God and God Alone: A Homily for the 29th Sunday of the Year

101814The Gospel today contains lots of interesting juxtapositions: hatred for Jesus but grudging respect for him,  real questions versus rhetorical ones, politics and faith, duties to Caesar and duties to God. The word  “juxtaposition” is from the Latin juxta (meaning “near”) and positio (meaning “place or position”). Hence juxtaposition is the placing of two things near to each other in order to see how they are similar and yet different.  In English, usually a juxtaposition emphasizes differences more than similarities.

Let’s look at these one by one, spending the most time on the juxtaposition of our duties toward God and toward “Caesar.” The essential lesson in all these juxtapositions is that God will not be reduced to fit into our little categories. He is God, not man.

I. The Plotting of the Peculiar Partners  The Gospel begins by describing an extremely unlikely set of “bedfellows.” The text says, The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.  They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians. A very unlikely set of allies here. The Pharisees hated the Herodians. It was a combination of political and racial hatred, just about as poisonous as you could get in the ancient world. Yet they both agreed that this Jesus fellow had to go.

Here is an important teaching: if you’re going to be a true Christian the world will hate you. Too many Christians think some segment of the world will agree to live in peace with us and so we strive to forge allegiances with it. In the modern American scene, some think that the Republicans or the Democrats are natural allies for us. As we will discuss later, we really don’t fit well into either party or into any worldly “club.”

Catholicism is an “equal-opportunity offender” if it is proclaimed in its unabridged form. Issue by issue we may appeal to one political party or another. But taken as a whole we’re a nuisance: pro-life, traditional family values, immigrants’ rights, affordable housing, anti-capital punishment. But in the end, we both please and annoy at the same time. Which is another way of saying we don’t fit into the world’s categories and everyone has some reason to hate us.

Welcome to Jesus’ world where even the Herodians and Pharisees, who seem to agree on nothing, do agree to hate Jesus.

II. The Praise that is (really) a Perilous Provocation – In their opening remarks to Jesus, His enemies give him grudging respect.  But they do so not to actually praise Him but rather to provoke Him. They say, Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not? 

But this praise is largely a pretext and is used to provoke. In effect, they think they can they can force a definition on Jesus: “You’re the Man … You’re the prophet … You’re the answer man … You’re the only one around here who tells the truth no matter what.” Now none of these things are false and they bespeak a grudging respect for Jesus.

But they are only using this to draw Jesus into a worldly debate well below his “pay grade.” They want Jesus to take sides in a stupid human debate over politics and worldly power. They want him to get arrested and killed over something not worth dying for.

Prophets die for the truth revealed by God not for who the “big cheese” should be in human affairs or who human beings think are the best. They want Jesus to opine as if He were some sort of talking head on TV rather than the prophet and Lord that He is. A question of this sort is not worthy of Jesus’ attention. Ask this of the local senator or mayor but leave God out of human political distinctions and camps; do not expect Him to take sides. He is beyond our distinctions and will not be confined by party lines, national boundaries, or political philosophies.

We may well debate that certain systems better reflect the Kingdom than others, but in the end, God cannot be reduced to being a Republican, a Democrat, or for that matter an American. He is God and He transcends our endless debates and camps. He is not a talking head; He is God.

Generally speaking, rhetorical questions are statements or arguments posed in the form of a question. If I say to you, “Are you crazy?” I am not really looking for an answer.  Though I have spoken in the form of a question, I am really making a statement: “You ARE crazy.”  This is what takes place in today’s gospel. The questioners already have their own opinions and they are not about to change based on any answer Jesus would give. They don’t really want an answer per se. They just want something to use against Him.

If He says, “Yes, pay the taxes,” that is politically incorrect and will make Him unpopular with the crowds. If He says “No, don’t pay the taxes,” He will be arrested and likely executed.

In the end, Jesus calls them what they are: hypocrites, a Greek word meaning “actor.” And that is what they are. This whole thing is an act. No real answer is sought, just a showdown. This is not about discovering the truth; it is about setting a trap.

But Jesus will have none of it. He will not be reduced to human distinctions and categories. The truth He proclaims transcends the passing political order and struggles for human power. He will not be drawn into declaring one side or the other better. Rather, He will apply the ruler of truth evenly to all.

He is reality in the face of rhetoric, perfection in the face of politics, Divinity in the face of division.

III. The Protesting of their Pretext and Pretense – Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?   Not every one who engages us is truly looking for an answer or for the truth. We cannot always know things, but Jesus surely could. Often, when one is engaged in a discussion about the truth of the Gospel, one discovers that authentic dialogue is not actually taking place and thus it is permissible for us to merely proclaim the truth firmly, clearly, and with due charity, and end the conversation. Jesus thus called them on their pretense and authoritatively announced the principle with a goal to ending the conversation and sending them away to think.

IV. The Pointed Proclamation of the Principle of Jesus says, simply, and in a way that transcends worldly “all-or-nothing” scenarios, Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.

This of course generates the wish for elaboration. But in our demands for more detail, we too often seek to conceal the fact that we really know the answer. And we also betray the need of the flesh to specify everything so as to control and limit its impact.

But if a list is demanded we might include some of the following things we ought to “pay” to Caesar (i.e., in our scenario to pay to our country or locale):

  1. Obey all just laws.
  2. Pay legally assessed taxes.
  3. Pray for our country and its leaders.
  4. Participate in the common defense based on our abilities and state in life.
  5. Take an active and informed part in the political process.
  6. Engage in movements of necessary and ongoing reform.
  7. Contribute to the common good through work (domestic or market-based) and through the sharing of our abilities and talents.
  8. Maintain strong family ties, and raise disciplined children well prepared to contribute to the common good and the good order of society.
  9. Encourage patriotic love of our country.
  10. Strive for unity and love rooted in Truth.

And we might include some of the following in what we owe to God:

  1. Adoration, love, and gratitude
  2. Obedience to His Word and Law
  3. Worship
  4. Repentance
  5. Support of His Church by attendance at sacred worship, financial support, and sharing of our gifts and talents
  6. Proclamation of his Word both verbally and by witness
  7. Devoted reception of the Sacraments
  8. Raising our children in His truth and in reverence of Him
  9. Evangelization (making disciples)
  10. Preparing for death and judgment through a holy and reverent sojourn here on earth

A glance at these lists reveals, however, that there is overlap, and one would expect this with God. For He defies many of our human categories and distinctions. In effect, we see a setting forth of the great commandment of Love: that we should love the Lord our God with all our soul, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as ourself (e.g., Matt 22:37). For while God is not Caesar and Caesar is not God, love unites both categories.

Hence we see that to love our country is to love our neighbor. To work for, support, and be involved in the common good is to love our neighbor. And to love our neighbor, whom we see, is to begin to love God, whom we do not see. Further, to seek to reform our land, secure justice, and ensure unity rooted in truth, is to help usher in the Kingdom of God. Yet again, to be rooted in God’s law, walk in His truth, and raise our children as strong and disciplined disciples of the Lord is to bless this country. To obey God and to walk in sobriety, love, and self-discipline is to render not only to God but also to be good citizens.

However, it must be clear that God is and must be our supreme love. And So Jesus is not setting forth a mere equivalence here. It remains a sad fact that this world is often at odds with God. And thus we who would be his disciples must often accept the fact that we will be seen by this world as though we are aliens from another planet. As we have already set forth, neither Jesus nor we should expect to fit precisely into any worldly category or club. We will be an equal-opportunity irritant to any large group.  If you are going to be a faithful Catholic then expect to be an outsider, an outlier, and an outcast.

Rendering to God comes first. But too many people today are more passionate about their politics than their faith. They tuck their faith under their politics and world view. They are more inclined to agree with their party than with the Church or even the Scriptures. And if you try to tell them that, they’ll say you’re violating Church/State barriers (a phrase not in the Constitution, by the way), or that since something is not infallibly defined (as they determine it) they are free to entirely ignore the teaching of the bishops, the Pope, and/or the Catechism on any number of matters.

Hence the question goes up: is God really first? Is His Word really the foundation of our thoughts and views? Or are we just playing games? Loving this world and working for the common good are not at odds with our love for God. But submitting to worldly categories and human divisions and permitting them to drive our views IS most often opposed to God, who will not simply be conformed to human political movements.

God has set forth the Catholic Church to speak for Him but He has not anointed any political movement or worldly organization to speak as such. No Catholic ought to surrender to artificial and passing distinctions, or to organizations, or should permit worldly allegiances to trump what the Scriptures and the Church clearly proclaim. Sadly, today many do, and in such ways seem far more willing to render to some version of “Caesar” than to first render obedience and allegiance to God and to the Church, which speaks for Him. The Church is an object of faith; a political party is not. Render to God what is God’s.

This song says, God and God alone is fit to take the universe’s throne:

Party or Perish! A Homily for the 28th Sunday of the Year

101114The past three Sundays have featured intense and shocking parables about our readiness, our fruitfulness, and our decision to accept and enter the Kingdom of God or not. The Lord has used the image of a vineyard into which workers are dispatched at different times of the day but who have different attitudes about what is due to them at the end of the day; or a vineyard into which two sons are sent, one going and the other not; or a vineyard in which are numerous wicked tenants who refuse to render rightful fruits and who abuse and kill those sent to call for the harvest, even the landowner’s very own son.

The parables are shocking and speak to the great and dramatic decision to which we are all summoned: will we accept the Kingdom of God, entering into to it and accepting its terms, or not? It is a decision on which your destiny (and that of those you love) depends. And Jesus is not playing around; He lays out the drama in stark and shocking ways. Jesus is not the harmless hippie or the mild-mannered Messiah that many today have recast Him to be. He is the Great Prophet, the very Son of God and Lord who authoritatively stands before us and says, “Decide.”

This Sunday’s gospel is perhaps the most shocking and dramatic of all. The Lord Jesus issues another urgent summons to the Kingdom. As with past Sundays, there is the warning of hellish destruction in the refusal of the Kingdom. But this view must be balanced with the vision of a seeking Lord who wants to fill His banquet and will not stop urging until the end. You might say that the theme of this gospel is “Party or Perish!”

Lets look at the gospel in five stages.

I. RICH REPAST – The text says, The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast. Of course the king is God the Father and the wedding feast is the wedding feast of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. On one level, the wedding feast is the invitation to faith in general. But more biblically, the wedding feast is the wedding feast of the Lamb, described in the Book of Revelation (19:7-9). Hence it is also the Liturgy of Heaven, which we share in through the Mass.

What a wonderful image of the Kingdom: a wedding feast! Most Jewish people of that time looked forward to weddings all year long. Weddings were usually timed (in an agricultural setting) between planting and harvest, when things were slower. Weddings often lasted for days and were among the most enjoyable things a Jewish person could imagine. There was feasting, family, and great joy in what God was doing. And consider the unimaginable joy and honor of being invited to a wedding hosted by a king!

Yes, these were powerful images for the ancient Jews of the Kingdom. A wedding! And the wedding of a King’s son, at that! The joy, the celebration, the feasting, the magnificence, the splendor, the beautiful bride, the handsome groom, the love, the unity; yes, the Kingdom of Heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son.

Who would not want to come? And today we may well ask, “If this is Heaven, who does not want to go?” And yet, as we shall see, the invitation is rejected by many!

II. RUDE REJECTION! – The text says, but they refused to come. A second time he sent other servants, saying, “Tell those invited: Behold, I have prepared my banquet, my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready; come to the feast.”‘ Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. The rest laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them.

Why? Here is a real twist to the story, an unexpected development. Why the rejection of the king’s offer? And in our time, why the rejection of what God offers? Are these people crazy? In effect, Jesus explains their rejection in a twofold way: worldliness and wickedness.

Some of those rejecting the invitation to the Kingdom of Heaven do so for worldly reasons. Jesus describes them as going “one to his farm, another to his business.” In other words, the things of the world, though not evil in themselves, have these people preoccupied. They are too busy to accept the invitation; their priorities and passions are elsewhere.

They think, “Weddings are nice, but money is nicer. Yes, you see, God and religion have their place, but they don’t pay the bills.” The goal of the worldly is this world and what it offers, not God or the things awaiting them in Heaven. Things like prayer, holiness, Scripture, and the Sacraments don’t provide obvious material blessings to the worldly minded. Hence, such things are low on their priority list. St Paul speaks of people whose god is their belly and who have their mind set on worldly things (cf Phil 3:19).

So off they go, one to his farm, another to his business; one to watch football, another to detail his car; one to sleep in, another to play golf; one to make money, another to spend it lavishly at the mall.

Others of those rejecting the kingdom do so out of some degree of wickedness. Jesus speaks of how they abuse those who invite them, even killing some of the servants (prophets, apostles, evangelizers). Why this anger?

Many reject the kingdom of God because it is not convenient to their moral lives. Many of them rightly understand that in order to enter the wedding feast of the Kingdom, they will be required to be “properly dressed,” and this will be seen below. But of course “proper dress” here refers not to clothes, but to holiness and righteousness, to living the moral vision of the Kingdom.

Hence the invitation to the wedding feast of the Kingdom incites anger in some, because it casts a judgment on some of their behaviors; it tweaks their consciences. A great deal of the hostility directed toward God, Scripture, Jesus, the Church, and her servants who speak God’s truth is explained by the fact that, deep down, the hostile know that what is proclaimed is true.

Or, if their minds have become very darkened and their hearts hardened by sin, they simply hate being told what to do; they hate any suggestion that what they are doing is wrong. Being told to live chastely, or to forgive, or to be more generous to the poor, or to welcome new life (even when there are deformities), or that there are priorities higher than money, sex, career, and worldly access—all of this is obnoxious to those who have become hardened in sinful choices or sinful patterns of one sort or another. Hence the world often treats God and those who speak of Him with contempt. In certain places and at certain times, some are even martyred.

Of course for many who reject the Kingdom there are multiple reasons. But Jesus focuses on these two broad categories, under which a lot of those reasons fall.

III. RESULTING RUIN. The text says, The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. As in last week’s gospel, we have here a stunning and shocking detail to the story that is, to some extent, mysterious to us. How can such a violent punishment be squared with the vision of a God who loves us?

It is not an easy thing to answer. But to respond by pretending it is not taught or that this will never happen is to reject the loving urgency with which Jesus speaks. He is not simply using scare tactics or hyperbole; He is teaching us what is true for our salvation.

Historically this destruction happened to ancient Israel in 70AD, forty years after Jesus’ resurrection. After having extended the invitation for a long forty years, God finally accepts the “No” of the invited guests (in this case the Ancient Jews, corporately speaking).  Their “No” became definitive and led to their national ruin and the end of the temple.

It is the same for us. For as long as we live, the Lord invites us all to accept His kingdom . And if we are slow to respond, He repeats His offer again and again. But in the end, if we don’t want to have the Kingdom of God we don’t have to have it. And at death our choice is fixed. And if our answer is “No,” our ruin is sure, for outside the kingdom, now rejected, there is nothing but ruin. You and I will either accept the invitation to live in the Kingdom of God and by its values or we will reject it and make “other arrangements.” And those other arrangements are ruinous.

But be sure of this: God wants to save everyone (cf Ez 18:23, 32, 33:1; 1 Tim 2:4, among others). If Hell exists, it is only because of God’s respect for our freedom to chose. And mind you there are not a mere few who reject the Kingdom. Those who reject it live demonstrating that they do not want a thing to do with many of the values of the Kingdom of Heaven: chastity, forgiveness, love of enemies, generosity to the poor, detachment  from the world, and so forth. And God will not force them to accept these things nor to be surrounded by those who live them perfectly in Heaven. They are free to make other arrangements and to build their eternal home elsewhere. And compared to Heaven, everything else is a smoldering ruin.

IV. RELENTLESS RESOLVE – The text says, Then he said to his servants, “The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.” When some reject the invitation, God merely widens the net. He wants his Son’s wedding feast full. Hence, God is resolved to keep inviting and extending the invitation. Here is an extravagant God, one who does not give up. If rejected, He just keeps calling.

V. REMAINING REQUIREMENT – The text says, The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to meet the guests, he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. The king said to him, “My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?” But he was reduced to silence. Then the king said to his attendants, “Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” Many are invited, but few are chosen.

And here, then, is a warning even for those of us who do accept the invitation and enter the kingdom: we must wear the proper wedding garment.

As we have already remarked, the garment here is not one of cloth but one of righteousness. And this righteousness in which we are to be clothed can come only from God. God supplies the garment. The book of Revelation says that the saints were each given a white robe to wear (Rev 6:10). The text also speaks of the Church in a corporate sense as being clothed in righteousness: Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints (Rev 19:7-8). Hence righteousness is imaged by clothing, and that clothing is given by God. At our baptism, the priest describes our white robe as an outward sign of our dignity. It is a robe that we are to bring unstained to the judgment seat of Christ. At our funeral, too, the white pall placed upon the casket recalls the white robe of righteousness given to us by God.

Scripture speaks elsewhere about our righteousness as a kind of provided clothing we “put on”:

  1. Rom 13:12 Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
  2. Rom 13:14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
  3. Eph 4:23 And be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
  4. Eph 6:11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
  5. Eph 6:14 Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness.
  6. Col 3:10 You have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
  7. Col 3:12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
  8. 1 Thess 5:8 But, since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.

Hence, when the king comes upon a man “not properly dressed,”  the man is confronted. And, saying not one word in reply, he is cast out. But recall two things. First, this is not about a dress code, it is about a code of holiness. The clothes are symbolic of righteousness. Second, remember that the garment is provided. We have no righteousness of our own but only what God gives us. Hence the refusal to wear the clothes is not about poverty or ignorance of the rules. It is an outright refusal to accept the values of the Kingdom of God and to “wear” them as a gift from God.

Scripture says of Heaven, Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful (Rev 21:27). Scripture also warns us, without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14b). And an old Spiritual says, None can walk up there, but the pure in heart. Consider that Heaven would not BE Heaven if sin and unrighteousness were allowed to commingle there.

Now only God can make us pure enough to enter Heaven and He offers this gift of purity to everyone. Yet not everyone chooses to accept the garment of righteousness He offers; not all will agree to undergo the purification necessary to enter Heaven.

The Lord concludes by saying that many are called but few are chosen. Indeed the Lord calls many (likely, all). But far fewer are chosen, for they themselves choose not to accept the offer of the Kingdom and the garment of righteousness. God thus ratifies their choice by choosing them not.

Some final notes:

Understand the urgency with which Jesus speaks and teaches. Our choices have consequences and at some point our choices become fixed. Further, at that point, God will ratify what we have chosen. Notions of judgment, fixed choices, and Hell may be obnoxious to some in the modern world, and surely these teachings are sobering and even frightening. We may have legitimate questions as to how to square Hell with God’s mercy. Nonetheless, judgment, the finality of our choices, and the reality of Hell are all still taught despite our objections or questions.  And they are taught by the Lord Jesus who loves us. No one loves you more than Jesus Christ, and yet no one spoke of Hell more than Jesus Christ did.

It is as if the Lord is solemnly urging us to be sober and serious about our spiritual destiny and about the spiritual condition of those whom we love. If nothing else, hear the Lord’s urgency in this vivid parable, told in shocking detail. Realize that it is told in love and heed its message.

A final picture. In Luke 15, the Lord told the parable of the Prodigal Son. The sinful son returned to his father, who, being joyful and moved, threw a great feast. But the other son sulked and refused to enter the feast. Incredibly, his father came out and pleaded with him to enter the feast. “We must rejoice!”  he said. And, strangely, the parable ends there. We are not told if the sulking son ever enters. The story does not end because you must finish it. You are the son. So is your spouse, your children, your friends. What is your answer? Will you learn to forgive and accept all the values of the Kingdom, or will you stand outside? What is your answer? What are you doing to help ensure the proper answer from your spouse, children, brothers, sisters, and friends? What is your answer? What is theirs? The Father is pleading for us to enter the feast. What is your answer?

This song says, I got a robe, you got a robe, all God’s children got a robe. When I get to heaven gonna put on my robe and go wear it all over God’s Heaven. Heaven, (Everybody talking ’bout Heaven ain’t a goin’ there), Heaven, gonna walk all over God’s Heaven.


Sinner Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass – A Homily for the 27th Sunday of the Year

110414There is an urgency and clarity about today’s Gospel that is often lacking in modern Christians, including the clergy. In this Gospel, the message is urgent, provocative, and clear: there is a day of judgment coming for every one of us and we simply must be ready. The message is a sobering one for a modern world that is often dismissive of judgment and certainly of Hell. Yet Jesus says clearly that the Kingdom of God can be taken from us for our refusal to accept its fruits in our life.

Parables used by Jesus to teach on judgment and the reality of Hell are often quite vivid, even shocking in their harsh imagery. They are certainly not stories for the easily offended. And they are also difficult to take for those who have tried to refashion Jesus into a pleasant, affirming sort of fellow rather than the uncompromising prophet and Lord that He is.

No one spoke of Hell more often than Jesus did. Attempting to reconcile these bluntly presented teachings with the God who loves us so, points to the deeper mysteries of justice and mercy and their interaction with human freedom. But this point must be clear: no one loves us more than Jesus does and yet no one spoke of Hell and its certainty more often than Jesus did. No one warned us of judgment and its inescapable consequences more often than did Jesus. Out of love for us, Jesus speaks of death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. As one who loves us, He wants none of us to be lost. So He warns us; He speaks the truth in love.

Historically, this parable had meaning for the ancient Jews that had already come to pass. God had established and cared for his vine, Israel. He gave them every blessing, having led them out of slavery and established them in the Promised Land. Yet searching for the fruits of righteousness he found little. Then, sending many prophets to warn and call forth those fruits, the prophets were persecuted, rejected, and even murdered. Finally, God sent His Son, but He too was murdered. There comes forth a sentence: He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times … Therefore, I say to you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit. By 70 AD, Jerusalem was destroyed; the Temple was never to be rebuilt.

The Jewish people are not singled out in the Scriptures, for we all, like them, are a vineyard, and if we are not careful, their story will be our own story. We, like the ancients, have a decision to make. Either we accept the offer of the Kingdom and thereby yield to the Lord’s work and bring forth a harvest, or we face judgment for the fact that we have chosen to reject the offer of the Kingdom. God will not force us to accept His Kingship or His Kingdom. We have a choice to make and that choice will be at the heart of the judgment we will face.

Let’s take a closer look at the Gospel and apply it to the vineyard of our lives.

I. THE SOWING – The text says, There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower.  Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.

Note the care and providence of the landowner (God) who has given each of us life and every kind of grace. The image of the vineyard indicates that we have the capacity to bear fruit. This signifies the many gifts, talents, and abilities that we have been given by God.

The hedge calls to mind the protection of His grace and mercy. Though the world can be a tempting place, God has put a hedge of protection around us that is sufficient to keep us safe from serious sin, if we accept its power.

But note, too, that a hedge implies limits. And thus God’s protective graces, though sufficient, mean that we must live within limits, within the hedge that keeps the wild animals of temptation from devouring the fruits of our vine.

The tower is symbolic of the Church, which stands guard like a watchman warning of dangers to us who live within the boundaries of the hedge. And the tower (the Church) is also standing forth as a sign of contradiction to the hostile world outside, which seeks to devour the fruit of the vineyard.

That the landowner leases the the vineyard is a reminder that we are not our own; we have been purchased at great cost. God and God alone created all these things we call our own. We are but stewards, even of our very lives. We belong to God and must render an account and show forth fruits as we shall next see.

But this point must be emphasized: God has given us great care; He has given us His grace, His mercy, His very self. As the text from Isaiah says, What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done? God loves us and does not want us to be lost. He gives us every grace and mercy we need to make it. The Lord says, As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign 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) This must be emphasized before we grumble too quickly about the subsequent judgment that comes. God offers every possible grace to save us. It is up to us to accept or reject the help.

II.  THE SEEKING – The text says, When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce.

There come moments in our lives when God looks for fruits. Remember that He is the owner and the fruits are rightfully His. He has done everything to bring forth the fruit and now deserves to see the produce of His grace in the vineyard of our life, which is His own.

And what fruits does the Lord seek? The values and fruits of the Kingdom: faith, justice, mercy, peace, forgiveness, chastity, faithfulness, generosity, love of the poor, love of one’s family and friends, even love of one’s enemy, kindness, truth, sincerity, courage to speak the truth and witness to the faith, and an evangelical spirit.

Note, too, that the text says he sends servants to obtain the produce. Here also is evidence of God’s mercy. Historically, God’s “servants” were the prophets. And God sent the prophets not only to bring forth the harvest of justice, but also to remind, clarify, and apply God’s Word and warn sinners. God patiently sent many generations of prophets to help Israel.

It is the same for us. God sends us many prophets to remind, clarify, apply, and warn. Perhaps they are priests or religious, parents, catechists, teachers, or role models. But they are all part of God’s plan to warn us to bear fruit and to help call forth and obtain some of those very fruits for God. Each in his own way says, as St. Paul did in today’s second reading, Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me (Phil 4:8-9).

Yes, God seeks fruits, and rightfully so. And He sends His servants, the prophets, to help call them forth in us.

III. THE SINNING – The text says, But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned.  Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way.  Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.’ They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

Thus, despite all God has done by sending His servants, the prophets, the tenants reject them all, and with increasing vehemence. Their hearts grow harder. The landowner (God) even goes so far to demonstrate his love and his will to save, that he sends his own son. But they drag him outside the vineyard and kill him. Yes, Jesus died outside the city gates, murdered for seeking the fruit of faith from the tenants of the vineyard.

And what of us? There are too many who reject God’s prophets. They do so with growing vehemence and abusive treatment. Many today despise the Church, despise the Scriptures, despise fathers, mothers, friends, and Christians in general who seek to clarify and apply God’s Word and to warn of the need to be ready. It is quite possible that, for any of us, repeated resistance can cause a hardening of the heart to set in. In the end, there are some, in fact many according to Jesus, who effectively kill the life of God within them and utterly reject the Kingdom of God and its values. They do not want to live lives that show forth forgiveness, mercy, love of enemies, chastity, justice, love of the poor, generosity, kindness, and witness to the Lord and the truth.

We ought to be very sober as there are many, many today who are like this. Some have merely drifted away and are indifferent. (Some, we must say, have been hurt or  are struggling to believe, but at least they remain open.) Still others are passionate in their hatred for the Church, Scripture, and anything to do with God, and they explicitly reject many, if not most of the kingdom values listed above. We must be urgent to continue in our attempt to reach them, as we shall see.

IV. THE SENTENCE – The text says, What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes? They answered him, ‘He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.’ Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.

Here then is the sentence: if you don’t want the Kingdom, you don’t have to have it. At one level, it would seem to us that everyone wants the Kingdom, i.e., everyone who has any faith in God at all wants to go to Heaven. But what is Heaven? It is the fullness of the Kingdom of God. It is not just a place of our making. It is that place where the will of God, where the Kingdom’s values are in full flower. But as we have seen, there are many who do not want to live chastely, do not want to forgive, do not want to be generous to and love the poor, do not want God or anyone else at the center, do not want to worship God.

Self exclusion – Having rejected the Kingdom’s values, and having rejected the prophets who warned them, many simply exclude themselves from the Kingdom. God will not force the Kingdom on anyone. If you don’t want it, even after God’s grace and mercy and His pleading through the prophets, you don’t have to have it. It will be taken from you and given to those who do want it and appreciate its help.

The existence of Hell is rooted essentially in God’s respect for our freedom, for we have been called to love. But love must be free, not compelled. Hence, Hell has to be. It is the “alternative arrangement” that others make for themselves in their rejection of the Kingdom of God. At some point, God calls the question, and at death our decision is forever fixed.

Yes, Hell and the judgment that precedes it, are clearly taught here and in many other places by Jesus (e.g., Matt 23:33; Lk 16:23; Mk 43:47; Matt 5:29; Matt 10:28; Matt 18:9; Matt 5:22; Matt 11:23; Matt 7:23; Matt 25:41; Mk 9:48; Luke 13:23; Rev 22:15; and many, many more). This is taught by a Lord who loves us and wants to save us, but who is also well aware of our stubborn and stiff-necked ways.

What is a healthy response to this teaching? To work earnestly for the salvation of souls, beginning with our own. Nothing has so destroyed evangelization and missionary activity as the modern notion that everyone goes to Heaven. Nothing has so destroyed any zeal for the moral life or hunger for the Sacraments, prayer, and Scripture. And nothing is so contrary to Scripture as the dismissal of Hell and the notion that all are going to Heaven.

But rather than panic or despair, we ought to get to work and be more urgent in our quest to win souls for Christ. Who is it that the Lord wants you to work with to draw back to Him? Pray and ask Him, “Who, Lord?” The Lord does not want any to be lost. But, as of old, He still sends His prophets (this means you) to draw back anyone who will listen. Will you work for the Lord? Will you work for souls?  For there is a day of judgment looming and we must be made ready for it by the Lord. Will you be urgent about it, for yourself and others?

Photo Credit: Jean-Yves Roure

This video features the words of an old spiritual: Sinner please don’t let this harvest pass, and die and lose your soul at last. I made this video more than a year ago and in it there is a picture of Fr. John Corapi preaching. Since I made it long before his recent “troubles,” please do not attribute any implication from me by its inclusion; it is simply indicative of the “age” of the video.

Pitfalls of the Pious – A Sermon for the 26th Sunday of the Year

092714In understanding this Gospel, we cannot overlook the audience Jesus was addressing. The text begins, Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people. In effect, Jesus was addressing the religious leaders and the religiously observant of His day. He calls to their attention at least three things, three common sins or pitfalls of the pious, if you will: lost connections, leaping to conclusions, and lip service.

Let’s look at each of these in turn, remembering that though they are not exclusive to the religiously observant, they are considered in that context. Let’s also learn how they are particularly problematic when it comes to our mandate to hand on the faith through evangelization.

I. Lost Connections – The text says, A man had two sons. Now the text will go on to describe these two sons as very different and yet also quite similar. The man, of course, is God, and we are all His children. And though very different, we all have the same Father and we all have sin. A man had two sons, which is another way of saying that the sons had one Father. Yes, we all have a connection with another that we cannot deny, regardless of our differences. We will look more at the differences between the two sons as we go on, but for now, consider merely this fact: a man (God) had two sons.

Why emphasize this? Because it is too easy for us to seek to sever the link we have with one another, to effect a kind of divorce from people we fear or do not like. For example, on the way to Mass we may drive past tough parts of town and see drug dealers, gangs of young men loitering in front of liquor stores, prostitutes, and other outwardly troubled and rebellious people. And it is too easy to be cynical and say, “Some people’s children!” or “Look at that; how awful.” Or we may simply ignore them. Yet in all this we fail to recall that these are our brothers, our sisters. It is so easy to dismiss them, to write them off, to strive to distance ourselves from them. But God has a question for us: “Where is your brother?” (Gen 4:9)

Yes, there are many whom we may be tempted to try to disown if we’re not careful. Perhaps they are of a different political party, a different economic class, or a different race.  Maybe they are just people we don’t like. We divide, but God unites. A man had two sons, and yes they are different but he is father to them both; he loves both of them. He speaks to them both and calls them his sons.

In terms of evangelization, it will be noted that Jesus has sent us to all the nations. No longer are Israel and the Gentiles to be separated, with the one considered the chosen people and the other not. And hence the Church is catholic, is universal; she seeks to unite all. For a man had two sons, but the two sons have one father. In seeking to evangelize, has it ever occurred to you that the least likely member of your family could be the one God most wants you to reach? Be careful of lost connections, for souls can be lost that way.

II. Leaping to Conclusions – A second “sin of the pious” is leaping to the conclusion that someone is irredeemably lost, writing someone off. Many of the Scribes and Pharisees, the religiously observant of their day, had done just this with a large segment of the population. Rather than going out and working among the people to preach the Word and teach observance of the Law, many of them simply called the crowds “sinners” and dismissed them as lost. In fact they were shocked that Jesus “welcomed sinners and ate with them” (e.g., Lk 15:2). In effect, Jesus says to them, “Not so fast. Don’t leap to conclusions and write anyone off. Sick people need a doctor and I have come to be their divine physician and to heal many of them.”

Thus Jesus, in today’s parable, speaks of a sinner who repents: [The Father] came to the first and said, “Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.” He said in reply, “I will not,” but afterwards changed his mind and went.

The point is that we just don’t know and we should be very careful not to just write people off, even those who seem locked in very serious and sinful patterns, or who seem hostile to God. The example of St. Paul should certainly give us hope as should that of St. Augustine. In fact, St. Augustine wrote well on the fact that we just don’t know how things will turn out, that we should pray for everyone, writing no one off:

For what man can judge rightly concerning another? Our whole daily life is filled with rash judgments. He of whom we had despaired is converted suddenly and becomes very good. He from whom we had expected a great deal fails and becomes very bad. Neither our fear nor our hope is certain. What any man is today, that man scarcely know. Still in some way he does know. What he will be tomorrow however, he does not know (Sermo 46, 25).

Scripture also says, The oppressed often rise to a throne, and some that none would consider, wear a crown. The exalted often fall into utter disgrace; … Call no man happy before his death, for by how he ends, a man is known (Sirach 11:28-29).

I knew a man (now deceased) who told me his story, the story of how he was raised in the Church, got all his Sacraments, went to Church regularly, and was a God-fearing man. But in his early 40s he descended into alcoholism, began to be unfaithful to his wife, stopped going to Church, and was dismissive of God. Were you or I to have seen him at that time, we might easily have concluded that the situation looked bad. But somewhere in his early 60s (he knows not how, except that someone was praying for him), he pulled out of his rebellion and re-entered the vineyard. He sought help for his drinking problem and reconciled with his wife and children. Daily mass, weekly confession, daily rosary, and Stations of the Cross. Yes, when he returned, he really returned. But he said to me that he had done a lot of sinning and now it was time to do a lot of praying, “making up for lost time,” as he put it. He died a penitent in the bosom of the Church.

You just never know. Don’t write anyone off. Nothing stabs evangelization in the heart more than the presumption by many of us that someone is an unlikely candidate for conversion. Keep praying and keep working. Jesus tells us of a son who told his father to “buzz off,” but later repented and went into the vineyard. Pray, hope, and work; you just never know. Don’t give up.

And don’t think anyone is a finished work and a permanent member of the vineyard. Indeed, pray, hope, and work—for your own salvation and that of others, even those who seem well within the vineyard. For here, too, you and I know many stories of former parishioners, even parish leaders who later drifted away. St Paul spoke of how he had a kind of sober vigilance, even regarding his own salvation: But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor 9:27).

III. Lip Service – The text says, The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, “Yes, sir,” but did not go.

So consider the second son. He appears to be respectful to his father. When told to go into the vineyard he respectfully tells his father that he will do so. He would not dream of cursing his father or addressing him in any strident way. In terms of all God’s children, you might say he was religiously observant, outwardly respectful, a decent sort of person.

But in the end, he does not get around to going to the vineyard. Whatever his reasons, his obedience to his father was only superficial. His behavior is emblematic of a great danger exhibited by some of the religiously observant: the danger of just giving God “lip service.” Yes, we will praise the Lord, sing a hymn, shout “Hallelujah,” and say “Amen”—all on Sunday. But on Monday, will we obey and go to the vineyard of obedience, of forgiveness of those who have wronged us, of generosity to the poor, of chastity, of compassion, of love for our spouse and children, of speaking the truth in love, of evangelization and being God’s prophets? Will we go to the vineyard? Or is it all just so much lip service we’re paying to God?

And the greatest sadness of all is that it is our very religious observance (a good and commanded thing to be sure) that often blinds us to our broader disobedience. For it is too easy and too common for religiously observant persons to reduce the faith merely to rituals and, once the rituals are observed, check off the “God-box.” In effect these people are saying or thinking, “OK, I’ve gone to Mass, paid my tithes, said a few Amens, and praised the Lord by singing. Now I’m done.” The God-box is checked. Yes, with our lips we have praised God on Sunday. But do we go to the vineyard on Monday?

And “lip service Christians” are a terrible witness and a real blow to evangelization because people can spot the hypocrisy a mile away. How on earth can we ever hope to win souls for Christ if they just see us going through the motions, checking off the God-box but living lives that are unreformed and untransformed? Our greatest witness has got to be a life that is being changed by Jesus Christ; a life that manifests the biblical principles of love, justice, and charity; a life that demonstrates a biblical understanding of sexuality; a life that exhibits the biblical priorities of forgiveness, mercy, and generosity; a life lived with a renewed mind and heart.

Now none of us do this perfectly, but pray that God’s transformative power is at work in us and that people notice it. Nothing is more destructive to evangelization than lip service Christians, who give the outward appearance of obedience and religiosity but who everyone knows are really phony. And nothing is more helpful to evangelizing our children, family members and friends than Christians who display lives that are being transformed and made joyful, serene, and holy.

All of this leads to this message: “God can use anything, but He shouldn’t have to.” In other words, though none of us is a perfect disciple, God can work through us anyway. But, frankly, God shouldn’t have to do this.

So in today’s Gospel Jesus points out three powerful obstacles to His grace flowing through us to others: lost connections, leaping to conclusions, and lip service. All of these things lessen our effectiveness as disciples, prophets, and evangelizers sent out to make disciples of all the nations. Yes, God can use anything, but he shouldn’t have to.

Drawing above: Two sons, by Davis

The video below features the text of another parable of Jesus’ that speaks of a king who gave a banquet for his son and then summoned the invited guests to come because all was ready. Here, too, we must enter the banquet. As the sons, we are called to enter the vineyard to work. Will you go? How about your sons and daughters; will they be at Mass this weekend?

Dimensions of Discipleship – A Homily for the 25th Sunday of the Year

092014This is one of those parables that rock our world and our worldly way of thinking. And frankly, that is one of its purposes. We are tempted to side with the laborers who were hired first and who worked the longest. When we find out that they got paid the same as the men who only worked an hour the thought occurs to us that somehow this is unfair.

But, think very carefully before asking God to be “fair.” What we really should ask of God is that he be merciful. For if he were fair, we’d all be in Hell right now. The fact is, we have no innate capacity to stand before God in pure justice; we simply cannot measure up to that. It is only grace and mercy that will win the day for us. So be very careful about trying to play the fairness card on God. In fact, when we see Him being merciful to someone else, we ought to rejoice, for it also means that we might stand a chance.

There are other aspects of this Gospel that are important to learn from: the various dispositions of discipleship.  As the parable unfolds, we can see five teachings. Let’s look at each of them in turn.

I. The AVAILABILITY of Discipleship – The text says, A landowner went at dawn to hire laborers to work in his field … He went later and found others standing idle … “Why do you stand here all day idle?”

Now it is clear that what we have described here are “day workers.” These were men who stood in public places hoping to be hired for the day. It was and still is a tough life. If you worked, you ate; if you didn’t, you’d have little or nothing to eat. They were called day laborers because they were hired on a day-to-day basis, only when needed. This is a terrible form of poverty for its uncertainty and instability.  Men like these were and are the poorest of the poor.

But note how their poverty, their hunger, makes them available. Each morning they show up and are ready, available to be hired. Their poverty also motivates them to seek out the landowner and indicate that they are ready and willing to work. The well-fed and the otherwise employed do not show up; they are not available. There’s something about poverty that makes these men available. Because their glass is empty, it is able to be filled.

But we are these men. We are the poor who depend on God for everything. Sometimes we don’t want to admit that, but we are. And every now and then it is made plain to us how poor, vulnerable, and needy we really are. And this tends to make us seek God. In our emptiness, poverty, and powerlessness suddenly there is room for God. Suddenly our glass, too often filled with the world, is empty enough for God to find room. And in our pain we stand ready for God to usher us into the vineyard of His kingdom. An old gospel song says, Lord, I’m available to you, my storage is empty and I am available to you. It is our troubles that make us get up and go out with the poor to seek the Lord and be available to Him. When things are going too well, Lord knows where we are to be found! Another gospel song says, Lord don’t move my mountain but give me the strength to climb it. Don’t take away my stumbling blocks but lead me all around. ‘Cause Lord when my life get a little too easy you know I tend to stray from thee.

Yes, we might wish for a trouble-free life, but then where would we be? Would we seek the Lord? Would we make ourselves available to God? Would we ever call on Him at all?

II. The AUTHORITY of Discipleship – The text says, The LandOWNER said, “Go into my vineyard” … HE sent them into HIS vineyard.

Notice that it is the landowner who calls the shots. Too many who call themselves the Lord’s disciples rush into His vineyard with great ideas and “biggie-wow” projects that they have never really asked God about. But this passage teaches us that entrance into the vineyard requires the owner’s permission. If we expect to see fruits (payment for the work) at the end of the day, we have to be on the list of “approved workers.”

Fruitful discipleship is based on a call from the Lord. Scripture says, Unless the Lord builds the House, they that labor to build it labor in vain (Ps 127:1). Too many people run off and get married, take new jobs, accept promotions, start projects, and so forth without ever asking God.

But true discipleship requires the Lord’s call first: “Go into my vineyard.” Got a bright idea? Ask God first. Discern His call with the Church and a good spiritual director, guide, or pastor.

III. The ALLOTMENT of Discipleship – The text says, The vineyard owner came at dawn, 9:00 AM, Noon, 3:00 PM, and 5:00 PM.

We may puzzle as to why God calls some early and others late; it’s none of our business. But he does call at different times. And even those He calls early, He does not always ask to do everything right now. There is a timing to discipleship.

Moses thought he was ready at age 40, and in his haste he murdered a man. God said, “Not now!” and made him wait until he was 80.

Sometimes we’ve got something we want to do but the Lord says, “Not yet.” And we think, “But Lord, this is a great project and many will benefit!” But the Lord says, “Not yet.” And we say, “But Lord, I’m ready to do it now!” And the Lord says, “Not yet.”

Sometimes we think we’re ready, but we’re really not. An old gospel song says, God is preparing me. He’s preparing me for something I cannot handle right now. He’s making me ready, just because he cares. He’s providing me with what I’ll need to carry out the next matter in my life. God is preparing me. Just because he cares for me. He’s maturing me, arranging me, realigning my attitude. He’s training me, teaching me, tuning me, purging me, pruning me. He’s preparing me.

IV. The ABIDING of Discipleship – The text says, When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to the foreman, “… summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.”

Notice that the wages are paid in the evening and in the order determined by the landowner (God). The lesson is simple: we’ve got to stay in the vineyard. Some people start things but do not finish them. But if you’re not there at six o’clock, no pay.

Scripture says that we must persevere. Jesus says, But he who perseveres to the end will be saved (Mat 24:13). We also read, To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life (Rom 2:7). And again, You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised (Heb 10:36).

Yes, we must work till evening comes. Saying that we had faith and received all our sacraments when we were young will not suffice. We have to work until evening. An old spiritual says, Some go to Church for to sing and shout. Before six months they’s all turned out. How about you?

V. The ATTITUDE of Discipleship – The text says, Those hired first grumbled … “We bore the heat of the day and burdens thereof.”

Notice how the early workers think of their entrance into the vineyard and its labors as a “burden.” Of course the vineyard is really the Kingdom of God. And it remains true that many lukewarm “cradle Catholics” consider the faith to be a burden and think somehow that sinners “have all the fun.” Never mind that this is completely perverse thinking; it is held by many anyway, whether consciously or unconsciously.

But consider the laborers hired last. Were they having a picnic? Not exactly. Most were resigning themselves to the fact that they and their families would have little or nothing to eat that night. Similarly, most sinners are not “living the life of Riley.” Repeated and life-long sin brings much grief: disease, dissipation of wealth, regret, loss of family, addiction, and so forth. No matter what they tell you, sinners do not have all the fun.

Further, being a Christian is not a burden. If we accept it, we receive a whole new life from Christ: a life of freedom, purity, simplicity, victory over sin, joy, serenity, vision, and destiny.

How do you view the Christian life? Is it a gift, a treasure beyond compare no matter its difficulties? Or is it a burden, a bearing of labor in the heat of the day? Scripture says, For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God. The passage goes on to describe our “works” not as burdens but as something God enables us to do: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).

So here are five dispositions of discipleship, which the Lord teaches in this parable.

Note well what the Lord teaches, for too often we want to decide what it means to be a disciple. Beware, for the worst kind of disciple is the one who gets out ahead of the Lord and tries to define his or her own role. Jesus is Lord; let Him lead. So, some final questions for you: Are you a disciple who is glad at being called, and the earlier the better? Or are you like the disciples who grumbled at having to do all the work in the heat of the day? Is discipleship delightful or dreary for you?

This song says, “I’m available to you…” And it reminds us that the owner of the vineyard still seeks souls to enter His vineyard. He wants to use your voice to say to someone: “You, too, go into my vineyard!”

Information or Transformation – A Sermon on the Goal of the Word of God for the 15th Sunday of the Year

071214What do you expect from reading and hearing God’s Word? Do you expect to encounter something that will change you? Frankly, from my discussions with people over the years, many do not even understand the question and, after puzzled looks, respond to me with another question: “What do mean by ‘expect’?”  I then follow up with “Just what I said, ‘What do you look to have happen in your life from having heard or read God’s Word?'” This is greeted with puzzled looks and finally something vague like, “I dunno” or “Like, maybe, to get advice?” Some might even go so far as to say that they expect to be encouraged or instructed. But in the end, most of the responses to my question are pretty tepid, lukewarm, and uninspired. Most really don’t expect much and, frankly, haven’t expected much. Reading or hearing God’s word is more of a tedious ritual for them than a transformative reality.

Here again, I lay some of blame at the feet of clergy who don’t really teach the faithful to expect much. But this Sunday it is clearly set forth that God’s Word is able to transform, change, renew, encourage, and empower us. And we ought to begin to expect great things from our faithful and attentive reception of the Word of God.

Let’s look at what the Lord teaches in three steps.

I. Promise – That the Word of God can utterly transform us and bring forth a great harvest in our lives is clearly set forth in today’s first reading:

Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void (Isaiah 55:10-11).

God’s Word has power! If we authentically and attentively listen to God’s Word it will refresh us and bring forth the fruit of transformation. No one can authentically attend to God’s word and go away unchanged. If listened to with any alertness, God’s Word can open our minds to new realities, give us hope, teach us the fundamental meaning of our life, instruct us, thrill us, frighten us, make us wonder, make us repent, make us rejoice, and it can also transform us. It can make us mad, sad, or glad, but if we attend to it, it’s pretty hard to go away neutral from this Word, of which Scripture itself says,

  • The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12).
  • God says in the book of Jeremiah, Is not my word like fire,” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jer 23:29)
  • And Jeremiah himself said, But if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot (Jer 20:9).
  • And yet again he cries out, My heart pounds within me, I cannot keep silent. For I have heard the sound of the trumpet; I have heard the battle cry! (Jer 4:19)
  • Amos echoes, The lion has roared–who will not fear? The Sovereign LORD has spoken–who can but prophesy? (Amos 3:8)
  • The Apostles join the great company of preachers and declare, For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20).
  • Yes, the Lord gave the Word, and great was the company of the preachers! (Ps 68:11)
  • And through his preachers the Lord wants to set us on fire! I will make my words in your mouth a fire and these people the wood it consumes (Jer 5:14).
  • Yes, if we will let him, He will set us ablaze with His Word. Thus He will also set the world on fire through us.

Yes, God’s Word, effectively preached and thoughtfully attended to, is fire that transforms. Pray for fiery preachers. Pray for ears attentive to God’s Word. Pray for a soul alive and alert to the sound of God’s trumpet. Pray for a mind capable of appreciating God’s Word in all its subtlety and all its plain meaning.  It can change your life.

II. Problems – But the Lord also alerts us to some problems that can arise in the human person. For while God’s Word does not lack power, neither does it violate God’s respect for our freedom and our call to love.

God speaks to inanimate objects and they must obey:

  • And God said, Let there be light. And there was light (Gen 1:3).
  • And to the sea, This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt (Job 38:11). And the sea obeys.
  • And he says to the mountains, “Move!” and they shake and melt like wax before his glance. (cf Ps 97:5)

But the human person is not inanimate. We are possessed of a soul and gifted with freedom so that we may love. God speaks to us and, remarkably, we are free to say, “No.” And the Lord Jesus warns us in today’s Gospel that our freedom is ultimately respected. So the power of God’s Word remains, but God Himself has made it dependent on our “Yes.” Consider, then, some of the problems Jesus warns us of,  some issues that can cut off or reduce the power of God’s Word:

A. RejectionJesus says of some that they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand … Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted, and I heal them (Matt 13:13-15). The Greek word translated here as “gross” is  παχύνω (pachuno), meaning fat, thick, or dull. By extension, it means having an insensitive or hardened heart. Hence there are some who have hardened their hearts to God and His Word.

God once observed about us, through Isaiah,  I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass (Is 48:4).   This is another way of saying, “I know that you are stubborn. Like iron, you are hardheaded. Like bronze, nothing gets through your thick skull.” For many of us, this tendency to be stiff-necked is gradually softened by the power of grace, the medicine of the Sacraments, instruction by God’s Word, and the humility that can come from these.

But for some the stubbornness never abates. In fact it grows even stronger as a descent into pride and an increasing hard-heartedness sets up. The deeper this descent, the more obnoxious the truth seems and the less likely conversion. As things progress these people are not just resistant to the truth, but hostile to it. They harden their hearts, stiffen their necks, and at some point it would seem they reach the point of no return.

There are some texts in the Scriptures that speak of God Himself hardening the hearts of sinners. This is a very deep mystery and tied up in the deeper mystery of God’s primary causality of everything. But the text before us today emphasizes the hardening of the heart from the human perspective. And thus those of hardened hearts have closed their eyes lest they see.  They don’t listen either lest they be confronted with something they would rather not hear and sense the need for repentance and conversion.

The Word of God can have no place in them for they altogether reject it and hence its offered power is cast aside.

B. Reflection The text says, The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart (Matt 13:19). The Greek word translated here as “understand” is συνίημι (syniemi), which means to put (or set) together. Figuratively, it means to connect the dots, to synthesize. In other words, a person who does not “understand” gives little thought or reflection to the Word of God. He does not try to connect it to his life or understand its practical application. He does not “set it together” with his experience, or seek to apply it in his life. This Word will not last in him due to his inattentiveness to its meaning and its deeper role in his life. Thus the Word stays only on the surface and in the short-term memory. Satan is able to take it away quickly with little resistance from the man, who has not really connected it to his life anyway. Here, too, there can be little or no transformation, for the power of God’s Word is little appreciated and is not admitted into the deeper recesses of the man’s soul.

C. Rootlessness The text says,  The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy.  But he has no root and lasts only for a time.  When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away (Matt 13:20-21). The image here is of a plant that thrives when the weather is good and calm. But let the wind pick up and the plant blows away for lack of roots. There are some who can rejoice in the Word of God as along as it paints fair pictures and tickles their ears. But when the Word convicts them, or causes them any negative reaction within, or persecution without they scram. When the wind blows they are gone. A common line from the Old Spirituals says, “Some go to church for to sing and shout. Before six month’s they’s all turned out.” As long as the preacher speaks of “fair weather,” and there are no consequences to the Word, they’re shouting “Amen!” and singing the refrains of the songs. But let that preacher step on their toes or let someone in the world raise an eyebrow to them and they’re gone, gone with the wind. Here, too, the power of God’s Word to transform is cast aside.

D. Ripples The text says, The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety … chokes it off (Matt 13:22). This describes people who are simply too distracted by the things of the world to spend time with the Word of God. They allow the water of their life to be rippled and disturbed and there is never enough calm for them to be reflective. They obsess over every small ripple that rocks the boat and do not trust God enough to relax and ponder His will and His Word. They are ever-busy making adjustments to their life and responding to the alarms of life. The word “distract” means to draw away. And hence they allow the world to draw them away from reflection on God’s Word. This, too, limits the transformative power of God’s Word.

E. Riches The text also speaks of the lure of riches [which] choke the word and it bears no fruit (Matt 13:22). Riches divide the heart. Scripture says elsewhere, People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Tim 6:9-10). The Lord says, For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt 6:21). Hence if our treasure is in riches, our heart will not be with God’s Word. Job says, I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:12). Only with a heart set on God’s Word as a treasure will we hunger for it and reflect on it enough to be truly transformed by it.

III. Produce – The text says, But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear… the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold (Matt 13:23). Here then the promise is reiterated that the Word of God is powerful and will produce a radical transformation in us of thirty, sixty, or one hundredfold! Note that this is for those who receive the Word with understanding. That is, as we saw earlier, those with  συνίημι (syniemi), with a will to connect the dots, to synthesize, those who seek to understand the Word and apply it to their life.

I am a witness to the power of God’s Word to transform life and to yield abundant fruit. I have learned to expect a lot from God’s Word: a new mind, a new heart, and a new life. And God has not failed me. I have seen my life change dramatically for the better in so many ways. God has been good to me and He has been true to His Word, which says, If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17).  I cannot take credit for this new life I have received. It is the gift of God and He has given it to me through the power of His Word and the grace of His Sacraments.

Yes, I am a witness; how about you?

This clip is from a performance of Handel’s Messiah and features the following: “The Lord gave the Word. Great was the company of the preachers!” It’s not as easy to sing as you might think. The long melismatic lines are difficult for the singers to coordinate while staying on tempo; it’s quite a little workout. Pray for fiery preachers!

Five Facts of Faith from the Life of St. Peter – A Homily for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul

062814Today’s Feast of Saints Peter and Paul honors two fundamental pillars of the early Church. While all the Apostles form the foundation, Peter and Paul stand out very profoundly in terms of influence and work. And while some have wished to suggest division between them, the Church insists that they must been seen together; hence their feast is set forth in this way.

Indeed, those who see division between them base it on only one text from Galatians (2:11) wherein St. Paul withstood Peter so as to correct him. Peter had taught rightly concerning the inclusion of the Gentiles but, at least according to St. Paul’s report, he struggled to associate with them more freely and was fearful of the Judaizers. Yes, even popes are not beyond reproach. We argue that popes are prevented from formally teaching error in faith or morals (Peter did not teach erroneously), not that they are sinless.

Nevertheless, the same Paul had gone to visit St. Peter in order to get to know him  (Gal 1:18) and later submitted his teachings to Peter and others in Jerusalem for scrutiny  (Gal 2:1-10). And at the Council of Jerusalem, Paul and Peter were allies (Acts 15).

Thus we ought not exaggerate differences beyond the evidence. The Church today bids us to celebrate them together.

Many different approaches to the reading could be taken today. But since the chief work of the Church and the Apostles is to draw us to faith, it behooves us to look in detail at the first reading from today’s Mass and see in it a kind of roadmap to growing in faith. Peter’s story and experience were not just for him; they were for us as well. Let’s see what we can learn as we focus on five facts of faith from the story of St. Peter in today’s first reading.

I. The Persecution of Faith – Persecution is the normal state of affairs for a Christian. Not every Christian suffers equally at every stage and place in history, but Jesus spoke often about the need to be willing to endure persecution for His sake. He said, A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also (Jn 15:20). He added, If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you (Jn 15:19). He said elsewhere, In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33). He also warns, Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets (Lk 6:26).

And therefore, persecution should be expected. If it is wholly absent, we may have some soul-searching to do as to whether we are witnessing to the Faith authentically.

And so, in this passage, we should not be surprised to see how the early Church was persecuted. In this Gospel is described the persecution, driven by Herod, that breaks out in Jerusalem. In this persecution, James, (of “Peter, James, and John” fame) is killed! Peter is also rounded up and slated for death. Sitting in prison, he awaits his fate.

Note the strange excessiveness of the persecution. Peter is secured with double chains and is forced to sleep between two soldiers. And outside there are even more guards keeping watch. Wowza! Here’s a persecution that is strangely excessive and obviously rooted in no small degree of fear!

And yet as we look at persecution today, we notice something similar. There seems to be a very special hatred for Christians, especially Catholics. Note for example that in the public school system it is permissible to speak about almost anything: how to use condoms, homosexuality, and even certain religions such as Islam. But if the name of Jesus is even mentioned, or Scripture is even obliquely referenced, lawsuits are threatened and television cameras appear! What is this strange fear and hatred for Christ? Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Zoroastrians, and even Methodists and Episcopalians do not face similar hostility!

While this animosity is somewhat mysterious, it does speak to us of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and particularly of the Church He founded: the Catholic Church. Satan surely inspires special hatred for Jesus and His Church. So in a certain sense, we can take it as a sign of credibility—even as a compliment. Perhaps too, it is the fact that deep down, they know that what Jesus and His Church teaches is right.

The prince of this world hates Jesus, and has always inspired his followers to do so as well, whether consciously or unconsciously. Yes, persecution is a natural, expected ordeal for a Christian.

II. The Prayer of Faith – In the midst of this, we note that the Church is described as praying fervently to God. The Greek word translated here as fervent is ἐκτενῶς (ektenos),  which means “fully stretched.” It is the image of a taught rope that is invoked. Here is prayer that is stretched out, that is costly, that involves more than a brief moment or two. Here is praying that is persevering. This sort of prayer involves more than an honorable mention in the Prayers of the Faithful at Mass. Here is the sort of prayer that involves long hours. Time is invested; effort is expended; energy is invested. It is the sort of prayer that nags God until the solution is at hand.

There is an expression in the African-American community, “by and by.” It refers to the need to be patient and persevering in prayer while waiting for God to answer “by and by.” In other words, God will answer in His own time. It is for us to keep praying. And here is prayer without ceasing; it does not give way to discouragement, but just keeps on praying.

III. The Prescription of Faith –  In the midst of this fervent prayer of the Church, a hidden process begins. An angel is dispatched from Heaven, enters the jail, and comes to Peter. His instructions to Peter amount to a kind a prescription for a life of faith, and we note it in four stages:

A. Rise! – The angel says, “Get up”. Here is a call to rise from death, to rise from despairing and doubt, to stand up! Every Christian must die to sin and rise to new life, must die to slavery and despair and rise as a free and active agent, ready to walk with God.

B. Restrain – The angel then tells him to put on his belt (or cincture).  The belt (cincture) is traditionally a sign of chastity and of continence (restraint). The Christian life cannot be riddled with unchasteness or with other excesses of this world such as greed, gluttony, and other forms of intemperance. These hinder the journey; they weigh us down. And thus the instruction to tighten our belt.

C. Ready – Peter is also told to put on his sandals. Here is a symbol of readiness to make a journey. When I was a child, my mother would often signal me by saying, “Put on your shoes and get ready to go.”  And thus Christians must be ready to make the journey with their feet shod with the gospel of peace, with their shoes on and ready to set out on the great pilgrimage with Jesus to Heaven. The pilgrimage goes up over the hill of Calvary and over into glory. Put your shoes on and get ready to go!

D. Righteous – Peter is then told to put on his cloak. The robe in Scripture is often equated with righteousness. For example the book of Revelation says it was given to the bride to be clothed in fine linen. The text goes on to say that the linen robe is the righteousness of the Saints (Rev 19:8). There is also the parable of the wedding guests, one of whom was not properly clothed, and was therefore thrown out (Mat 22:11). At a Baptism, the priest points to the white garment worn by the infant and tells everyone to see in this white garment the outward sign of his or her Christian dignity, and that the child is to bring this garment unstained to the great judgment seat of Christ. Thus the instruction of the angel reminds us that every Christian is to be clothed in righteousness, and is to be careful to keep this robe, given by God, unsoiled by the things of this world.

D. Run ! – Finally, there is the command of the angel to “Follow me.” In other words, run the race of faith. Toward the end of his life, St. Paul would say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7).  Jesus told his disciples, simply, “Follow me.”

IV. The Procession of Faith- Following this there comes a series of instructions from the angel to Peter (and also to us). These instructions amount to a type of direction to make the procession of faith. We see three things:

A. Not easy – The text says that they passed the first guard, then a second, and finally came to an iron gate. And thus in our journey, there are obstacles and dangers. We must recall that we live in paradise lost. Life is not easy; it is hard. There are hurdles and perils. We are not called to avoid them, we are called the face them with courage. God allows these in our life in order to test us, to see if we will follow Peter’s example and move past the one guard, then the second, and then the apparently locked gate (which God opens for us). Life is not easy, but God’s grace conquers the challenge, if we only trust Him.

B. Narrow – The text here describes a narrow alley through which Peter and the angel pass. Jesus spoke of the way that leads to salvation as a narrow way (e.g., Mat 7:14). Why is this so? Because the narrow way is the cross! Most are not interested in this difficult path, the path that is steep and narrow. Most look for the broad highway through the valley, the easy way. The world still insists that we live in paradise (which Adam rejected) and that life should be easy. It is a lie; the path now is over the hill of Calvary. It is a narrow and steep path,  but it is the only true way to glory. Avoid preachers who never mention sin, who never speak of repentance, who never speak of struggles and difficulties. Avoid them;  for the tuning fork, the A440 of the Gospel is the cross. There are glories and joys in this life to be sure, but the fundamental path to Heaven and glory is through the cross. It cannot be avoided. Walk the narrow way, the way of the cross. Do not listen to the “prosperity preachers” who exaggerate one truth, excluding all others.

C. Need an angel – As soon as Peter emerges from the prison and out into the openness of freedom, the angel disappears. But until this point, he needed an angel! And so do we. Though demons are roaming and patrolling this earth, so are God’s Angels. We all have an angel assigned to us, and many other angels along the way to help us. Never forget this. We do not journey alone. For every demon, there are two angels (Rev 9:15). Stop fearing demons and call on God’s angels, trusting in God’s grace.

V. The Product of Faith –  There comes finally the product of faith wherein Peter is able to confidently assert, Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me (Acts 12:11). Do you know this? Or is it only true because others have said so? Do you experience God’s saving glory? Have you experienced him rescue you? How? Do you have a testimony? The normal Christian life is to know and experience that our God can and does rescue us from this hell-bound, sin-soaked world. We have a God who can make a way out of no way, and can, as St. Paul says, Rescue us from this present evil age (Gal 1:4). Do you know this? Have you experienced this? Then tell someone! It is the product of faith!

I’ll Take Back what the Devil Stole from Me. A Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent

040514In today’s Gospel, we hear the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The story is a significant turning point in the ministry of Jesus, for as we shall see, it is because of this incident that the Temple leadership in Jerusalem resolves to have Jesus killed.

As is proper with all the gospel accounts, we must not see this as merely an historical happening of some two thousand years ago. Rather, we must recall that we are Lazarus; we are Martha and Mary. This is also the story of how Jesus is acting in our life.

Let’s look at this Gospel in stages and learn how the Lord acts to save us and raise us to new life. This gospel has six stages that describe what Jesus does to save us.

I. HE PERMITS. Sometimes there are trials in our life, by God’s mysterious design, to bring us to greater things. The Lord permits these trials and difficulties for various reasons. But, if we are faithful, every trial is ultimately for our glory and the glory of God. The text says,

Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary, and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill. So the sisters sent word to him saying, “Master, the one you love is ill.” When Jesus heard this he said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

Notice therefore that Jesus does not rush to prevent the illness of Lazarus. Rather, he permits it for now in order that something greater, God’s Glory in Jesus, be manifest. In addition, it is for Lazarus’ own good and his share in God’s glory.

It is this way with us as well. We do not always understand what God is up to in our life. His ways are often mysterious, even troubling to us. But our faith teaches us that his mysterious permission of our difficulties is ultimately for our good and for our glory.

Scripture says,

  1. Rejoice in this. You may for a time have to suffer the distress of many trials. But this so that your faith, more precious than any fire-tried gold, may lead to praise, honor, and glory when Jesus Christ appears. (1 Peter 1: 10)
  2. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold. (Job 23:10)
  3. 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)

An old gospel hymn says,Trials dark on every hand, and we cannot understand, all the way that God will lead us to that blessed promised land. But He guides us with his eye and we follow till we die, and we’ll understand it better, by and by. By and by, when the morning comes, and all the saints of God are gathered home, we’ll tell the story of how we’ve overcome, and we’ll understand it better by and by.”

For now, it is enough for us to know that God permits our struggles for a season and for a reason.

II. HE PAUSES. Here to we confront a mystery. Sometimes God says, “Wait.” Again, this is to prepare us for greater things than those for which we ask. The text says,

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was.

Note that the text says that Jesus waits because he loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus. This of course is paradoxical since we expect love to make one rush to the aid of the afflicted.

Yet Scripture often counsels us to wait.

  1. Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the LORD. (Ps 27:14)
  2. For thus says the Lord God, the holy one of Israel, “By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet an in trust, your strength lies. (Isaiah 30:15)
  3. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance…God’s patience is directed to our salvation. (2 Pet 3:9)

Thus, somehow our waiting is tied to strengthening us and preparing us for something greater. Ultimately, we need God’s patience in order for us to come to full repentance; so it may not be wise to ask God to rush things. Yet still his delay often mystifies us, especially when the need is urgent.

Note too how Jesus’ delay here enables something even greater to take place. For, it is one thing to heal an ailing man. It is another and greater thing to raise a man who has been dead four days. To use an analogy, Jesus is preparing a meal. Do you want a microwave dinner or a great feast? Great feasts take longer to prepare. Jesus delays but he’s preparing something great.

For ourselves we can only ask for the grace to hold out. An old gospel song says, “Lord help me to hold out, until my change comes.” Another song says, “Hold on just a little while longer, everything’s gonna be all right.”

III. HE PAYS. Despite the design of God and his apparent delay, he is determined to bless us and save us. Jesus is determined to go and help Lazarus even though he puts himself in great danger in doing so. Notice in the following text how the apostles are anxious about going to Judea. For it is a fact that some there are plotting to kill Jesus. In order to help Lazarus, Jesus must put himself at great risk. The Text says,

Then after this he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” He said this, and then told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.” So the disciples said to him, “Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.” But Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep. So then Jesus said to them clearly, “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.” So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.

We must never forget the price that Jesus has paid for our healing and salvation. Scripture says, “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1 Pet 1:18).

Indeed, the apostles’ concerns are borne out when we see that because Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the Temple leaders from that point on plot to kill him (cf John 11:53). It is of course dripping with irony that they should plot to kill Jesus for raising a man from the dead. We can only thank the Lord who, for our sake, endured even death on a cross to purchase our salvation by his own blood.

IV. HE PRESCRIBES. The Lord will die to save us. But there is only one way that saving love can reach us and that is through our faith. Faith opens the door to God’s blessings and it is a door we must open by God’s grace. Thus Jesus inquires into the faith of Martha and later that of Mary. The text says,

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.

Jesus prescribes faith because there is no other way. Our faith and our soul are more important to God than our bodies and creature comforts. For what good is it to gain the whole world and lose our soul? We tend to focus on physical things like our bodies, our health, and our possessions. But God focuses on the spiritual things. And so before raising Lazarus and dispelling grief, Jesus checks the condition of Martha’s faith and elicits an act of faith: “Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord, I have come to believe.”

Scripture connects faith to seeing and experiencing great things.

  1. All things are possible to him who believes. Mk 9:23
  2. If you had faith as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible for you.” (Mt 17:20)
  3. And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith. (Matt 13:58)
  4. When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith will it be done to you.” (Mat 9:28)

So Jesus has just asked you and me a question: “Do you believe this?” And how will you answer? Now be careful. I know how we should answer. But how do we really and truthfully answer?

V. HE IS PASSIONATE. Coming upon the scene Jesus is described as deeply moved, as perturbed, as weeping. The text says,

When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.” And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.” But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.”

In his human heart, Jesus experiences the full force of the loss and the blow that death delivers. That he weeps is something of mystery since he will raise Lazarus in moments. But for this moment, Jesus enters and experiences grief and loss with us. Its full force comes over him and he weeps; so much so that the bystanders say, “See how much he loved him.”

But there is more going on here. The English text also describes Jesus as being perturbed. The Greek word here is Greek word ἐμβριμάομαι (embrimaomai), which means literally to snort with anger, to have great indignation. It is a very strong word, and it includes the notion of being moved to admonish sternly. What is this anger of Jesus and at whom is it directed? It is hard to know exactly, but the best answer would seem to be that he is angry at death, and at what sin has done. For it was by sin that suffering and death entered the world. It is almost as though Jesus is on the front lines of the battle and has a focused anger against Satan and what he has done. For Scripture says, by the envy of the devil death entered the world. (Wisdom 2:23). And God has said, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign 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).

I do remember at the death of some of my loved ones, experiencing not only sorrow, but also anger. Death should NOT be. But there it is; it glares back at us, taunts us, and pursues us.

Yes, Jesus experiences the full range of what we do. And out of his sorrow and anger, he is moved to act on our behalf. God’s wrath is his passion to set things right. And Jesus is about to act.

VI. HE PREVAILS. In the end, Jesus always wins. And you can go to the end of the Bible and see that Jesus wins there too. You might just as well get on the winning team. He will not be overcome by Satan, even when all seems lost. God is a good God; he is a great God; he can do anything but fail. Jesus can make a way out of no way. The text says,

He cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go free.”

I have it on the best of authority that as Lazarus came out of the tomb he was singing a gospel song: “Faithful is our God! I’m reaping the harvest God promised me, take back what devil stole from me, and I rejoice today, for I shall recover it all!”

But notice something important here. Although Jesus raises Lazarus, and gives him new life, Jesus also commands the bystanders (this means you and me) to untie Lazarus and let him go free. So Christ raises us, but he has work for the Church to do: to untie those he has raised in Baptism, and to let them go free.

To have a personal relationship with Jesus is crucial, but it is also essential to have a relationship to the Church. For after raising Lazarus (us), Jesus entrusts him to the care of others. Jesus speaks to the Church – to parents, priests, catechists, all members of the Church – and gives this standing order regarding the souls he has raised to new life: “Untie them and let them go free.”

We are Lazarus and we were dead in our sin. But we have been raised to new life. And yet we can still be bound by the effects of sin. And this is why we need the sacraments, Scripture, prayer, and other ministry of the Church through catechesis, preaching, and teaching. Lazarus’ healing wasn’t a “one and you’re done” scenario, and neither is ours.

We are also the bystanders.  And just as we are in need of being untied and set free, so we who are also members of the Church also have this obligation to others. Parents and elders must untie their children and let them go free by God’s grace, and so pastors must do with their flocks. As a priest, I too have realized how my people have helped to untie me and let me go free, how they have strengthened my faith, encouraged me, admonished me, and restored me.

This is the Lord’s mandate to the Church regarding every soul he has raised: “Untie him and let him go free.” This is the Lord’s work, but just as Jesus involved the bystanders then, he still involves the Church (which includes us) now.

Yes, faithful is our God. I shall recover it all.

This is the song Lazarus sang as he came forth (I have it on the best of authority).