On The Battle Theme of Lent

A brief observation of the first two days in Lent reveals militaristic, even violent imagery in the battle against sin and the unruly passions of the flesh. The Collect (opening prayer) of Ash Wednesday provides an image of troops mustering for battle:

Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

“Battle,” “weapons,” and “armed” all clearly have military connotations, but so does the phrase “campaign of Christian service” if we look at the Latin text: praesidia miltiae Christianae. The service or action (praesidia) is one of Christian battle or militancy (militiae). This refers to the Church Militant—the Church here on earth—waging war against sin and the kingdom of darkness.

Thus the opening prayer on Ash Wednesday announced and summoned us to a battle that is engaged by the Church with special intensity during Lent.

The Gospel for Thursday after Ash Wednesday also has a battle theme. Jesus says,

If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it (Luke 9:23-25).

The battle theme is particularly apparent if one looks at the Greek text. The word translated as “lose” in English does not capture the vigor of the Greek word ἀπόλλυμι (apollumi). Apollumi comes from the root apó, meaning away from, with the intensifier ollymi, “to destroy.” Thus apollumi means to fully destroy, cutting off entirely. It implies permanent or absolute destruction.

So when Jesus says we must “lose” our life, it is really far stronger than the English translation captures. Losing our life involves a kind of violent overthrow of our worldly notions and the deep drives of sin. We must lose. That is, we must see utterly destroyed and cut off all things worldly, fleshly, and of the devil. This is war and it is going to involve more than a mumbled, half-hearted prayer on our part. Scripture says, In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood (Heb 12:4).

So behold the militaristic imagery as Lent begins. To arms!

The idea of such a battle might overwhelm us if we thought it must all be done in one day. Jesus says that we should take up our cross daily. Our daily cross is vital to our success. It’s not our weekly cross, or our monthly cross, or our yearly cross. We ought to do each day what we should do. If we put off or postpone the daily cross, the problems pile up. A monthly cross can seem overwhelming, and a yearly cross might seem impossible. Everyday discipline is crucial. Soon enough, the daily discipline becomes virtue; it becomes a good habit that one accomplishes fairly easily. To take up our cross daily is to endure short-term pain for long-term gain.

The battle is engaged! Fight it daily. Fight it with the Lord. Understand that it is battle, but in Jesus (and only in Jesus) the victory is won. Stay on the winning side and fight daily to the end.

The Urgent Theme of Ash Wednesday

There is a great sense of urgency in the readings for Ash Wednesday. It is as if some great event is looming that could be awesome, but only if the warning is heeded. Pondering the last year, this may make us cringe, “Oh no! What else?!”  But the great event that looms is far more significant and, if we are ready, it will be glorious. Consider this selection from the first reading (Joel 2:12-18):

“Even now,” says the LORD, “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God.”

Sound the trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly; gather the people! Assemble the elders; gather the children, even the infants at the breast.

Let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep, And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people!”

And consider this passage from the second reading (2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2):

We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.! Behold, now is the very acceptable time.

What is this awesome yet potentially catastrophic event about which we are warned? The Church supplies the answer as she distributes ashes:

Remember, O Man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.

In other words, you’re going to die, and you don’t get to say when, where, or how. So, what are you doing to get ready to appear before the judgment seat of Christ? Mother Church is figuratively shaking us and saying, “Do you understand how significant this is and how serious you ought to be in preparing for it?”

Sadly, many people are not serious about their spiritual life nor are they preparing for death. They are not praying; they do not read Scripture; they are not receiving the sacraments; they do not attend Mass; they are not repenting of their sins. In fact, many celebrate and call “good” or “no big deal” what God calls sin. They are majoring in all the minors, pursuing the ephemeral while neglecting the eternal.

Yes, a trumpet must be sounded; an urgent summons must go forth. It is time to repent and to get serious about the judgment day that awaits us all. Now is a time of grace and mercy, when God provides remedies for sin and graces for holiness. The time for these will end, however: 

It is appointed to man to die once, and thereafter to face judgment (Heb 9:27).

So we aspire to please the Lord, whether we are here in this body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive his due for the things done in the body, whether good or bad. Therefore, since we know what it means to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men (2 Cor 5:9-11).

Sound the trumpet in Zion! It’s time to get ready to meet the Lord before the door of this life closes. Mother Church cries out, “Now is the time. This is the place. Turn from your sins and return to the Lord!”

This song asks, “Where Shall I Be When the First Trumpet Sounds?”

A Lament from Scripture, Well-Suited to the Current Crisis

The reading for Tuesday’s Mass (Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent) was astonishingly applicable to our current situation. It also brings up a controversial question: are we experiencing punishment for our sins? The modern world has grown proud; we have largely forgotten our vulnerability. Worst of all, we have collectively cast God aside. In this sense we do not need to directly attribute this chastisement to God. Rather, the deep wound to our own sense of invincibility is itself the source of our pain and punishment.

We have been felled quickly, bewildered with an intense fear unthinkable just a month ago. Much of the fear is focused on our mortality. The lack of supernatural faith and the heavy focus on “this world,” a world that seeks only material blessings, fuels this fear. To those without faith, death appears to be the end of everything.

Let’s look at the reading from Tuesday’s Mass (Daniel 3:25, 34-45):

Azariah stood up in the fire and prayed aloud:
“For your name’s sake, O Lord, do not deliver us up forever,
or make void your covenant.
Do not take away your mercy from us,
for the sake of Abraham, your beloved,
Isaac your servant, and Israel your holy one,
To whom you promised to multiply their offspring
like the stars of heaven,
or the sand on the shore of the sea.

One of the difficulties of this crisis is the uncertainty; we don’t know how long it will last. We ask the Lord not to deliver us up “forever,” for with no end in sight it may seem like forever. We must pray for God’s mercy to come suddenly, unexpectedly—even if we do not deserve it.

For we are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation,
brought low everywhere in the world this day
because of our sins.

Some people believe it is wrong to speak of the role of sin in this crisis, but the sin referred to here is our collectivesin. A virus may come from a natural source, but it has been aggravated by both human action and inaction, some of it sinful. Our biggest sin, however, is our pride, which leads us to believe that a crisis such as the one we are experiencing is not possible, that we are invincible. How quickly this virus has laid us low! We think, because of our towering buildings, economic power, and advanced technology, that we are not vulnerable to the things our forebears faced. It would appear that we are not. I, too, have been rocked back on my heels by the terror that has come so swiftly upon us. I, too, have learned that I must check my pride and humbly accept this blow.

We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader,
no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation, or incense,
no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you.

Azariah, who prayed this prayer, had experienced the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the end to the sacrifices so dear to the Jewish people.

I am deeply saddened at the end of public Masses across the country and the world—just when we need them most. Even the great celebrations of Holy Week and Easter seem to be in danger of cancellation. I am grateful that the private celebration of Mass by priests is at least still possible.

But with contrite heart and humble spirit
let us be received;
As though it were burnt offerings of rams and bullocks,
or thousands of fat lambs,
So let our sacrifice be in your presence today
as we follow you unreservedly;
for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame.

In the current situation, during which we cannot gather together, we must make repentance and humility the focus of our private prayer. We must also deepen our commitment to follow the Lord “unreservedly.” I have seen and heard the pain of so many of the faithful at the loss of Mass and regular reception of the Eucharist. This should increase our longing for and appreciation of the Lord’s Body and Blood and stir within us contrition for our indifference. May our loss become gain as we hunger more intensely for the Holy Eucharist.

And now we follow you with our whole heart,
we fear you and we pray to you.
Do not let us be put to shame,
but deal with us in your kindness and great mercy.
Deliver us by your wonders,
and bring glory to your name, O Lord”

Yes, Lord, we ask for a miraculous cure for both this disease and our fear. Deliver us by your wonders, O Lord.

The song performed in the video below, Tristitia et anxietas, was composed by William Byrd as a lament for English Catholics, who lost almost everything in the English “reformation.” One of its lines, translated, says this:

Sorrow and anxiety have occupied my inmost self.

On The Battle Theme of Lent

A brief observation of the first two days in Lent reveals militaristic, even violent imagery in the battle against sin and the unruly passions of the flesh. The Collect (opening prayer) of Ash Wednesday provides an image of troops mustering for battle:

Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

“Battle,” “weapons,” and “armed” all clearly have military connotations, but so does the phrase “campaign of Christian service” if we look at the Latin text: praesidia miltiae Christianae. The service or action (praesidia) is one of Christian battle or militancy (militiae). This refers to the Church Militant—the Church here on earth—waging war against sin and the kingdom of darkness.

Thus the opening prayer on Ash Wednesday announced and summoned us to a battle that is engaged by the Church with special intensity during Lent.

The Gospel for Thursday after Ash Wednesday also has a battle theme. Jesus says,

If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it (Luke 9:23-25).

The battle theme is particularly apparent if one looks at the Greek text. The word translated as “lose” in English does not capture the vigor of the Greek word ἀπόλλυμι (apollumi). Apollumi comes from the root apó, meaning away from, with the intensifier ollymi, “to destroy.” Thus apollumi means to fully destroy, cutting off entirely. It implies permanent or absolute destruction.

So when Jesus says we must “lose” our life, it is really far stronger than the English translation captures. Losing our life involves a kind of violent overthrow of our worldly notions and the deep drives of sin. We must lose. That is, we must see utterly destroyed and cut off all things worldly, fleshly, and of the devil. This is war and it is going to involve more than a mumbled, half-hearted prayer on our part. Scripture says, In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood (Heb 12:4).

So behold the militaristic imagery as Lent begins. To arms!

The idea of such a battle might overwhelm us if we thought it must all be done in one day. Jesus says that we should take up our cross daily. Our daily cross is vital to our success. It’s not our weekly cross, or our monthly cross, or our yearly cross. We ought to do each day what we should do. If we put off or postpone the daily cross, the problems pile up. A monthly cross can seem overwhelming, and a yearly cross might seem impossible. Everyday discipline is crucial. Soon enough, the daily discipline becomes virtue; it becomes a good habit that one accomplishes fairly easily. To take up our cross daily is to endure short-term pain for long-term gain.

The battle is engaged! Fight it daily. Fight it with the Lord. Understand that it is battle, but in Jesus (and only in Jesus) the victory is won. Stay on the winning side and fight daily to the end.

The Urgent Theme of Ash Wednesday

There is a great sense of urgency in the readings for Ash Wednesday. It is as if some great event is looming that could be awesome, but only if the warning is heeded. Consider this selection from the first reading (Joel 2:12-18):

“Even now,” says the LORD, “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God.”

Sound the trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly; gather the people! Assemble the elders; gather the children, even the infants at the breast.

Let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep, And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people!”

And consider this passage from the second reading (2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2):

We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.! Behold, now is the very acceptable time.

What is this awesome yet potentially catastrophic event about which we are warned?The Church supplies the answer as she distributes ashes:

Remember, O Man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.

In other words, you’re going to die, and you don’t get to say when, where, or how. So, what are you doing to get ready to appear before the judgment seat of Christ? Mother Church is figuratively shaking us and saying, “Do you understand how significant this is and how serious you ought to be in preparing for it?”

Sadly, many people are notserious about their spiritual life nor are they preparing for death. They are not praying; they do not read Scripture; they are not receiving the sacraments; they do not attend Mass; they are not repenting of their sins. In fact, many celebrate and call “good” or “no big deal” what God calls sin. They are majoring in all the minors, pursuing the ephemeral while neglecting the eternal.

Yes, a trumpet must be sounded; an urgent summons must go forth.It is time to repent and to get serious about the judgment day that awaits us all. Now is a time of grace and mercy, when God provides remedies for sin and graces for holiness. The time for these will end, however:

It is appointed to man to die once, and thereafter to face judgment (Heb 9:27).

So we aspire to please the Lord, whether we are here in this body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive his due for the things done in the body, whether good or bad. Therefore, since we know what it means to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men (2 Cor 5:9-11).

Sound the trumpet in Zion! It’s time to get ready to meet the Lord before the door of this life closes. Mother Church cries out, “Now is the time. This is the place. Turn from your sins and return to the Lord!”

This song asks, “Where Shall I Be When the First Trumpet Sounds?”

Consider Moderating Your Smartphone Usage for Lent

 

As Lent approaches consider that it is often easier to abstain from something entirely than to moderate its use. It’s also easier to measure the success or failure of abstinence. When I “give up something for Lent,” my approach is to stay away from it entirely during Lent. I don’t exempt Sundays or solemnities that occur in Lent. The “on again, off again” approach just doesn’t work for me.

However, there is something to be said about using Lent to moderate behavior as well. There are some things we cannot simply abstain from, and learning to moderate them is an important virtue to cultivate. Some folks give up using Facebook for Lent. That’s certainly small, manageable, and achievable, but for most of us unplugging our smart phones entirely during Lent is neither possible nor wise. It is in areas like this that working toward moderation might be an important Lenten practice.

Most of us will admit that we spend too much time staring at our phones. We allow them to interrupt us when we should not. During meetings, conversations, and family gatherings, the pesky devices buzz, ring, or light up and end up taking priority over the human relationships with those around us; we let the urgent eclipse the important.

Lent can be a time to learn to moderate our use of smartphones and limit their disruptions to our life. A number of things occur to me that can help in this regard and may be good Lenten practices to adopt.

  1. Decide how often each day you really need to check your device. If you’re honest about it, you probably don’t need to check it as often as you’re accustomed to doing. Suppose you set the number at four times a day; now you need to stick to that. At the designated times, check for messages, emails, and missed calls. Make a few quick follow-ups and then be done with it until the next time. Discipline yourself; resist the urge to break your rule. In between those times, live as if your device doesn’t even exist.
  2. Turn off all those sounds that alert you of a message or an email. They don’t just distract you; they annoy others around you and may sabotage your efforts to moderate your usage.
  3. Consider making use of the “Do not Disturb” function. This allows you to set up times during which the phone will not ring, and texts and other messages won’t light up the screen. In effect the phone, the phone is offline during these times. You can set up a list of contacts whose calls/messages will come through at all times; these would be people who might really need to get in touch with you immediately in an emergency.
  4. Limit the use of notifications and badges.  These appear at the top of the screen or collect on the home screen alerting you to all the latest messages and news.
  5. Don’t believe those “Breaking News” headers. It’s almost never that important.
  6. Even when you’ve silenced it, some things still cause the screen to light up. When you’re not using the device, put it away in a pocket or a drawer—or at least place it face-down.
  7. If you have a smartwatch, consider retiring it for Lent or at least disabling most of its interruptive features.
  8. There are certainly some functions to consider exempting from the four times a day rule. For example, many people need to use a GPS map application to get places. Perhaps you’re going to use the phone to call a friend or family member who needs consolation. Real conversations, even if not face to face, have their place in our life and can serve the good. Sometimes when in a meeting we need to look something up for the purpose of that meeting. Even though these situations might be exceptions, try not to cheat by using this time for non-essential purposes as well.
  9. Some people will be annoyed that you don’t answer their texts and emails right away, but such expectations are unrealistic, selfish, and rude. The kinds of quick replies many insist upon is unrealistic. It wasn’t that long ago that such constant availability wasn’t even possible. I didn’t even own a cell phone until I was about forty years old. Somehow, we managed to survive in those antiquarian days.

I would be grateful if you would add your ideas to this list. Lent is a good time to work on moderation.  It’s a lot harder than abstinence, but it’s a necessary skill to acquire. It requires a clear commitment to abide by the limits you set for yourself.   Good luck and good Lent!

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

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

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

Let’s look at this Gospel in four parts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Proclamation of the Problem

The Gospel opens with these lines:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Portrayal of the Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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