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.

You Have to Serve Before You Sit – A Homily for the 22nd Sunday of the Year

In the Gospel for Sunday’s Mass, the Lord Jesus summons us to a deeper appreciation for what brings true honor, for what makes a person truly great. As you may imagine, what the world considers great and honorable is rather different from what God thinks and sees. Let’s look at this Gospel in three parts and discover its paradoxical vision.

I. THE PERSON who HONORS – The Lord is at a banquet and notices people vying for seats of honor. In response, He gives the following teaching: When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him, and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say, “Give your place to this man,” and then you would proceed with embarrassment to take the lowest place.

What the Lord is really reminding us is that at formal banquets, it is the host who determines where we sit. This is most common at wedding receptions, where seats are assigned by the couple ahead of time. For someone to walk in and sit at the head table reserved for the wedding party is rude, pompous, and presumptuous. The polite and expected behavior is to report to the entrance table, receive your table assignment, and graciously take your seat there.

Of course, the banquet we are invited to is God’s Kingdom. God has a place for us, but it is He who assigns each person his place.

Recall that when a dispute arose among the apostles as to who was the greatest, Jesus responded, I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:29).

Another time, when James and John approached Jesus for seats at His right and left (places of honor), Jesus responded, to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared (Mk 10:40).

So, our places in the Kingdom are determined by God.

Many miss this point and like to assign themselves places and honors in God’s Kingdom. That right belongs to God. Some go through life resentful that they are not as rich or powerful as others. Some wish they were taller, thinner, smarter, or more attractive. They are jealous of what they see as the advantages of others.

Be very careful here. It is not for us to determine what is best for us. It is not for us to assign our own seat. Just because we think it is better to be rich than poor does not mean that it is so. The Lord warns how difficult it is for the rich to inherit the Kingdom of God, so being rich isn’t necessarily the blessing we think it is. It is for God to decide what is best for us. Riches, power, popularity, and good looks are all things that tend to root us in this world; they are not necessarily blessings. Having a “good” job like someone else’s, a family like someone else’s, or a talent like someone else’s may not be what is best for us.

God gives each of us the talents and blessings as well as the burdens and challenges He knows are best for us. Don’t just walk into God’s Kingdom and seat yourself! Check in with the host and find out His will in terms of your seat. He’s got just the right one in mind for you.

II. THE PARADOX of HONORS – Jesus was noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table. In effect, He was struck by how people perceive honor and how they vie for what they think is honor. They want to impress others and be thought of as important.

Remember that this is God’s banquet. The qualifications for the seats of honor there are very different from those necessary for worldly honors. In the world, we are impressed by things like brawn, beauty, and bucks. We’re impressed by big cars, big houses, and a big entourage. When a limo pulls up, just watch all eyes turn. The popular, the powerful, the glitterati, and the game changers emerge to flashing cameras and thunderous applause. These are the things that we notice; this is what draws our eyes.

What about God? As God looks around the banquet hall of His Kingdom, who catches His eye? The Lord provides the answer in many places in Scripture:

        • Whoever would be great among you must be the servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:43).
        • Rather let the greatest among you become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who do you think is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves (Luke 22:26).
        • Though the LORD is on high, he looks upon the lowly, but the proud he knows from afar (Ps 138:6).
        • But God chose the foolish and low born things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him (1 Cor 1:27).
        • Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? (James 2:5)
        • Many who are last shall be first, and many who are first shall be last (Luke 13:30).
        • He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly (Luke 1:52).

So, back to our question: In the banquet hall of God’s Kingdom, who catches His eye? Is it those at the “head table”? It is those on the red carpet? No. If we apply God’s words, we see that those who draw God’s attention are not even at the table; they are the ones waiting on tables, the ones serving, the ones back in the kitchen cooking and washing dishes. It is the lowly, the humble, the servants of all, who catch God’s eye.

This is the paradox of honor in God’s kingdom. It is not about being powerful in a worldly sense. God is not impressed by the size of our house, car, or bank account. Our popularity does not impress Him. It is our service, humility, and love for others that catches His eye. The seats of honor, the places closest to God’s heart, are for those who serve.

III. THE PRESCRIPTION for HONORS – The prescription is clear. Jesus instructs us, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, “My friend, move up to a higher position.”

If we want to be great in the Kingdom of God, then we had better become a servant. Jesus says that we should take the lowest place, that we should serve before we sit. It is serving others that makes a person great. The greatest thing about us is not our big paycheck or our fancy house; it is that we serve.

We are great when we identify with the lowly and humble and seek to serve rather than to be served. We are great when we use our wealth, power, talents, and abilities to build up the people of God and extend His Kingdom. Even things we do for which we are paid can be service, provided that serving is our primary motivation.

Jesus then adds, When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. This is a complete change in the way we see what is great in this world.

Jesus is giving us more than a moral directive (be generous to the poor). He is offering us a new vision for who is greatest in His Kingdom. We ought to run to the poor, the blind, the lame, and the afflicted, because they give us the ability to serve. In the end, our greatest honor is serving others, especially the poor and afflicted who cannot repay us.

A final dimension is learning that some of the greatest and most honorable people we know are those who serve us. Because serving is the greatest honor in the Kingdom of God, we ought to hold in high honor those who wait on our tables, clean our houses and workplaces, do our “dirty work,” serve in our hospitals, and care for and serve us in countless other ways. They are doing something honorable and we ought to treat them with respect, kindness, and honor. We ought to give generous tips when that is appropriate, but above all we are to honor them.

For the greatest among you is the servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all (Mk 10:43).

Yes, you have to serve before you sit in any place of honor at God’s banquet.

The song in the video below says, “Sit down, servant. I can’t sit down … My soul’s so happy that I can’t sit down.” The video depicts quite a varied cultural expression: a Thai choir singing an African-American spiritual!

 

Sober and Serious about Salvation—Homily Notes for the 21st Sunday of the Year

In the readings this Sunday, the Lord describes a danger: our tendency to make light of judgment and not be sober that one day we must account for our actions. In the first reading (from Isaiah), the Lord sets forth His desire to save us, but we must understand that our will, our assent, is essential to our salvation. In the second reading (from the Letter to the Hebrews), God sets forth a plan whereby, having accepting Jesus, we can make a daily walk with Him in a kind of delivering discipline. Let’s take a detailed look at the readings, hear their urgent warnings, and soberly lay hold of the solutions offered.

I. The Danger that is Described“Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He answered them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough” (Lk 13:22-30).

There is a similar text in Matthew’s Gospel, in which the Lord says, 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 (Mat 7:13-14).

The Gospel is a call to sobriety and away from an unbiblical way of thinking (that is antithetical to the long testimony of sacred tradition). Many people today assume a kind of universalism that presumes that most, if not the vast majority, will go to Heaven. However, as we have reviewed many times on this blog before, that is not what Scripture says. In fact, it says quite the opposite.

While no percentages given, no exact numbers, we ought not to interpret the text such that Jesus’ words “many” and “few” come to mean nothing or even their opposites. Jesus is teaching us a sober truth: given the tendency of the human heart toward hardness, stubbornness, and obtuseness, many are on a path that rejects His offer of a saving relationship, His offer of the Kingdom and its values.

Although many today consider the teaching on judgment and the existence of eternal Hell untenable, this is largely due to the tendency to refashion God and the faith according to modern preferences rather than to cling to what is true and has been revealed.

In doing so, they reduce God to an affirmer, an enricher, a facilitator, or merely one who takes care of us. (These are all accurate descriptions, but they only partially describe Him.) Absent from these representations is the true essence of God as absolutely holy, just, pure, and undefiled; and as the one who must ultimately purify His faithful, with their consent, to reflect His utter purity and glory. Those who attempt to “refashion” God into something or someone more palatable are the ones to whom He says, “I do not know where you are from.”

Those who set aside Hell also attempt to refashion human freedom, which God has given us as our dignity so that we can freely love Him and what He values in a covenantal relationship, rather than serving Him as slaves. I have written more on this topic here: Hell Has to Be.

For now, let it be said that the reality of Hell is taught clearly and consistently in Scripture. It is taught to us in love as an urgent warning about the seriousness of our choices, which build to a final decision. No one loves you more than does Jesus Christ, yet no one spoke of judgment and Hell more than He did.

Some today also object to any “fear-based” argument related to the faith. This is not a reasonable posture to adopt when dealing with human beings, because each of us responds to different types of appeals. While an appeal to fear may not be rooted in the highest goals, it remains an important approach rooted in well-ordered self-love.

Jesus certainly saw fit to appeal to the fear of punishment, loss, and Hell. In fact, one could argue that this was His primary approach and that one would struggle to find many texts in which Jesus appealed more to perfect contrition and a purely holy fear rooted in love alone. In dozens of passages and parables, Jesus warns of punishment and exclusion from the Kingdom for unrepented sin and for the refusal to be ready. Here are several examples:

        • Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (Matt 7:13-14).
        • The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth (Mat 13:41-42).
        • Therefore, keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!” (Mk 13:35-37)
        • And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with carousing, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come on you unawares. For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch you therefore, and pray always, that you may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man (Luke 21:34-36).
        • But about that day or hour no one knows …. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. … Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him (Matt 24:36-39; 42-44).
        • The lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looks not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, and shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 24:51).
        • Then the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. “Lord, Lord,” they said, “open the door for us!” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.” Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour (Matt 25:10-13).
        • Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat …” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Matt 24:41-42, 46).
        • Whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, and cast it from you: for it is profitable for you that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body should be cast into hell (Matt 5:28-29).
        • Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell (Matt 5:22).
        • And if your foot offend you, cut it off: it is better for you to enter into life halt or maimed, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched (Mk 9:45-46).
        • Friend, how came you in here not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen (Matt 22:12-14).
        • Then said Jesus again to them, “I go my way, and you shall seek me, but you shall die in your sins: where I go, you cannot come. … I have told you that you will die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins” (John 8:21, 24).
        • So by their fruits you shall know them. Not every one that said to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name? And in your name have cast out devils? And in your name done many wonderful works?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers” (Matt 7:20-23).
        • He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).
        • He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day (John 12:48).
        • Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star” (Rev 22:14-16).

The goal in all these appeals, fear-based or not, is not to make us scared per se, but to encourage us to be sober, to develop a sense of urgency in following the call of God, and to summon others to saving faith. “Sinner, please don’t let this harvest pass and die and lose your soul at last.”

The text says that salvation is not attained by everyone, that some are not “strong enough,” that many are on a road that does not lead to glory. We are urged to be awake, sober, and urgent in securing salvation for everyone we meet.

Many today think of Hell as a place only for the extremely wicked (e.g., serial murderers, genocidal maniacs), but Scripture teaches that there are many other paths that lead away from Heaven (and toward Hell): lack of forgiveness, preoccupation with cares of the world, and sexual sins such as fornication, homosexual acts, and adultery. Wealth also creates difficulties that make it hard to enter the kingdom. Some people cannot and will not endure persecution, trials, or setbacks related to the faith and instead choose to deny Christ before others.

The fact of the matter is, many people just aren’t all that interested in Heaven; they reject many of its values such as forgiveness, chastity, and generosity. They aren’t strong in their desire. They aren’t “strong enough” to make the journey.

II. The Divine Desire The first reading (from Isaiah) assures us that God wants to save us all. If there is resistance to Heaven and being in relationship with God forever, it comes us, not God. I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory. … that have never heard of my fame or seen my glory; and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations. … Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the LORD (Is 66:18-21).

Other texts in Scripture also speak of God’s desire to save us all and of His extending the offer of saving love to all:

        • “As surely as I live,” says the LORD, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ez 33:11)
        • God our Savior … wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. … And for this purpose, I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles (1 Tim 2:3-7).
        • The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare (2 Peter 3:9-10).
        • Seek the LORD while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; And let him return to the LORD, And He will have compassion on him, And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon (Isaiah 55:6-7).

God is not our adversary in salvation; He is our only way. He wants to save us, but He respects our choice.

III. The Discipline that Delivers – If, then, we are stubborn and stiff-necked (and we are), and yet God still wants to save us, how is this to be accomplished? The first step, of course, is to accept the Lord’s offer of His Son Jesus, who alone can save us. We do this through faith and baptism as well as through the daily renewal of our yes, by God’s grace.

The second reading (from Hebrews) also spells out for us a way in which God, by His grace, works to draw us deeper into His saving love and path:

My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it (Heb 12:5-7).

In this passage is a kind of “five-point plan” for remaining in God’s saving love:

(1)  Respect God’s RegimenMy son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord … The Greek word translated here as disdain is ὀλιγώρει (oligorei), which means more literally to care too little for something or to fail to accord it proper respect. The word translated as discipline is παιδείας (paideias), which refers to the training and education of children so as to bring them to proper maturity. Hence, the text is telling us that God’s discipline for us is not punitive per se but is developmental and necessary for us; we ought not to make light of our need for this sort of training and discipline. While we may like to think of ourselves as “mature” in the face of God and His wisdom, we are really little children in great need of growing up into the fullness of Christ.

(2)  Reconsider When Reproved… or lose heart when reproved by him. Here, too, analysis of the Greek text is helpful. The word translated here as reproved is ἐλεγχόμενος (elenchomenos), which more fully means to be convinced with compelling evidence that one is wrong or to be compelled to make a correction in one’s thinking. Although we may bristle or feel discouraged when corrected, we ought to remember that God is all-wise, and we must remain open to being convicted by the truth He brings to us. The truth may at first challenge us, but it ultimately sets us free.

(3)  Remember His Regard… for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. … God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? God does not discipline us for His own sake, to show power or to demonstrate who is in charge. He disciplines us because He loves us and wants to save us. He is our Father, not our taskmaster. We are His children. We ought to remember the regard, the love, He has for us and be mindful that He does not punish for the sake of His ego, but for the sake of us, His sons and daughters.

(4)  Remain Resolved Endure your trials as “discipline.” Our flesh wants to rebel and our fragile ego bristles easily, but we must endure; we must be resolved; we must persevere and remain on the path God sets out for us.

(5)  Receive the RewardAt the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.

This Sunday we have a sober teaching from the Lord, who describes a danger about which we must be sober. And while the readings also describe His divine desire to save us, there is also a need for a discipline that delivers us.

We ought to be sober about what the Lord teaches. There are too many people today who are not sober about the fact that many are going to be lost. Because of this, they often do not attend to their own souls let alone the souls of others.

If your children or grandchildren are away from the Church, not praying, not receiving the sacraments, awash in sinful habits, locked in serious and unrepented mortal sin, do not take this lightly. The Lord warns and warns and warns. Do not brush it off or take refuge in false, unbiblical notions that presume nearly universal salvation.

The Lord demands from us a sober and biblical zeal for souls, rooted in the comprehension that we humans tend to stray and that we mysteriously do not seem to want what God offers. Being sober helps us to be urgent, and urgency makes us evangelical enough to go to those we love and say to them, “Sinner don’t let this harvest pass and die and lose your soul at last!”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Sober and Serious about Salvation—Homily Notes for the 21st Sunday of the Year

The Battle is Engaged…Choose Sides! A Homily for the 20th Sunday of the Year

The readings today speak of a great cosmic battle that is taking place all around us. In the Gospel, Jesus speaks vividly of it, and of his own mission to engage our ancient foe and to gather God’s elect back from the enslaving clutches of Satan, who was a murder and a liar from the beginning (cf John 8:44).

And so, as Jesus approaches Jerusalem for the final time, He describes the battle that is about to unfold. It is a battle he wins at the Cross and Resurrection, but it is a battle whose parameters extend across time to our own era.

We also do well to look at the second reading, which describes what ought to be our stance in reference to the great cosmic battle. Though the victory is ours, we can only lay hold of it by clinging to Christ and walking with him. The Hebrews text gives us a kind of battle plan.

But we begin this reflection on the readings by considering Jesus’ description in the Gospel of the cosmic battle and of his own great mission as the great Shepherd of the sheep, and the Lord of armies (Dominus Deus Sabaoth!).

I. Passion to Purify –  Jesus begins by saying, I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!

Fire is a powerful and transformative reality. Nothing goes away from fire unchanged. Fire does gives warmth, and it makes food palatable, but it also consumes and destroys. But nothing goes away from fire unchanged!

The Lord has come to purify us,  by the fiery power of his love, of his grace, and of his Word. He has a passion to set things right.

But purification is seldom easy or painless, and hence, there is the image of fire. In this great cosmic battle,  fire must be cast on the earth, not only to purify, but also to distinguish. There are things that will be made pure, but only if other things are burnt away and reduced to ashes.

This image of fire is important, because many people today have reduced faith to seeking enrichment and blessings. And faith does surely supply these. But it is also true that faith demands that we take up our cross and follow Christ without compromise. And many, if not most enrichment and blessings come only through the fiery purification of God’s grace, which burns away sin and purifies us of our adulterous relationship with this world. Fire incites, demands and causes change. And change is never easy.

Therefore, Jesus announces the fire by which he will judge and purify this earth, and all on it, rescuing us from the power of the evil one.

And this is no mere campfire around which we seeing cute songs. Jesus describes it as a blaze which must set the whole world on fire!

So, how do you get ready for fire? By letting the Lord set you on fire! John the Baptist had promised of the Lord: He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matt 3:11) And indeed, the Lord sent forth his Spirit on the early Church as tongues of fire (cf Acts 2:3) so as to bring them up to the temperature of glory and to prepare them for the coming judgment of the world by fire.

The battle is engaged! Choose sides. And if you think you can remain neutral or stand on some “middle ground,” I’ve got news for you about which side you are really on. No third way is given. You’re either on the Ark or you’re not. You’re either letting the fire purify you or being reduced to ashes. You’re either on fire by God’s grace, and thereby ready for the coming judgment of the world by fire or you are not. But the choice is yours. Jesus is passionate to set things right. He has come to cast fire on the earth.

II. Painful path. The text says, There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!

In coming among us, the Lord does not merely come to get us out of trouble, but to get into trouble with us. Though himself sinless, Jesus takes upon himself the full weight of human sinfulness and manfully carries it to the cross. He accepts a “baptism” in his own blood on our behalf.

In waging war on our behalf against the evil one,  he does not sit in some comfortable headquarters behind enemy lines, he goes out “on point,” taking the hill of Calvary, and  leading us over the top to the resurrection glory. He endures every blow, every hardship on our behalf.

And by his wounds we are healed by being baptized in the very blood he shed in the great cosmic war.

It is a painful path he trod, and he speaks of his anguish in doing it. But having won the victory, he now turns to us and invites us to follow him, through the cross the glory.

But the choice to follow is ours, and in this sense the cosmic battle continues as Jesus describes in the verses that follow.

III. Piercing Purgation – In words that are nothing less than shocking, the Lord says, Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

The words shock but they speak a truth which sets aside worldly notions of comprise and coexistence with evil. In order for there to be true peace, true holiness and true victory over Satan, there must be distinction, not equivocation, there must be clarity, not compromise. Fire and water do not mix. One hears the conflict when they come together of hissing, popping, searing and steaming. One must win, the other must lose. Compromise and coexistence are not possible.

The Lord said (back in Matthew 10:34) that he came not for peace but for the sword. And thus there is a kind of analogy to a surgeon’s scalpel. The surgeon must wield this “sword” to separate out healthy flesh from that which is diseased or gangrenous, cancerous growth cut away from that which is  normal flesh. Coexistence is not ultimately possible, the diseased flesh has to go. The moment one talks of “coexisting” with cancer or gangrene, the disease wins. Were a doctor to take this stance he would be guilty of malpractice. When there is cancer or gangrene, the battle must be engaged.

And thus the Lord, in this great and cosmic battle cannot and will not tolerate a false peace based on compromise or a non-critical coexistence. He has come to wield a sword, to divide. Many moderns do not like it, but scripture is clear, there are wheat and tares, sheep and goats, those on the Lord’s right and those on his left, the just and wicked, the lowly and the proud, the wide road to damnation and the narrow road to salvation, and those on each of them.

And these distinctions, these divisions extend into our very families, unto our most intimate relationships. This is the battle. And there are two armies, two camps. No third way is given. Jesus says elsewhere, Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. (Matt 12:30)

Of all this we must be sober and work for our salvation, and the salvation of all. For while there may no be a season of mercy and patience now, the time is short for us all when the distinction between good and evil, righteousness and sin will be definitive and the sword must be wielded.

And thus the Lord speaks to us of a cosmic battle in the valley of decision (cf Joel 3).  Jesus has won, and it is time to choose sides. And even if family members reject us, we must choose the Lord. The cosmic battle is engaged, the fire is cast, sword of the Spirit and God’s words is being wielded. The Lord has come to divide the good from the wicked, the sheep from the goats and judgement begins now, with the house of God. Scripture says,

For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)

If this be the case, How do we choose sides, practically speaking. And having chosen sides, how do we fight with the Lord in the cosmic battle. For this it is helpful to turn to the Letter to the Hebrews from today’s Mass, a magnificent text that summons us to courage and constancy. Note four prescriptions in this letter for a solider in the Army of the Lord:

A. Lay Hold of the The PROOF of faith – The Text begins Since we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

What do witnesses do? They testify to what is true, to what they have seen, heard and experienced. In the previous Chapter of Hebrew (11), we were given a litany of witnesses from the Old Testament who learned to trust God and were rescued from ungodly men and innumerable snares. And individually and collectively they stand before us summoning us to courage and declaring that God can make a way out of no way, that he can move mountains and deliver his people, that He can do anything but fail.

And thus we are to hear their testimony and be summoned courageously to the Battle and to choose the Lord’s side, knowing that the Lord has already won the Victory. To the litany of Old Testament heroes is an innumerable list of saints in our Catholic experience who speak to us of victory and summon us to faith and steadfast courage.  Yes there is the Cross, but Resurrection always follows!

These witnesses say, Choose the Lord, he has already won the victory. Live the life of faith by adhering to the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, let the Sacraments strengthen you, rest in prayer, and walk in fellowship with other Catholic believers in the Army of the Lord.

Jesus is the Lord of Hosts, he is the King of Glory, he is the Head of the Body, the Church. We ought to listen to the testimony of these heroes and accept their witness as a proof of faith.

B. Live The PRIORITY of faith – The text says, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith..

We are given the example of a runner in a race. What does a runner do? He runs the race! Runners do not stop to watch TV, they do not stop to make small talk or take stupid detours or go in the opposite direction. They do one thing: they run the race. So too with our faith, it has priority. Nothing should be allowed to hinder us.

Runners also know where the finish line is and what the goal is. They do not run aimlessly. They keep their eyes on the prize and single-hardheartedly pursue the goal. Not one step is wasted. No extra baggage is carried that would hinder them of weigh them down.

And so it must be for us. We must have our eyes on Jesus. He and the glory he offers are our goal. every step must be toward him. All that weighs us down or hinders us must be set aside. Increasingly our life s to center on one thing, one goal. As St. Paul says,

This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14)

The Rose window at the upper right (from my parish Church) depicts the Medieval world’s Christocentric vision of all things centered on Christ. Every petal of the window is precious: family, spouse, children, work, career, vocation, but all centered on Christ, flowing from him and pointing back to him. How different this Medieval notion is from the modern anthropocentric and egocentric world, with man at the center, the ego on throne and God relegated to the edges.

Let Christ be your center. An old song says, “Jesus you’re the center of my joy.”

C. Learn the PERSPECTIVE of faith. The text says, For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.

It is clear that there are crosses, setbacks, disappointments and suffering in life. But do you know where these lead? To glory, if we are faithful! And thus the text reminds us that the Lord Jesus endured shame and the cross for the sake of the joy and glory that lay ahead.

There is no place in the Christian life for a discouraged hang-dog attitude of defeat. We’re marching to Zion, beautiful Zion! Glories untold await us. Whatever the cost, as Scripture says, For our light and momentary troubles are producing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor 4:17-18)

So keep this perspective of faith. The devil wants you to be discouraged, but just rebuke him, and tell him you’re encouraged because whatever you are going-through, it’s producing.

D. Last unto the end through the PERSEVERANCE of Faith – the Text says,  Consider how [Jesus]  endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.

It is not enough to answer an altar call or get Baptized. It is necessary to persevere. In this cosmic battle Jesus says, At [the end] time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matt 24:10-13)

And thus, in a cosmic war like this, endurance to the end is essential. We must make it over the hill of Calvary with Jesus and unto the resurrection. Victory is promised, but we must make the journey, and make it with Jesus.

Scripture says,  Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. ( 1 Cor 15:1-2)

OK, a tough Sunday. Not exactly the prosperity gospel, or a “Consumer Christianity” focused on enrichment without sacrifice, and crowns without crosses. But this is the real Christianity and the only faith that can save. Jesus describes the cosmic battle, and moves forward manfully to vanquish our ancient foe. But then he turns and says follow me: hear the Proof of faith, make it your Priority, see by its Perspective and Persevere unto the end.

At the end of the day there will be only two groups: the victors and the vanquished. Since you know the outcome by faith, why not pick the winning team?

The Battle is Engaged, Choose sides!

 

Recipe for Readiness —A Homily for the 19th Sunday of the Year

In the Gospel for this weekend (Luke 12:32-40) the Lord Jesus presents a “recipe for readiness.” He gives it to us so that we can lay hold of His offer that we not be afraid. He is not simply saying, “Be not afraid.” He is explaining how we can battle fear by being ready.

Christians today are often uncertain about what is necessary in order to be ready to meet God. Many also make light of the Day of Judgment, considering it all but certain that most of humanity will be saved.

Jesus does not adopt this position. In fact, He teaches the opposite. He consistently warns of the need to be ready for our judgment. Jesus does not counsel a foolish fearlessness rooted in the deception that all or even most will be saved. Rather, He counsels a fearlessness based on solid preparation for the Day of Judgment. Jesus tells us to do at least five things in order to be ready and therefore not afraid.

If we do not make these sorts of preparations, Jesus warns that He will come when we least expect and take away all that we (wrongly) call our own. Jesus says, But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap (Lk 21:34). The apostolic tradition says this of the unprepared: disaster will fall on them as suddenly as a pregnant woman’s labor pains begin. And there will be no escape (1 Thess 5:3).

Thus, while Jesus begins by saying that we ought not to fear (for the Father wants to grant us His Kingdom), He also warns that being free of fear is contingent upon embracing and following the plan that He sets forth for our life.

Let’s look at this plan and see how we can forsake fear by becoming and remaining ready. Jesus gives us five specific things to do that will help to ready us for the time when the Lord calls us. It is not an exhaustive list, for no single passage of Scripture is the whole of Scripture, but these are some very practical and specific things to reflect upon and do.

I.  Reassess your wealth. Jesus says, Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.

In this passage, the Lord is giving us three teachings on wealth. He says that we ought to do these things:

        • Forgo Fear. In the end, it is fear that makes us greedy and worldly; we grab up the things of this world because we are afraid of not having enough for tomorrow. But what if we could receive the gift to trust God more and to know that He will give us our daily bread? He has given us the Kingdom; why wouldn’t He give us everything else? He may not give us everything we want, but He will give us what we really need. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these other things will be given unto to you (Matt 6:21). If we can just allow God to diminish our fear, we will be surprised at how easy it is to be generous with what we have rather than hoarding it.
        • Forward your Fortune. When we are generous to the needy and poor, we store up treasure for ourselves in Heaven. Treasure is not stored in Heaven by sending it up there in a rocket ship or a hot-air balloon. It is accomplished by generously distributing our wealth to others in wise and creative ways. I discussed this more fully in my homily last week (You Can’t Take It with You, but You Can Send It on Ahead). While it may not be appropriate to sell everything and go sleep on a park bench, the Lord is surely telling us to be less attached to and passionate about money and possessions, for they root us in this world. And where our treasure is, there also will our heart be.
        • Fix your focus. Our focus is misplaced because most of us have our treasure here in this world. Once we become less fearful and more generous, our obsession with worldly treasure subsides and our joy in heavenly treasure grows. This redirects our focus and puts our heart where our treasure really is and ought to be: in Heaven with God. Simplify! Be less rooted in this world; come to experience that your greatest treasure is God and the things awaiting you in Heaven.

Reassess your wealth. What is it and where is it? That will tell you a lot about your heart.

II. Ready yourself to work. The Lord says Gird your loins,which is the ancient equivalent of “roll up your sleeves.” The Lord has work for us to do and wants us to get to it.

Surely, the Lord has more than a worldly career in mind. He has in mind things like growing in holiness, pursuing justice, and raising children in godly fear. The Lord wants us to work in His Kingdom. We must commit to prayer, Sunday worship, the reception of the sacraments, obedience, and holiness.

The Lord has particular work for each of us based on our gifts. Some people are good teachers; others work well with senior citizens; some are entrepreneurs who can provide employment for others at a just wage. Some are skilled at medicine and the care of the sick; others are called to priesthood or the religious life. Some are called to suffer and to offer that suffering for the salvation of souls. Some serve in strength, others do so in weakness; but all are called to serve, to work.

Work with what the Lord gave you to advance His Kingdom. Part of being ready means doing your work.

III. Read the Word. The Lord says, light your lamps.

On one level, the phrase “light your lamps” is simply a symbol for readiness (e.g., the Wise and Foolish Virgins in Matt. 25:1-13).

But in another sense, a lamp is also a symbol for Scripture. For example, You Word, O Lord, is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path (Ps 119:105). We possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Peter 1:19).

The Lord is teaching us that an essential part of being ready is being rooted and immersed in the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church. That makes sense, of course. Too many in this increasingly secular world are hostile to the faith. How can we think that our mind is going to be anything but sullied if we are not reading Scripture every day? How will our minds be sober and clear if we are inebriated by the world?

Clearly, being ready means reading Scripture each day and basing our life on it.

IV. Remain watchful. The Lord says, And be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks. … Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.

There are different ways to watch and wait. There is the passive watching and waiting that we might do when waiting for a bus: we just sit there and look down the street. There is another kind that is more active. Consider a waiter: he waits and watches actively; he observes and delivers what is needed immediately and notes what will be needed soon so that he will be prepared when the time comes.

There is also the eager sort of waiting that is much like that of a child on Christmas Eve. The child does not wait in dread for Santa Claus but in hopeful expectation.

Watchful and eager waiting are what the Lord has in mind. It is like that active waiting we do when we have invited a guest to our home. We joyfully prepare and place all in order.

To set our house in order is to sweep clean our soul of sin and all unrighteousness (by God’s grace) and to remove all the clutter of worldliness from our life. Regular confession, daily repentance, simplifying our life,  and freeing ourself from worldly attachments declutters the house of our soul.

Have you prepared the home of your soul for the Lord’s arrival? If not, you may experience Him as you would a thief. The Lord is not really a thief, for everything belongs to Him, but if we have not renounced our worldliness and greed and have not rid ourself of attachments to this world, then the Lord will come and take back what is His. He will seem like a thief only because we (wrongly) think things belong to us.

It’s never a good idea to call God, the Lord and owner of all, a thief!

V. Reflect on your reward. The Lord says, Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them. And should he come in the second or third watch and find them prepared in this way, blessed are those servants.

The Lord is clear that He has a reward for those who are found ready!

It is prefigured in the banquet of the Eucharist, in which the Lord prepares a meal and feeds us. He says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20). And I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:30). Today, food can be bought on the spur of the moment and eaten immediately, but in the ancient world one of life’s most pleasant things was a leisurely meal enjoyed in the company of good friends and family.

The Lord offers us the magnificent blessing of Heaven, where we will be with Him and those whom we love forever in unspeakable joy and peace.

Do you meditate often on Heaven and long for its rewards? One of the stranger things about people in the modern world, even some believers, is that they talk so little of Heaven. And while it is not a place any of us have ever been (so it’s hard to fully understand what it will be like), we should reflect often on the joy that awaits us there.

Part of being ready to go home to the Lord is to long for that day to come. When we want to do something, we prepare for it eagerly; we are motivated and we make sacrifices. We will more naturally do whatever is necessary.

These are five elements constituting a recipe for readiness. You’d better set your house in order ’cause He may be comin’ soon!

 

You Can’t Take it with You, But You Can Send it on Ahead! Five teachings on Wealth from the Gospel of the 18th Sunday of the Year.

The Gospel today is not merely a warning against greed, it is an instruction on income and wealth given by Jesus to help us root out greed. As the Gospel opens the problem of greed is presented, and then a prescribed perspective about wealth is offered. Lets take a look at both parts of this gospel.

I. The Problem that is Portrayed – The text begins:  Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” He replied to him, “Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?” Then he said to the crowd, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”

Note that Jesus turns to the crowd (to avoid personally indicting the man of something of which all can all be guilty), and warns without ambiguity that greed must be guarded against. Greed is the insatiable desire for more. It is to want possessions inordinately, beyond what is reasonable or necessary.

Greed is often downplayed today where accumulation and ostentatious display of wealth is often celebrated.  Great rooms with cathedral ceilings, 72″ flat screen TVs and even private home theaters (entertainment centers), fancy cars etc., are shamelessly flaunted.

But greed is at the root of a lot of evils and suffering. Scripture says,

For we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. (1 Tim 6:7-10)

Note that these are very strong words. Greed causes us to be discontented and ungrateful, both of which are forms of unhappiness. It also leads us into temptations, into a snare or trap that sets loose the pangs of many harmful desires which seem to expand in ever increasing ways. And this desire for more and more too easily leads us to personal destruction, and to inflict great harm, insensitivity  and injustice on others.

On account of greed we almost never say, “I have enough, I will give away the rest or use it for others.” Many also wander from the faith since wealth is generally tied to this world and its demands, and they have “too much to loose.” Hence the faith is set aside in favor of the world, greed overrules God and the demands of the gospel.

The Lord will develop more of this in the parable ahead. But for now note that the Lord warns about the serious and destructive problem of greed. This is the problem that is portrayed.

II. The Perspective that is Prescribed – But the Lord does not simply condemn greed. He next goes on to tell a parable which strives to give a proper perspective about wealth. In itself, wealth is not evil. But without a proper perspective, we too easily fall into greed. Hence the Lord gives five teachings on wealth to help us keep it in perspective and avoid greed.

A. The INITIATION of Wealth – The text says, There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. 

Notice that the subject of the sentence is the land, not the man. It was the land, not the man who yielded the increase. And hence, whatever we have has come from God and what God has given. Scripture says,

  1. Deuteronomy 8:18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth
  2. Psalm 24:1 The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein;
  3. James 1:17  Every good and perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.
  4. 1 Cor 4:7 What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?

As such wealth is not bad or evil. But, in all our things, we must never forget that God is the true owner and we are the stewards. An old song 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.

God gives the increase and is the initiator of every blessing, but God remains the owner. And as stewards we are expected to use what belongs to God in accord with what God, the true owner wills. Too easily we forget this and usher in many woes on account of wealth.

And what is the will of God regarding our wealth? The Catechism speaks of God’s will as the “Universal Destination of Goods:”

God gave all the goods of the earth for all the people of the earth. This means that the goods of creation are destined for the whole human race…In his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself. The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family. (Catechism 2402, 2404)

If we will remember that we are stewards of God’s gifts, and that he ultimately intends all to be blessed, we can understand that greed is a form of theft, for it inordinately clings to what should be given to another out of justice. If I have two coats, one of them belongs to the poor.

Remembering that the initiation of my wealth is God, I can help to avoid greed by using my wealth for the purposes God gave it. It is not just for me, it is for all the people of this earth.

B. The INCONVENIENCE of wealth– the Parable continues, He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?

The man sees his wealth and because he does not consider generosity an option, is somehow burdened by it: “What shall I do?” he asks anxiously. To be honest, great wealth brings comfort but  it is also a source of inconvenience. Consider just a few things that usually go with wealth:  locks, insurance, keys, alarms, storage facilities, worries, fears, repairs, maintenance, upgrades, cleaning, utilities, etc. We live in an affluent age but consider the stress. Consider also the loss of other more important values, we have bigger houses but smaller families, and our McMansions are really more houses than homes.

Scripture says,

  1. Eccl 5:12 The rest of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep.
  2. Prov 15:16 Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it.
  3. Proverbs 17:1 Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife.
  4. Ecc 5:10 Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless.

So, wealth certainly has its comforts, but it also brings with it many inconveniences which make our lives stressful and complicated. Better to be free of great or excessive wealth in accord with God’s will than to be burdened and inconvenienced by it. Here is another perspective that helps us avoid greed.

C. The ILLUSION of wealth- The parable goes on to say,  And [the man] said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”

And here we are taught that riches easily lead us to an illusion of self sufficiency. We start to rely on self, and on riches, instead of God. But as we shall see the man’s wealth will utterly fail him before the night is out.

Riches can buy us out of temporary troubles, but cannot help with the central problem we face. No amount of money on this earth can postpone our appointment with death and judgment. Riches can get us a first class cabin on the ship, but on the “Titanic” of this earth we are no more set than the people in steerage. Indeed, because of the illusion it creates, wealth will more likely hinder us in our final passage. For it is only in trusting in God that we can make it to the other shore. But too much wealth and self reliance hinders our capacity to call on the Lord and trust him. Yes, wealth tends to create an illusion which cripples us from reaching our goal.  Scripture says:

  1. Ps 49:12 But man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish. This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings.
  2. 1 Tim 6:17 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.
  3. Prov 11:28 Whoever trusts in his riches will fall,
  4. James 1:11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.
  5. Prov 30:8 Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.

An old gospel song says, Well the way may not be easy, but you never said it would be. Cause when my way get’s a little too easy you know I tend to stray from thee.

The illusion of riches is well illustrated in the modern age. Our wealth has tended to make us less religious. Less dependent on God. But really, can all our wealth and power, technology and science ultimately save us? We know it can not.

Yet strangely we entertain the illusion of wealth anyway. And we think, like the man in the parable, “Now I’ve got it, now I’m set.” This is an illusion, a set up. And coming to see it for the illusion that it is will help us avoid greed.

D. The INSUFFICIENCY of wealthBut God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’

And thus we see the illusion give way to the reality of insufficiency. Scripture says,

  1. Psalm 49:5 There are men who trust in their wealth and boast of the vastness of their riches. But no man can buy his own ransom, or pay a price to God for his life. The ransom of his soul is beyond him. He cannot buy life without end nor avoid coming to the grave. He knows that wise men and fools must perish and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes for ever, their dwelling place from age to age though their names spread wide through the land. In his riches man lacks wisdom, he is like the beast that perish.
  2. Mat 16:26 For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?

Money, wealth, power popularity and prestige can never really get us what we need. And it’s not just money, At the end of the day, all this world and all its riches cannot save us. Only God can do this. Here too is another perspective on wealth that helps us avoid greed.

E. The INSTRUCTION about wealth – The parable concludes:  Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”

As we have already remarked, wealth is not intrinsically evil. It is our greed that is sinful and gets us into trouble. And greed clings to wealth unreasonably and excessively. With greed we “store up treasure for our self and are not rich in what matters to God.”

So, what matters to God? What matters is that we be rich in justice, mercy, love, holiness and truth, that we be generous sharers of the bounty he bestows. And thus the Lord teaches us to generously share what we have over and above what we do not need. Consider the following teachings:

  1. Luke 16:9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
  2. Mat 6:19 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.
  3. 1 Tim 6:17-19 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.

There is an old saying: “You take it with you.” And this is true, but only partially. The Lord suggests that we can send our wealth on ahead, that we can store it up in heaven, that we can invest it in eternity. How? Do we put our gold in a balloon and float it up? No, we send it up, we send it on ahead by bestowing it on the poor and needy. This can include our children and family members, for Charity begins at home. But it does not end there. Thus our generosity should extend beyond the family to many of the poor.

If we do this the Lord teaches that the poor we bless will welcome us to heaven and speak on our behalf before the judgment seat. The Lord says when we bless the poor our treasure will be great, and safe in heaven. Further, our generosity and mercy will benefit us greatly on the day of judgment and help us, as St. Paul says above, lay hold of the life that is truly life.

So, you can’t take it with you, but you can send it on ahead.

Therefore, this final teaching or perspective on wealth is to be rich in what matters to God by being generous, not greedy.

And thus we have five teachings on wealth meant to give us perspective, so as to avoid greed.

And trust God! Greed is rooted in fear, but generosity trusts that God will not be outdone in generosity! And while our greatest rewards remain in heaven, God sends “interest payments” even now upon the generous. Scripture says,

  1. Prov 11:24 One man gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.A generous man will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.
  2. Ecclesiastes 11:1 Cast your bread upon the waters: after many days it will come back to you.
  3. Luke 6:38 Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give, will be the measure you get back.”

Since you can’t take it with you, you might as well send it on ahead. Guard against greed by allowing these five teachings on wealth to give you a proper perspective on wealth.

Three Teachings from the Lord on Prayer – A Homily on the Gospel of the 17th Sunday of the Year

072713Last week’s Gospel featured the Lord insisting that prayer was the “one thing necessary.” In this week’s gospel we see, then, the request by the disciples that the Lord teach them on prayer. In answer the Lord gives us three basic teachings or prescriptions for prayer.

Lets look at these three prescriptions he gives.

I. Pattern of Prayer – The Gospel opens: Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said to him,”Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us, and do not subject us to the final test.”

In giving the “Our Father” we must be careful to understand that the Lord Jesus is not simply giving us words to say. More than this, he is giving us a pattern for prayer. He is “teaching us to pray.” He does this in response to the disciples, who did not ask to be given words to say, but to taught how to pray.

Thus, while the words of the Our Father are precious, it is also important to look at the underlying structure implicit in the prayer so as to learn “how to pray.” Jesus is illustrating by these words what ought to be going on in us interiorly, in our mind and heart as we pray: Here is what the mind and heart of a person of prayer is like.

Let’s consider then, five basic disciplines, taught by Jesus in the Our Father that form a kind of pattern or structure for prayer. I use here the Mattean version of the prayer only because it is more familar, but all the basic elements are the same:

1. RELATE – Our Father who art in heaven – Here begins true spirituality: Relate to the Father! Relate to him with family intimacy, affection, reverence and love. We are not merely praying the “the deity” or the “Godhead.” We are praying to our Father who loves us, who provides for us and, who sent his only Son to die for us and save us. When Jesus lives his life in us and His Spirit dwells in us we begin to experience God as our Abba, (Father).

As developed in other New Testament texts, the deeper Christian word Abba underlies the prayer. Abba is the family word for the more generic and formal word “father.” When my Father was alive I did not call him “Father” I called him “Dad.” This is really what the word Abba is getting at. It is the family word for Father. It indicates family ties, intimacy, close bonds. Why the word Abba is not used here in the Our Father is uncertain. St. Paul develops the theme here: For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:15 ) and here: And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”(Gal 4:6).

Ask God for the gift to experience him as Abba. At the heart of our worship and prayer is a deep and personal experience of God’s love and fatherly care for us. The first discipline or practice of the Spiritual life is to RELATE to God as to a Father who loves us and to experience him as Abba.

2. REJOICE – hallowed by thy name! The praise and love of God is the essential discipline and element of our spiritual lives. He is the giver of every good and perfect gift and to Him our praise is due. Praise and thanksgiving make us people of hope and joy. It is for this that we were made. God created us, so that we…might live for his praise and glory (Eph 1:12).

Our prayer life should feature much joyful praise. Take a psalm of praise and pray it joyfully. Take the Gloria of the Mass and pray it with gusto! Rejoice in God, praise his name. Give glory to him who rides above the clouds.

There may be times when, due to some sadness or difficulty, we do not feel emotionally like praising God. Praise the Lord anyhow! Scripture says, I will bless the LORD at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth (Psalm 34:1). Praise is to be a regular discipline of prayer, rooted even more in the will, than just the feelings. God is worthy our praise.

Ultimately praise is a refreshing way to pray, since we were made to praise God, and when we do what we were made to do, we experience a kind of satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment. The second element and discipline of the spiritual life is a life of vigorous praise: REJOICE!

3. RECEIVE – thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven – At the heart of this petition is an openness to God’s will, to his word of instruction, to his plan for us and for this world. When Jesus lives in us we hunger for God’s word and strive to know his will and have it operative in our life.

A basic component and discipline of the prayer and the spiritual life, is to receive the Word and instruction of God, so that his will might be manifest to us, and we can obey. We ought to pray the Scriptures (lectio divina). We ought to study the faith through the Catechism or other means. These are ways that we become open to God’s will that his Kingdom might be manifest in our lives.

The Third element and discipline of prayer and the spiritual life is an openness to to God’s teachings through the Church and Scriptures: RECEIVE!

4. REQUEST – Give us today our daily bread – Intercessory prayer is at the heart of the Christian life. Allow “bread,” in this case, to be a symbol of all our needs. Our greatest need of course is to be fed by God, and thus bread also points to the faithful reception of the Eucharist.

Intercessory prayer is the prayer of asking for God’s help in every need. Take every opportunity to pray for others. When watching the news or reading the newspaper, pray the news. Much of the news contains many things for which to pray: victims of crime, disaster or war, the jobless, homeless and afflicted. Many are locked in sin and bad behavior, corruption, confusion, bad priorities and the like. Many are away from the sacraments and no longer seek their Eucharistic bread who is Christ. Pray, pray, pray.

There are also good things we hear of and we should be grateful and ask that solutions be lasting. This intercessory prayer flows from our love and solidarity with others. We see the world with the compassion of Christ and pray. The fourth element and discipline of prayer and the spiritual life is to INTERCEDE for ourselves and others.

5. REPENT – and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. – Sin is understood at two levels here: 1: sin – (lowercase) our personal sins and trespasses, also referred to as our “trespasses.” 2. Sin (upper case) – referring to the whole climate of sin, the structures of sin that reinforce and underlie our own sins. Referred to here as “evil.”

An essential element of our spiritual life is that we come to recognize the sins, and deep drives of sins, in our own life, to beg deliverance from them as well as mercy.

It is also true that we live in a sin soaked world were the powers and principalities of evil have great influence. We cannot fail to recognize this and pray that it’s power will be curbed.

Then too, we must also pray for the grace to show mercy to others. For it often happens that sin escalates through resentments, and retribution rooted in unforgiving attitudes. We must pray to be delivered from these hurts and resentments so as to be able to break the cycle of violence and revenge that keeps sin multiplying.

But in the end we must pray for the Lord’s grace and mercy to end evil in our own lives and that the whole world. The Fifth element and discipline of prayer and the spiritual life is to REPENT of evil.

So here then is a structure for our prayer and spiritual life contained in the Our Father. Jesus teaches us to pray, and gives us a basic structure for prayer. Some may use this an actual structure for daily prayer. Hence,  if they are going to spend 25 minutes praying, they spend about five minutes on each aspect. Others may use this structure for an over all reference for their spiritual life in general. Hence, one might ask if these aspects and disciplines are reflected well in their overall prayer life.

Thus the first teaching of the Lord is to give us a patten for prayer. We now go on to the next preisciption.

II. The Persistence of Prayer – Jesus goes on to say, “Suppose one of you has a friend to whom he goes at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey and I have nothing to offer him,’ and he says in reply from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked and my children and I are already in bed. I cannot get up to give you anything.’ I tell you, if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence. “And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Jesus tells a similar parable in Luke 18 of an unjust judge and a persistent widow. Finally the judge gives her justice because of her demanding persistence.

The upshot of both of these parables is that if even a grouchy neighbor and an unjust judge will respond to persistence, how much more will God the Father who is neither unjust or grouchy respond to those who call out to him day and night.

The teaching that we persist in prayer is something of a mystery. God is not deaf, he is not forgetful, he is not stubborn. But yet, he teaches in many places that we are to persevere, even pester him, in our prayer.

Why he teaches this cannot be for his sake, it must be for ours. Perhaps he seeks to help us clarify what we really want, perhaps he wants to strengthen our faith, perhaps he wants to instill appreciation in us for the finally answered prayer. What ever it may be there is something of a mystery here as to the exact reason. But persistent prayer is taught and insisted upon by Jesus, here and elsewhere.

Some may ponder as to why our prayers are not always effective. Some of the usual explanations from Scripture are:

  1. Our faith is not strong enough – Jesus said: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:22) And the Book of James says, But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; (James 1:6-7)  There is also the sad fact of Nazareth where the Lord could work few miracles so much did their lack of faith disturb him (Matt 13:58)
  2. We ask for improper things or with wrong motives – The Book of James says : “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures
  3. Unrepented sin sets up a barrier between us and God so that our prayer is blocked –  “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor His ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities (sins) have separated you from God; your sins have hidden his face from you so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:1-2).
  4. We have not been generous with the requests and needs of others – “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13)
  5. God cannot trust us with blessings for we are not conformed to his word or trustworthy with lesser things – If you remain in me and my word remains in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you” (John 15:7) and Again: So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? (Lk 16:11-12)

Now all these explanations are fine. But even if none of them apply God often delays anyway.

A man one day prayed to God and asked: “How long is a million years to you?” And said, “About a minute.”  And the man said, “How much is a million dollars to you?”  And God said, “About a penny.”  The man said, “Can I have a penny?” And God said, “In a minute.”

God’s “delay” and our need to persist and persevere in prayer are mysterious aspects of God’s providence but they are taught, there is no doubt about that.

Pray, Pray Pray – The insistence on persistence is taught to us all, not only to the sinful and weak in faith. The Lord says here quite simply: pray, pray, pray pray, pray. Realize that this is part of what is required of the Christian. Prayer is about more than “calling and hauling” or “naming and claiming.” It is also about persevering, about persisting. Monica prayed thirty years, it would seem, for Augustine to accept the Faith. Some of us have prayed even longer for loved ones. In the end God seems to require persistence for some things and we dare not give up or become discouraged. We just have to keep praying: Pray, pray, pray.

Note that the two of the three images for persistent prayer given by Jesus involve an on-going action. We are to ask, seek and knock. Asking can be done only once, but can be repeated. But seeking implies an on-going even lengthy search. Knocking involves a persistent and repeated rapping at the the door. One does not simply give a single pulse, they usually give sever rapid and repeated pulses. When there is no answer the pattern is repeated a few times.

Prescription two for prayer is to persist, to persevere.

III. The Point of Prayer – Jesus then concludes: What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?

The rhythm of the Lord’s analogy seems a bit odd here. If and earthly father knows how to “give good gifts” to his son, then we expect Jesus to say that the Heavenly Father also knows how to give “good gifts” to those who ask. But Jesus does not say “good gifts.” He says, the Father gives “The Holy Spirit.”

Why is this? Because it is the highest gift that contains all others. To receive the Holy Spirit is to receive the love of God, the Glory of God, the life of God, the Wisdom of God. It is to receive God Himself, who comes to live in us as in a temple. And with this gift comes every other gift and consolation. For, by the Holy Spirit we begin to think and see more as God does. We attain to his priorities and desire what he desires. We see sins and worldly attachments begin to go away. And thus the word loses its hold on us and can no longer vex us.

Jesus says elsewhere, Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matt 6:33). Yes, to receive the gift of God the Holy Spirit, it to receive all things besides for nothing more can disturb us. St Thomas Aquinas one day sense the Lord asking what he would like. St Thomas replied nil nisi te, Domine, (Nothing except you O Lord).  And for those who love God and have progressed in prayer, that really is all that is wanted. God can give cars and new jobs, and financial blessings, and for some, such things are well needed. But why not aim for the highest and best gift too? Ask for the Gift of the Holy Spirit. Nil nisi te Domine!

Ultimately the point of all prayer is deep communion with the Lord. This is our high calling, to be in communion with the Lord, here and one day fully in the glory of heaven. Don’t miss the ultimate point of prayer.

Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
Thy wings shall my petition bear
To Him whose truth and faithfulness
Engage the waiting soul to bless.
And since He bids me seek His face,
Believe His Word and trust His grace,
I’ll cast on Him my every care,
And wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer!

The Priority of Personal Prayer – A Meditation on the Gospel of the 16th Sunday of the Year

Today’s Gospel at Mass is the very familiar one of Martha and Mary. Martha is the anxious worker seeking to please the Lord with a good meal and hospitality. Mary sits quietly at his feet and listens. One has come to be the image of work, the other of prayer.

Misinterpreted? In my fifty-two years I have heard many a sermon that interpreted this Gospel passage as a call for a proper balance between work and prayer. Some have gone on to state that we all need a little of Martha and Mary in us and that the Church needs both Marthas and Marys.

But in the end it seems that such a conclusion misses the central point of this passage. Jesus does not conclude by saying, “Martha, Now do your thing and let Mary do hers.” He describes Mary as not only choosing the better part but also as doing the “one thing necessary.” This does not amount to a call for “proper balance” but instead underscores the radical priority and primacy of prayer. This, it would seem is the proper interpretive key for what is being taught here. Many other passages of the Scripture do set forth the need to be rich in works of charity but this is not one of them.

With that in mind let’s take a look at the details of the Lord’s teaching today on the  Priority of Personal Prayer.

I. PROMISING PRELUDE – Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. Our story begins by showing Martha in a very favorable light. She opens her door, her life, if you will, and welcomes Jesus. This is at the heart of faith, a welcoming of Jesus into the home of our heart and life. Surely Revelation 3:20 comes to mind here: Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any one hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and eat with him and he with me.

While we acknowledge this promising prelude we ought also to underscore the fact that the initiative is that of Jesus. The text says Jesus entered a village…. In the call of faith the initiative is always with God. It was not you who chose me, it was I who chose you (Jn 15:16) Hence, while we must welcome Him, God leads. Martha hears the Lord’s call and responds. So far so good.

What happens next isn’t exactly clear but the impression is that Martha goes right to work. There is no evidence that Jesus asked for a meal from her, large or small. The text from Revelation just quoted does suggest that the Lord seeks to dine with us, but implies that it is he who will provide the meal. Surely the Eucharistic context of our faith emphasizes that it is the Lord who feeds us with his Word and with his Body and Blood.

At any rate, Martha seems to have told the Lord to make himself comfortable and has gone off to work in preparing a meal of her own. That she later experiences it to be such a burden is evidence that her idea emerged more from her flesh than the Spirit.

II. PORTRAIT OF PRAYER She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Now here is a beautiful portrait of prayer: to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen.

Many people think of prayer as something that is said. But prayer is better understood as a conversation, and conversations include listening. Vocal prayer, intercessory prayer and the like are all noble and important but the prayer of listening is too often neglected.

Prayer is not just telling God what we want, it is discovering what He wills. We have to sit humbly and listen. We must learn to listen, and listen to learn. We listen by devoutly and slowing considering scripture (lectio divina), and by pondering how God is speaking in the events and people in our life, how God is whispering in our conscience and soul.

Jesus calls this kind of prayer “the one thing necessary” as we shall see. What Mary models and Martha forgets is that we must first come (to Jesus) then go (and do what he says)….that we must first receive, before we can achieve…..that we must first be blessed before we can do our best……that we must listen before we leap into action.

III. PERTURBED and PRESUMPTUOUS Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” – And so, sure enough Martha who is laboring in the flesh, but not likely in the Spirit and in accord with the Lord’s wishes, is now experiencing the whole thing as a burden. She blames her sister for all this but the Lord’s response will make it clear that this is not Mary’s issue.

One sign that we are not in God’s will is the experiencing of what we are doing as a burden. We are all limited and human and will experience ordinary fatigue. It is one thing to be weary in the work but it is another thing to be weary of the work.

A lot of people run off to do something they think is a good idea. And maybe it is a fine thing in itself. But they never asked God. God might have said, “Fine.” or He might have said, “Not now, but later.” Or He might have said, “Not you but some one else.” Or he might have just plain said, “No.” But instead of asking they just go off and do it and then when things don’t work out will often times blame God: “Why don’t you help me more!”

And so Martha is burdened. She first blames her sister. Then she presumes the Lord does not care about what is (to her) an obvious injustice. Then she takes presumption one step further and presumes to tell the Lord what to do: “Tell her to help me.”

This is what happens when we try to serve the Lord in the flesh. Instead of being true servants who listen to the Lord’s wishes and carry them out by his grace, we end up as angry and mildly (or not) dictatorial. She here is Martha, with her one hand on her hip and her index finger in the air 🙂 Jesus will be kind with her but firm.

IV. PRESCRIBED PRIORITY Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her. Now don’t let the Lord have to call you by your name twice! But it is clear the Lord wants her attention and that she has stumbled on a fatal mistake that we all can too easily make. She lept before she listened.

The Lord observes and says that she is anxious about many things. Anxiety about many things comes from neglect of the one thing most necessary: to sit at the feet of the Lord and listen to him.

In life, the Lord will surely have things for us to do but they need to come from him. This is why prayer is the “one thing” necessary and the better part: because work flows from it and is subordinate to it.

Discernment is not easy but it is necessary. An awful lot of very noble ideas have floundered in the field of the flesh because they were never really brought before God and were not therefore a work of grace.

Jesus does not mean that ALL we are to do is pray. There are too many other Gospels that summon us to labor in the vineyard to say that. But what Jesus is very clear to say is that prayer and discernment have absolute priority. Otherwise expect to be anxious about many things and have little to show for it.

Scripture makes it clear that God must be the author and initiator of our works: 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).

And old prayer from the Roman Ritual also makes this plain: Actiones nostras, quaesumus Domine, aspirando praeveni et adiuvando prosequere: ut cuncta nostra oratio et operatio a te semper incipiat, et per te coepta finiatur. Per Christum Dominum nostrum (Direct we beseech Thee, O Lord, our prayers and our actions by Thy holy inspirations and carry them on by Thy gracious assistance, so that every work of ours may always begin with Thee, and through Thee be ended). Amen

This song reminds that when we really ARE working in the Lord’s will and as the fruit of prayer we love what we do and do so with joy. This song says, “I keep so busy working for the Kingdom I ain’t got time to die!”