Who Was Isaiah, and What Does His Message Mean for Us?

During Advent, we read quite a bit from the Prophet Isaiah. Therefore, for my own meditation and yours, I offer the following reflection on Isaiah, the man and his message. Each of the issues with which he dealt is still with us, even though we live in a far more secular world than he could have imagined. Let’s consider key elements of his life, his struggle, and his message.

Isaiah was born in 760 B.C. He is further identified as the son of Amoz (Isaiah 1:1). His name in Hebrew (Yeshayahu) means “Yah[weh] is salvation.” Isaiah lived this name well, insisting that Judah’s kings and people trust only in God, make no alliances with foreign nations, and refuse to fear anyone but God.

Isaiah lived in the terrible period following the great severing of the northern kingdom of Israel (with its ten tribes) from the southern kingdom of Judah. In the period prior to Isaiah’s birth, the northern kingdom had known almost nothing but godless kings. Idolatry had begun there from the start, when the first king, Jeroboam, erected golden calves (of all things!) in two northern cities and strove to dissuade northern Jews from going south to Jerusalem (in Judah) to worship. Other ugly moments in the north featured King Ahab and the wicked Queen Jezebel, who advanced the worship of the Canaanite fertility god, Baal, and who persecuted Elijah and the few others who sought to stay true to the faith of Abraham.

By the time Isaiah began his ministry (742 B.C.), the division was some 200 years old. Though living in Judah to the south, Isaiah both prophesied doom for the north and warned the kings of the south to rebuke wickedness and fears and to form no foreign alliances against the growing menaces to the north (Israel) and the east (Assyria). In this passage, he warned of northern destruction: In a single day the Lord will destroy both the head and the tail … The leaders of Israel are the head, and the lying prophets are the tail (Is 9:14-15). But his own Judah remained the focus of his concern and warnings.

Isaiah’s mission and ministry in Judah spanned four kings: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. It is likely that he was a cousin of King Uzziah, which gave him both access and influence. Isaiah’s eloquence and influence also suggest that he received a royal education; little else is known of him personally.

Although the opening chapters of the Book of Isaiah describe the wickedness of the people of Judah and the need for their repentance and his ministry, Isaiah’s prophetic call seems to have begun in 742 B.C., “the year King Uzziah died,” and is described in Chapter 6:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me” (Is 6:1–8).

While God accepts Isaiah’s offer, He warns that Isaiah’s message will be resisted. Isaiah asks, sadly,

“How long, O Lord?” And he said, “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without men, and the land is utterly desolate, and the Lord removes men far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned” (Is 6:11–13).

Sure enough, the first 39 chapters of Isaiah describe a fiercely stubborn resistance to Isaiah’s calls. However, the prophesied destruction of the south would not occur until 587 B.C., long into the future, due in part to some limited success Isaiah had in working with King Hezekiah at a critical moment.

The winds of war were blowing. Assyria was expanding and the ominous clouds of its destructive conquest were moving westward. Israel to the north joined in a coalition to fight Assyria and tried to strong-arm Judah to join, threatening invasion and overthrow of King Ahaz if there was no agreement. Let’s just say that Ahaz was anxious, and all of Judah with him—threats to the north, threats to the east, and the Mediterranean to the west. There was no real escape.

God dispatches Isaiah to Ahaz with the following message:

… Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands … [who have] devised evil against you, saying, “Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabe-el as king in the midst of it,” thus says the Lord GOD: It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass (Is 7:4–7).

In other words, trust God. Make no alliances and do not give in to your fears. Stand your ground! God offers Ahaz a sign that a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, Immanuel (God is with us). But Ahaz cops a falsely pious attitude, talking about not putting God to the test. Yet it is Ahaz who fails the test. Caving in, he sends tribute to Assyria and offers to become a vassal state.

In the end, this frees Assyria to concentrate on destroying Israel to the north. And while it can be argued that Israel’s wickedness brought her destruction, Ahaz helped seal the fate of fellow Jews in the north through his fearful and self-serving political calculations. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 721 B.C. and the survivors were carried off into exile. It was farewell to the Ten Lost Tribes. Only Judah and the Levites in the south remained intact.

Though Judah was spared, the relief from threatening Assyria was to be temporary. Meanwhile, Ahaz’s son Hezekiah became king (ruling from 715-687 B.C.). Hezekiah was a better king: more faithful, more trusting, and thus less fearful. He rid Judah of any elements of Canaanite religious practice and by 705 B.C. had courageously broken free of the alliance with Assyria. He fortified Jerusalem (and his faith) against the backlash that was sure to come from Assyria.

Sure enough, in 701 B.C., Assyria came to collect past-due tribute and to assert who was boss. Jerusalem was surrounded with troops and her fate seemed sealed. But Isaiah summoned Hezekiah and Judah to courage:

“Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, or shoot an arrow here, or come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, says the Lord. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.” And the angel of the Lord went forth, and slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies (Is 37:33–36).

The Assyrian survivors left and returned by the way they had come. Their king, Sennacherib, returned home and was killed by his own sons.

A fear rebuked brought victory to Judah. Now maybe people would listen to Isaiah and trust God rather than foreign alliances! Well, not so fast. Hezekiah, who had been ill but miraculously recovered, started to get awfully friendly with the Babylonians, who were then emerging as a power to the east. Faith and trust are surely difficult things, especially for a king.

Because it looked like another alliance was being formed with a pagan state, Isaiah warned,

“Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. And some of your own sons, who are born to you, shall be taken away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” Then said Hezekiah to Isaiah, “The word of the Lord which you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days” (Is 39:5–8).

Hezekiah’s selfish response reminds me of an old saying of my father’s: “People disappoint.” Alliances and dalliances with foreign lands and a corresponding lack of trust in God would continue to plague Judah despite miracles against Assyria.

We know little of Isaiah’s final demise. According to an extra-biblical tradition (and hinted at in Hebrews 11:37), he died by being sawed in half by Hezekiah’s unfaithful son, Manasseh. If the tradition is true, Manasseh answered to God for Isaiah’s murder.

Lessons from Isaiah:

Despite often disappointing results, Isaiah never gave up. God told him to prophesy and so he did. Isaiah lived what he preached. He feared God, not man. He never thought twice about going up to kings and declaring to their faces, “Thus saith the Lord!” Isaiah was willing to rebuke and encourage people regardless of their standing.

In the end, Isaiah’s message is remarkably clear: Do not fear! Clearly, fear leads all of us to a lot of foolish decisions. It is through fear that the devil holds us in bondage (Heb 2:15). The solution to fear is trust in God. And even if we were to be killed, we would still win, for the martyr’s crown would await us. Do not fear!

Why were foreign alliances so troubling to Isaiah? First of all, they manifested a lack of trust in the Lord with the following thinking: “Can God really save us? Maybe, but just in case He doesn’t come through, let’s make sure we have a plan B.” Hmm … not much faith there! But second (and related) the secular states of today were unknown at that time. People and nations were deeply religious. Alliances with foreign lands meant marriages to foreign queens as well as adopting the false religions of those nations and queens. Can someone say, “Jezebel”? Or how about Solomon and his 1000 wives and all their foreign gods? It was his folly that led to a divided Jewish nation and that introduced the wicked practices of the Baals and other Canaanite atrocities. These alliances manifested a lack of trust in God and introduced, inevitably, the adultery of “sleeping with” other gods.

An admonition is in order for us as well. As a Church, we ought to be wary of too many entanglements or partnerships with our increasingly hostile secular government. Many strings are attached to the federal and state monies we accept to serve the poor, give tuition assistance, etc. Compromises are increasingly demanded of us. Sadly, some sectors of the Church (especially certain universities) are caving in to the power and slavery of money and are compromising on same-sex unions and providing contraception (and even abortifacients) to their employees through health care plans. Large blocks of federal money are currently administered by Catholic charitable organizations. These government entanglements increasingly demand compromises of us and it is only going to get worse. Beware! We need to shift back to using our own monies to care for the poor. We need to be willing to say no to funding that comes with the demand to make compromises we cannot make. Serving the poor is important, but we cannot let even that become an idol. And frankly, if we are using mostly government money, can we really say that we are serving the poor? Are we not, rather, merely administering a government program? The Pope recently warned that the Church is not merely an NGO (non-governmental organization, voluntary and not-for-profit).

Individual Catholics would also do well to be more hesitant to form political alliances. Too often, we allow political views to overrule our faith. Catholics need to be Catholics first, and be willing to denounce sin and evil no matter who perpetrates it or promotes it.

Alliances are often dangerous things. Too easily do we slip into adultery with the world. Beware! Compromise is ugly; adultery is a disgraceful betrayal of the Lord, whom we should fear and love.

Do not be afraid!

Saint Isaiah, pray for us!

A Recipe for Readiness – A Homily for the First Sunday of Advent

The first weeks of Advent focus more on the Lord’s second coming in glory than on His first coming at Bethlehem. The gospel clearly states that we must always be prepared, for at an hour we do not expect, the Son of Man will come. “Ready” is the key word, but how should we be ready? 

The second reading from today’s Mass (Romans 13:11-14) gives us a basic recipe for readiness. We can distinguish five fundamental instructions in Paul’s recipe.

Wake up – The text says, … you know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, …

Although St. Paul has more in mind here than physical sleep, let’s consider for a moment some its aspects. When we sleep, we are unaware of what is taking place around us or even of what we are doing. A family member might tell us, “You were snoring and mumbling in your sleep!” “Really?” we might reply, “I didn’t realize I was doing that!” Another time we might doze off in front of the television and miss the game-winning touchdown or the critical scene that helped the movie to make sense. Further, when we are asleep our minds are dreamy and confused. Some of the craziest things happen in dreams because the more rational part of the brain is asleep; any absurd thought might manifest itself and seem perfectly understandable. When we finally do awake, we think, “What was that all about?”

This text, which tells us to wake up, refers to the moral and mindful sense of sleep. What St. Paul is really saying here is that we need to become more aware of what is happening in our life.

We cannot sleep through life like someone who is dozing on a couch. We need to be alert and aware of what is happening. We need to be morally awake and responsible for our actions. We cannot and must not engage in dreamy thinking that is not rooted in reality or is fundamentally absurd in its premises.

We need to be alert, rooted in what is real and what is revealed. We cannot go on calling good what God has called sinful. We need to wake up, drink the “coffee” of God’s Word, shake off the cobwebs of drowsiness, and start living in the light of holiness rather than in the darkness of deceit and sin.

Waking up also means taking responsibility and exercising authority over one’s life. When we sleep, we toss and turn, having little control over our movements, but when we are awake, we have authority over our actions and are responsible for them.

The first instruction in the recipe for readiness is to wake up. The cobwebs of groggy behavior must give way to the alertness of a new mind. There are many passages in Scriptures that make a similar point:

      • Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:2).
      • Come to your right mind, and sin no more. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame (1 Cor 15:34).
      • Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them … put off your old nature, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds (Eph 4:17-18, 22-23).
      • Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Col 3:2).

Clean up – The text says, … not in orgies … not in promiscuity and lust … and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.

Notice the emphasis in this passage on sexuality. This is because the pagan world at the time of Paul was sexually confused and immature. Promiscuity, fornication, homosexual activity, divorce, abortion, and infanticide were all rampant. Sound familiar? We have slipped right back into that pagan immaturity and immorality. This text tells us it is time to clean up, grow up, and take authority over our sexuality, by God’s grace. It’s time to act more like adults than like irresponsible teenagers.

In saying that we should make no provision for the desires of the flesh, the text is indicating we should avoid the near occasion of sin. We should not put ourselves in compromising and/or tempting situations. To make “provision” literally means to “see ahead” or to “look toward” something in such a way as to facilitate it. The text says to resolve ahead of time not to provide occasion for the flesh.

Many people make light of sexual sin today, saying that it’s “no big deal” and that “everyone is doing it.” God says otherwise and speaks very strongly against it in His Word. He does not do this because He is a prude or because He wants to limit our fun. Rather, God wants to save us from a lot of suffering.

What does promiscuity get us? Sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, teenage pregnancies, children born outside of the nuclear and properly formed family, divorce, bitterness, jealousy, broken hearts, and discarded human beings. God is not out to limit our fun; He is trying to protect us. He is also trying to protect marriage and children. With all this promiscuity, it is children who suffer most. Many of them are simply killed by abortion. Those who do survive to be born are often raised in less-than-ideal settings, without both parents in the stable union of marriage. Many are born to teenage mothers who are not prepared to raise them.

God says that in order to be ready we have to clean up. We must take authority over our sexuality, by His grace. Promiscuity, pornography, illicit sexual union, and lust have to go. Those who make light of sexual sin have been deceived; it is a very serious matter and God makes this clear in His word:

      • As for lewd conduct or promiscuousness or lust of any sort, let them not even be mentioned among you; your holiness forbids this. Nor should there be any obscene, silly or suggestive talk; all that is out of place. Instead, give thanks. Make no mistake about this: no fornicator, no unclean or lustful person—in effect an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of God. Let no one deceive you with worthless arguments. These are sins that bring God’s wrath down upon the disobedient; therefore, have nothing to do with them (Eph 5:3-7).
      • Can you not realize that the unholy will not fall heir to the Kingdom of God? Do not deceive yourselves: no fornicators, idolaters, or adulterers, no sodomites, thieves, misers, or drunkards, no slanderers or robbers will inherit the kingdom of God … Flee fornication … You must know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is within—the Spirit you have received from God. You are not your own. You have been purchased at a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6:9-11).

Sober up – The text says, … not in drunkenness …

Physically, to be drunk means to have our mind confused due to the influence of alcohol. Conversely, to be sober is to have a clear mind that is capable of making sound judgments.

So much of our battle to be ready to meet God comes down to our mind. There are many fuzzy-headed, crazy, and just plain wrongful notions today that come out of a lack of sobriety. They emerge from the haze of unsound thinking and from a world that increasingly resembles the famous Star Wars barroom scene (in a moral sense).

Don’t believe everything you think. Much of what we think has come from a drunken and confused world. Reconcile everything you think with God’s Word and the teachings of the Church.

So, the third instruction in the recipe for readiness is to sober up, to request and receive from God a clear and sound mind. Here are some other Scripture passages that speak to this need:

      • Therefore, gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:13).
      • Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith (1 Peter 5:8).
      • Let the older men be sober, serious and temperate (Titus 2:2).

Lighten up – The text says, … not in rivalry and jealousy …

An awful lot of our sins revolve around our sensitive egos. In Galatians, Paul warns of other things that flow from this source: enmity, strife, anger, selfishness, dissension, factions, and envy (Gal 5:20).

These sorts of things have to go. We need to be more forgiving if we expect to be forgiven. We also need to be less stingy, more generous to the poor, and less prone to the kind of anger that comes from being thin-skinned or from a lack of humility.

Our biggest sin is pride; it is enemy number one. It has to go and along with it all its minions: envy, jealously, selfishness, hatred, fear, bitterness, a hard and unforgiving heart, and just plain old meanness.

The Lord wants to give us the gift of being more lighthearted and less serious about ourselves. He wants to give us a heart that is loving, generous, considerate, happy for the gifts of others, forgiving, truthful, patient, meek, and open to others; a heart that is less egocentric and more theocentric.

Dress up – The text says, But put on the Lord Jesus Christ …

If we miss this point, then everything else is just a bunch of rules about how to live. The moral life of the New Testament is not achieved; it is received. The moral life of the New Testament is not so much a prescription, as it is a description. It describes what we are like when Jesus Christ really begins to live His life in us.

St. Paul says, I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me (Gal 2:20). Jesus says, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5). St. John says, But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know [i.e., experience that] we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did (1 John 2:5-6).

Hence, the moral life is not imposed; it is imparted. It is not achieved; it is received. It is not demanded; it is delivered. There is surely a requirement that the moral law describes, but it can only be met in a real or full sense when Jesus Christ is living in us. If we try to accomplish it solely by our own flesh, we are destined to fail.

We must put on the Lord Jesus Christ. We must humbly give Him our life and assent to His kingship and authority over us. The more we surrender, the more He renders us fit to the life He describes. If we really hope to wake up, clean up, sober up, and lighten up, it will have to be a work of His grace.

The Book of Revelation speaks of the garment, the long white robe that is given to each of the saints to wear (Rev 6:11). Later, Revelation 19:8 describes the long white robe (of the Bride of the Lamb) as the righteous deeds of all the saints. It is in this sense that St. Paul tells us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Hence, righteousness is given to us like a precious wedding garment. In the baptismal ritual, the newly baptized are clothed in white and told that their garments represent their dignity, which they are to bring unstained to the judgment seat of Christ. In the funeral rite, the cloth placed over the casket recalls the baptismal garment. Yes, the final instruction in the recipe for readiness is to dress up, to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Only Jesus can truly get us ready.

Why Serve a World that Hates You? A meditation on a teaching of St Cyprian’s

As we wrap up November and the traditional meditation we make on the four last things (death, judgement, heaven and hell), A classic meditation of St. Cyprian comes to us in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours. It is a meditation on a fundamental human struggle to be free of undue attachment to this world and to truly have God, and the things waiting for us in heaven, as our highest priority.

St. Cyprian Writes:

The world hates Christians, so why give your love to it instead of following Christ, who loves you and has redeemed you?

John is most urgent in his epistle when he tells us not to love the world by yielding to sensual desires. Never give your love to the world, he warns, or to anything in it. A man cannot love the Father and love the world at the same time. All that the world offers is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and earthly ambition. The world and its allurements will pass away, but the man who has done the will of God shall live forever.  (Treatise on Mortality: Cap 18:24, 26: CSEL 3, 308, 312-314)

It is amazing how much loyalty and sweat-equity we give to a world that hates us. Whatever gains we get they are short-term and then we lose everything and are consigned to a stone-cold tomb. What a joke, and the joke is on us. But still we toe the line and follow the world’s demands like slaves to a master; we make compromises and bow before the trinkets of this world, forsaking the unlimited treasure of heaven. Be assured of this that this world and the Prince of this World ( Satan) will never relent in their demands until every last ounce of our integrity is gone; until we are completely compromised and conformed to the futile and wicked ways of a sinking ship. And all the while we think we can keep loyalty to God on some back burner. No, be assured, as Cyprian reminds, the more we embrace the darkness, the harsher to true light seems; the more we grow spiritually weak by indulging the flesh, the more unreal and unrealistic do God’s ways seem. And thus we grow averse to what we say we we love. But as Cyprian reiterates and Scripture teaches:

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God…..Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (James 4:4,8)

The Lord Jesus, of course, had first said,

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. (Matt 6:24)

We ought to long for heaven and to be free of this exile but as Jesus teaches, where our treasure is, our heart will also be. And so we cling to our trinkets. St. Cyprian continues:

How unreasonable it is to pray that God’s will be done, and then not promptly obey it when he calls us from this world!  Instead we struggle and resist like self-willed slaves and are brought into the Lord’s presence with sorrow and lamentation, not freely consenting to our departure, but constrained by necessity.

And yet we expect to be rewarded with heavenly honors by him to whom we come against our will! Why then do we pray for the kingdom of heaven to come if this earthly bondage pleases us? What is the point of praying so often for its early arrival if we should rather serve the devil here than reign with Christ.

It is indeed a strange truth that so many of us prefer this earthly bondage and devilish exile and are so averse to death! Understandably we fear the process of dying, or might feel the obligation to accomplish certain tasks (like raising children), but really, for those who love God, the day we day to this world is the greatest day of our life. We may have to journey through purgatory, but even that is so much more blest than this valley of tears and danger. And So Cyprian concludes:

We ought never to forget, beloved, that we have renounced the world. We are living here now as aliens and only for a time. When the day of our homecoming puts an end to our exile, frees us from the bonds of the world, and restores us to paradise and to a kingdom, we should welcome it.

What man, stationed in a foreign land, would not want to return to his own country as soon as possible? Well, we look upon paradise as our country, and a great crowd of our loved ones awaits us there, a countless throng of parents, brothers and children longs for us to join them. Assured though they are of their own salvation, they are still concerned about ours. What joy both for them and for us to see one another and embrace! O the delight of that heavenly kingdom where there is no fear of death! O the supreme and endless bliss of everlasting life!

There is the glorious band of apostles, there, the exultant assembly of prophets, there, the innumerable host of martyrs, crowned for their glorious victory in combat and in death. There, in triumph, are the virgins who subdued their passions by the strength of continence. There the merciful are rewarded, those who fulfilled the demands of justice by providing for the poor. In obedience to the Lord’s command, they turned their earthly patrimony into heavenly treasure.

My dear brothers, let all our longing be to join them as soon as we may. May God see our desire, may Christ see this resolve that springs from faith, for he will give the rewards of his love more abundantly to those who have longed for him more fervently.  (Treatise on Mortality: Cap 18:24, 26: CSEL 3, 308, 312-314)

Whether we cling to world or not: Slowly we die to this world as we see our skills, strength and looks begin to fade in late middle age. As old age sets in we say farewell to friends, perhaps a spouse, perhaps the home we owned. Our eyesight, hearing and general health begin to suffer many and lasting assaults, and complications begin to set in. For those who are faithful it begins to occur that what matters most is no longer here; that our true treasure is in heaven and with God. Slowly the lust of this world dies and a gentle longing for what is above grows.

As November ends, remember the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Prepare eagerly to meet God, run toward him with joy and confidence, calling on Him who made you for himself. Death will surely come. Why not let it find you joyful, victorious and confident; eager to go and meet God?

King of Thieves – A Homily for the Solemnity of Christ the King

Jesus Christ is King of Thieves, though He never stole. He is savior of sinners, though He never sinned.

Today’s Gospel chosen presents Jesus as reigning from the cross. Nothing could be more paradoxical. Let’s look at it from four perspectives:

Vision Today’s Gospel presents a vision or image of the Church.We like to think of more pleasant images: the Church is the Bride of Christ or the Body of Christ. Today’s image is more humbling to be sure: the Church is Christ, crucified between two thieves.

Yes, this is the Church too. In a way, we are all thieves.We are all sinners and have used the gifts and things that belong to God in a way contrary to His will. To misuse things that belong to others is a form of theft.

Consider some of the things we claim as our own and how easily we misuse them:our bodies, our time, our talents, our money, the gift of our speech, and the gift of our freedom. We call them ours but they really belong to God, and if we use them in ways contrary to His intention we are guilty of a form of theft.

Variance Consider, also, that the two thieves were very different. In the Church we have saints and sinners, and in the world there are those who will turn to Christ and be saved and others who will turn away and be lost.

One thief (the “bad thief”) derides Jesus and makes demands of Him.Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!The text says that this thief “reviles” Jesus, treating him with contempt.

The other thief (the “good thief”) reverences Christ and rebukes the other, saying,Have you no fear of God?The good thief recognizes his guilt: We have been condemned justly. He asks, Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom, but he leaves the terms of it up to Christ. He acknowledges that he is a thief and now places his life under the authority of Christ the King.

Christ came to call sinners—thieves, if you will.Yes, we are all thieves, but pray God that we are the good thief, the repentant thief, the thief who is now ready to submit himself to the authority of Christ, who is King of all creation.

Heaven is a real steal, something we don’t deserve; it is only accessed through repentance and faith. The bad thief wants relief but will not open the door of his heart so that Jesus can save him. Mercy is offered and available to him, but it is accessed only through repentance and faith. The good thief does open the door of his heart and thereby is saved.

III. Veracity Is Christ really your king?A King has authority, so another way of posing this question is, “Does Christ have authority in your life?” Consider whether you acknowledge that everything you call your own really belongs to God and think about how well you use those gifts.

      1. How do you use our time?
      2. Are you committed to pray and to attend Mass every Sunday without fail?
      3. Do you use enough of your time to serve God and others, or merely for selfish pursuits?
      4. Do you use the gift of your speech to witness and evangelize, or merely for small talk and gossip?
      5. Do you exhibit proper care for your body?
      6. Are you chaste?
      7. Do you observe proper safety or are you sometimes reckless?
      8. Do you reverence life?
      9. Are you faithful to the Lord’s command to tithe?
      10. Do you spend wisely?
      11. Do you pay your debts in a timely way?
      12. Are you generous enough to the poor and needy?
      13. Do you love the poor and help them to sustain their lives?

It is one thing to call Christ our King, but it is another to be truly under His authority. The Lord is clear enough in telling us that he expects our obedience: Why do you call me, “Lord, Lord,” but do not do what I tell you? (Luke 6:46)

Is Christ your King? Which thief are you, really?

Victory The thief who asked Jesus to remember him manifested repentance, faith, and a kind of baptism of desire. In so doing, he moved into the victor’s column. Jesus’s words, Today you shall be with me in paradise,indicate a dramatic shift in the thief’s fortunes.

To be with Jesus—wherever He is—is paradise and victory. Soon enough, the heavens will be opened, but the victory is now and paradise begins now.

Thus the good thief claims the victory through his choice for Jesus Christ. Will you have the victory? That depends on whether you choose the prince of this world or the King of the Universe, Jesus. Some think that they can tread some middle path, choosing neither Jesus nor Satan. But if you do that, you’ve actually chosen the prince of this world, who loves compromise. Jesus says, Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters(Matt 12:30).

As for me, I’ve decided to make Jesus my choice. I pray that he will truly be my King in all things and that my choice will be more than mere lip service. Come, Jesus, reign in my heart. Let me begin to experience victory and paradise, even now!

The Not-so-Nice Origins and Meanings of the Word “Nice”

Blog11-24Words can change meaning over time—sometimes dramatically. For example, “manufactured” originally meant “handmade” (manu (hand) + facere (make)). The word “decimate” used to mean “to reduce by a tenth” (decem = ten); now people usually use it mean “to wipe out completely.” The list of examples could go on and on. Yes, words do change meaning over time.

One word that has changed meaning dramatically over time is “nice.” Today it is an overused word that usually means pleasant, kind, or easygoing. In our culture there is often a standing admonition that we should be nice, as in “Stop fighting and be nice now!”

But the adjective “nice” once meant anything but nice in the modern sense. Rather, it was a derogatory word used to describe a person as something of a fool.

The word “nice” comes from the Latin nescius, meaning “ignorant, unaware” (ne (not) + scire (know)). The Old French word “nice” (12th century) also came from this Latin root and meant “careless, clumsy, weak, simple, foolish, or stupid.”

In the 13th century, “nice” meant “foolish, stupid, or senseless.” In the 14th century, the word started to morph into meaning “fussy, fastidious.” In the 15th century it meant “dainty, delicate.” In the 1500s it was used to mean “precise, careful.” By the 18th century it shifted to meaning “agreeable, delightful.” And by the 19th century it had acquired its current connotation of “kind and thoughtful.”

The word “nice” has certainly had a tortured history!

Given its older meaning of “ignorant, stupid, or foolish,” it is not surprising that the word “nice” is used only twice in the Douay-Rheims Bible, and in both cases pejoratively.

Today the word can have a meaning that is properly praiseworthy and is basically a synonym for “good.” For example, one might comment, “That was a nice distinction you made.” Or, observing a sporting event, one might say, “That was a nice move!”

However, I am also convinced that the word “nice” is beginning to return to its less noble meanings. This takes place when it is used in a reductionist manner that seeks to simplify the entire moral life to being “nice.” Here, nice is used in the sense of being pleasant and agreeable. To the modern world, in which “pseudo-tolerance” is one of the only “virtues” left, being nice is about the only commandment left. It seems that much will be forgiven a person just so long as he is “nice.” And little will be accepted from a person who is not thought of as “nice.”

I suppose niceness has its place, but being nice is too akin to being harmless, to being someone who introduces no tension and is most often agreeable. As such, a nice person is not so far away from being a pushover, one who is easily manipulated, silenced, and pressured into tacit approval. And thus “nice” begins to move backward into its older meanings: dainty, agreeable, weak, simple, and even further back into weak, simple, unaware, and ignorant.

The pressure to “be nice” easily translates into pressure to put a dumb grin on your face and pretend that things are great even when they’re not. And to the degree that we succumb to this pressure, we allow those who seek to shame us if we aren’t nice get to watch with glee as we walk around with s dumb grin. And they get to think of us, “What an ignorant fool. What a useful idiot.” And thus “nice” takes up its original meaning.

We follow a Lord who was anything but a harmless hippie, or a kind pushover. He introduced tension, was a sign of contradiction, and was opposed by many because he didn’t always say and do pleasant things. Not everything he said was “nice.” He often used strong words: hypocrites, brood of vipers, whitewashed tombs, murderers of the prophets, and evildoers. He warned of judgment and Hell. He spoke in parables about burning cities, doom, destruction, wailing and grinding of teeth, and of seeing enemies slain. These are not kind words, but they are loving words, because they seek to shock us unto conversion. They speak to us of our true state if we remain rebels. Jesus certainly didn’t end up nailed to cross by being nice in any sense of the word.

In the end, “nice” is a weird word. Its meaning has shifted so many times as to be practically without a stable meaning. Today it has further degraded and increasingly returned to its original meaning. Those who insist on the importance of being “nice” usually mean it for you, but not for themselves. They want to have you walk around with a silly grin on your face, being foolishly pleasant, while they laugh behind your back.

To be sure, being “nice” in its best modern sense has its place. We surely should not go around acting like a grouch all day. But just as being nice has its place, so does being insistent, bold, and uncompromising.

Our Journey Through a Passing World – A Homily for the 33rd Sunday of the Year

During the month of November, the Church has us ponder the Four Last Things: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. As the golden gown of autumn gives way to the lifeless look of winter, we are encouraged to see that our lives are on a trajectory that leads to autumn and then to the winter of death. But those who have faith know that this passage to death ultimately leads to glory. Scripture says, And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever(1 John 2:17).

In today’s Gospel, the Lord Jesus gives us a kind of road map of life and calls us to be sober about the passing and perilous nature of this world.

There is an historical context in which our Lord speaks. There were political rumblings in Israel in the early 30s AD that would eventually lead to war. Hatred of the Romans was growing among the Jews. The Zealot party and other factions were gaining power. In today’s Gospel, Jesus prophesies that war will come and lead to Jerusalem’s ultimate destruction; everything that the people know will pass away. By the summer of 66 AD, a three-and-a-half-year war was underway that resulted in the complete destruction of Jerusalem and the death of 1.2 million Jews. Josephus recorded the war in great detail in his work The Jewish War.

That is what this text meant historically. But we also need to understand what it means for us today. So let’s look at the text from that perspective. Today’s Gospel can be seen in three major sections.

I. Portrait of Passing Things While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, Jesus said, “All that you see here—the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” Then they asked him, “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?” Notice how they admire the temple and its beauty. But the Lord reminds them that although it is glorious now, it will all be destroyed. We, too, must understand that whatever glory we see or experience in this world will not last; in the end it will all pass away.

The Temple is a symbol of passing things. Just as it was once in splendor and now is gone, so everything we see today will pass. This is a sober truth that we must come to accept, difficult though it may be. Other Scriptures also remind us of this truth: The world as we know it is passing away(1 Cor 7:29). And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever(1 John 2:17). This world is passing and we, too, will pass from it one day.

Note, however, that for them as well as for us, although one world ends, another begins.The Old Testament, Old Covenant, and ritual order of the Temple was ending, but the New Testament age of the Church was beginning. It was already breaking forth even as the old was coming to an end.

And so we should not lament the end of this world or even our own death. A newer, greater world—that of Heaven—awaits those who are faithful. In fact, through the liturgy and the sacraments, that new world is already breaking forth for those who partake of it.

II. Points of Passage to Promised Things – Having been informed that all things will pass, the disciples ask for signs that will precede the coming end. We can learn from what Jesus teaches them and apply it to our own lives today.

Jesus warns them of four perils on the passage to the promised land of the New Testament age of the Church. We, too, will experience dangers in our journey to the promised land of Heaven.

A. False Messiahs “See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’ Do not follow them!” If you want Jesus Christ to be the Lord of your life, then you’ve got to get rid of false messiahs.

Too many people give greater authority in their life to people and worldly things than they do to Jesus Christ and His teachings. We submit our lives to all sorts of fads, fashions, philosophies, and people in hopes that we will be happy.

Perhaps it is someone in power whom we admire, or someone in the media whom we allow to influence us inordinately. Perhaps it is political positions that we allow to trump the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church. Perhaps it is just our personal convictions or ideas that we allow to overrule God’s teachings.

A false messiah is anything or anyone other than Jesus Christ telling you how to organize your life. Before Christ can reign unambiguously in your life, false powers and influences have to go.

Too many people look only to science, popular culture, economics, medicine, education, politics, and the like for guidance; they have been deceived.

It is not that we can’t use these things at all, but they are not a replacement for the Messiah. None of these things or people died for you. Only Jesus did that.

The power to save you isnot in the statehouse, the courthouse, or the White House—it is in the saving blood, of the Lamb, our Lord Jesus Christ.

B. Fierce Militarism “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.”A war was looming for those ancient people.

We, too, are in a war, a battle.Before Christ can reign unambiguously within you, the false powers in you must be defeated. But they will not go without a fight. The world, the flesh, and the devil can be expected to wage a fierce battle in order to keep their power.

Are you in a battle?You should be! Too many Christians have lost the sense of battle. Scripture says, Resist the devil and he will flee from you(James 4:7). Yet not only do too many people not resist him, they welcome him! Scripture also says, Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph 6:14).

An old hymn says, I’ve seen lightning flashing, and hear the thunder roll, I’ve felt sin-breakers dashing, which tried to conquer my soul; I’ve heard the voice of my savior, he bid me still to fight on. He promised never to leave me never to leave me alone.

On our way to the promised landof Heaven, we will encounter necessary battles: battles for what is right, battles against sin, battles for proper priorities.

C. Far-flung Marvels “There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.”In the time of Jesus and the era just preceding the war, there were in fact many earthquakes, droughts, and even heavenly signs. Historians of the time wrote of a comet and strange views of what we know today as the Aurora Borealis.

But what of us? What are the earthquakes of our life?Earthquakes involve the shaking of the ground, the shaking of that which seems most stable to us. What is the foundation of yourlife?

For most of us, the foundations of this world are things likemoney, politics, friends, family, and our own skills. All of these things are shaken in life and all of them will eventually fail. Our talents and abilities fade as we age. Friends and family members move away, fail us, and eventually die. Political power and worldly access ultimately fails. Haven’t we all experienced our world shaken, our soul famished, the plagues of sin infecting our world and ourselves?

Furthermore, haven’t stars grown cold, meteors fallen from the sky, the sun been hidden from our eyes from time to time?Has not our world at times been “turned upside down”? Maybe it was the sudden death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or a diagnosis of cancer.

This is why God must be our ultimate foundation, the star by which we navigate.If Jesus is not our foundation, then something else is. Without God as our foundation, we cannot last. The foundations of this world will all ultimately crumble. Christ must be our sure foundation.

D. Fearful MaliceBefore all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimony. Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.” The early Christians were greatly persecuted. Most of us in the Christian West have had less to suffer, more difficult days may well be ahead as the secular West grows increasingly hostile to traditional Christianity.

Persecution, however, is an expected part of the Christian journey to the promised land of Heaven. Even if we are not “handed over,” many of us today are not taken seriously, are written off, or are called names even by our friends and family.

Christ tells us not to worry about such things because they are part of the normal Christian life. Even if some of us eventually lose our life for the faith, the Lord promises that not a hair of our head will be harmed. That is, our souls will be saved. The world can only harm our body; it cannot harm our soul unless we allow it to do so.

3. Prescription for the Passage to Promised Things By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”We must always journey on and not lose faith or lose heart. There is glory waiting for us if we persevere.

Scripture says, But he who endures to the end will be saved(Mat 10:22). For yet a little while, and the coming one shall come and shall not tarry; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls(Heb 10:37).

An old spiritual says, “Hold on just a little while longer; everything’s gonna be all right.”

In this regard, the end of the Book of Daniel also seems pertinent:[Daniel asked the Archangel Gabriel], My lord, what will the outcome of all this be?” He replied, “Go your way, Daniel, because the words are rolled up and sealed until the time of the end. Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand. … As for you, go your way till the end. You will die, yet at the end of the days you will rise to receive your reward”(Daniel 12:8-10, 13).

Yes, on our journey through this passing world it is necessary to persevere unto the end. If we do not, greater woes will come. If we do, there will be glory for us on the other side.

I’m Gonna Ride the Chariot in the Morning Lord! A Homily for the 32nd Sunday of the Year

resurrectionIn the readings today the Church presents us with a strong reminder and teaching on the resurrection. Jesus Himself leads the charge against those who would deny the resurrection from the dead, and the seven brothers and their mother from the first reading bring up the rear. Let’s take a look at what we are taught.

I. Ridicule of the Resurrection – The Gospel opens with the observation that Some Sadducees, who deny there is a resurrection, came forward and put [a] question to Jesus. They propose a hypothetical situation in which a woman is married seven times, to brothers who successively die, having no children by any of them. They suggest that at the resurrection there will be confusion as to whose wife she really is! We’re supposed to laugh, according to these Sadducees, and conclude that the idea of resurrection is absurd.

Jesus will dismiss their absurdity handily, as we shall see in a moment, but let’s consider why the Sadducees disbelieved the resurrection.

Fundamentally, they rejected the resurrection because they only accepted the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This is point is debated among scholars, but we can surely say that if something was not explicitly in the Law of Moses, the Sadducees were unlikely to accept it. All the other Old Testament books such as the prophets, the historical books, the psalms, and the wisdom tradition, were not considered authoritative sources.

They claimed that the resurrection of the dead was not taught in these first five books. While most other Jews of Jesus’ time did accept the complete Old Testament (and teachings such as the resurrection of the dead which are set forth there), the Sadducees simply did not. They were a small party within Judaism (Josephus said that they were able to persuade none but the rich). Nevertheless, they were influential due to their wealth and to the fact that they predominated among the Temple leadership. You can read more about them here: Sadducees.

Hence, the Sadducees approached Jesus to poke fun at Him and all others who believed that the dead would rise.

They are no match for Jesus, who easily dispatches their arguments using the Book of Exodus (a book they accept) to do it. In effect, Jesus’ argument proceeds as follows:

  1. You accept Moses, do you not?
  2. (To which they would surely reply yes)
  3. But Moses teaches that the dead will rise.
  4. (Jesus must have gotten puzzled looks but He presses on).
  5. You accept that God is a God of the living and not the dead?
  6. (To which they would surely reply yes).
  7. Then why does God (in Exodus) identify Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, all of whom have been dead some 400 years? How can He call himself their God if they are dead?
  8. Obviously they are alive or He could not call Himself their God, for He is not a God of the dead but of the living.
  9. Therefore, they are alive to God; they are not dead.

In this way, Jesus dispatches their view. For us, the point is to see how forcefully and clearly Jesus upholds the fact that the dead are alive in the Lord. He powerfully asserts an essential doctrine of the Church. We should rejoice at how firmly Jesus rebukes their disbelief in the resurrection of the dead.

Rejoice, for your loved ones are alive before God! To this world they may seem dead, but Jesus tells us firmly and clearly that they live. And we, who will also face physical death, will live on. Let the world ridicule this, but hear what Jesus says and how he easily dispatches them. Though the idea is ridiculed, the resurrection is real.

II. Resplendence of the Resurrection – Jesus also sets aside the absurd hypothetical scenario that the Sadducees pose, by teaching earthly realities cannot simply be projected into Heaven. Marriage scenarios, perceived in earthly ways, cannot be used to understand heavenly realities. The saints in Heaven live beyond earthly categories.

Heaven is more than the absence of bad things and the accumulation of good things. It is far beyond anything this world can offer. Scripture says, No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no human mind has conceived—the things God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9). The sufferings of this world cannot compare to the glory that will be revealed in us (Rom 8:18).

Do you see the majesty of this teaching? We have a glory waiting for us beyond imagining. Consider your greatest pleasure, your happiest experience, your most fulfilled moment. Then multiply it by a thousand, or a million, or a trillion, and you are still not even close understanding the glory that awaits.

And this glory will transform us. The Lord once told Catherine of Siena that if she ever saw the glory of a saint in Heaven she would fall down and worship, because she would think she was looking at God. This is our dignity: to be transformed into the very likeness of God and reflect His glory. The following is a summary of St. Catherine’s vision of the soul of a saint in Heaven:

It was so beautiful that she could not look on it; the brightness of that soul dazzled her. Blessed Raymond, her confessor, asked her to describe to him, as far as she was able, the beauty of the soul she had seen. St. Catherine thought of the sweet light of that morning, and of the beautiful colors of the rainbow, but that soul was far more beautiful. She remembered the dazzling beams of the noonday sun, but the light which beamed from that soul was far brighter. She thought of the pure whiteness of the lily and of the fresh snow, but that is only an earthly whiteness. The soul she had seen was bright with the whiteness of Heaven, such as there is not to be found on earth. “My father,” she answered. “I cannot find anything in this world that can give you the smallest idea of what I have seen. Oh, if you could but see the beauty of a soul in the state of grace, you would sacrifice your life a thousand times for its salvation. I asked the angel who was with me what had made that soul so beautiful, and he answered me, “It is the image and likeness of God in that soul, and the Divine Grace which made it so beautiful.” [1].

Yes, Heaven is glorious and we shall be changed. Scripture says, we shall be like the Lord for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2). He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified Body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself (Phil 3:19). I have written more on our resurrected bodies here: What will our resurrected bodies be like?

Too many people have egocentric notions of Heaven, where I will have a mansion, I will see my relatives, and I will be able to play all the golf I want. But the heart of Heaven is to be with God, for whom our heart longs. In God we will experience fulfillment and peace that is beyond earthly imagination. Heaven is far greater than golf, mansions, and family reunions. There is certainly more to it than clouds and harps. Heaven can never be described because it is beyond words. St Paul speaks of a man (himself) who was caught up into Heaven; he affirms that it cannot be described; it is ineffable; it is unspeakable.

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven …. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell (2 Cor 12:2-3).

Do you long for heaven? Do you meditate on it? Is there a part of you that can’t wait to get there? There’s an old spiritual that says, “I’m gonna ride the Chariot in the morning, Lord. I’m gettin’ ready for the judgment day, my Lord, my Lord!”

III. Response to the Resurrection – What difference does the resurrection make other than to give us joy if we meditate upon it? To see that answer, consider today’s first reading, in which the seven brothers are willing to accept torture and death rather than violate God’s Law. If there is a great reward awaiting those who remain faithful, then we will endure anything to get there. Notice how the vision of Heaven inspires them stand firm in their refusal to deny their faith:

We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors. … [Y]ou are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying. … Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s courage, because he regarded his sufferings as nothing (2 Maccabees, 7:2,9, 12).

Their vision of the rewards awaiting them motivated them to endure the awful sufferings described in the 7th Chapter of 2nd Maccabees.

And what of us? Do we meditate on Heaven and value its reward enough to be willing to endure suffering to get there? We need a strong vision of Heaven to be able to endure and stand firm. Too many people today have lost a deep appreciation of Heaven. Too many pray to God merely for worldly comforts and rewards—but these will pass. We ought to ask God for a deep desire for Heaven and the things awaiting us there.

What athlete would discipline his body as severely as he does without the deep motivation of the satisfaction and rewards that will come upon meeting his goals? What college student would attend hundreds of hours of classes, read scores of books, and write lengthy papers if it were not for the rewarding career at the end of the trail? Who of us will endure the trials of faith if we are not deeply imbued with the vision of glory and deeply desirous of its fulfillment no matter the cost? Without this, our spiritual life becomes tepid and our willingness to endure trials falls away. An old hymn says,

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.

Meditate on Heaven often. Although we can never fully grasp its glory, we ought not to let that stop us from imagining it as best we can. In particular, read Revelation chapters 4,5, 8, 21, and 22. But above all, ask God for an ever-deepening desire for Him and the good things that await you in Heaven. Look to Heaven; long for Heaven. Desire God and deeply root your life in Him. Heaven will not disappoint!

This African-American spiritual says,

I’m gonna ride the chariot in the morning, Lord.
I’m getting’ ready for the judgment day, my Lord, my Lord!
Are you ready my brother? (Oh yes!)
Are you ready for the journey? (Oh Yes!)
Do you want to see Jesus (Yes, Yes!)
I’m waiting for the chariot ’cause I ready to go.
I never can forget that day,
(Ride in the chariot to see my Lord!).
My feet were snatched from the miry clay!
(Ride in the chariot to see my Lord!)

To Make a Long Story Short—A Homily for the 31st Sunday of the Year

The Gospel today features the endearing story of Zacchaeus, a man who climbs a tree because he is too short to see Jesus. By climbing this tree (of the cross), he encounters Jesus and is changed.

The danger with familiar stories is that because they are familiar, it is easy to miss their remarkable qualities. Let’s look at today’s Gospel with fresh eyes, searching for the symbolic in the ordinary details.

Shortsighted Sinner – Zacchaeus is physically short, so short that he cannot see the Lord. Do you think that this detail is provided merely to describe his physical stature? I don’t. As a preacher, I’m counting on the fact that there is more here than meets the eye.

I suspect it is also a moral description. Zacchaeus cannot see the Lord because of the blindness brought by sin. Consider some of the following texts from Scripture, which draw parallels between sin and blindness:

      • My iniquities have overtaken me, till I cannot see (Ps 40:12).
      • I will bring distress on the people and they will walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the LORD (Zeph 1:17).
      • They know not, nor do they discern; for God has shut their eyes; so that they cannot see, and their minds so that they cannot understand (Is 44:18).
      • Because of the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed within her the blood of the righteous, now they grope through the streets like men who are blind (Lam 4:13).
      • Unless one is born again by water and the Spirit, he cannot see the Kingdom of God. (John 3:5).
      • Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God (Matt 5:8).

Yes, sin brings blindness, an inability to see the Lord. Zacchaeus has fallen short through sin and hence cannot see Jesus. How has he sinned? Well, he is the chief tax collector of Jericho, and tax collectors were wicked, unjust men. The Romans recruited the mobsters of that day to collect taxes. Tax collector roughed people up and extorted money from them. The Romans permitted the collectors to charge in excess of the tax due as their “cut” of the deal. They were corrupt, exploited the poor, and rubbed elbows with the powerful. These were men who were both feared and hated—and for good reason.

Zacchaeus is not just any tax collector; he is the chief tax collector. He’s a mafia boss, a Don, a “Godfather.” Have you got the picture? Zacchaeus isn’t just physically short. He’s the lowest of the low; he doesn’t measure up morally. He’s a financial giant but a moral midget. Zacchaeus is well short of a full moral deck. His inability to see the Lord is not just a physical problem; it is a moral one.

Now I’m not picking on Zacchaeus. Truth be told, we are all Zacchaeus. You’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute. I’m not that bad.” Maybe not, but you’re not that good, either. We’re all a lot closer to being like Zacchaeus than like Jesus. The fact that we’re still here is evidence that we’re not yet ready to look on the face of the Lord. We’re not righteous enough to look upon His unveiled face. How will Zacchaeus ever hope to see the Lord? How will we?

Saving Sycamore – Zacchaeus climbs a tree in order to be able to see Jesus, and so must we. The only tree that can really help us to see the Lord is the tree of the cross. Zacchaeus has to cling to the wood of a sycamore to climb it; we must cling to the wood of the rugged cross.

Only by the wood of the cross and the power of Jesus’ blood can we ever hope to climb high enough to see the Lord. There is a Latin chant that goes like this: Dulce lignum, dulce clavos, dulce pondus sustinet (Sweet the wood, sweet the nails, sweet the weight (that is) sustained). By climbing a tree and being able to get a glimpse of Jesus, Zacchaeus foreshadows for us the righteousness that comes from the cross.

Sanctifying Savior – Jesus stops by that tree; we always meet Jesus at the cross. There at that tree, that cross, He invites Zacchaeus into a saving and transformative relationship. It is not surprising that Jesus essentially invites Himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Though dinner is not mentioned, it was a basic aspect of Jewish hospitality. Remember, however, that it is Jesus who ultimately serves the meal. Consider these texts:

      • Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20).
      • And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:29).
      • As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them (Luke 24:28-30).

Yes, Zacchaeus has now begun to see the Lord, and the Lord invites him into a holy communion, a relationship, a liturgy that will begin to transform him. Zacchaeus and we are one and the same. We, too, have begun to see the Lord through the power of the cross to cast out our blindness, and the Lord draws us to sacred communion with Him. The liturgy and Holy Communion are essential for this, as the Lord invites himself to our house, that is to say, our soul and our parishes.

Started Surrender – Zacchaeus is experiencing the start of a transformative relationship, but it is only the start. Zacchaeus promises to return the money he has extorted four-fold and to give half his money to the poor. There’s a Christian hymn entitled “I Surrender All.” Zacchaeus hasn’t quite reached that point, but neither have most of us.

Eventually Zacchaeus will surrender all, and so will we. For now, he needs to stay near the cross so that he can see and continue to allow Jesus to have communion with him. One day all will be surrendered.

This is the start for Zacchaeus and for all of us. The best is yet to come. You might say that the Gospel ends here—to make a long story short.