God Can Use Anything, but He Shouldn’t Have to – A Homily for the 26th Sunday of the Year


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

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

I. Lost Connections

The text says, A man had two sons. It goes on to describe these two sons as very different yet also quite similar. The man, of course, is God; we are the sons. Although we are all very different, we all have the same Father and we all have sin. A man had two sons is another way of saying that the sons had the same father. Yes, we all have a connection we cannot deny, whatever our differences.

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

Yes, there are many people whom we try to disown. Perhaps they are of a different political party, economic class, or race. Perhaps we just don’t like them. We divide, but God unites. A man had two sons. Yes, they were different, but he was father to them both; he loved them both. He spoke to them and called them his sons.

In terms of evangelization, remember that Jesus sent us to all the nations. No longer were Israel and the Gentiles to be separated, the one considered chosen people and the other not. Hence the Church is catholic, universal, seeking to unite all. A man had two sons, but the two sons had one father. In seeking to evangelize, has it ever occurred to you that the least likely member of your family could be the one whom God most wants you to reach? Be careful of lost connections, for souls can be lost.

II. Leaping to Conclusions

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

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

The point is that we just don’t know about people. We should be very careful not to write people off, even those who appear to be locked in very serious and sinful patterns or who seem to be hostile to God. The example of St. Paul should certainly give us hope, as should that of St. Augustine. St. Augustine wrote well on the fact that we just don’t know how things will turn out with people.

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

Scripture also says, The oppressed often rise to a throne, and some that none would consider, wear a crown. The exalted often fall into utter disgrace; … Call no man happy before his death, for by how he ends, a man is known (Sirach 11:5-6, 28).

I man I knew (now deceased) once told me his story: He was raised in the Church, got all his Sacraments, went to Church regularly, and was a God-fearing man. In his early forties, though, he descended into alcoholism, began to be unfaithful to his wife, stopped going to Church, and was dismissive of God. Were you or I to have seen him at that time, we might easily have concluded that he was too far gone. When he was in his early sixties, he knows not how (except that someone must have been praying for him) but he pulled out of his rebellion and reentered the vineyard. He sought help for his drinking problem and reconciled with his wife and children. Daily mass, weekly confession, daily rosary, and Stations of the Cross—yes, when he returned, he really returned. He said to me that he had done a lot of sinning and so now it was time to do a lot of praying, to make up for lost time, as he put it. He died a penitent in the bosom of the Church.

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

Don’t think that anyone is a permanent member of the vineyard, either. Pray, hope, and work even for those who seem well within in the vineyard, even for your own salvation. We all know of former parishioners, even leaders, who later drifted from the faith. St. Paul spoke of how he had a kind of sober vigilance about his own salvation: But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor 9:27).

III. Lip Service

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

Consider the second son. He is respectful to his father. When told to go into the vineyard he tells his father that he will do so. He would not dream of cursing his father or addressing him in a strident way. You might say that he was outwardly respectful and religiously observant—a decent sort of fellow.

In the end, though, he doesn’t get around to going to the vineyard. For whatever reason, his obedience to his father was only cursory. His lack of follow-through demonstrates a great danger to the religiously observant: giving God “lip service.” Yes, we will praise the Lord, sing a hymn, shout Hallelujah, and say Amen on Sunday, but come Monday will we obey and go to the vineyard of obedience? Will we forgive those who have wronged us? Will we show generosity to the poor? Will we be chaste and compassionate? Will we love our spouse and children? Will we speak the truth in love, evangelize, and act as God’s prophets?

The greatest sadness of all is that it is our very religious observance (a good and commanded thing to be sure) that often blinds us to our wider disobedience. It is easy (and too common) for the religiously observant person to reduce the faith to rituals and, once the rituals are observed, to check off the “God box.” In effect saying or thinking, “OK, I’ve gone to Mass, paid my tithes, said a few Amens and praised the Lord by singing. Now I’m done.”

“Lip-service Christians” are terrible witnesses and a real blow to evangelization because they are so easy to spot. How on earth can we ever hope to win souls for Christ if people can see that we are just going through the motions, but living lives that are unreformed, and untransformed? Our greatest witness must be a life that is being changed by Jesus Christ, a life that manifests the biblical principles of love, justice, charity, forgiveness, mercy, generosity, and a biblical understanding of sexuality; a life that shows we have a renewed mind and heart.

Now none of us do this perfectly, but pray that God’s transformative power is at work in us and that people can see it in us. There is little that is more destructive to evangelization than phony, lip-service Christians, who give the outward appearance of obedience and religiosity but with no substance behind it. Nothing is more helpful to evangelization than Christians who show lives that are being transformed and made more joyful, serene, and holy.

All of this leads to the title of today’s post: “God can use anything, but He shouldn’t have to.” In other words, although none of us are perfect disciples and God can work through us no matter what—He shouldn’t have to do that.

So in today’s Gospel Jesus points out three powerful obstacles to His grace flowing through us to others: lost connections, leaping to conclusions, and lip service. All of these things lessen our effectiveness as disciples, prophets, and evangelizers sent out to make disciples of all the nations.

On Restoring a Truer Vision of the Biblical Jesus

When I was a teenager in the 1970s Jesus was presented in less than flattering terms, at least from my standpoint as a young man at that time. The paintings and statues of that day presented Jesus as a rather thin, willow-wisp of a man, a sort of friendly hippie who went about blessing poor people and healing the sick. It is true he did that but usually left out of the portraits was the Jesus who summoned people to obedience and an uncompromising discipleship, the Jesus who powerfully rebuked his foes.

1970s Jesus was “nice,” and I should be nice too. In my 1970s Church we had no crucifix. Rather there was a cross and a rather slender and starry eyed Jesus sort of floated there in front of the Cross. The cross, it would seem, was all too much for a kinder gentler Jesus. The cross was, how shall we say…., so “unpleasant.”

Somehow, even as a teenager, I craved a stronger, manly Jesus. My heroes then were Clint Eastwood and I loved John Wayne movies which my father called to my attention. Now those were men. (I know these movies were often about revenge, but I’d learn about that later).

The “Jesus” I was presented with seemed soft and unimpressive compared to them and, teenager that I was, I was unmoved. Who will follow an uncertain trumpet? The basic message of Jesus 1970 was “be nice” but 1970s Catholicism (which Bishop Robert Barron calls “beige Catholicism”) stripped away the clarion call of repentance and trumpet-like command that we take up our cross, that we lose our life in order to save it.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when I actually began to study the real Jesus, the one in Scriptures. He was nothing like the thin little williow-wisp of a man I had been taught. He was a vigorous leader, a man among men. Someone who was formidable and commanding of respect. Someone I could look up to.

What follows is a portrait of Jesus Christ that I culled from a few sources and adapted. I wish I could remember the sources to credit them here, but it was over twenty years ago in seminary that, from some dusty old books written long before the 1970s, I culled this portrait on the human stature of Christ. Note that the focus here is on the humanity of Christ. It presupposes his divine nature but focuses on the human nature and, as you will see draws most of its material straight from the Scriptures. As You can see the description is longish. In case you would rather print and read it later I have put it in PDF here: On the Human Stature of Christ

The exterior appearance of Jesus seems to have been a handsome one. A woman in the crowd broke out into praise of him with the words, Blessed in the womb that bore Thee and the breasts that nursed Thee. His response to her Rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep itseems to suggest that she had bodily excellencies in mind as well as spiritual. The powerful impression which Jesus made on ordinary people certainly owed something to his attractive exterior which by its charm drew everyone to him and held them.

Even if this was due primarily to his spiritual and religious power, still, his eyes, with their burning, waking, reproving looks must have been especially striking. For example see how Mark remarks of the eyes of the Lord in the following passages: 3:5,34; 5:32; 8:33; 10:21; 23:27.

We also may cull from Scripture an impression of health, power, energy and well being in Jesus. Jesus seems to have been a thoroughly healthy man, not prone to fatigue and with a great capacity for work. We never hear that Jesus was visited by any sickness. A proof of his physical endurance is born out in Scripture. He was in the habit of rising very early (Mark 1:35). The hills and the lake were especially dear to him and after a long day he loved to climb some lonely height, or late in the evening get himself taken out on to the shimmering water of Lake Gennesareth and stayed out far into the night (cf Mk 4:35; 6:35). We also know that his public life was one of wandering through the mountain valleys of his homeland, from Galilee to Samaria and Judaea and even as far as to the district of Tyre and Sidon (Matt 15:21). Despite these arduous journeys he counseled that one should travel light, bringing nothing for the journey, neither staff, money, nor bread, neither have two coats (Luke 9:3). Hunger and thirst must therefore have frequently accompanied him.

His last journey from Jericho up to Jerusalem was an astounding feat. Under a burning sun through a desolate, rocky waste he climbed some 3500 feet in a six hour climb. Despite this, he seems not tired, since that night he takes part in a feast at the house of Lazarus and his sisters (John 12:2). By far, the greater part of Jesus’ public ministry was spent out in the open, exposed to rigors of climate, in a life filled with labor and toil, with often little time eat (Mk 3:20; Mk 6:31). He owned no home and “had nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20) Hence he likely spent more than a few nights sleeping out in the elements. Only a sound body of physical stamina could have endured such as this.

And now to his mental stature itself. He faced many malevolent enemies among the Pharisees and Sadducees and dealt with them effectively, reducing them to silence (so much so that they began to plot his death). In addition there were tiring explanations to be offered to disciples who were often slow to learn. His self assurance is manifest. In the midst of a raging storm he went on peacefully sleeping till his disciples woke him. He immediately grasps the situation and rebukes the storm.

There was tremendous clarity in his thought. He had an absolute grasp of His goal which gave him an inflexibility and finality (in the good sense) of his will. Jesus knows what he wills and determinedly pursues it. This is evident even at twelve years of age in the temple.

The three temptations in the desert are turned back forcefully by the Lord. He is never deterred by opposition. There is opposition among the kindred of his own town, among his followers (cf esp. John 6:57) and even among the Apostles (cf esp. Matt 16:22). Here we have a man of clear will. He demands the same determination and certainty from his followers. No man, putting his hand to the plough and turning back is fit for the reign of God.” (Luke 9:62)

He bore so clearly the marks of the true, the upright, and the strong, that even his enemies had to declare when they came to him, Master, we know that thou art a true speaker and care not for the opinion of any man. (Mk 12:14) He shows forth a unity and purity and transcendence that reflect his interior life of union with the Father. His loyalty to the will of his Father is unwavering and clear even though it leads directly to the Cross. Jesus in every way is a heroic and epic figure in the purest sense of that word staking his life for a known truth and demanding the same of his followers.

Jesus was a born leader. When he calls his apostles, they immediately arise to follow after him. (cf esp Mk 1:16; 1:20) Again and again the Apostles note how they wondered among themselves about the marvels of his actions and even how these struck terror into them (cf esp. Mk 9:5; 6:51; 4:40; 10:24,26). At times they did not dare question him any further (Mk 9:3). The same wonderment affected the crowds.(cf Mk 5:15,33,42; 9:14). He spoke with towering authority and the people sought the loftiest images to in wondering who he could be. Is he John the Baptist? Elijah? Jeremiah or one prophets? (Matt 16:14) His spiritual power and authority discharged themselves in stern language and bold action when the powers of evil arrayed themselves against him. Demons trembled against his awesome power (Matt 4:10.) He also rebukes strongly the evil that is in men and warns them that they will not be worthy of him if they do not repent (Matt 13:41sq; 13:49sq; 25:1sq; 14sq; 33sq; 18:34; 22:7; 22:11sq.).

He is absolutely clear and unflinching in dealing with the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 23:14,24,25). As shown above, he knows himself to be the Messiah and is anything but a fair-weather Messiah but follows the model of the prophets rebuking all enemies of the truth He proclaims. He speaks of hypocrites, serpents and generations of vipers and liars (cf Matt 23:33). He calls Herod a fox (Lk 13:32). Although he was never one to tread lightly, he never forgets himself or loses control. His anger is always the expression of supreme moral freedom declaring, for this I came into the World, that I should give testimony to the truth (John 18:37). Because He was so consistently true to His Father’s will his life was only “Yes and No” and he reacted with great severity against anything that was ungodly or hateful to God. He was ready to stake his own life for the truth and die for it.

To describe Jesus psychologically would be to describe his as a man of purposeful virility, absolute genuineness, austere uprightness, and heroic in performance. He knows the truth, knows himself and, with exact clarity, executes his mission.

I realize that people are pretty particular in how they envisage Jesus. I also think men and women have a very different starting point too. Please remember that I am not pontificating here, I am starting a conversation. So have at it!

Pondering Some Proverbs

In daily Mass this week we are reading from the Book of Proverbs, in which a common theme is the contrast between the wise man and the fool.

Let’s examine a few passages from the Proverbs. They go a long way toward explaining the ultimate destiny of the wise and the destruction wrought by foolishness and evil.  My comments are presented in red text.

Blessings are for the head of the just, but a rod for the back of the fool (Proverbs 10:6).

God’s law is a great blessing to those who love wisdom. His commandments are not prison walls; they are defending walls. His commands do not limit freedom so much as they frame it within necessary limits.

To the foolish, though, to those who despise God’s wisdom, to those who hate discipline and reasonable limits, God’s law—any authority that tries to limit behavior—is hateful and punishing, like a rod on the back.

Many today are not simply indifferent to God’s wisdom as proclaimed by the Church and Scripture, they are openly hostile to it!

It is like the reaction of someone who has been sitting in a dark room and is suddenly subjected to bright light. He despises the light and protests its presence as something obnoxious and intrusive. Jesus lamented, And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil (Jn 3:19).

A wise man heeds commands, but a prating fool will be overthrown. A path to life is his who heeds admonition, but he who disregards reproof goes astray (Proverbs 10:8, 17).

The wise man listens to instruction and strives to base his life upon it. The wise humbly accept that they do not know all things and must be taught by God.

Fools, those who hate wisdom, prattle on and on about their own opinions. They believe something is true simply because they think it.

The text says that the end of a fool is destruction. Many nations, empires, political ideologies, trends, and philosophies have come and gone over the years, yet God’s truth remains. The wisdom and the Word of the Lord endure forever.

He who winks at a fault causes trouble, but he who frankly reproves promotes peace (Prov 10:10).

There is tremendous pressure today to remain silent about sin and evil. Those who do speak of sin are labeled judgmental and intolerant. Sadly, many Christians have succumbed to this pressure; nothing but trouble can result from such capitulation. The moral cesspool that is our modern age is evidence of this.

The correction of faults, frankly and with love, is an act of charity (St. Thomas Aquinas). Error and sin bring war and division, both individually and collectively, but God’s truth, lovingly proclaimed, brings peace by insisting on what is good, right, true, and beautiful.

We live in an age that turns a blind eye to evil. The world often celebrates it in visual entertainment, written media, and music. One can see the destructiveness of the glamorization of evil simply by reading the news.

God’s law is His peace plan for this broken world of ours; it is His wisdom that will bring us peace.

A fountain of life is the mouth of the just, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence (Proverbs 10:11).

Jesus warned that Satan and those who are evil often masquerade in sheep’s clothing, while underneath they are ravenous wolves (see Mat 7:15). Many in our world today who despise God’s wisdom attempt to conceal their violence by using euphemisms such as pro-choice, pro-woman, no-fault divorce, reproductive freedom, euthanasia, and death with dignity.

Despite the cloak of pseudo-compassion, they ultimately peddle death and division. God’s wisdom, on the other hand, speaks to the dignity of every human life, to hope, and to the promise of life in spite of any difficulties.

The soul of the wicked man desires evil; his neighbor finds no pity in his eyes (Proverbs 21:6).

There comes a steady hardening of the heart of a person who loves evil. As the hardening grows worse, they care less and less for the pain they cause others. They show little pity and don’t seem to mind that they destroy the reputations of others. Their cruelty, both physical and emotional, grows ever worse.

The just man’s recompense leads to life, but the gains of the wicked, to sin. Better a little with fear of the Lord than a great fortune with anxiety. Better a little with virtue than a large income with injustice (Proverbs 10: 15, 16).

For those who are striving to be just and to follow God’s wisdom, the rewards received are to be shared generously with others. The gains of the wicked, however, lead to sins such as gluttony, greed, and hoarding. Rather than sharing their abundance with others, they spend it on the flesh; they place their trust in creatures rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.

Where words are many, sin is not wanting; but he who restrains his lips does well (Proverbs 10:19).

In an age of non-stop communication and 24/7 news reporting, the sin of gossip is an almost endlessly available temptation. Discretion appears to have been lost. Almost everyone thinks he has a right to know everything about everyone else. The people’s “right to know” seems to have no limits.

Our age is one of many media (visual, verbal, musical, etc.) and on account of this sin is not wanting. We talk endlessly about other people’s business and often ignore our own issues. Why stay in our own lane when we can “tune in at 11,” read a scandal sheet, or surf to a website for the latest gossip?

Rare indeed are those who “restrain their lips” and limit their critique to what is truly helpful unto conversion.

Crime is the entertainment of the fool; so is wisdom for the man of sense (Proverbs 10:23).

Our culture often celebrates the sins of others as entertainment. On television, in the cinema, and in many other forms of communication, fornication, adultery, and all kinds of sexual misconduct are normalized—even celebrated.

It is the same with violence. Most adventure movies today glamorize its use solve problems. We also glorify mobsters and some other violent criminals.

Some will argue that movies should reflect life. That is fine, but most people are not killing other people, burning cities, crashing cars, or blowing up buildings. Most people are not involved in organized crime. Sadly, however, there is a lot of fornication, adultery, and participation in homosexual acts. In movies, this behavior seems to bring few negative consequences; in real life, however, the consequences are often devastating.

Where are the movies that depict wisdom, beauty, love, truth, chastity, and strong families? There are some out there, but they are far outnumbered by those that celebrate crime, violence, dysfunction, and sinfulness.

When the tempest passes, the wicked man is no more; but the just man is established forever (Proverbs 10:25).

The Church alone is indefectible, by the promise of Jesus Christ. Although evil movements, political forces, and sinful regimes rise and boast of their power, they eventually fall. The Church has seen empires rise and fall and philosophies come and go. Evil men have threatened the Church with destruction for thousands of years, but we have read the funeral rites over every one of them.

The truth will out. Evil will not remain; it cannot last. Christ has already won the victory.

The foolish keep resisting; they laugh at God’s wisdom, dismiss the Scriptures, and ridicule the Church. When they are gone, though, we will still be here proclaiming Christ crucified, gloriously resurrected, and ascended to glory.

Those who mock this resist the consistent message of history. Jesus is Lord, and though He permits His enemies time to repent, their days are ultimately numbered—evil cannot last.

These are just a few proverbs that are particularly appropriate for our times. They help us to understand what God has to say about many modern trends.

Here’s a video with some other sayings. In posting this I do not mean to affirm every saying presented in it, but some of them do make good sense!

Do the Math! Learning the Mathematics of the Kingdom is important for Salvation

091213As a kind of follow-up from yesterday’s Gospel about the workers in the vineyard, we do we do well to examine. a kind of “mathematics of the Kingdom of God.” As noted yesterday, be very, very careful before you ask God to be fair. If God were fair, were all in big trouble. What we need most from God now is that he be merciful. And, having experienced God’s mercy he calls us to be merciful. Mercy is a very important aspect of the mathematics of the Kingdom of God.

In effect the Lord says to us, “Pay attention! You are going to be judged by the same standard by which you treat and judge others. So do the math, and realize that you were storing up for yourselves a kind of standard by which I will judge you.”

The key principle and text in this “math” comes in Luke’s Gospel wherein the Lord says the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you (Luke 6:38). But this statement comes at the end of a long string of statements were in the Lord summons us to be generous, forgiving, merciful, patient, and reluctant to condemn others.

In effect, the Lord says “Do the math, and realize it if you are merciful you’ll be judged with mercy. But if you are harsh and critical you will be judged with a harsh and critical standard. If you have refused to forgive, you will not be forgiven.

Like it or not, this is the mathematics of the Kingdom of God that, while it does not mean we earn salvation, but it does mean that we have a lot of influence over the standard by which we will be judged.

So, if you are going to need mercy and grace on the day of judgment, (and we all are) it is good to do the math of the Kingdom, and store up mercy and grace for that day.

We will all, one day, answer to God. And that day, as Scripture repeatedly teaches, it is a day about which we should be sober. Sadly, there are many who give little thought to this truth, and some who outright scoff at it.

So, again, we can influence the manner in which God will judge us, the standard he will use! Now here, we speak of the manner of God’s judgment, that is Namely, whether he will judge us strictly, and or severely, or with lenience, and great mercy. On the day of our judgment, God will judge our deeds with pure justice. But part of that Justice is how we have treated others.

Let’s consider a few scripture passages wherein we are taught that we can have some influence over the manner in which God will judge us. Lets look at four related areas that will have influence:

I. Whether we show mercy –

Jesus says, Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy (Matthew 5:7). James says something similar, and develops a bit when he says Always speak and act as those were going to be judged under the law of freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. So mercy triumphs over judgment! (James 2:12 – 13). And thus we are taught that by observing mercy, and patience, in our relations with one another, we will influence the manner in which we are judged.

It is a fact that, sometimes in life, it will be required of us, especially if we are parents, or in leadership roles, that we will need to punish, and/or assign consequences for those who transgress moral laws, or legal limits. Hence, texts like these do not mean we should never correct with punitive measures. Such a way of living is unwise, and often confirms people in bad behaviors. But even when corrective or punitive measures are needed, it makes sense that we should seek to be lenient where possible, and use lesser measures before firmer ones are employed.

It is also clear from these biblical texts, that it is highly foolish to go through life with severity toward others, with a lack of compassion, or a harsh unyielding attitude. We are all going to need a lot of grace and mercy at our judgment. Therefore, how misguided, how foolish it is for us to be harsh and unmerciful toward others. For indeed, these text tell us the merciful are blessed, and warn that the unmerciful will be shown no mercy. Can you or I really expect, that we will make it on the day of judgment, without boatloads of Mercy?

Now therefore is the time for us to seek to invoke the promise of the Lord, Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

II. Whether we have been strict or lenient

In a related text, and as noted above, the Lord Jesus says, The measure that you measure to others, will be measured back to you (Mark 4:24). Here again, if we hope for, and need a merciful judgment, if we want a merciful measure or standard to be used, the Lord makes it clear that he will use the measure or standard that we have used for others. Have we been strict? He will be strict. Have we been merciful? He will be merciful, and so forth. Be very careful before demanding that sinners and others who transgress receive the strongest penalties. There may be a time for penalties, but it is not always true that the most severe punishments be used.

In John 8 the Pharisees wanted to invoke the most severe penalty for a woman caught in adultery (stoning to death). Jesus reasons with them that before they demand he throw the book at her, they might want to recall there are a few things about them that are also written in the book. One by one they drift away, seemingly considering the foolishness of their demands for the most severe penalty. Somehow they realize that the measure they want to measure to her, will be measured back to them.

III. Whether we are generous to the poor

Luke, relates this text more specifically to our generosity: Give and it will be given to you, good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap. For the measure that you measure to others will be measured back to you (Luke 6:38). And this leads us to a second area which the Scriptures teach us that we can influence the day of our judgment.

Jesus, after rebuking the Scribes Pharisees for their severity, and their extreme legalism, says to them, who obsessed about cleaning the outside of the dish, You fools, did not the one who made the outside of the cup make the inside also? But if you give what is inside the cup as alms to the poor, everything will be made clean for you (Luke 11:40 – 41). It is a daring text, in the light of the theology of Grace, and almost implies that we could somehow “purchase” forgiveness. But of course, it is the Lord himself who says it, and he does not say we can somehow purchase forgiveness. But surely, he does teach that generosity to the poor will in fact influence the day of our judgment.

Later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus develops the thought saying, I tell you, use your worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into trouble dwellings (Lk 16:9). It is a complicated text, but Jesus seems to be saying that our generosity to the poor, will surely gain for us advantages at the day of our judgment. Indeed, blessing the poor gives us powerful intercessors, for the Lord hears the cries of the poor. And on the day of our death, and our judgment, the picture that is painted here is of those very poor welcoming us into eternal dwellings.

Scripture elsewhere warns, If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be heard (Proverbs 21:13). So once again, it would seem that we can have some influence over the manner, measure or standard that will be used by God at our judgment. To the merciful, mercy will be shown. The generous too will experience that their cries are heard, for they heard the cries of the poor. And the Lord more than implies that those who have been generous to the poor will have powerful advocates praying and interceding for them on the day of judgment. Indeed, a number of the Fathers of the Church remind us that, in this life, the poor need us, but in the life to come, we will need them.

IV. Whether we have been forgiving –

A final area to explore in terms of how we might have influence over the manner of our judgment is the matter of forgiveness. Just after giving us the “Our Father,” the Lord Jesus says the following, For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matthew 6:14 – 15).

Later in Matthew, Jesus tells a terrifying parable of a man who had huge debt, a debt that was forgiven him. But when he refused to forgive his brother a much smaller debt, the king grew angry and threw him into debtors prison. Jesus concludes the parable by saying, This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you, unless you forgive your brother from your heart (Matthew 18:35).

So yes, it would seem that we can have some influence over the manner in which God will judge us, over the standard he will use. And while it is true, God will judge will judge us by our deeds (cf Romans 2:6), yet the manner in which God judges us, whether with strictness or leniency, does seem to be a matter over which we have influence.

So, do the math and consider well the mathematics of the Kingdom of God!  It is a plain fact that we are all going to need lots of grace and mercy, for we will all have much to answer for. All the more reason for us to follow the teachings of the Lord, in his Scripture, and be sure that on the day of our judgment, mercy, and the grace of leniency will prevail. Do we want mercy? Then show mercy. Do we want a gentle standard? Then we must measure out gentleness. Do we want forgiveness? Then we must offer forgiveness. Recruit some good intercessors for the day of judgment, by giving to the poor. They will be the most powerful intercessors for us as we leave this life and go to judgment.

So,  God has shown us how we can store up a treasure of mercy, waiting for us in heaven, at the judgment seat of Christ. Some good lessons here to heed.

Here’s a funny video that illustrates that the measure we measure to others will be measured back to us:

 

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

What Jesus teaches in this Sunday’s Gospel is one of those parables that rock our world and challenge our worldly way of thinking. Frankly, that is one of its purposes. We are tempted to side with the laborers who worked the longest, thinking that their being paid the same amount as those who worked only for an hour is unfair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We may wonder why God calls some early and others late; it’s none of our business. He does call at different times. Even those whom He calls early are not always asked to do everything right now. There is a timing to discipleship.

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

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

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

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

Notice that the wages are paid in the evening and in the order determined by the landowner. The lesson is simple: we’ve got to stay in the vineyard. Some people start things but do not finish them. If you’re not there at the end of the day, there’s no pay.

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

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

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

The workers hired early think of their entrance into the vineyard and its labors as a “burden.” The vineyard, of course, is really the Kingdom of God. Many lukewarm “cradle Catholics” consider the faith to be a burden; they think that sinners “have all the fun.” Never mind that such thinking is completely perverse; it is held by many anyway, whether consciously or unconsciously.

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

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

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

So these are five dispositions of discipleship, as taught by the Lord in this parable.

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

The song in the video below says, “I’m available to you.” It reminds us that the owner still seeks souls to enter His vineyard. He wants to use your voice to say to someone, “You, too, go into my vineyard!”

Bite Your Tongue! A Reflection on Common Sins of Speech

In the pastoral guide of St. Gregory the Great, the opening line reads: “A spiritual guide should be silent when discretion requires and speak when words are of service.”

This is not easy. Indeed, self-mastery in speech is among the rarer gifts and usually comes later in life!

Some of the most common sins we commit are related to speech: gossip, idle chatter, lies, exaggerations, harsh attacks, and uncharitable remarks. With our tongue we can spread hatred, incite fear and maliciousness, spread misinformation, cause temptation, discourage, teach error, and ruin reputations. With a gift capable of bringing such good, we can surely cause great harm!

The Book of James says this:

We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what he says is perfect, able to keep his whole body in check. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, and thus we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.

Consider how a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be (James 3:2-18).

Yes, though by God’s grace one may conquer many sins, those associated with speech are usually among the last to be overcome. It almost seems as if there is a separate, baser part of our brain that controls our speech. We can be halfway through saying something before we even realize how stupid and sinful we are being. Scripture speaks very artistically of the sinful tongue. Here is a list of ten sins of the tongue from James Melton [1]. Although the list is his, the commentary is mine. Beware of these!

  1. The Lying Tongue – speaking false things with the intention to mislead

The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy (Proverbs 12:22).

  1. The Flattering Tongue – exaggerating the good qualities of others in order to ingratiate ourselves to them, a form of lying

May the Lord silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue (Psalm 12:4).

  1. The Proud Tongue – There is a saying that a proud tongue comes with two closed ears. The proud tongue is boastful and overly certain of what it says. Those of proud tongue are not easily corrected and do not qualify or distinguish their remarks as they should.

Those who say, By our tongues we will prevail; our own lips will defend us—who can lord it over us? (Psalm 12:5) are condemned.

  1. The Overused Tongue – saying far too much, especially concerning things about which we know little

… a fool’s voice [comes] along with a multitude of words (Ecclesiastes 5:2).

  1. The Swift Tongue – speaking before we should, before we even have all of the information

Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter anything before God (Ecclesiastes 5:1).

Everyone should be swift to hear and slow to speak (James 1:19).

  1. The Backbiting Tongue – talking about others behind their backs, the secretive injuring of a person’s good name. Calumny is outright lying about another person. Detraction is calling unnecessary attention to the faults of others so as to harm their reputations.

As surely as a north wind brings rain, so a gossiping tongue causes anger (Proverbs 25:23).

  1. The Tale-bearing Tongue – spreading unnecessary (often hurtful) information about others. Tale-bearers spread personal information about others that should not be shared.

He that goes about as a tale-bearer reveals secrets, therefore keep no company with one who opens his lips (Proverbs 20:19).

Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people (Leviticus 19:16).

  1. The Cursing Tongue – wishing that harm come to others, usually that they be damned

He loved to pronounce a curse—may it come back on him. He found no pleasure in blessing—may it be far from him (Psalm 109:17).

  1. The Piercing Tongue – speaking with unnecessary harshness and severity

Proclaim the message; persist in it in season and out of season; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching (2 Timothy 4:2).

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity (1 Tim 5:1-2).

  1. The Silent Tongue – not speaking up when we ought to warn people of sin, call them to the Kingdom, and announce the Truth of Jesus Christ. In our age, the triumph of evil and bad behavior has been assisted by our silence as a Christian people. Prophets are to speak God’s Word.

Israel’s watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark (Isaiah 56:10).

So our speech is riddled with what it should not have and devoid of what it should. How wretched indeed is our condition! Well, James did say, Anyone who is never at fault in what he says is perfect!

There are many cautions to be guided by when it comes to speech. Here is another list of Scripture passages concerning speech, most of them taken from the Wisdom Tradition. Read and heed!

  • Be swift to hear, but slow to answer. If you have the knowledge, answer your neighbor; if not, put your hand over your mouth. Honor and dishonor through talking! A man’s tongue can be his downfall. Be not called a detractor; use not your tongue for calumny (Sirach 5:13-16).
  • He who repeats an evil report has no sense. Never repeat gossip, and you will not be reviled. … Let anything you hear die within you; be assured it will not make you burst. But when a fool hears something, he is in labor, like a woman giving birth to a child. … Like an arrow lodged in a man’s thigh is gossip in the breast of a fool … every story you must not believe … who has not sinned with his tongue? (Sirach 19:5-14 varia)
  • Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. … Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. … Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore fear God (Eccles 5:1-6).
  • In the end, people appreciate honest criticism far more than flattery (Proverbs 28:23 NLT).
  • Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses (Prov 27:6).
  • He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity (Prov 21:23).
  • He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin (Prov 13:3).
  • A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much (Prov 20:19).
  • A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will perish (Prov 19:9).
  • A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will not go free (Prov 19:5).
  • A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered. Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue (Prov 17:27-28).
  • When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise (Prov 10:19).
  • Fools’ words get them into constant quarrels; they are asking for a beating (Prov 18:6).
  • Drive out the mocker, and out goes strife; quarrels and insults are ended (Prov 22:10).
  • The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in men who are truthful. A prudent man keeps his knowledge to himself, but the heart of fools blurts out folly (Prov 12:22-23).
  • The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly (Prov 15:2).
  • The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit (Prov 15:4).
  • A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions (Prov 18:2).
  • Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing (Prov 12:18).
  • A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue. A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret (Prov 11:12-13).
  • The lips of the righteous know what is fitting, but the mouth of the wicked only what is perverse (Prov 10:32).
  • The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil (Prov 15:28).
  • The prudent man does not make a show of his knowledge, but fools broadcast their foolishness (Prov 12:23).
  • Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips (Psalm 141:3).
  • Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies (Psalm 34:13).

Help me, Lord. Keep your arm around my shoulder and your hand over my mouth! Put your Word in my heart so that when I do speak, it’s really you speaking.

On Honor and Its Pitfalls

Every year at about this time we read St. Augustine’s sermon “On Pastors” in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours. As you know, priests are required to read the Divine Office daily; St. Augustine’s sermon extends over the better part of two weeks. It amounts to a stern warning for priests who too easily live off the sheep instead of shepherding them rightly.

At one point in the sermon Augustine speaks to a subtle matter: the question of honor. On the one hand we rightly respect elders and leaders, according them due honor. On the other hand there is the danger of an unhealthy deference or excessive honor that both insulates leaders from proper correction and causes them to crave honor inordinately. Of the honor we have traditionally given clergy, St. Augustine says,

For every man without exception is weak. And who is any man placed over you except someone just like yourself? Your pastor is in the flesh; he eats, sleeps, and awakens; he was born and is going to die. In himself he is, when you think of it, simply a man. But it is true that you make him something more by giving him honor; it is as if you were covering what is weak.

Regarding honors, St. Augustine warns priests that craving them or acceptance from the people may hinder the preaching of the Gospel. He gives the example of St. Paul who, though acknowledging the honor and respect given him, did not hesitate to correct and preach difficult truths:

But did [Paul] then spare sinners because of [the] honor [they gave him], perhaps out of fear that it would be refused and that he would receive less praise when he gave blame? Had he done so, he would be among those shepherds who feed themselves and not the sheep….In recalling how they treated him, the Apostle does not want to appear forgetful of the honor they did him. Therefore, he gives testimony that they received him like an angel of God … Yet he still comes to the sheep that is ill, to the one that is diseased, to cut the wound and not to spare the diseased part. He says: “Have I then become your enemy by preaching the truth?” He took from the milk of the sheep, as I mentioned a short time ago, and he was clothed with their wool, but he did not neglect his sheep. He did not seek what was his, but what was Christ’s.

Pray for priests. We live in times when many of us have been trained or led to think that the goal of our ministry is merely to affirm people and make them feel welcome. If we do this, we are only seeking honor, affirmation, and popularity for ourselves. There is a place for welcoming, but the goal of our ministry is the salvation of souls. At times this requires that we say and do difficult things, things that anger people and cause us to be ridiculed and denounced. As St. Augustine says, though, the treatment of wounds requires not just the oil that soothes but also the wine that stings as it debrides and decontaminates.

What would one think of a doctor who spent most of his time making sure that his waiting room was pleasant and his examination rooms cheerful while expending minimal effort studying disease and doing what was necessary to bring his patients back to good health? Proper medical care sometimes requires strong medicine and/or painful surgery. Further, doctors must often share difficult information with patients and give strong admonitions that lifestyle changes must be made. Pleasant examination rooms and a good bedside manner are all well and good, but providing medical care is the primary objective. A doctor who does not speak the truth to his patients because he wants to keep them happy is guilty of malpractice; he has maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum.

It is no less the case with priests who avoid conflict or difficulty in order to preserve their honor. They have allowed a lesser thing to eclipse a greater one. Pleasantries and affirmation too easily overshadow the truth, which is what sets us free even if it is sometimes strong medicine.

As St. Augustine mercifully reminds, priests are human. No one likes conflict; all other things being equal, avoiding unnecessary conflict is a good thing. Avoiding conflict at the expense of the truth, though, is a false peace, a temporary peace. The darkness, baseness, and ferocity of our times testifies against the idea of “going along to get along.” A false peace cannot endure. Our silence and the false tolerance of relativism is, in the end, tyranny.

The concern about silent pulpits on the key moral issues of our day is too widespread to be discredited as a minority view. Despite our human weakness, we who are priests must summon the courage to speak and teach more clearly and consistently. True shepherds can do no less.

I am reminded of a text by St. Basil, which I believe serves as a fitting postscript to my own poorer reflections on this topic:

Men in authority are afraid to speak, for those who have reached power by human interest are the slaves of those to whom they owe their advancement. And now, the very vindication of orthodoxy is looked upon in some quarters as an opportunity for attack…While unbelievers laugh; men of weak faith are shaken; faith is uncertain; souls are drenched in ignorance, because adulterators of the Word imitate the truth (Saint Basil in Ep. 92, 2).

Yes, too often, the clergy placate dissenters and enemies of the truth while showing hostility to the faithful who raise questions and seek clear teaching about the moral and doctrinal errors of our day.

Honor has its place, but too easily the honored are locked into a need to be honored and esteemed by the world. Pray for all in authority, especially the clergy.

How Does Idealism Negatively Affect Marriage?

Those who seek to strengthen Holy Matrimony and stem the tide of failed marriages propose many remedies, among them better catechesis, improved marriage preparation, and greater emphasis on the sacrament in sermons. All of these are fine ideas and necessary steps, but let’s also ponder a deep but often unexplored root of the trouble with marriage today: idealism or unrealistic expectations.

Although we live in cynical times, many people still hold a highly idealistic view of marriage: that it should be romantic, joyful, loving, and happy all the time. It is an ideal rooted in the dreamy wishes of romantic longing, but an ideal nonetheless. Amor omnia vincit! (Love conquers all!) Surely, we will live happily ever after the way every story says!

Here’s the problem: Many want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal. Yes, many are wandering about thinking, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” to borrow from a U2 song.

There is no such thing as an ideal marriage, only real marriage. Two sinners have been married. A man and a woman with fallen natures, living in a fallen world that is governed by a fallen angel, have entered into the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Like the graces of any Sacrament, those of Holy Matrimony are necessary not because things are wonderful, but because they are oftentimes difficult. Marriage is meant to sanctify. Like baptism, it offers graces that unfold gradually. The graces unfold to the degree that, and at the speed with which, the couple cooperates with God’s work.

It takes a lifetime of joy and challenge, tenderness and tension, difficulty and growth, in order for a husband and wife to summon each other to the holiness that God gives. Some of God’s gifts come in strange packages. Struggles and irritations are often opportunities to grow and to learn what forgiveness, patience, and suffering are all about. These are precious things to learn and to grow in. Frankly, if we don’t learn to forgive we are going to go to Hell (see Mt 6:14-15). Even the best marriages have tension; without tension there is no change.

This may not describe the ideal, happily-ever-after marriage, but it describes the real one: full of joy, love, hope, and tenderness, but also sorrow, anger, stress, and disappointment.

Cultural expectations – Our notion of an ideal (happy, fulfilling, blissful) marriage is also seen through the lens of our culture which has gotten very good at supplying comfort: air conditioning, medicines, indoor plumbing and electricity, nearly instant communication, vast numbers of consumer products that are reasonably affordable, etc. This all creates the expectation that everything should be comfortable and everything should be just the way I want it.   There is also in our culture an impatience and need for instant gratification culture that that comes from an efficient economy:  “Rush shipping,” “Have it delivered today!” “Buy it with one click,” and “Download now.” If the ideal marriage is not evident very soon, the disappointments and resentments along with impatience come very quickly.

There is a saying that “unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.” How quickly unrealistic notions of the picture-perfect marriage are dashed on the shoals of reality.

Somewhere, not only in the Church’s marriage preparation programs but also in our work of assisting personal formation, we need to teach that unrealistic expectations are ultimately destructive. Our ideals are not the problem per se; but we must become more sober about our conception of these ideals through the lens of expected comfort in everything and instant gratification. Growth takes time. Life moves through stages. Marriage is hard, but so is life. Cutting and running from the imperfect marriage—as some do rather quickly today—is not the solution. Sure enough, one imperfect marriage leads to another and perhaps yet another.

In the past, even the relatively recent past, people tended to stick things out, to work through some differences while agreeing to live with others. We would do well to regain something of this appreciation that earthly life is a mixed bag, that there are going to be challenges. Marriage is no different. Though we may idealize it, we should be aware that we are setting ourselves up for resentment and disappointment if we don’t balance it with the understanding that marriage is hard because life is hard.

Clearly there are many other problems that contribute to today’s high rate of divorce, but an overlooked root is the expectation of an ideal marriage. Yes, many want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal. (We would do well to remember that in a world full of adults behaving like this, it is the children who really get a raw deal.) This is a deeper and less discussed cultural root of our divorce problem, a deep wound of which we should become more aware.