Marriage Is a Miracle! A Homily for the 27th Sunday of the Year

Marriagesymbl1Both today’s first reading and the gospel speak to us of the miracle of marriage. If your marriage is working even reasonably well, it is a miracle! We live in an age that is poisonous to marriage. Many people look for marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal. Our culture says, if it doesn’t work out, bail out. Thus, successful marriages today are a miracle. But marriages are also a miracle because they are, ultimately, a work of God.

Today’s readings bring before us some fundamental teachings on marriage. The following homily is not short. But many problems beset Holy Matrimony today and the vision of God must be set forth clearly and thoroughly. Let’s look at today’s gospel in five stages.

I Rejection The gospel opens with the Pharisees approaching Jesus and asking, somewhat rhetorically, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” Jesus, aware of their hypocrisy (they do not really want an answer from Him on which to base their lives), asks them in return, “What did Moses command you?” They gleefully respond, in essence, that Moses permitted a husband to divorce his wife as long as he “filled out the paperwork.”

But Jesus will have none of it, telling them that Moses only permitted this very regrettable thing called “divorce” because of their hardened hearts.

Among the rabbis of Jesus’ time, there was the belief that this seemingly lax provision permitting divorce resulted because Moses had reasoned that if he were to say to the men of his day that marriage was until death then some of them might very well have arranged for the death of their wives. So, in order to prevent homicide, Moses permitted the lesser evil of divorce. But it was still an evil and still something deeply regrettable. God Himself says in the book of Malachi,

And this again you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering … You ask, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord is witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Has not the one God made and sustained for us the spirit of life? And what does he desire? Godly offspring. So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. Yes … take heed to yourselves, and do not be faithless” (Malachi 2:13–16).

Thus, in the opening lines of today’s gospel, Jesus spends time highlighting how the Pharisees and many other men of His time have rejected God’s fundamental teaching on marriage. Jesus is about to reiterate that teaching. For now, though, just note the rejection evidenced in the question of the Pharisees, a rejection that Jesus ascribes to hearts that have become hardened by sin, lack of forgiveness, and rejection of God’s plan.

God hates divorce not only because it intrinsically rejects what He has set forth, but also because it is symptomatic of human hardness and sinfulness.

II. Restoration – Jesus, having encountered their hardened hearts, announces a restoration, a return to God’s original plan for marriage. The Lord quotes the Book of Genesis, saying,

But from the beginning of creation God made them male and female. And for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.

Note that Jesus begins with the phrase, “but from the beginning of creation.” In other words, anything that may have happened in the aftermath of Original Sin, any compromises or arrangements that have emerged during the reign of sin, are now to be done away with in the reign of grace that will come as the result of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection.

On account of the grace that will be bestowed, we are now able, and expected, to return to God’s original plan for marriage: one man and one woman in a lifelong, stable relationship that is fruitful, bringing forth godly children for God and His kingdom. This is God’s plan, a plan that has no room for divorce, contraception, or anything other than fruitful, faithful, stable love.

In today’s Western culture there have been many attempts to redefine God’s original and perfect plan for marriage, substituting something erroneous, something humanly defined. And while current endeavors to redefine marriage to include same-sex unions are a particularly egregious example, they are not the first or only way in which God’s plan for marriage has been attacked:

The first attempts happened in the 1950s, when divorce began to occur among celebrities in Hollywood (e.g., Ingrid Bergman, followed by many others). Many Americans, who seem to love and admire their Hollywood stars, began to justify divorce. “Don’t people deserve to be happy?” became the refrain. And thus marriage, which up to that point had as its essential focus what was best for children, began, subtly but clearly, to be centered on what was best for adults. The happiness of the adults, rather than the well-being of the children, began to take precedence in most people’s thinking about marriage.

During the 1950s and 1960s pressure began to build to make divorce easier. Until the late 1960s, divorces had been legally difficult to obtain in America; wealthier people often went to Mexico in order to secure them. In 1969, California Governor Ronald Reagan signed the first “no-fault” divorce law, making divorce a fairly easy thing to obtain. Within ten years, most of the fifty states had similar laws. As a result, divorce rates skyrocketed.

This was the first redefinition of marriage. No longer was a man to leave his father and mother and “cling to his wife.” Now, at the first sign of trouble, men and women could just sever their marriage vows. But this is in direct contradiction to God’s plan, which tells them to cling to each other. Thus we engaged in what amounts to a redefinition of marriage.

The second redefinition of marriage occurred when the contraceptive mentality seized America. It began in the late 1950s and continues to this day. Though God said to the first couple, Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth … (Genesis 1:28), children have become more of a way of “accessorizing” a marriage rather than an integral part and an expected fruit. Children are no longer seen as an essential purpose of marriage, but only an optional outcome based on the wishes of the adults. This, too, is a redefinition of marriage; it is in direct contradiction to God’s instruction to “be fruitful and multiply.” The happiness and will of the adults is now preeminent; children, rather than being an essential fruit, are only a possible outcome.

The third redefinition of marriage, the current rage, is the attempt to extend it to include same-sex unions. The absurdity of this proposal flows from the sinful conclusions of the first two redefinitions, which in effect state that marriage is simply about two adults being happy and doing whatever pleases them.

And if that is the case, there seems little basis in most people’s mind to protest same-sex couples getting “married,” or, frankly, any number of adults in any combination of sexes, getting “married.” (Polygamy and/or polyandry are surely coming next.)

We in the heterosexual community have misbehaved for over fifty year now, redefining essential aspects of marriage. And the latest absurdity—and it is an absurdity—of gay marriage flows from this flawed and sinful redefinition. We have sown the wind; now we are reaping the whirlwind.

In the end, Jesus will have none of this. He rejects the attempts of the men of His time to redefine marriage. And He, through His Church, His living voice in the world today, also rejects the sinful and absurd redefinitions that we in our culture propose, be it divorce, contraception, or homosexual “marriage.”

God has set forth that a man should leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and that the two of them become one flesh. In making a suitable partner for Adam, God created Eve, not Steve. And hence homosexual unions are excluded. A man is not a suitable partner for a man; a woman is not a suitable partner for a woman. Further, in making a suitable partner for Adam, God did not make Eve and Ellen and Jane and Sue and Beth. Hence, polygamy, though mentioned and tolerated for a time in the Bible (but always a source of trouble) is also not part of God’s plan.

God intends one man, for one woman, in a relationship of clinging; that is, in a stable relationship that bears the fruit of godly offspring.

This is the Lord’s plan; the Lord Jesus does not entertain any notion from the people of His day that will alter or compromise His original design for marriage. He thus announces a restoration of God’s original plan for marriage, as set forth in the book of Genesis.

III. Reality As is true today, Jesus’ reassertion of traditional, biblical marriage was met with controversy. In Matthew’s account, many of the disciples react with disdain, saying, If that is a case of a man and his wife, it is better never to marry! (Matt 19:10)

In today’s gospel we see that the disciples are somewhat troubled by what Jesus says and ask Him about it again later. But Jesus does not back down; He even intensifies His language, saying, Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.

There will be no apology from Jesus: divorce and remarriage is adultery. There may have been some in Jesus’ time (and today) who would hold up their divorce papers and say that they have a divorce decree. Jesus implies that He is not impressed with some papers signed by a human judge and is not bound by the decision of some secular authority. What God has joined together, no man must separate. In other words, Jesus once again establishes that once God has in fact joined a couple in Holy Matrimony, the bond which God has effected is to be respected by all, including the couple.

Marriage has a reality beyond what mere humans bring to it or say of it. Marriage is a work of God; it has a reality and an existence that flows from God’s work, not man’s. All of our attempts to redefine, obfuscate, or alter marriage as God has set it forth is sinful and is something that God does not recognize as a reality.

IV. Reemphasis Now comes an interesting twist, which includes a reminder of one of the most essential purposes of marriage. The gospel text says,

And people were bringing their little children to Jesus that he might touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he became indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

This is not a new element to the story, neither have we gone into a separate pericope. Rather, Jesus’ remarks about children remind us of the essential reason why marriage is structured the way it is. Why should marriage be between two heterosexuals? Why should it be stable? Why should it include a father and a mother rather than two fathers, or two mothers, or just a mother, or just a father?

The fundamental answer is that the essential work of marriage is to procreate and then raise those children! Since children remain marriage’s most fundamental fruit, it makes sense that marriage should be structured based on what is best for them. And the fact is, children are best raised in a stable, lasting environment in which their parents have committed to one another in mutual support and partnership in raising them. Further, it makes sense psychologically that a child should be receiving influence from both father and mother, the male parent and the female parent. There are things that a father can teach a child that a mother cannot; there are things that a mother can teach a child that a father cannot. Psycho-social development is best achieved in the environment that God and nature have set forth: every child growing up with both a father and a mother; a male and a female influence.

Anything else amounts to something that is less than ideal. To the degree that we intentionally impose the less-than-ideal on children, we are guilty of doing them an injustice. Bringing children into the world prior to marriage or apart from it, such that they will be raised in a single-parent home, is an injustice. It is an even greater injustice that children conceived under these promiscuous circumstances are far more likely to be aborted. To kill a child through abortion is a horrific injustice; it is also an injustice to raise a child apart from a marriage situation.

This preference for stable, lasting, heterosexual unions clearly excludes homosexual ones. Same-sex “parents” are far from ideal for a child. To raise a child in such circumstances intentionally is an injustice, for it is to subject the child to that which is unnatural and far from ideal.

Catholics have every obligation both to uphold and insist upon traditional marriage as what is right and just, not only because it is God’s plan, but because it is clearly what is best for children. And marriage is fundamentally about children. It is not simply religious sensibility that should lead us to this position; it is a position deeply rooted in natural law, common sense, and what is best for children.

Traditional marriage should be encouraged in every way. Becoming more “fuzzy” about what marriage is, or “defining it down” does not help our culture to esteem traditional marriage. Traditional marriage has pride of place because it is focused on raising the next generation and is critical to the essential functioning of our society.

There is much talk today about the rights of people to do as they please. So-called gay “marriage” is presented within this framework. But, sadly, many who discuss rights only refer to the rights of adults; they seem to care less about what is really best for children. What is good and right for children needs to have a much higher priority in our culture today than it currently does.

Jesus reemphasizes the teaching on marriage by pointing to the young children before them and telling the disciples not to hinder the children. One of the clearest ways we hinder children from finding their way to God and to His kingdom is with our own bad behavior: promiscuous sexual acts (endangering children through abortion or single-parent households), divorce (placing children in divided situations and saddling them with confused loyalties), and insistence on adult rights over what is best for children. To emphasize all of this bad behavior, Jesus points out the young children to us and says, “Do not hinder them.” Our bad behavior does hinder them.

IV. Reassurance To be sure, this teaching about marriage is to some degree “heavy weather.” Indeed, many in our culture have tried, and failed, to attain to the vision of marriage that the Lord teaches. There are complicated reasons, too many to note here, why so many people struggle to live this teaching today.

But whatever our own failures have been, we need to go to the Lord with a childlike trust, a trust that cries out for help. Thus, Jesus says at the conclusion of today’s gospel, Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.

Children often feel overwhelmed, but in the midst of that, they run to their parents and seek help. It is in this spirit that the Lord asked us to receive this teaching. Indeed, many may well have to run to God and say “Abba, God, I don’t know how to live this teaching. My marriage is in ruins, and I don’t know how to save it. I’ve tried, but my spouse is unwilling. I can’t go back and undo what I did years ago.”

But note how the Lord embraces the child in this gospel. He is willing to embrace us as well, in our failures and our difficulties. If we have failed, we should be like a young child and run to the Father. What we should most avoid is being relentlessly adult-like, digging in our heels and saying, “God is unreasonable; the Gospel is unreasonable!”

In the end, only God can accomplish strong marriages and strong families for us. We must run to Him as a Father and seek His help. If we have failed, we must not fail to tell the next generation what God teaches, even if we have not been able to live it perfectly.

God’s plan still remains His plan for everyone, whatever our personal failings. We have every obligation to run to Him, trust Him, and ask for His help. But even in the midst of our own personal failures, we can and must announce and celebrate the truth to others. In the end, God does not give us His teaching in order to burden us, or to accuse us, but rather to bless us. Our assurance must be in His mercy and His ability to write straight, even with the crooked lines of our lives.

If we in this generation have failed, and many of us have failed, we must still announce God’s plan for marriage to the next generation. We must not cease to hand on God’s perfect plan.

Three Principles for Prophets: A Homily for the 26th Sunday of the Year

092714In today’s gospel we see three principles for prophets. And in speaking of prophets, it is referring to you, too. For by our baptism, we are all summoned to be prophets for the Lord.

I. PROPER PRIORITIES – The text begins, John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” (Mark 9:38)

The Apostle John’s consternation bespeaks confused priorities. Task number one is to advance the Kingdom of God and take back territory from the evil one. If someone is able to drive out demons in Jesus’ name, we ought to praise the Lord! The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

But the Apostles here seem more concerned about pedigree and control. Possibly, too, they are beset by notions of personal advancement, power, prestige, and pride.

Souls being set free seems a secondary concern to them.

Wrong priority! Priority number one: more about Jesus and His Kingdom, less about me and my glory. Don’t stop others from driving out demons. Help them, or at least get out of the way!

Thus the Lord says, Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us. (Mark 9: 39-40)

This does not mean that we cast aside any notions of proper doctrine or that we close our eyes to those who seek to exploit religion for personal gain or to prey on God’s people. These are in fact incursions of the very evil we seek to drive out. But as general rule, we ought to affirm what is helping people to get free from Satan and be joined to the Lord.

II. PROPHETS need PARTNERSHIP – The Lord admonishes the apostles, Whoever is not against us is for us. Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink … will surely not lose his reward. (Mark 9: 41)

This of course implies that the apostles will in fact be in need of help, encouragement, and basic necessities as they undertake to proclaim the Gospel.

The attitude of wanting to do everything myself is not only prideful, it is foolish and impossible. We must accept that one of the provisions necessary for those who would be prophets is the help and support of others.

Neither can the Church blithely reject the help of medical science, psychotherapy, the business sector, or the government. Other things being equal, there can and should be a proper partnership with these areas of human knowledge and expertise. While distinctions must be made and errors rejected, there is a partnership that cannot be ignored. When the ship is sinking (and it is, ever since the Fall of Man) it’s “all hands on deck.”

Insofar as ecumenism goes, the Church must also respect the fact that elements of the truth are found among our Protestant brethren. Frankly, some of the best Catholics I know started in Protestant denominations, where they learned a great love for Jesus and the Scriptures. And they have brought their gifts to us.

Protestantism lacks the fullness of the truth, but there are things to be affirmed. We should also humbly admit that they do some things well, and in some cases even better than we do. We pray for full reunion, but in the meantime we ought to affirm what is good and accept that Christ and elements of His message can be found there. Future Catholics may be growing there even now.

III. PERCEIVE the PRIMARY PROBLEM – Through the use of several analogies, the Lord illustrates just how serious sin is and how essential is our need to draw people to salvation. He speaks provocatively here; do not miss how serious the Lord describes sin to be:

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9: 42)

Wow, sin is more serious than most of us think! It’s certainly more important than who’s in charge or who’s getting the glory.

Yes, our sin is our most serious problem. Jesus says that it is more serious to sin than to lose a hand, foot, or eye! To sin is worse than to be physically maimed. But we don’t think like this. And to give scandal to others is so awful that Jesus says being cast into the sea with a millstone around one’s neck would be a better option!

We have to understand that sin is the primary problem, and that liberating souls from sin and the evil one is our primary work. Church socials and growing membership rolls are fine, but preaching repentance unto salvation is our work for the good of souls. Drawing people to Christ, through Word and Sacrament, is our chief goal.

It is an essential role of the prophet to help people recognize the absolute need for salvation, and then to draw them to the one who alone can save them. Otherwise, a fiery Hell awaits them.

The ancient prophets held up the sins of the people before them, calling them to return to the Lord wholeheartedly. How about us? This gospel does not mince any words: we must do our essential work and worry less about position, prestige, and the like.

Are our priorities those of the Lord?

Here’s an old hymn that gives advice:

Don’t exalt the preacher,
don’t exalt the pew,
Preach the Gospel simple,
full, and free;
Prove Him and you will find his promise is true,
“I’ll draw all men unto Me.”
Lift Him up, lift Him up;
Still He speaks from eternity:
“And I, if I be lifted up from the earth,
Will draw all men unto Me.”

Try not to tap your toe, now!

Asking a Crucial Question: A Homily for the 25th Sunday of the Year

blog9-19-2015In today’s gospel, the Lord Jesus is asking a crucial question. The word crucial here is selected carefully. It comes from the Latin cruces, meaning “cross.” Indeed, looming over this entire gospel is the Cross. Jesus makes the second prediction of His passion, death, and resurrection. It is in the context of this teaching that the Lord asks the “crucial” question of us: What is most central in our life? Let’s look at this gospel in five stages.

I. The Processional Picture – The gospel text opens this way: Jesus and his disciples left from there and began a journey through Galilee. This will be Jesus’ final journey through Galilee. He is heading south, unto His passion, death, and resurrection.

Do not miss, in this first stage, the importance of seeing our own life as a kind of procession, a journey. We, too, are making a journey through this life, our first and only journey. We, too, with every step we take, move closer to our own death and, we pray, our resurrection with and unto the Lord.

All along the way we meet people and find things that will either help us or hinder us in getting ready for life’s true destination. There are people and things that will help us, and people and things that will distract us. Since this is a fallen world, it is a sad and perhaps unfair fact that there will be more to distract and divert us into foolish desires, pointless paths, and frivolous and harmful philosophies. More on that in a moment.

For now, simply note that the Lord is on a procession. He is headed for a critical destination, one that matters, one on which rests our very destiny. We, too, are on such a path, and while we cannot save ourselves we can surely harm ourselves. Our destiny is caught up in the decisions we make on life’s journey. Yes, we are on a procession with Jesus.

II. The Pain that is Proclaimed – The text says that though Jesus was journeying through Galilee, he did not wish anyone to know about it. He was teaching his disciples and telling them that the Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death, the Son of Man will rise. And while the Lord surely says this in great confidence, knowing what the end shall ultimately be, we must not overlook the pain lurking in this text.

That Jesus seeks to journey quietly through Galilee is likely because He does not want to be diverted by the often-endless requests that surrounded His public appearances. But one can also imagine here a portrait of pain.

In our grief, we sometimes need to draw aside, to be with close friends and family. Large gatherings are not for us during these times.

Yet even as Jesus is teaching the disciples some very difficult things about what He will go through, the apostles are dealing with their own issues. They seem to draw back and get quiet. The text says, they were afraid to ask him any questions about this matter.

The text implies this drawing back when it later recounts that Jesus had to ask them what they were discussing as they journeyed. So it would seem that either they drew back from Jesus, or perhaps Jesus walked some distance from them, alone in His thoughts.

And thus, though we have to read be between the lines to see it, there seems to be a portrait here of Jesus in some pain, and somewhat alone in that pain. And His pain was surely increased by the selfish and egotistical discussion He must have known the disciples were having. He asked them the question as if He did not know, but surely He knew. They were debating as to who was the greatest.

III. Their Pretentious Pride – The text says, They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.

Are you kidding me? No, a very consistent theme in the Scriptures that of the “inept response.” Over and over again Jesus will give a teaching, often with great solemnity, and then immediately thereafter the apostles will give a response indicating that they don’t understand Him at all, that they have completely missed the point. Inept they are, even indecent and pretentious. Having heard the Lord speak of dying painfully at the hands of others, they digress pretentiously into a conversation about which of them is the greatest.

But before we scorn or laugh at the apostles we must remember that we are the disciples. We do this very sort of thing. We divert our attention to all sorts of foolish things that don’t matter. We worry about who’s the big cheese or who’s the most important. How pointless and foolish these conversations and concerns are! How inept of us would-be disciples to get carried away with these sorts of concerns. But we do it every day, dozens of times a day.

This woefully inept and pretentious response of the disciples (and of us), which only increased Jesus’ pain, leads Him to ask the crucial question. It leads us to the central point of this gospel.

IV. The Principal Point – It is at this moment that Jesus asks the crucial question, a question not only for the Twelve, but for us as well. The text says that they came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, Jesus asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” They remain silent out of sheer embarrassment, for they had been discussing who among them was the greatest.

What were you arguing about on the way?” Why is this a crucial question? Perhaps if we see the question in other formats it will help. The Greek word that is translated here as arguing is διαλογίζομαι (dialogízomai), which means to reason, consider, ponder, wonder, or debate. The dia, at the beginning of the word is an intensifier and indicates a kind of back-and-forth aspect. And hence we get the concept of a debate or an argument.

With this in mind, perhaps we can hear the Lord asking the question in this way: “What are you discussing as you make your journey in life? What are you passionate about? What peaks your interest? What engages you and what do you choose to engage others about? What is of central interest to you? What is going on in your mind all day long?”

Honestly, it is a sad and embarrassing reality that so many of us who call ourselves disciples are overwhelmingly preoccupied with things that are futile, passing, of little real in importance, frivolous, and oftentimes just plain stupid. And even things that have some relative importance get an undue amount of our attention.

Meanwhile, things that do matter, the things that matter most to God, such as our salvation, our knowledge of Him, our preparation for death and judgment, repentance, love, justice, mercy; what is true, good, decent, virtuous, and beneficial in salvation; prayer, the frequent reception of the sacraments, and things spiritual—all these things rank pitifully low in the lives of most people, even those who call themselves Christians and disciples.

We have four hours for a football game but no time for prayer. We find time for everything else and so little time for God and what matters to Him. We get so passionate about politics, sports, or what some silly television show has recently featured, but have little interest in the fact that so many souls are lost, that so many are deeply rooted in unrepentant sin, that so many don’t know why they were made, and that so many don’t know the Lord or His glorious Gospel. The slightest scare regarding our physical health sends us reeling; meanwhile our spiritual health goes so easily unattended.

Yes, what are we discussing; what are we thinking about as we make our journey? It is a crucial question. It says a lot about where our heart lies.

Do not miss this crucial question. What are you discussing; what are you thinking about on the way? Answer the Lord honestly and let Him go to work.

V. The Paradoxical Prescription – At the heart of the Lord’s crucial question is a diagnosis of our wrongful priorities and worldly thinking. The Lord then turns everything on its end and says, Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

In this particular gospel, their disordered thinking surrounds wrongful notions of importance, leadership, and greatness. The Lord directly addresses these wrongful notions by presenting this deeply paradoxical teaching. The paradox is that the greatest are not those who are served, but those who serve. The cleanup crew at the black-tie dinner get the Lord’s attention more so than those at the head table.

We tend to think of greatness in terms of how much money a person makes, how much authority he has, how much influence he has, or where he lives. None of these things matters at all to God. Yes, we are forever impressed by the rich and the famous, but God looks to the lowly, the poor, and especially to those who serve. A paradox is something that is contrary to the usual way of thinking. This teaching of the Lord’s is very paradoxical from any worldly perspective.

Yes, it is all very paradoxical; it puts to the lie all of our worldly obsessions. When we appear before Him someday, God will not care how much money we made (except the extent to which we were generous to the poor). He will not be impressed with the square footage of our home, the brand of our car, or how wide the plasma screen TV in our great room was. He certainly won’t care who our favorite sports hero was, what team we rooted for, or even if we were popular.

No, what will most impress Him is whether we served, whether we loved, and whether we knew Him and humbly sought to live His truth. He will not care whether we powerfully called the shots, but He will care whether we embraced His vision, lived His truth, and charitably cared for others by serving them in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Did we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, harbor the homeless, visit the sick, ransom the captives, and bury the dead? Did we comfort the afflicted? Did we instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish sinners, bear wrongs patiently, forgive offenses willingly, and pray for the living and the dead? Did we humbly submit to the Lord in our life by seeking to live chastely, to curb and control our anger, and to resist our greed?

The fundamental prescription for us is that we change the way we think. In short, God will want to know if we were rich in what matters to Him.

The greatest are those who serve, who have others in mind, who seek not their own glory and will but the glory and will of God and the goodness of others. This is greatness to God; everything else is foolishness to Him.

In the end, the question resounds, “What are you discussing; what are you thinking as you make your way through this life?” It is the crucial question. And only the Cross and its power can fix our foolishness. For too easily we are like the disciples, debating among ourselves about who’s the greatest; who’s the big cheese; who’s in charge; who gets to call the shots.

What are you discussing as you make your way? It’s a crucial question.

An old spiritual says, simply, “Fix me, Lord; fix me. Fix me for my long white robe. Fix me, Jesus; fix me. Fix me for my journey home. Fix me, Jesus; fix me.”

Not Your Average Messiah – A Homily for the 24th Sunday of the Year

crucifixJesus is Messiah and Lord, but He confounds every notion we have ever had about these titles. His power reaches perfection in “weakness” and He reigns from the Cross. To the world this is utter absurdity. But today the Lord insists that we meet Him at the Cross. And thus He chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; He chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong; He chooses the lowly things of the world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are (cf 1 Cor 1:27-28). Let us journey to the Cross and meet Him there; let us endure a little of His “folly.”

Our Journey begins at Cesarea Philippi, a town “way up yonder” in pagan territory.

I. Confusion – Jesus begins by asking the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” 

First, we ought to note that not only are many opinions put forth, all of them are wrong.

There are many today who think it advisable for the Church to adapt and change her teachings based on what “the people” are saying or think is “right.” Yes, we should just take a poll and find out what the people want! So often we are called “out-of-date,” or “passé́” because we do not conform to current (passing) opinions.

The premise, of course, is that we live in “enlightened” times and that if only the Church would just conform to current “wisdom” her halls would be full. Any look at most of the mainline liberal Protestant denominations puts the lie to the “filled halls” notion. They, for all their conformity to modern “sensibilities,” are far emptier than any Catholic church (or those of the Evangelical denominations).

Further, the “polls” results delivered by the disciples in this gospel are all wrong—every one of them. Collecting everyone’s opinion does not produce the truth of the matter.

Thus we ought to acknowledge that there is a lot of confusion and divided opinion in the world and be careful before taking cues from the world when it comes to religious, moral, and lasting truth. Even in the physical sciences, which claim to be so objective, there is a considerable shifting of even fundamental premises over time. Further, there is much division among scientists and medical experts over many basic matters.

We do well to approach this world’s teachings and claims with considerable sobriety, realizing that even in worldly matters, let alone religious ones, the world is divided and sometimes just plain wrong.

But our question remains: Who is Jesus Christ? And how will the answer be given? Thus we proceed to the next stage on our way to the Cross.

II. Committee – Having rejected poll results as a valid determiner of truth, Jesus now tries to sample the experts. Surely even if the general populace cannot supply the answer, the experts can. Hence the question now gets put to the “blue-ribbon panel,” which is the College of the twelve Apostles: And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Now we may wish to rush ahead to Peter’s answer, but first let us note that, as a body, the “blue-ribbon panel” is not able to return a verdict. What we get is silence. And this leads finally to God’s solution in returning an answer.

III. Confession – Finally the correct answer comes forth: Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Christ.” Then [Jesus] warned them not to tell anyone about him.

The manner in which God provides the correct answer to us is developed more fully in Matthew’s version, which adds, Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:17-19).

Hence we are taught that God the Father anointed Peter with this knowledge and inspired him to speak it for the others. And this is the basis of our confidence that Peter and his successors, the popes, are inspired to proclaim the faith infallibly, not on account of their own learning, but on account of the grace of God. And while the pope generally works with the college of bishops, his affirmation of their deliberations is essential for formal teachings on faith or morals.

Now, as we shall see, Peter’s declaration is true and correct. Jesus is the Christ. But as we shall also see, Peter and the others still need to grow to a deeper understanding of the full implications of the true Faith. And just as Jesus will lead them to understand it, so too has he led the Church to deeper understanding of the true Faith over the centuries.

IV. Clarification – Thus Jesus draws them to deeper understanding: He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly.

Now though Peter has spoken rightly, calling Jesus the Messiah, the term “Messiah” was widely misunderstood at the time of Jesus. The misunderstanding was rooted in a merely partial reading of messianic prophecy. Most Jews of the time thought of the Messiah as a powerful military figure who would usher in a bloodbath, a career of conquest against the Romans; that is how this “Messiah” would reestablish the Kingdom of David in all its glory. It was a very worldly and political view of the Messiah, one which Jesus rejected. Instead, He would more likely refer to passages such as these:

The Lord GOD opens my ear that I may hear; and I have not rebelled, have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame. He is near who upholds my right; if anyone wishes to oppose me, let us appear together. Who disputes my right? Let that man confront me. See, the Lord GOD is my help; who will prove me wrong? (Is 50:5-9)

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Is 53:5)

Thus Jesus clarifies what the Messiah must be: a suffering servant who dies so His people don’t have to.

But now things are going to get personal!

V. The Cross – Things get tense for a moment as we read, Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”

Thus Peter, correct just a moment ago, now needs rebuke; but Jesus is willing to work with him. He was right that Jesus was Messiah, but now he needs to understand more deeply what that really means. Thus the Lord calls him away from the world’s notions and the opinions of sinful humanity.

After this, Jesus gets personal. He now tells them that not only will he take up a cross, but so must they.

Talk about not taking an opinion poll! Nothing could rate lower on an opinion poll than the Cross! Indeed, if one were to take a poll today, there would likely be no crosses in our churches at all, only pillows and buffet tables.

But there it is, the Cross, a paradox if there ever was one. And what is the paradox? That from the Cross comes life.

Now even the world once had some notion of this. For what do we have (that we value) that does not come at some sacrifice? Be it a college degree, a career, children, a home, or a TV. All of them are the fruit of labor, of sacrifice. Yet too many today have forgotten this and want blessings without sacrifice. So we “charge it.” We spend money we don’t have in order to possess things we did not earn. Welcome to $13 trillion in U.S. household debt. And of course no one should have to “suffer” to pay down this debt. Indeed, the Cross has been set aside.

But not for Jesus and not for us. To be true Christians we must embrace the Cross. What this means is no abstraction. It means, often times, doing what is hard. It is easy to give way to temptation; it is harder to withstand it. It is easy to be greedy, it is harder to be generous. It is easy to fornicate, it is harder to be chaste. It is easier to file for divorce; it is harder to stay put and work things out. It is easier to be popular; it is harder to be a witness or a martyr. It is easier to do what is sinful and self-serving; it is harder to do what is right.

Yes indeed, the Cross is what it is—hard. But there is life that comes from it. I am a witness (and I hope you are too) that to the degree I have embraced the often-harder choice of following God’s way, I have been blessed. Indeed, the chaste avoid lust’s fires; not to mention child support, alimony payments, and sexually transmitted diseases. The generous have powerful friends in the poor, not to mention being less addicted to money and possessions. Those who fear the Lord have simpler lives than those who must ingratiate themselves to often-contradictory crowds, compromising at every moment.

In today’s gospel we have been led to a deeper understanding of Jesus Christ. And who is He? Does He hold a worldly kingdom and offer merely passing prosperity? Is He just a divine butler who “steps and fetches” to meet our needs? Or is he the Lord, whom we must obey and who tells us to meet Him at the Cross? Ask the martyrs; inquire of the saints. They will tell you of the Cross, but they will also shout of the victory.

Jesus is Lord and Messiah. But He will not fight on the world’s terms. He conquers darkness with light, hatred with love, and pride with humility. He gives life by dying and bestows joy by sacrifice. He is Messiah, but not on our terms, on His. And His “weakness” conquers the strong; His “folly” confounds the learned and clever.

No, He’s not your average Messiah.

This song says, “If you can’t stand a little disappointment … if you think you should always be up and never down, I’ve come to remind you: No Cross, no Crown.”

The Love of the Law and the Law of Love – A Homily for the 22nd Sunday of the Year

The LawToday’s readings teach a proper understanding of the Law and its relationship to our hearts. The readings go a long way toward addressing the false dichotomy that many set up between love and law, as though the two were opposed; they are not. For if we love God, we want what He wants and love what He loves. And the Law goes a long way toward describing what God wants and loves. Indeed, the Law is letting love have its way.

God is Love and His Law (no matter how averse we are to “rules”) is ultimately an expression of His love. In all of the readings today God asks (even as He commands it) that we let love have its way. Let’s look at four teachings on the relationship of Law to God, who is Love.

I. The PROTECTION of the Law – Note that the text from today’s first reading frames the Law, and the obedient hearing of it, in terms of a promise of God, seeing the Law as a doorway to the loving blessings and promises of God. The text says, Moses said to the people: “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you.”

So the Law comes with a promise. It is the basis of life and the doorway to the further blessings of the land. Many today see God’s Law as prison walls, as a limitation on our freedom to “do as we please.” But the walls are not prison walls; they are defending walls.

Every ancient city had walls, not to imprison its citizens, but to protect them from the enemy. Within the walls there was security and the promise of protection. Outside the walls lurked danger; there were no promises of safety.

It is like this with God’s Laws. For those who keep them, they are a great source of protection and also contain the promise of ultimate victory. But outside this protective wall there is every danger and no promise of victory.

In his famous book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton wrote,

Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground … We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the center of the island; and their song had ceased. [1]

God didn’t give the Law to take away our fun, but that we might find life and happiness. The devil, of course, is a liar; he tells us that we’ll be happier if we sin, that God is limiting our freedom by hemming us in with His Law. But sin does not make us free. Jesus says, Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34). Indeed, how much suffering and pain would vanish if we all just kept the commandments? Most of our wounds are self-inflicted, by insisting on journeying outside the walls of God’s loving and protecting commandments.

Moses reminds us that our decision for or against the Law brings either blessing or curse:

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Deut 30:15-20).

II. The PRECISION of the Law – Regarding the Law of God, Moses says, In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.

Here we might the Law to be like a set of directions to a destination. If you give me directions to get to your house, I am probably not going to get there if I only follow half of the directions. The compliance must be complete to bring me to the right place. And so we are directed the follow the Law of God wholly. Scripture says elsewhere,

  • Instruct me O Lord, in the way of your statutes, that I may exactly observe them (Ps 119:33).
  • I intend in my heart to fulfill your statutes always to the letter. I have no love for half-hearted men, my love is for your law (Ps 119:112-113).
  • For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it (James 2:10).

Here we must see God as a healer who is not exacting and precise for His sake, but for ours. Imagine a man who goes to a doctor with two broken legs and the doctor says, “We’re gonna aim for 50% here. I’ll set one leg but leave the other one broken. But don’t worry about the broken leg; that’s why God gave you two!” We would surely hold such a doctor in contempt. God, who is our healer, points to full health, not crippled or partial health.

When Jesus says, You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48), He is indicating the kind of healing He offers. And St. Paul adds, [God who] began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6).

Thus the precision of the Law is taught to indicate the healing power of God’s law with grace.

III. The PRIORITY of the Law – In today’s gospel, Jesus rebukes the Scribes and Pharisees saying, “[You] teach as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

Now, as then, many set aside the priority of God’s Law in favor of human thinking. Politics has become a pernicious influence in this regard. Many Catholics of both parties are more passionate about their political views than about God’s teachings as revealed through Scripture and Church teaching. And if there is a conflict between what God teaches and the political party view, guess which gives way and which gets unexamined allegiance?

Be it questions of abortion, immigration, or same-sex “marriage,” all too easily Catholics will turn a deaf ear to what God teaches, never rebuking their own party when correction is needed, and even cheering as their political leaders champion positions contrary to God’s Law. Too many Catholics place political priorities and popularity, human traditions and agenda, over God’s Law.

The Lord Jesus goes on to say, Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me. He says elsewhere, [you] make void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do (Mk 7:13).

Be very careful; the pernicious effects of partisan political thinking, worldviews, and mere cultural preferences have caused too many Catholics to cease to be the leaven, the prophetic voice they are supposed to be in this world. All of the political parties, most worldviews, and many cultural trends need purification. A Catholic must be a Catholic before he is a Democrat, a Republican, or a Libertarian; before he is a fan of a Hollywood star or musician; before he touts the latest trend or raves about the most recent bestselling book. None of these things usually stand blameless before God, and the unquestioning, unqualified, and silent allegiance from Catholics and other Christians toward such worldly things is a huge problem today. We are too easily compromised and have often elevated human teachings and movements above God’s Law.

To all of this, the Lord gives rebuke and reminds us that His Law must the standard by which every other thing is judged. A Christian should see everything by the Light of God’s Law, exposing error and evil, approving goodness and truth wherever they are found. Nothing has priority over what God teaches.

In the end it is a question of what and whom we love more: God and His Law, or this world and its ways of sin and compromise.

IV. The PLACE of the Law – The Lord goes on to indicate that our fundamental problem can be that the Law of God is not in our heart. He warns that the heart, since it is the locus of human decision and action, must be the place of His Law for us. The Lord says, Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.

Hence there is the need to have God’s law in our heart. It is not enough to have a cursory and intellectual awareness of God’s Law. The Law must drop the 15 inches from the intellect to the heart.

And what is the human heart? While there ambiguities in the biblical text distinguishing mind and heart, this much is clear: the heart is the deepest part of the human person, the place where we are alone with our thoughts and deliberations. The heart is the place where we discern, ponder, and ultimately decide. The heart is “where we live.” It is in this deepest part of ourselves that the Law of God must find a home.

Jesus makes it clear that it is from the deep heart of the individual that come forth the behaviors that determine our character and our destiny. It is here that the Law of God must find a home. And it will only find a deep home here through prayer and meditation; through the careful, persistent, and thoughtful reading of God’s revealed truth, coupled with gratitude and love of God.

It is no mistake that the summary of God’s Law is simply, “Love the Lord the your God with all your heart and your neighbor as your very self.” For it is only love that unlocks the door of our heart. And in loving God we begin to love what and whom He loves. To love God is to love His Law. Scripture says,

  • My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times (Ps 119:20).
  • Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors (Ps 119:24 24).
  • The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold (Ps 119:72).
  • For I love your commands more than gold, however fine (Ps 119:127).
  • I open my mouth and sigh, longing for your commands (Ps 119:131).

Yes, in the end, the Law comes from Love, the God of Love, who is Love. And thus it is love that unlocks the Law, love that makes us realize that the Law is a gift of God’s love. He gives us His law in order to protect us, precisely guide us, and heal us. Thus He asks us to make His Law a wholehearted priority.

Love the Law and come to experience the Love that the Law is.

This song says,

We need to hear from you
We need a word from you
If we don’t hear from you
What will we do?
Wanting you more each day
Show us your perfect way
There is no other way
That we can live

Destruction is now is now in view
Seems the world has forgotten all about you
Children are crying and people are dying
They’re lost without you, so lost without you
But you said if we seek
Lord if we seek your face
And turn from our wicked, our wicked ways
You promised to heal our land
Father you can!

Faith or Famine – A Homily for the 19th Sunday of the Year

Blog 8-8-2015

08082015

The gospel today amounts to a summons to faith by Jesus. In particular, He is summoning us to faith in Him and in the truth He proclaims about His presence in the Holy Eucharist. Last week’s gospel ended with Jesus declaring that He is the bread that has come down from Heaven. Today’s gospel opens with the Jewish listeners grumbling about Jesus’ claim to have come from Heaven. Throughout the gospel, Jesus stands firm in His call to faith. He teaches them about the necessity of faith, its origins, and its fruits. Let’s learn of what the Lord teaches us in four stages.

I. The Focus of Faith – The gospel opens with the grumbling of the crowds, since Jesus claims to have come from Heaven: The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

Their lack of faith is a scandal. It also shifts our focus to the need for faith and yet how difficult it is to have faith. Both the scandal and the difficulty are illustrated in the background to the crowd’s lack of faith.

First, recall that Jesus had just fed over 20,000 people with five loaves and two fishes, and there were still 12 baskets full of leftovers. It was this very miracle that caused many of them to follow Him when He went to the other side of the lake. All the miracles Jesus worked were meant to summon people to faith and to provide evidence for the truth of His words. Jesus said elsewhere, … for the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing, bear me witness that the Father has sent me (John 5:36).

Thus their lack of faith, their grumbling and murmuring, was scandalous. The multiplication of the loaves and fishes was not the first miracle he had worked, nor would it be the last. Recall that he had also

changed water into wine, healed lepers, healed the centurion’s servant, cast out numerous demons, healed the lame, healed the woman with the hemorrhage, raised Jairus’ daughter, cast out blindness in numerous individuals (one of them blind since birth), cured the man with a withered hand, walked on the water, calmed storms at sea, fed 4000, fed 5000, healed the deaf and mute, caused miraculous catches of fish, raised the widow’s son, and raised Lazarus.

So the question is, what are they (we) going to focus on? What Jesus does, or where he’s from? It seems clear that they are more focused on His human origins: where He is from and who His human kin are.

Similarly, many today seem focused on the human dimensions of the Church, or the foibles of believers, or even on their own personal struggles. How many put their focus on what God is doing, or on the many daily miracles of simple existence, or on the many ways that even defeats become victories?

Where your focus? On mere human things? But what if the focus is on God, and that God is worthy? Is faith your focus? We can see why Jesus focuses on faith, because, frankly, we are a hard case and our faith needs to grow.

II. The Font of Faith – Noting their lack of faith, Jesus rebukes them in these words: Stop murmuring among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him on the last day. It is written in the prophets: They shall all be taught by God. Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.

Jesus here teaches two things: that our faith in Him comes from the Father, and that we are a hard case.

First, Jesus teaches that His Father is the source of our faith in Him. Scripture elsewhere teaches this truth.

  1. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God (Eph 2:8).
  2. This is my beloved son, listen to him (Matt 3:17).
  3. But the testimony which I have is greater than that of John; for the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing, bear me witness that the Father has sent me. 37 And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness to me (John 5:36).
  4. I bear witness to myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness to me (John 8:18).

Here, then, is the central work of the Father: to save us by drawing us to faith in His Son, whom He sent to redeem the world.

But Jesus also teaches that this work of God generally involves dealing with considerable resistance on our part. And this fact is evident in the wording that Jesus uses, namely, that the Father must “draw” us to the Son. The Greek word here is ἑλκύσῃ (helkuse), which means to drag, draw, pull, or persuade; it always implies some kind of resistance from what is being drawn or dragged. For example, this is also the word used in John 21:6 when describing drawing a heavily laden net to shore.

Thus Jesus points to their (our) stubbornness in coming to faith. We are stubborn and stiff-necked, so the Father has to exert effort in order to draw—yes, even drag—us to Jesus.

Yes, we’re a hard case and we have to be “drug.”  Someone once said,

I had a drug problem when I was young: I was drug to church on Sunday morning. I was drug to church for weddings and funerals. I was drug to family reunions and community socials no matter the weather. I was drug by my ears when I was disrespectful to adults. I was also drug to the woodshed when I disobeyed my parents, told a lie, brought home a bad report card, did not speak with respect, or spoke ill of the teacher or the preacher. Or if I didn’t put forth my best effort in everything that was asked of me. I was drug to the kitchen sink to have my mouth washed out with soap if I uttered a profane four-letter word. I was drug out to pull weeds in mom’s garden and flower beds and to do my chores. I was drug to the homes of family, friends, and neighbors to help out some poor soul who had no one to mow the yard, repair the clothesline, or chop some firewood. And if my mother had ever known that I took a single dime as a tip for this kindness, she would have drug me back to the wood shed. Those drugs are still in my veins and they affect my behavior in everything I do, say, and think. They are stronger than cocaine, crack, or heroin, and if today’s children had this kind of drug problem, America might be a better place today.

III. The Functioning and Fruit of Faith – Jesus goes on to teach about how faith functions and what its fruit is: Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.

First, as regards the functioning of faith, the Greek text is more clear than our English translation. The Greek word here for “believes” is πιστεύων (pisteuon), a present, active participle. This construction signifies an ongoing action and is better translated as “He who goes on believing …” or “He who is believing …”

The danger is that we reduce faith to an event or to an act. Thus, some say that they answered an altar call, others point to their baptism. Good. But what is going on now, today? What is prescribed here by the Lord is lasting, ongoing faith. It is a lasting faith because faith is more than an event; it is an ongoing reality. It is more than something you have; it is something you do, daily. It involves leaning on and trusting in God. It is basing our whole life on His Word, the daily obedience of faith.

Scripture says elsewhere of this ongoing necessity for faith,

  1. But you must hold fast to faith, be firmly grounded and steadfast in it. Unshaken in the hope promised you by the gospel you have heard (Col 1:21ff).
  2. Brethren I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and in which you stand firm. You are being saved by it at this very moment provided you hold fast to it as I preached it to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain (1 Cor 15:1).
  3. He who perseveres to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13).

Jesus, having taught of the ongoing quality of faith, also speaks of its fruit, which is “eternal life.” Here, too, we have to move beyond reductionist notions of what is meant by eternal life.

The Christian use of the word “eternal” does not refer only to the length of life but also to its fullness. The Greek word here that is translated as “eternal” is αἰώνιος (aionios–where we get the English word Aeon). And aiṓnios, according the Greek lexicon of Scripture, does not focus on the future per se, but rather on the quality of the age. 

Note, too, that the Greek word translated here as “has” is ἔχει (echei) and is a present, indicative, active verb. Thus, it does not refer only to something that we will have, but something that we now have. So believers live in “eternal life” right now, experiencing this quality of God’s life now, as a present possession. And while we do not now enjoy it fully, as we will in Heaven, we do have it now and it is growing within us.

Thus, Jesus teaches that the believer enjoys the fullness of life, even now, in a growing way, day by day. One day we, too, will enjoy the fullness of life, to the top, in Heaven.

Here then is Jesus’ teaching on the functioning of faith (its ongoing quality) and the fruit of faith (eternal life, i.e., the fullness of life).

IV. The Food of Faith – Having set forth the necessity of faith, Jesus now prepares to turn up the heat a bit and test their faith. Not only has he come from Heaven, but He is Bread that they must eat; and the bread is His flesh. He says to them, Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died, but this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.

Now this final verse points to next week’s Gospel, in which this concept will be developed more fully and graphically. But in effect, having warned them of the necessity of faith, Jesus now points to one of His most essential teachings: the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.

Without faith, they (we) can neither grasp nor accept this teaching. And, as we shall see next week, most of them turned away from Him and would no longer follow Him, because they could not accept what He was saying. They did not have the faith to trust Him in this matter; they scoffed and left Him. We will discuss this more fully next week as John 6 continues to unfold for us.

But for now let the Lord ask you, “Do you have faith to believe what I teach you on this?” Perhaps we can say, with the centurion, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” Or we can join with the Apostles, who said, “Increase our faith!” Or we can say with St. Thomas Aquinas,

Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur (sight, touch, and taste, in thee fail)
Sed auditu solo tuto creditur. (But only the hearing is safely believed.)
Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius; (I believe whatever the Son of God says.)
Nil hoc verbo veritátis verius. (Nothing is more true than this word of truth.)

But in the end, either we will have faith or we will be famished. Either we will have the faith to approach the Lord’s table or we will go unfed. Jesus says later, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood, you have no life in you (John 6:53). In other words, we starve spiritually without the faith that brings us to God’s table.

Behold how few come to the Lord’s table in these times, in these days which so lack in faith. It is estimated that only 27% of American Catholics today go to Mass. If we have faith in the Eucharist, how can we stay away? We cannot. To the degree that we believe, we will not miss a Sunday Mass; our devotion to the Lord will increase daily and our experience of the fullness of life (eternal life) will grow.

It’s either faith or famine. Do you believe?

Come Over Here Where the Feast of the Lord is Going On – A Homily for the 18th Sunday of the Year

marks-of-the-Church-0717

All of the readings in today’s Mass speak of human desire. The Israelites in the desert are hungry, so are the people by the lakeside with Jesus. And in the Epistle, St. Paul warns of corrupted desires. In all of the readings, God teaches us that our desires are ultimately directed to Him, who alone can truly satisfy us. Why is this? Because our desires are infinite, and no finite world can satisfy them.

Let’s look at what the Lord teaches by focusing especially on the Gospel, but also including insights from the other readings. There are three basic parts to the teaching on desire. The notes that follow are more extensive than I could preach in a Mass. They are really more in the form of an extended Bible Study on this passage.

I. THE HUNGER OF DESIRE – Today’s gospel begins where last week’s left off. To refresh your memory, Jesus had multiplied the loaves and fishes and satisfied the crowd with abundant food, but then slipped away and headed across the lake to Capernaum. Today’s text begins, When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

Thus we begin by simply noting the hunger of the people. Allow hunger here to represent all of our desires. Desires, of themselves, are good and God-given. It is the people’s hunger, their desire, that makes them seek Jesus. Further, their desire is very deep and strong; they are willing to journey a significant distance to find Jesus.

As such, desire has something important to teach us. It is easy to see that our desired motivate us. But we should also recognize that they are infinite, unlimited. For no matter how much we get, we always want more. We may experience some momentary satisfaction with certain things like food, but it doesn’t last long. Taken together, our desires are limitless.

This limitless, infinite quality demonstrates God’s existence, for a finite world cannot give what it doesn’t have, namely, infinite longing. Thus, our infinite longings point to God and must come from Him. Our hearts, with all their infinite longings, teach us that we were made for God and will not find rest apart from Him.

Purification is needed. The journey of the people around the lake to find Jesus is good in itself, but as we shall see, their hunger needs purification and a more proper focus. They do not seek Jesus as God, but rather as the “bread king.” They seek mere bread, mere food for their stomachs. But the Lord wants to teach them that all their desires really point higher. And that leads us to the second movement of today’s gospel.

II. THE HEALING OF DESIRE – As we have already noted, desire is good and God-given. But, in our fallen condition, our desires are often unruly, and our darkened minds often misinterpret what our desire is really telling us.

Desires are unruly because we desire many things out of proportion to what we need, and to what is right and good.

Our minds are darkened in that we consistently turn to the finite world in a futile attempt for satisfaction, and, when it fails, we keep thinking that more and more of the finite world will satisfy our infinite longing. This is futile and is the sign of a confused and darkened mind, because the world cannot possibly satisfy us.  More on this in a moment.

For now, Jesus must work with these bread-seekers (us) and help them to realize that their desire for bread is about much more than mere food; it is about God. He is the Lord whom they really seek. Let’s observe how He works to heal their desires.

A. The Doctor is in The text says, And when they found him across the sea they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?Their question is somewhat gratuitous, since they know exactly when He got there; they are simply trying to strike up a conversation in order to get more bread. As we shall see, Jesus calls them on it. But note this much: they are looking for Jesus and they do call him “Rabbi.” Both these facts are good. Their desire, though imperfectly experienced, has brought them to Jesus, who, as Lord, can now teach them (and us) about what their longing is really telling them. The doctor is in.

B. The Diagnosis The text says, Jesus answered them and said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” In other words, “You are not looking for me because you saw signs and want to believe in me, but because you want your bellies filled.”

And this is our essential problem: we focus on our lower desires, our bodily needs, neglecting our higher, spiritual desires. We have a deep, infinite longing for God, for His love, goodness, beauty, and truth. But instead of seeking these things, we think another hamburger will do the trick. Or if not that, a new car, a new house, a new job, more money, more sex, more power, or more popularity. We think that if we just get enough of all this “stuff” we’ll finally be happy. But we will not; it’s a lie. A finite world cannot possibly satisfy our infinite longing.

In the second reading from today’s Mass, St. Paul warns, I declare and testify in the Lord that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds … that you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds (Eph. 4:17, 20-23).

Note St. Paul’s use of the word “futility.” The Greek word is ματαιότης (mataiotes), here meaning unreality, purposelessness, ineffectiveness, a kind of aimlessness due to a lack of purpose or any meaningful end, nonsense because it is transitory and not enduring.

In other words, it is exactly what the Lord is getting at in telling them that their desires are messed up. It is the sign of a darkened mind to pile up finite, earthly goods in a futile attempt to satisfy infinite desires.

St. Paul goes on to say that some of our desires are deceitful. They are so because they bewitch us into thinking that our life is about them, and that if we attend to them only, we will be happy. We will not; this is a deception. Simply getting more food, sex, drink, houses, money, power, etc. will not cut it. These are finite things, while our desires are ultimately infinite.

Thus the doctor, along with his assistant, St. Paul, has made the diagnosis: You and I are seeking bread (not evil in itself) when we should also be seeking Him who is the True Bread of Life. They say to us, in effect, “You seek the consolations of God, but not the God of all consolation. You want good things, but do not seek the giver of every good and perfect gift.”

So we have our diagnosis. Our desires are our out of whack and/or our darkened minds misinterpret the message that our lower desires are really giving us. Next come the directives.

C. The Directives – The Lord gives three essential directives:

1. Fix your focus – Jesus says, Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. The point is that we should attend more to things that endure unto life eternal than to the passing things of this world.

Most of us do just the opposite. The passing world and its demands get all our attention and things like prayer, scripture, sacraments, building our relationship with the Lord, learning His will, and obeying His will, all get short shrift. We attend to “the man” and tell God to “take a number.” It’s kind of dumb, really.

The passing world, a sinking ship, gets all our attention. Calling on the one who can rescue us and learning His saving directives and following them gets little attention. Instead we “rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic,” indulge ourselves on the “lido deck,” and get angry that we don’t have a first class cabin.

The Lord says, “Hey! Fix your focus! That ship is going down. What will you do then? Why obsess about that stuff? Turn to me and listen carefully; I alone can save you.” Fix your focus: worry less about things that perish and focus more on the things that last and can save.

2. Firm Up your Faith – Jesus goes on to say, For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.” So they said to him, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”

Okay, so the ship is going down; the world is perishing. So how do we get saved from it? The answer is faith.

But faith here must be understood as more than just answering a mere altar call or the recitation of a creed. And surely it is more than “lip service.” Faith here is understood as being in a life-giving, transformative relationship with Jesus Christ.

Real faith puts us into a relationship with the Lord that changes the way we walk, that gives us a new mind and heart, new priorities, indeed, a whole new self. To be in a relationship with Christ, through faith, is to be changed by Him. And it is this change, this obedience of faith, this transformation that saves us and gets us ready to meet God.

So the Lord says, “Come to me and firm up your faith.”

3. Find your Food – But as the discussion with them continues, they show themselves to be a stubborn lot.  They say, What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”

In effect they are still back to demanding bread. It’s as if to say, “Sure, fine, all that higher stuff is fine, but I want bread for my belly. So give me that and then we’ll talk about all that higher stuff and that bread that endures and does not perish. If you want me to have faith, first give me bread for my belly.”

They’re still more interested in the stuff of a sinking ship.

 So Jesus says to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. And in saying this, Jesus is saying, in effect, “Don’t you see that the ancient bread in the wilderness was about GOD? It was not merely food to fill their bellies; it was food to draw them to deeper and saving faith. It was food to strengthen them for the journey to the Promised Land. And so it must be for you: that you understand that even your lower desires are ultimately about God. If mere grain is your food, you are doomed, for food perishes and you along with it. But if God himself is your food, now you can be saved, for I, the Lord and the Bread that endures, will draw you with me to eternal life.”

And in these ways the Lord seeks to heal their desires. But now comes the main point.

III. THE HEART OF DESIRE So they said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.

And thus we see that the Lord now makes it plain: I AM your food. I AM the fulfillment of all your desires. I AM the only one who can really fulfill your infinite longings, for I AM the Lord and I AM infinite. Yes, I AM your true bread.

So what does the Lord mean in saying we will never again hunger or thirst? To some extent we must see that Jesus is employing an ancient “Jewish way of speaking,” which looks to the end of things and adopts them as now fully present. There is no time to fully develop this here and describe how it is used elsewhere, but in short, it is the capacity to see things as “already but not yet,” and to begin to live out of the “already” in the here and now.

Thus Jesus is saying, in more modern terms, “To the degree that you enter into a life- changing and transformative life with me, and to the degree that I become your bread, that I become that which satisfies you, your desires will come more and more into line and you will find them being satisfied more and more with each passing day. You will find in your life a satisfaction that a new iWatch could never give, that money, power, sex, possessions, and all other passing goods could never give. And one day, this satisfaction will be full and never pass away when you are with me in heaven.”

Of this I am a witness, for with each passing day in my life of faith with the Lord, I can truly say that I am more and more satisfied. The things of this passing world are of less interest to me and the things of God and Heaven are increasingly the apple of my eye. I have a ways to go, but the Lord has been good to me and His promises are true, for I have tested them in the laboratory of my own life.

The old song is increasingly mine, which says, “I heard my mother say, Give me Jesus. You may have all this world, just give me Jesus.”

In the gospel in the weeks ahead, the Lord Jesus will develop how He is bread for us in more than a metaphorical way. Rather, He is our True Bread in the Eucharist and the Bread He will give is His flesh for the life of the world. Yes, His Body and Blood are our saving food for the journey to the Promised Land.

I am mindful of an old gospel hymn that I’d like to give a Catholic spin. For I have it on the best of authority that when Jesus was speaking to the crowd in today’s gospel, He started to tap his toe and sing this song:

What Are Your Five Loaves and Two Fishes? A Homily for the 17th Sunday of the Year

blog7-24We have in today’s gospel the very familiar miracle of the loaves and the fishes. One is tempted to say, “Oh, that one …” and then tune out. But the gospel today contains a personal appeal from the Lord’s lips to your (my) ears: “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?”

Immediately, objections begin to pop up in our minds. But let’s be still and allow the Lord to instruct us by applying this Gospel in three stages.

I would like to apply this gospel in such a way as to illustrate our need to evangelize the culture in which we currently live. It is an immense task, one that can overwhelm us, and yet the Lord still bids us to get busy and join him in feeding the multitudes.

I. THE IMAGE THAT IS EXTOLLED – The text says, Jesus went up on the mountain and there he sat down with his disciples. The Jewish feast of Passover was near. Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him.

The text says that Jesus saw a large crowd. I wonder if we do? Generally today when we think of the Church, we think of declining numbers. This is because we tend to think in terms of the number of members. In contrast, Jesus thinks in terms of those who need to be reached. And, as we know well, the number of those who need to be reached IS large! So while it seems clear to us that the gospel is currently “out of season,” we must never forget that everyone is precious to the Lord; He wants to reach all and feed them with His grace, mercy, truth, and love.

So, the image that is extolled is that of need, not of believers and non-believers. Is this how you and I see the world? Jesus sees all the world as a vineyard, as a mission field. He sees all as hungry, no matter how obstinate they are. It is a sad fact that many reject the food we in the Church offer; many even deny that they are hungry. But they are hungry and Jesus is about to ask our help in feeding them. Thus, while we may see opponents to the faith, this text lifts up an image that is rooted in the universal human problem of hunger, physical and spiritual.

II. THE INSUFFICIENCY THAT IS EXPRESSED – The text says, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” Jesus said this to test Philip, because he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fishes; but what good are these for so many?”

There is a human tendency to feel overwhelmed.  This is understandable since the task of evangelizing and feeding the world is daunting to say the least.

Yet note that they are NOT without any resources. It may seem insufficient, but it is not nothing.

And so it is for us who may feel overwhelmed by the cultural meltdown taking place before our very eyes. It seems that every number we want to go down is going up, and every number we want to go up is going down. The cultural war seems to be occurring on multiple fronts: family, marriage, sexuality, life issues, religious freedom, schools, church attendance, the rise of secularism and atheism, and the lack of personal responsibility and self-control.

The list could go on and on. It is not difficult to demonstrate that the disrepair in our culture is enormous. The task of evangelizing our culture may seem far more difficult than coming up with two hundred days’ wages.

But note that Jesus says, “Where can WE” get enough to solve the problem. For it is not only up to us, mere mortals, to resolve the grave issues of our day. The Lord asks us to work with Him. Now, it would seem, we have a fighting chance!

III. THE IMMENSITY THAT IS  EXPERIENCEDJesus said, “Have the people recline.” Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted. When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples,” Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.” So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves.

By now this story is so familiar that we are not shocked by the outcome. But no matter how many times we hear it, we still do not really accept its astonishing truth.

  • I can do all things in God who strengthens me (Phil 4:13).
  • All things are possible to him who believes (Mk 9:23).
  • For man it is impossible, but not with God, for all things are possible with God (Mk 10:27).
  • Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness (2 Cor 9:10).

We all know that this world is in an increasingly bad state. The problems seem overwhelming and our resources seem so limited to turn back the tide. What will we ever do with only five loaves and two fishes?

Jesus says, “Bring them to me.”

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

  • I work on my own conversion. A holier world has to start with me. If I get holier, the world gets holier.
  • I look to the poor I can serve, maybe with money, maybe by using my talents to tutor or counsel, maybe just by giving of my time to listen.
  • I pick up the phone and call a family member who I know is hurting.
  • I love my spouse and my children.
  • I spend time raising my children to know the Lord and to seek His kingdom.
  • I exhort the weak in my own family. With love, I rebuke sin and encourage righteousness.
  • If I am a priest or religious, I faithfully live my vocation and heroically call others to Christ by teaching and proclaiming the gospel without compromise.
  • If I am young, I seek to prepare myself devoutly for a vocation to marriage, the priesthood, or religious life.
  • If I am older, I seek to manifest wisdom and to provide a good example to the young.
  • If I am elderly, I seek to prepare myself for death devoutly and to display the desire for Heaven.
  • I pray for this world and attend Mass faithfully, begging God’s mercy on this sin-soaked world.

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

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

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

This song says,

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

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