The Partnership of PrayerMoses’ hands, however, grew tired; so they put a rock in place for him to sit on. Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other.

Moses knew that because of his fatigue he needed the assistance of Aaron and Hur. They all prayed together and, once again, Israel was strengthened and regained the upper hand.

Prayer is not supposed to be merely a solitary experience. While personal prayer is important, so is communal and group prayer. The Lord said, Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt 18:20). He also said, Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven (Matt 18:19).

We are taught to gather in prayer liturgically and also to find partners for prayer. Because prayer is so essential and we are individually so weak, we ought not to have it all depend on us. We need our own Aaron and Hur to support us in prayer and to help make up for our weakness.

Do you have some friends who help you, not only to pray but also to walk uprightly? Scripture says, Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up. … where a lone man may be overcome, two together can resist. A three-ply cord is not easily broken (Ecclesiastes 4:10,12).

Do not pray or journey alone. Find some spiritual friends to accompany you.

V. The Persistence of Prayerso that [Moses] hands remained steady till sunset.

With Aaron and Hur to help him, Moses prayed right through until sunset. They prayed right up to the endso must we. There is a mystery as to why God sometimes makes us wait, but we must continue to pray anyway. We may get frustrated, fatigued, or disheartened by the delay, but we must pray on. Like Moses, we should get friends to help us, be we must not stop praying.

Be like the woman in the Gospel, who just kept returning to that judge until he rendered justice for her. I have brought people back into the Church long after the spouse or parent who prayed for them died.

VI. The Product of PrayerAnd Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.

The text says that the enemies of Israel were utterly defeated. This shows the powerful result of persistent prayer.

We may not fully see the results of our prayer on this side of the veil, but on glory’s side we one day will. We may not need God to mow down a foreign enemy for us, but how about enemies like fear, poverty, illness, and sin? Yes, we have enemies, and God answers prayers. Pray and then wait patiently for the product of prayer.

There you have it, six practices and teachings on prayer.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Practices of Prayer

How to Give God Perfect Thanks – A Homily for the 28th Sunday of the Year

One of the great human inadequacies is our inability to give proper and adequate thanks to God. Perhaps the biggest problem is that we don’t even realize the vast majority of what He does for us; it is hidden from our eyes.

A further problem is that in our fallen condition we seem to be wired to magnify our problems and minimize or discount the enormous blessings of each moment. God sustains every fiber of our being and every atom of creation. God’s blessings are countless and yet we get angry if our iPhone malfunctions or if a few of His myriad blessings are withdrawn.

An old gospel song says it well:

 I’ve got so much to thank God for; So many wonderful blessings and so many open doors. A brand new mercy along with each new day. That’s why I praise You and for this I give You praise. For waking me up this morning, For starting me on my way, For letting me see the sunshine, of a brand new day. That’s why I praise You and for this I give You praise. So many times You´ve met my needs, So many times You rescued me. That’s why I praise You.

For every mountain You brought me over, For every trial you’ve seen me through, For every blessing, For this I give You praise.

 Fundamental Question – The question at the heart of this Sunday’s Gospel is best expressed in the Book of Psalms: What return shall I make to the Lord for all the good he has done for me? The same psalm goes on to answer the question in this way: The cup of salvation I will take up and call on the name of the Lord (Psalm 116:12).

The Mass is signified – Indeed, how can I possibly thank the Lord for all the good He has done for me? Notice that the psalm points to the Eucharist in saying, The cup of salvation I will take up …. As you know, the word Eucharist is a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” We cannot thank God our Father adequately, but Jesus can. In every Mass, we join our meager thanksgiving to His perfect one. At every Mass, Jesus takes up the cup of salvation through the priest and shows it to us. This is the perfect and superabundant thanks to the Father that only Jesus can offer. In every Mass, Jesus joins us to His perfect sacrifice of thanks. That is how we give thanks in a way commensurate with the manifold blessings we have received.

Hidden Mass – The Gospel for this day makes the point that the Mass is the perfect offering of thanks to the Father in a remarkable and almost hidden way. But for Catholics, it is right there for us to see if we have eyes to see it. The Gospel contains all the essential elements of Holy Mass. It is about giving thanks and reminds us once again that it is the Mass that is the perfect thanksgiving, the perfect “Eucharist.”

Let’s look and see how it is a Mass:

1.  Gathering – Ten lepers (symbolizing us) have gathered and Jesus comes near as He passes on His way. We do this in every Mass: we gather and the Lord draws near. In the person of the priest, who is the sacrament, the sign of His presence, Jesus walks the aisle of our church just as He walked those ancient roads.

2.  Kyrie – The lepers cry out for mercy, just as we do at every Mass. Lord, have mercy! Jesus, Master, have pity on us!

3.  Liturgy of the Word – Jesus quotes Scripture and then applies it to their lives, just as He does for us at every Mass. (In saying, “Go show yourselves to the priests,” Jesus is referencing Leviticus 13, which gives detailed instructions on how the priests of old were to diagnose leprosy or its having been cured.) Yes, this is what we do at every Mass: we listen to the Lord Jesus, through the priest or deacon, proclaiming God’s Word and then applying it to our lives.

4.  Liturgy of the Eucharist – The Gospel relates that one of them fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. This is what we do during the Eucharistic prayer: we kneel and thank Jesus, and along with Him, give thanks to the Father. As we have noted, the word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek and means “thanksgiving.” Here is the perfect thanks rendered to the Father. Those who claim that they can stay home and give adequate thanks to God should be rebuked for being prideful. Only Jesus can give perfect thanks to the Father, and we can only give adequate thanks by following Jesus’ command to “Do this in memory of me.” We have to be at Mass.

5.  Ite, missa est – Finally, Jesus sends the thankful leper on his way, saying, Stand up and go; your faith has saved you. We, too, are sent forth by Jesus at the end of every Mass, when He speaks through the priest or deacon: “The Mass is ended, go in peace.”

So, there it is. Within this Gospel, which very clearly instructs us to give thanks to God, is the very structure of the Mass. If you want to give proper thanks to God, the right place to do it is at Mass. Only at Mass is perfect and proper thanks given to God.

It was all prefigured in the psalm long ago: What return shall I make to the Lord for all the good he has done for me? The cup of salvation I will take up and call on the name of the Lord (Psalm 116:12). Yes, it is the very cup of salvation, the chalice containing Christ’s blood, that is held up at every Mass. It is the perfect sacrifice of thanks. It is the prescribed sacrifice of praise. It is the proper sacrifice of praise.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: How to Give God Perfect Thanks A Homily for the 28th Sunday of the Year

Five Fundamentals for a Firm Faith – A Homily for the 27th Sunday of the Year

The readings for this Sunday’s Mass richly describe some essential qualities of faith. There are five fundamentals that can be seen:

Wanting The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5-6).

There’s an old saying that what you want, you get. Many doubt this, thinking that they have wanted many things that they did not get. The reason for this, however, is usually because they didn’t want it enough. When we really want something (provided it is not an impossibility) we usually get it, because we have a passion for it and work at it.

Many people who say that they don’t have time to pray or to go to Mass still find time to golf and watch TV television. They find the time because they want to do these things. They don’t find time to pray or to go to Mass because they do not want to do these things enough.

When the apostles ask the Lord to increase their faith, they are asking for a deeper desire to know Him. Too often we miss a step in our prayer. We might ask the Lord to help us to pray when we really should be asking Him to give us the desire to pray. When we want to pray, we will pray. When we want to be holy, we will naturally strive for holy practices. It is about what we truly desire. Ask the Lord to help you want Him and His kingdom. Ask the Lord for a new heart that has proper wants and desires. Ask the Lord for a new mind that has the proper priorities and prefers to think about what is good, true, and beautiful. What you want, you get.

Waiting – The first reading speaks of our need to wait for the Lord’s action: How long, O LORD? I cry for help, but you do not listen! I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord. … Then the LORD answered me and said, Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. The rash one has no integrity (Hab 1:2-3; 2:2-4).

Waiting is one of the great mysteries of the Christian life. It is not always clear why God makes us wait. Perhaps He is trying to strengthen our faith. Perhaps He is helping us to clarify or confirm our desires. Scripture consistently tells us that we must learn to wait for the Lord and that there are blessings for those of us who do. Here are some examples:

        • Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil … those who wait for the LORD shall possess the land (Ps 37:8).
        • Those who wait for me shall not be put to shame (Is 49:23).
        • The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD (Lam 3:25).
        • But they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (Is 40:31).

Waiting is a fundamental of firm faith. Gospel music is replete with waiting themes. One song says, “You can’t hurry God, you just have to wait, trust, and never doubt him, no matter how long it takes. He may not come when you want him but he’s always right on time.” Another song says, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy will come with the morning light.” Other songs counsel that we must hold on and hold out:

        • “I promised the Lord that I would hold out, he said he’d meet me in Galilee.”
        • “Hold on just a little while longer, everything’s gonna be all right.”
        • “Keep your hand on the plow. Hold on!”
        • “Lord help me to hold out until my change comes!”

The reading from Habakkuk above warns that the rash man has no integrity. That is another way of saying that waiting is integral to the Christian life; it is a fundamental of faith. To have integrity means to have all the necessary parts that make up the whole. To lack patience, then, is to lack integrity, to lack a fundamental of the Christian faith.

Withstanding – The second reading counsels us, God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God (2 Tim 1:6-8).

This passage tells us that life has difficulties and challenges. Becoming a Christian does not necessarily make things easier. In fact, things often get harder, because we must endure the hatred and ridicule of the world. A fundamental of the Christian Faith is that being able to withstand such trials with courage.

Notice that this courage, power, and love come from God, not from us. Hence, it is grace that is being described here. This is not a moral slogan. Withstanding means that God is “standing with” us, and we with Him. Such withstanding is only possible by the relationship with God that comes by faith. In this way, we discover the power, the capacity, to withstand, to live the Christian faith courageously in a hostile world.

Working – The Gospel teaches, Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here immediately and take your place at table”? Would he not rather say to him, “Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished”? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do” (Luke 17:6-10).

This teaching of the Lord’s can irritate us and even seem hurtful if we misunderstand grace and seek to understand this text by the flesh. Our flesh is self-centered and thinks we deserve praise and good things from God in return for the good things we do. The flesh expects—even demands—rewards, but God can never be indebted to us, never. Our good works are not our gift to God; they are His gift to us.

All our works of charity and faith, for which our flesh wants credit, are God’s work and His gift. This is made clear in this passage from the Letter to the Ephesians:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God– not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).

If I think that I did something deserving of praise and reward, I am thinking in terms of the flesh, not the Spirit. When I have done something good all I can really do is to say, “Thank you” to God. His grace alone permitted me to do it. God may speak elsewhere of rewarding us, but that is His business. He is not indebted to us in any way. When we have done everything we ought, our one disposition should be gratitude. We are useless servants in the sense that we can do nothing without God’s grace. We can only do what He enables us to do.

That said, it is clear that work is a pillar of faith. The text from today’s Gospel and the text from Ephesians above both make clear that work is something God has for us. So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (James 2:17). Likewise, Jesus says, “It was not you who chose me. It was I who chose you that you should go and bear fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16). Yes, work is a fundamental of faith.

Winning – We conclude with a reference back to the first reading: For the vision still has its time, it presses on to fulfillment and it will not disappoint. If it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late (Hab 2:3).

See what the end shall be! It is true that we must want, wait, withstand, and work, but we do not do so for no reason. We have a cross to carry, but if we carry it with the Lord, we carry it to glory. There is an old gospel song with these lyrics:

Harder yet may be the fight, Right may often yield to might, Wickedness awhile may reign, Satan’s cause may seem to gain, There is a God that rules above, With hand of power and heart of love, If I am right, He’ll fight my battle, I shall have peace some day. I do not know how long ’twill be, nor what the future holds for me. But this I know, if Jesus leads me, I shall get home someday.

This is just what Habakkuk describes: we will win with Jesus. He describes a victory that is

        • Future – the vision still has its time; it presses on to fulfillment
        • Fantastic – it will not disappoint
        • Firm – it will surely come
        • Fixed – it will not be late

For all those who walk with Jesus on the way of the cross, there is victory ahead. Even here in this life we already enjoy the fruits of crosses past. Our withstanding in the past has given us strength for today. Our waiting in the past has had its fulfillment and provides the hope that our current waiting will also be fruitful. Our past work, by God’s grace, has already granted benefits to us and to others.

These are but a small foretaste of a greater glory to come, the glory that waits for us in Heaven. Yes, if we want, wait, withstand, and work, we will win! I promise it to you in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Five Fundamentals for a Firm Faith – A Homily for the 27th Sunday of the Year

Ignoring the Poor Is a Damnable Sin—A Homily for the 26th Sunday of the Year

This Sunday’s Gospel about the rich man and Lazarus contains some important teachings on judgment and Hell. We live in times in which many consider the teachings on Hell to be untenable. They struggle to understand how a God described as loving, merciful, and forgiving could assign certain souls to Hell forever. Despite the fact that the Doctrine of Hell is taught extensively in Scripture as well as by Jesus Himself, it does not comport well with many modern notions and so many people think that it has to go.

The parable addresses some of the modern concerns about Hell. Prior to looking at the reading, it is important to understand why Hell has to exist. I have written on that topic extensively here.  What follows is a brief summary of that lengthier article.

Hell must exist for one essential reason: respect. God has made us free and respects our freedom to choose His Kingdom or not. The Kingdom of God is not a mere abstraction. It has some very specific values, and these are realized and experienced perfectly in Heaven.

The values of the Kingdom of God include love, kindness, forgiveness, justice to the poor, generosity, humility, mercy, chastity, love of Scripture, love of the truth, worship of God, and the centrality of God.

Unfortunately, there are many people who do not want anything to do with those values, and God will not force them to. Everyone may want to go to Heaven, but Heaven is not merely what we want it to be; it is what it is, as God has set it forth. Heaven is the Kingdom of God and its values in all their fullness.

There are some (many, according to Jesus) who live in a way that consistently demonstrates their lack of interest in Heaven. They do this by showing that they are not interested in one or many of the Kingdom’s values. Hell “has to be” because God respects people’s freedom to choose to live in this way. Because such people demonstrate that they do not want Heaven, God respects their freedom to choose “other arrangements.”

In a way, this is what Jesus says in John’s Gospel, when He states that judgment is about what we prefer: And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (John 3:19). In the end, you get what you want: light or darkness. Sadly, many prefer the darkness. The day of judgment discloses our final preference; God respects that even if it is not what He would want for us

This leads us to the Gospel, which we will look at in three stages.

I. The Ruin of the Rich Man – As the Gospel opens, we see a rich man (some call him Dives, which simply means “rich”). There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.

It is clear that he lives very well and has the ability to help the poor man, Lazarus, who is outside his gate. But he does not do so.

The rich man’s sin is not so much one of hate as of indifference. He is living in open rejection of one of the Kingdom’s most important values: love of the poor. His insensitivity is literally a “damnable sin”; it lands him in Hell. His ruin is his insensitivity to the poor.

The care of the poor may be a complicated matter, and there may be different ways of approaching it, but we can we never consider ourselves exempt if it is within our means to help. We cannot avoid judgment for greed and insensitivity. As God said in last week’s reading regarding those who are insensitive to the poor, The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Never will I forget a thing they have done (Amos 8:7). God may well “forget” many of our sins (cf Is 43:23; Heb 8:12), but apparently disregarding the needs of the poor isn’t one of them.

This rich man has repeatedly rejected the Kingdom by his greed and insensitivity. He lands in Hell because he doesn’t want Heaven, where the poor are exalted (cf Luke 1:52).

Abraham explains the great reversal to him: My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.

II. The Rigidity of the Rich Man – You might expect the rich man to have a change of heart and repent, but he does not. Looking up into Heaven, he sees Lazarus next to Abraham, but rather than finally recognizing Lazarus’ dignity and seeking his forgiveness, he tells Abraham to send Lazarus to Hell with a pail of water to refresh him. The rich man still sees Lazarus as beneath him (even though he has to look up to see him); he sees Lazarus as an errand boy.

Notice that the rich man does not ask to be admitted to Heaven! Although he is unhappy with where he is, he still does not seem to desire Heaven and the Kingdom of God with all its values. He has not really changed. He regrets his current torment but does not see Heaven as a solution. Neither does he want to appreciate Lazarus’ exalted state. The rich man wants to draw Lazarus back to the lower place he once occupied.

This helps to explain why Hell is eternal. It would seem that there is a mystery of the human person that we must come to accept: we reach a point in life when our character is forever fixed, when we can no longer change. When exactly this occurs is not clear; perhaps it is at the moment of death itself.

The Fathers of the Church often thought of the human person as clay on a potter’s wheel. As long as it is on the wheel and moist it can be molded, but when the clay is taken off the wheel and placed in the fiery kiln (fire is judgment day (cf 1 Cor 3:15)), its shape is forever fixed.

The rich man manifests this fixed quality. He is unhappy with his torments, even wanting to warn his brothers, but apparently he does not intend to change or somehow he is unable to change.

This is the basis for the teaching that Hell is eternal: once having encountered our fiery judgment, we will no longer be able to change. Our decision against the Kingdom of God and its values (a decision that God, in sadness, respects) will be forever fixed.

III. The Reproof for the Rest of Us – The rich man, though he cannot or will not change, would like to warn his brothers. He thinks that perhaps if Lazarus would rise from the dead and warn them, they would repent!

We are the rich man’s brethren, and we are hereby warned. The rich man wanted exotic measures, but Abraham said,They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” “Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” Then Abraham said, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”

This reply is dripping with irony, given Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

We should not need miraculous signs to bring us conversion. The phrase “they have Moses and the prophets” is a Jewish way of saying that they have Scripture.

The Scriptures are clear to lay out the way before us. They give us the road map to Heaven and we only need to follow it. We ought not to need an angel or a ghost or some extraordinary sign. The Scriptures and the teachings of the Church should be sufficient.

Their message is clear enough: daily prayer, daily Scripture, weekly Eucharist, frequent confession, and repentance all lead to a change of heart wherein we begin to love the Kingdom of God and its values. We become more merciful, kind, generous, loving toward the poor and needy, patient, chaste, devout, and self-controlled.

Hell exists! It has to exist because we have a free choice to make, and God will respect that choice even if he does not prefer it.

Each of us is free to choose the Kingdom of God—or not. This Gospel makes it clear that our ongoing choices lead to a final, permanent choice, at which time our decision will be forever fixed.

The modern world needs to sober up. There is a Hell and its existence is both reasonable and in conformity with a God who both loves us and respects our freedom.

If you have any non-biblical notions in this regard, consider yourself reproved. Popular or not, Hell is taught, as is the sobering notion that many prefer its darkness to the light of God’s Kingdom.

The care of the poor is very important to God. Look through your closet this week and give away what you can. Look at your financial situation and see if it is pleasing to God. The rich man was not cruel, just insensitive and unaware. How will you and I respond to a Gospel like this?

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Ignoring the Poor Is a Damnable Sin—A Homily for the 26th Sunday of the Year

On Being Faithful in a Few Things before Being Ruler over Many Things – A Homily for the 25th Sunday of the Year

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In this Sunday’s Gospel, the Lord Jesus gives a penetrating analysis of the state of the sinner and some very sobering advice to us would-be saints. Let’s look at the Gospel in two stages:

I. ANALYSIS OF THE SINNER – In the opening lines of the Gospel, Jesus describes a sinful steward.

DELUSION (of the sinner) Jesus said to his disciples, “A rich man had a steward …”

 Notice that the man is referred to as a steward rather than an owner. God is the owner of everything; we are but stewards. A steward must deal with the goods of another according to that person’s will. We may have ownership in relation to other human beings, but before God we own nothing, absolutely nothing.

Part of the essence of sin is behaving as though we are the owner. We develop the arrogant attitude that what we have is ours to do with as we please: “It’s mine; I can do what I want with it.” “It’s my body, and I can do with it as I please.” But in fact, everything belongs to God.

Scripture affirms, The earth is the LORD’S and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein (Ps. 24:1). Even of our bodies, which we like to think of as our own, Scripture says, You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6:19). There’s a song that says, “God and God alone created all these things we call our own. From the mighty to the small, the glory in them all is God’s and God’s alone.” The Lord compares the sinner to a steward who acts as if he were the owner.

DISSIPATION (of the sinner) “… who was reported to him for squandering his property.”

The Lord here describes the essence of many of our sins: we squander His gifts. We waste the gifts we have received and use them for sinful ends.

For example, in greed we hoard the gifts He gave us. Instead of using them to help others, as God intended, we store them up for ourselves. Yet all the goods of the world belong to all the people of the world, and they ought to be shared to the extent that we are able.

Other examples of squandering the things of God are these: in gossip, lying, and cursing, wherein we misuse the gift of speech; in laziness, wherein we misuse the gift of time; in all sin, wherein we abuse the gift of our freedom. This is the dissipation, the squandering, of God’s goods.

God has given us many good things, but instead of using them to build the Kingdom, we squander them and dissipate it.

DEATH (of the sinner)“He summoned him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.’”

Here the Lord reminds us that someday our stewardship will end, and we will be called to account. Scripture reminds us, So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body (2 Cor 5:9).

We have an appointed time to exercise our stewardship, but at some point, our stewardship will end, and the books will be opened. Scripture says, And books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books (Rev 20:11).

Although many pay little heed to the fact of judgment, Scripture warns, Say not, “I have sinned, yet what has befallen me?” For the Lord bides his time. Of forgiveness be not over-confident, adding sin upon sin. Say not, “Great is his mercy, my many sins he will forgive.” For mercy and anger are alike with him; upon the wicked alights his wrath. Delay not your conversion to the Lord, put it not off from day to day. For suddenly his wrath flames forth; at the time of vengeance you will be destroyed (Sirach 5:4).

Every steward (each of us) will die. Our stewardship will end and we will be called to render an account. Therefore, we ought to listen to the Lord’s advice.

II. ADVICE TO THE SAINTS After analyzing the sinner, the Lord has some advice for those of us sinners who want to be saints. He lays out four principles we ought to follow:

1. Principle of INTENSITY – The text says, the steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’ He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’ Then to another the steward said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ The steward said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’ And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting shrewdly. For the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

The Lord is telling us here that many of the worldly are craftier in what matters to them than are the spiritually minded in what (supposedly) matters to them.

Many people are dedicated and intense in worldly matters. They spend years in college, preparing for their career. They work hard to climb the company ladder. They develop (worldly) skills and become knowledgeable in their profession. In earning money and holding down a job, many display great discipline: getting up early to go to work, working late, going the extra mile to please the boss.

When it comes to faith, however, many of these same people display only a rudimentary knowledge of things spiritual and show little interest in praying or advancing in the faith. They will expend effort to please the boss, to please other people, but not to please God. Parents will fight for scholarships for their children to get into the “best” schools but not quite so dedicated to ensuring they learn the saving truth; the pews are empty, and Sunday School is poorly attended.

The Lord says to us here that the spiritually minded ought to show the same intensity, organization, dedication, and craftiness that the worldly show in their pursuits. We ought to be zealous for the truth, for prayer, and for opportunities to sharpen our spiritual skills and increase our holiness. We ought to be as zealous to be rich in grace as we are to be rich in money.

2. Principle of INVESTMENT I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

(Read here for more information on what the Lord means by “dishonest wealth”: What Does the Lord Mean by “Unrighteous Mammon”?.)

The Lord tells of how the dishonest steward made use of the money at his disposal to make friends who would help him in the next stage of his life. How about us? Are we willing to use our money and resources to bless others (especially the poor, who can bless us in the next stage of our life)?

On the day of your judgment, will the poor and needy be able to speak up on your behalf? Will they be among the angels and saints who welcome you to eternal dwellings? I don’t know about you, but I’m going to want the poor to pray and to speak to God on my behalf! Scripture says that the Lord hears the cry of the poor and needy. In this world, the poor need us but in the next world we’re going to need them. In this world, those with money and power are heard; in the Kingdom, it’s the poor and suffering who are heard. It’s a wise investment to bless the poor and needy.

In effect, the Lord Jesus tells us to be wise in our use of worldly wealth. The world tells us to take our money and invest it so that it will reap future rewards; so too does the Lord. How? By storing our wealth up in Heaven. And how do we do that? By giving it away! Then it will really be ours.

You can’t take it with you, but you can send it on ahead. Scripture elaborates on this idea: Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life (1 Tim 6:17). Notice that the passage says that through their generosity in this world, the rich store up treasure for themselves in Heaven.

This is the scriptural principle and the great paradox in the Kingdom of God: we keep something for eternity only by giving it away. We save our life by losing it. By giving away our treasure, we keep it and store it in Heaven.

So, invest, my friends. Invest wisely! Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matt 6:20).

3. Principle of INCREASEThe person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones. If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?

What is the “small matter” of which the Lord speaks and in which we can prove trustworthy? The small matter is money. Most people make money the most important thing in life, but spiritual matters are far more important.

Scripture attests to this clearly. The Book of 1st Peter says that our faith is more precious than fire-tried gold. The Book of Psalms (19:10) says, The words of the Lord are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.

So, God says, let’s see how you are in the small but significant matter of money; then I’ll decide if you’re able to able to handle bigger blessings. Do you think you can handle Heaven and the spiritual blessings of holiness? If you’re trustworthy with worldly wealth, God will give you true wealth. If you’re trustworthy in what belongs to God, He’ll give one day what is yours.

Do you want more? Then use well what you’ve already received. Only then will God know that He can trust you with more. There’s a gospel song that says, “You must be faithful over a few things to be ruler over many things. Be faithful unto death, and God will give you a crown of life.”

4. Principle of INDIVISIBILITYNo servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.

Pay attention! To serve means to obey. Most people obey money and affluence; they worship a high standard of living before they obey God. They meet their world obligations first and then give God what is left over.

We are called to obey God alone, to have an undivided heart. The wording here is strong. You cannot obey the world (money) and think that you’re also going to obey God. You must choose which will be more important.

Now don’t tell me we don’t need a lot of grace and mercy! Money and the lure of the world are very powerful. It’s time to get on our knees and pray for the miracle of preferring God to the world.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On Being Faithful in a Few Things before Being Ruler over Many Things – A Homily for the 25th Sunday of the Year

Crazy! A Homily for the 24th Sunday of the Year

The three parables in this Sunday’s lengthy Gospel challenge conventional thinking. They describe people doing things that we most likely would not do. All three of them – especially the first two – seem crazy. Who would ever do what the shepherd of the lost sheep does or what the woman with the lost coin does? Probably no one. Likewise, the father in the Prodigal Son parable breaks all the rules of “tough love.” His forgiveness has an almost reckless quality to it. No father in Jesus’ time would ever have tolerated such insolence from his sons. So all three of these parables, on one level, are just plain crazy.

But that is one of the fundamental points Jesus seems to be making here: The Heavenly Father’s love for us is just plain “crazy.” By that I do not mean that it is irrational but that it stretches the limits of human thinking.

I also intend no irreverence in my use of the word “crazy.” Please permit me a bit of hyperbole in trying to describe the astonishing quality of God’s love and mercy. Permit, too, my stepping away from the normal interpretation of these parables. The typical approach is to try to make sense of them through certain presumptions, but I wonder if that approach does not miss the Lord’s truer intent: presenting His love for us as mysterious and to some degree unexplainable in human terms. Who really understands unlimited and unconditional love? Who can really grasp the depths of God’s mercy? His grace is “amazing” in that it goes completely beyond our ability to comprehend. It transcends human concepts. Thank God! If He were like us, we’d all be in trouble; frankly, we’d all be in Hell.

Let’s look at each parable in turn. (The Gospel is too lengthy to reproduce in this post; you can read the entirety of it here: Luke 15.)

The Parable of the Lost Sheep – The Lord speaks of a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to search for one that is lost. Would a shepherd do this? Probably not! The passage drips with irony, even absurdity. If he knew the lost sheep were nearby, a shepherd might venture over the next hill, but it would be more likely that he would cut his losses and stay with the ninety-nine. Some of us might even consider it irresponsible to leave the ninety-nine to search for the one.

Many scholars and Church Fathers believe that the “ninety-nine” refers to the angels the Lord left in Heaven and the one lost sheep refers to us. Yet, if that be the case then why does the Lord describe the shepherd as leaving the ninety-nine “in the desert”? There are many other theories as well, but I wonder if they all do not miss the point: God’s love is extravagant, personal, and puzzling. In the end, it would seem that God loves us for “no good reason.” He seems to love us even more when we stray. He intensifies His focus on the one who strays. To us this is not only crazy, it is dangerous—possibly enabling. God’s love for us is extravagant beyond what is humanly reasonable or explainable. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t try to analyze it too much. Just be astonished; be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves us is crazy, unexplainable.

The Parable of the Lost Coin – A woman loses a drachma. It’s a small coin, worth perhaps a day’s wages for an agricultural worker. In modern terms it would equate to less than $100. It’s not an insignificant amount, but it’s not a huge amount, either. Some speculate that it was a special coin, perhaps one from her wedding headdress, but the parable does not say that. At any rate, she sweeps the floor diligently looking for it, a reasonable reaction. I’d probably look around a while for a missing $100 bill!

Things get crazy, though, when she finds it. She rejoices to such an extent that she spends most (if not all) of it on a party celebrating its recovery! Crazy!

That is exactly the point. God doesn’t count the cost. He doesn’t weigh His love for us in terms of whether or not it is “worth it.” Some commentators try to explain the craziness away by suggesting that perhaps the coin had sentimental value, but trying to make sense of it may well miss the point.

This woman is crazy because God is “crazy.” His love for us is extravagant beyond what is humanly reasonable or explainable. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t try to analyze it too much. Just be astonished; be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves us is crazy, unexplainable.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son – A young man, entitled by law to a third of his father’s estate, essentially tells his father to “drop dead.” He wants his inheritance now and the old man isn’t dying quickly enough. Incredibly, the father gives it to him!

Crazy! The father is a nobleman (land owner) and could hand his son over for serious punishment for such dishonor. Inheritance in hand, the son leaves his father and goes off to “a distant land,” where he sinks so low that he ends up envying pigs. He comes to his senses and returns to his father, daring only to hope to become one of his father’s hired workers.

Then it gets even crazier! The father sees his son from a long way off (meaning that he was looking for him), and then does something a nobleman would never do: he runs. Running was considered beneath the dignity of a nobleman because it would imply that he was either a slave on an errand or a fugitive. Further, in order for a man to run in the ancient world, he first had to “hike up” his long flowing robe. Otherwise, his legs would get tangled up in the garment and he would likely trip and fall. For a nobleman to show his legs was considered an indignity.

Do you get the picture? This nobleman, this father, is debasing himself, humbling himself. He is running and his legs are showing. This is crazy! Do you know what this son has done? Does he deserve this humble love? No! The father is crazy!

Exactly! The heavenly Father is “crazy” too. He actually loves us and humbles Himself for us. He even sent His own Son for us. Do we understand what we have done? Do we deserve this? No! It’s crazy!

The second son is also a handful. When he hears of the party being given for his wayward brother, he refuses to come in. Again, it would have been unthinkable in the ancient world for a son to refuse to come when summoned by his father. And what does the father do? He comes out and pleads with him to enter!

Again, it’s crazy! It’s unthinkable. No father in the ancient world would ever have permitted his son to speak to him in this way. The son basically calls him a slave-driver who issues orders; he refuses to enter the party that his father is hosting, saying that he’d rather celebrate with his friends than with his father. But—pay attention here—our goal in life is not celebrate with our friends; it is to celebrate with the Father in Heaven.

This father is crazy. He is crazy because God the Father is crazy. Do you know what it means to refuse to do what God says? Yet we do it every time we sin! Our heavenly Father should not have to tolerate this. He is God and we are His creatures. If He wanted to, He could squash us like bugs! But He does not. The father in this parable is almost “dangerously” merciful. Shouldn’t his sons be taught a lesson? Shouldn’t he punish them both for their insolence? All our human thinking kicks in when we hear this parable.

But God is God, not man. There are other Scriptures that speak of God’s punishments, but in the end, none of us get what we really deserve. Jesus’ point in this parable is that God is merciful, and His love is crazy; it makes no human sense. His love for us is extravagant beyond what is humanly reasonable or explainable. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t try to analyze it too much. Just be astonished; be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves us is crazy, unexplainable.

Yes, it’s crazy!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Crazy! A Homily for the 24th Sunday of the Year

Four Depictions of Discipleship – A Homily for the 23rd Sunday of the Year

In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus defines four demands of discipleship. Let’s look at them one by one.

I. The CONTEXT of discipleship – The text says that large crowds were following Jesus and so He turned to address them. Just about any time you find mention of a big crowd in the Bible, fasten your seat belt and prepare for a hard teaching. Jesus didn’t trust large crowds, who were often merely after what they could get out of Him. They were looking for miracles, for multiplied (and free) bread, for physical healing, and for a fiery sermon.

So, upon sensing a large crowd of people, Jesus turned to address them. He then gives a series of hard teachings, which almost seem designed to thin the ranks and distinguish true disciples from ones who are merely giving “lip service.”

Before discussing what Jesus says to them, let’s examine some other incidents in the Gospels that also illustrate His tendency to distrust big crowds:

        • Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matt 7:13).
        • For many are called, but few are chosen (Matt 22:14).
        • Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets (Luke 6:26).

Often the mention of a large crowd is followed by a hard teaching:

        • When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matt 19:1-6; Mark 10).
        • As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29).
        • Large crowds were traveling with Jesus and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27).
        • … and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick … and He said to them, “I am the living bread come down from heaven” … the crowds murmured (John 6:2).

So, the context of discipleship is not usually with the crowd. Though many are called—indeed, all are called—few make the cut and become true disciples. There is a kind of remnant theology at work here, to be sure, but it is a common pattern that Jesus thins the ranks and distinguishes the many who are called from the few who are chosen.

This is not just a fact in the Scriptures; the Lord has often had to prune His Church. Even now we are seeing a large falling away, a pruning, as many who are not able to accept the hard sayings of Jesus and the Scriptures (about sexuality, forgiveness, love of one’s enemies, heroic charity, and generosity) depart. The context of discipleship is with the few rather than the many.

This insight about the context is also important today because there are many who argue that the Church should “get with the times,” that she should listen to the people, that she should give them what they want, that she should reflect the views of the faithful. The role of the Church is not to reflect the views of its members, as if it were some political party. Rather, it is to reflect the views of its Founder, Jesus Christ, who handed on His teachings through the apostles and evangelists. More often than not, these teachings will not be in lockstep with what is popular or current.

The context of discipleship is often at odds with great crowds of people. We see this when Jesus turns on them. The first reading today reminds us: For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans. For the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns. And scarce do we guess the things on earth, and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty (Wisdom 9:13-16).

II. The CENTRALITY of discipleship – Jesus indicates that if we are going to be His disciples, we can love no one more than we love Him. This extends even to our family relationships: If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

The use of the word “hate” here does not mean that we are to have contempt for others or to nourish unrighteous anger toward them. Rather, this is a Jewish idiom. For some reason, the Hebrew language has very few comparative words such as more/less and greater/ fewer. If one preferred vanilla ice cream to chocolate, one would say (in ancient Hebrew), “I love vanilla but hate chocolate.” This would mean that I prefer vanilla to chocolate, not that I actually hate chocolate.

So, what Jesus means is that we cannot prefer anyone or anything to Him. He is first; He is number one. Jesus says that He must have absolute priority over even the closest human relationships in your life.

If there’s anyone in your life who can talk you out of obeying God, forget ’em! Anyone who keeps you away from God has too much power. Anyone who can keep you from your Christian walk has too much power. Anyone who can pull you into unrighteousness has too much power.

If your boss instructs you to do something immoral, just say, “Sorry, Boss.” If your accountant advises you to save money by paying unjust wages or cutting necessary benefits, say “Sorry, no.” If your boyfriend or girlfriend pressures you to have sex, say, “Sorry, Dear.” If your “friend” pressures you to use drugs, abuse alcohol, skip school, or steal, say, “Sorry, Buddy.” If your spouse calls you away from teaching your children the ways of faith, tell him/her “Sorry, Honey.” If your child pressures you to give him something unwise or sinful, say, “Sorry, child of mine.”

Do you get it? No one is to have priority over Jesus Christ and what He teaches. The word “hate” here may not be meant literally, but if Jesus really does have priority in our life it may cause some people to say to us, “You’re so devoted to Him that I think you hate me!”

We need to attend to this, because too many of our human relationships cause us to compromise our walk with Jesus. Some people have too much power over us, a power that belongs to the Lord.

III. The CROSS of discipleship – Jesus says, Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. If we want to be a disciple, we must be willing to carry the cross.

The cross comes in many forms, but in the end, being a disciple does not mean that we are in any way exempt from the troubles and trials of this world. Jesus indicates that we will be hated (cf Jn 15:20), persecuted, and sorely tempted by the world. If we hold out, though, victory will be ours.

It is a simple rule: No cross, no crown. There are some who want to preach a prosperity gospel. There are others who demand a gospel stripped of its moral imperatives. Still others demand an updated faith that tickles their ears and affirms their sinful behavior.

Jesus points to the cross not to torture us but because it is the only way to glory. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (John 16:33). Now, for a little while you may have to suffer various trials (1 Peter 1:6). This wisdom is already evident if we consider that even in this world, all of what we value most (family, talents, career, achievements) comes at the cost of sacrifice. Sacrifices bring blessings. Jesus is not into pain for its own sake but because sacrifice brings blessings.

IV. The COST of discipleship Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, “This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.” Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms. In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.

In this teaching, Jesus asks us to count the cost. Discipleship is costly. Jesus gives the images of someone building a tower and of a king going into battle. These examples may seem distant to us, so Jesus “brings it home” by saying, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.

The Greek word ἀποτάσσω (apotasso), translated here as “renounce,” also means “to say farewell.” The Lord is reminding us that Heaven costs everything. Ultimately, we must say farewell to everyone and everything we consider precious in this world in order to inherit Heaven. This is not something that happens all at once when we die.

On one level, we give back everything to God little by little as we go through life. We have all given back loved ones. Perhaps we have already given back our youthful physique, strength, or good health. Ultimately, though, we will give it all back.

On another level, the Lord is saying that we must be willing to part now with anything that hinders discipleship. Many things attach us to this world and make discipleship difficult. Are we willing to simplify our life and focus on being a disciple? Or will we continue setting down roots here and amassing a worldly kingdom?

What’s it going to be: the world or the Kingdom? Count the cost. See what it costs and then decide. In the end, Heaven costs everything—but you’re going to lose it all anyway. It is a wise man who gives away what he cannot keep in order to gain what he could never buy.

What Jesus is looking for are disciples who, having counted the cost and realistically assessed it, are nonetheless ready to be His disciples. Tag-alongs, lip-service Christians, and fair-weather friends need not apply. In today’s Gospel Jesus is teaching a big crowd in a way that is meant to distinguish true disciples from those merely giving lip service. We are asked to ponder in which category we fall.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Four Depictions of Discipleship – A Homily for the 23rd Sunday of the Year