No Cross, No Crown – A Homily for the the 29th Sunday of the Year

In the Sunday Gospel, the Lord Jesus speaks of crosses and crowns. The apostles have only crowns in mind, but Jesus knows the price of the crown. So, He must teach them and us that crowns—the things we value most—come only through the cross.

It may help to review the context of this Gospel. Jesus is making His final journey to Jerusalem. He is on his way to the cross and has already announced this to His disciples on two occasions. Throughout Jesus’ final journey, the apostles prove unwilling and/or incapable of grasping what He is trying to teach them.

This Sunday’s Gospel is a perfect illustration of a common biblical theme that I refer to as the inept response. It is a common situation in the Gospels wherein Jesus presents a profound teaching, yet within a matter of verses or sometimes even just a few words, the apostles demonstrate that they have absolutely no understanding of what He has just told them.

You may recall that in the Gospel readings for the previous two Sundays, the Lord gave critically important teachings. Two weeks ago, he stood a young child in their midst and spoke of the child as being truly great. He also warned that we must be able to receive the Kingdom of God like a little child. Last week, He warned of the pernicious effects of wealth and spoke about how hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Despite these recent teachings, this Sunday’s Gospel opens with James and John (and later all the apostles) wishing honors upon themselves. They want seats at the head of the table, high offices in the Kingdom, which they still conceive of in worldly terms. Never mind that Jesus has taught them that the place of honor is not at the head or even the foot of the table; the honor is upon those who serve those at the table.

The apostles (and we) just don’t understand, no matter how clear Jesus is or how often He repeats Himself.

Let’s look at today’s Gospel in three stages.

Misplaced Priorities – The Gospel begins in this way: James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” He replied, “What do you wish me to do for you?” They answered him, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”

James and John ask an inept question and even demand to sit in places of honor. This is a misplaced priority. Their understanding of the place of honor is worldly. Further, they want to move to the head of the table. They want the Lord to grant them this honor. Even in a worldly way of thinking, places of honor must usually be earned. Although some people are born into royalty, most attain leadership and honors only after years of effort. Thus, even from a worldly point of view, James and John are being overly bold, exhibiting little understanding that prior to honors comes labor, comes the earning of those honors. They want the crown without the cross.

Major Price – The Lord Jesus replies to them, “You do not know what you are asking! Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

Was Jesus astonished, amused, or saddened? It is not easy to say, but clearly James and John had absolutely no idea what they were asking—and neither do we. Too often we want blessings, honors, or seats in high places, but give little thought to the crosses that are necessary to get there and to stay there.

Those who finally attain leadership often understand what a cross it is. It can be lonely. There are many pressures and long hours of toil. True leadership has its benefits, but it is hard. Most leaders know also the sting of criticism.

There is an old joke among bishops that goes something like this: “When a man becomes a bishop, two things are certain: he will never again have a bad meal, and he will never again hear the truth.” Leaders in many other walks of life can relate to this.

The Lord Jesus wonders whether James and John have any idea what they are really asking. His question is also poignant, for He has been trying to teach them of the passion, the pain, the crucifixion that awaits Him, and which even He, the Lord of glory, must endure before entering into His glory. No, they do not know what they are asking; they just don’t get it.

This must make the Lord very sad. Sometimes we underestimate the suffering Jesus endured long before the garden of Gethsemane that fateful night, when His passion began in earnest. Prior to that evening, the Lord endured a kind of death by a thousand cuts: enemies trying to trap Him, crowds wanting medical miracles but no true healing, strident and judgmental religious leaders, and disciples who walked away from Him as he taught about the Eucharist. Even the Twelve, to whom He looked for friendship, seemed completely disconnected from what He was trying to teach them. He also knew that one of them would betray Him, another would deny Him, and all but one would abandon Him, never making it to the foot of the cross. Oh, the grief that they gave the Lord!

Oh, the grief that we continue to offer up! How we continue to offend His external glory and be difficult cases for Him! How easy it is for us to be hardheaded and stubborn, to have necks of iron and foreheads of brass! No, we should not be so quick to scorn the apostles because we do the same things.

The Lord can only remind them and us of the monumental price, the true cost. No cross, no crown! Ultimately, Heaven costs everything, for we must leave this world behind to reach it. The Easter Sunday of glory, whether in this world or in the world to come, is accessed only by a journey through Good Friday.

It is a major price, but it is one that James and John seem to dismiss. They simply state, categorically, that they are able to drink the cup that the Lord drinks and to be baptized into His death. They have no idea what they’re talking about, however, and neither do most of us.

Medicinal Prescription – The text continues, They said to him, “We can.” Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John. Jesus summoned them and said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Thus, the other apostles join in the inept response by becoming indignant that James and John are trying to get special dibs on the seats of honor. Their indignity simply shows that they also have no idea what the Lord is talking about.

The Lord tries to bring the big picture of the cross down to earth. He tries to make it plain, saying that the greatest in the kingdom is the servant of all, indeed the slave of all. It is not those who sit at the head of the table, the foot of the table, or any place at the table at all who are the greatest; the greatest are those who serve at the table.

Do they understand? Probably not, but neither do we. It takes most of us a lifetime before we finally get it through our thick skulls that the point in life is not to have the corner office with the view. We have everything upside down, backwards. We are not rich in what matters to God. We think of bank accounts, prestigious addresses, the square footage of our houses, high salaries, and impressive titles—not service.

We may be on our death beds before we finally realize that the greatest people in our lives are those with the ministry of care, those who feed us, those who change our bandages and give us basic care.

Like the apostles, we can be so foolish. At our final judgment, God will not care about the square footage of our house, our titles, or our worldly honors. What will capture His attention is the times when we served, when we gave a cup of cold water to the thirsty or food to the hungry, when we instructed the ignorant, when we prayed for the dying, when we cared for the needs of the poor. He will look for the calluses and the wounds of our service. He will listen for our proclamation of His Kingdom. He will tell us that what we did for the least of our brothers, we did for Him.

Don’t miss the point: there is no crown without the cross. In the Kingdom, honors and crowns are reserved for those who serve, who take up the cross of washing the feet of others, of going to the lowest of places.

In the Gospel this Sunday, the Lord speaks of crosses and crowns—in that specific order. We will not, we cannot, gain any crown in His Kingdom without being baptized into His death, into His cross, into the humble servitude of dying for others in loving service.

 

What Does Heaven Cost? A Homily for the 28th Sunday of the Year

The Sunday Gospel invites us to wrestle with these fundamental, essential, focal questions: “What does Heaven cost?” and “Am I willing to pay it?”

I. Problematic Pondering – A rich man asks Jesus, Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

Though his question is a good one, it is problematic because he couches it in terms of his own personal power and achievement. He wonders what he himself must do to attain eternal life.

The problem is that none of us has the holiness, the spiritual wealth, or the power to attain Heaven based merely on what we do. The kind of righteousness we need can come only from God. The misguided question of the rich man betrays two common misunderstandings that people bring to the question of salvation and the need for redemption.

The first misunderstanding comes about because we underestimate the seriousness of our condition. We tend to think that we’re basically in good shape. Perhaps we have a few flaws, but fundamentally we mean well and are decent. We suspect that a few sacraments, occasional prayers, and some spiritual “push-ups” will be sufficient. Any look to the crucifix should belie these notions. If it took the horrible death of the Son of God to rescue us, then our condition must be worse than we, with our darkened intellect, imagine.

Jesus related a parable of a man who owed a huge debt—10,000 talents (cf Mt 18:24). This was an amount so large as to be almost unimaginable. No one with such a debt is going to be able to repay it merely by working a little overtime or picking up an additional part-time job. The point is that we humans are in deep trouble and have absolutely no ability to rescue ourselves.

A second misunderstanding comes about because we tend to intellectualize and minimize what the law of God requires. We ask, “What must I do?” rather than “What must I become?” This bespeaks a law-based approach that seeks a manageable list of things to do in order to be saved rather than an open-ended relationship with God. “Okay, so I’m not supposed to kill anyone. No problem, I don’t like the sight of blood anyway. I’ve got this commandment down!” This thinking minimizes the commandment and what it asks of us.

These two misunderstandings seem to undergird the problematic nature of the rich man’s question. In order to engage the man further, Jesus in effect plays along with the premise; this leads us to the second point.

II. Playful Prescription – Jesus decides to follow up on the man’s premise, saying to him, You know the commandments: You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.

Jesus is being playful here in that He continues with the flawed premise of the man: that he can attain to Heaven by something he does.

It is interesting to ponder why Jesus quotes only the Second Table of the Law, the part pertaining to love of neighbor, omitting reference to the First Table of the Law, the commandments pertaining to love of God. Perhaps it is because the Lord recognizes that the man does love Him, for he is seeking the Kingdom of Heaven and asking how to enter into it. Therefore, the Lord focuses on the Second Table of the Law, which is in evidence in this man’s life, at least in this interaction. Further, as Scripture says elsewhere, How can you say you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbor whom you do see? (1 John 4:20) Hence, the Second Table of the Law fleshes out the First Table of the Law.

The Lord is not affirming here that the keeping of the commandments can save us or justify us. Even if we consider ourselves blameless, Scripture says, the just man sins seven times a day (Prov 24:16). We can affirm with Isaiah that, I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips (Is 6:5), and we must say with St. Paul, I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died for no purpose (Gal 2:21).

While the law gives us a necessary and clear frame of reference for what pleases God, its summons Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy (Lev 19:22) is not attainable through mere human effort unaided by grace. Jesus makes it clear that when God says, Be holy, He does not have in mind mere human holiness, for Jesus says, Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48).

Thus, Jesus is drawing out the man’s problematic premise, but as we next see, the rich man doesn’t take the hint.

III. Perceived Perfection – Strangely—and humorously to our mind—the man boldly says, Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.

Notice that the man’s perfection is perceivedsimply noting it in himself does not mean that he actually has it in himself. Having heard Jesus quote the Second Table of the Law, he announces that he has observed all of these from his youth.

To be fair, his self-analysis was not uncommon for a Jewish man of his time. The Jewish people had a great reverence for the law, a beautiful thing in itself, but they tended to understand it in a fairly legalistic and perfunctory way.

For example, in a conversation with Jesus, a scribe of the law asks Him, And who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:29) It’s as if he is saying, “If I have to love my neighbor—and I acknowledge my duty to do so—how can I define ‘neighbor’ in such a way that this is manageable?” In other words, I recognize that I have limits. If justice comes to the law, then the law must have limits, defined in such a way that the keeping of the law remains within my power.

Jesus sets aside such thinking in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), in which He calls for the law to be observed not in a minimalistic sense but in a way that fills it to the fullest. Jesus says that it is not enough not to kill; we must also reject anything that ultimately leads to killing or to wishing people were dead. The commandment not to kill requires not only that we not take life, but also that we banish from our heart and mind, by God’s grace, hateful anger, retribution, and revenge. The commandment not to commit adultery requires not merely that we avoid breaking the marital vows, but also that we banish from our heart and mind, by God’s grace, any lustful, impure, and unrighteous sexual thoughts.

Hence, the commandments and precepts of the law cannot, and should not, be understood in a minimalistic way. Jesus sets aside the usual manner of the people of His day: reducing the law to something manageable and then declaring that they have kept it. God seeks more than perfunctory observance. His grace desires to accomplish within us wholehearted observance. We need grace in order to be saved, in order to qualify for anything that God calls holy.

So, Jesus sets aside the rich man’s claims of righteousness and is now is ready to address the question, “What does Heaven cost?”

IV.  Pricey Prescription – What does Heaven cost? Everything! Jesus, looking at the man with love, says to him, You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

Ultimately, the cost of Heaven is leaving this world and everything in it to go and possess God and Heaven. To have Heaven we must set aside this world, not only its life but its pomp, ephemeral glories, and passing pleasures. If you want Heaven you’ve got to leave here!

Although we know this, we often live in a way that seeks to postpone the inevitable and to ignore the joke that this world is ultimately playing on us. The world says, “You can have it all!” Yes, you can, but then you die and lose everything. We like to postpone facing that fact, pretending that perhaps it ain’t necessarily so. We’re like the gambler who goes to the casino thinking he will be the exception to the general rule that the house always wins. You can’t cheat life; whatever we have when we die, whatever we claim to have won, we lose.

In the end, there is only one way to attain the things of lasting value. Only what you do for Christ will last. The Lord says, Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, that neither rust nor moths can corrode, nor thieves break in and steal (Lk 12:33).

The Lord says that being generous to the needy and poor is a way of storing up treasure in Heaven. Sadly, most of us don’t believe that, thinking that clinging to our “treasure” here is a way of keeping it. It isn’t. Whatever we have here is slipping through our fingers like so much sand. The only way to keep it unto life eternal is to give it away to the needy and poor and to allow it to advance the Kingdom of Heaven and its values.

Otherwise, wealth is not only not helpful it is actually harmful. There are many texts in the Scriptures that speak of the danger and the harm of wealth, how it compromises our souls and endangers our salvation:

  • Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God(Mk 10:23-25).
  • For we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world;  but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs (1 Tim 6:7ff).
  • No servant 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 (Luke 16:13).
  • But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep (Luke 6:24-25).
  • But many that are first will be last, and the last first (Mat 19:30).
  • Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? (James 2:5).

While the Lord’s claim that Heaven costs everything bewilders us, we cannot fail to see its truth and that the world’s claims on us are rooted in a lie, in false declarations that we can be secure in the passing glories of the world. You can have the passing glories of the world, but then you die—end of glory. Because we like the lie, we entertain it. In the end, though, we give everything back because it was never ours to begin with, it only seemed that way.

How foolish we are, how blind! Speaking of blindness, note that the Lord looked at the man with love, yet the man went away sad. That look of love from the Lord never reached his soul. If it had, the result would surely have been different.

V. Powerful Possibility – So shocking is this teaching that even the apostles, who had in fact left everything to follow the Lord, are shocked by it. They see and are in touch with the depth of this wound in the human heart, the depth of our delusion that the world and its goods can satisfy us. They see and know how strong and numerous are the hooks that this world has in us. Thus, they cry out, Then who can be saved? Jesus responds, For man it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.

In the end, salvation must be God’s work. He alone can take these tortured hearts of ours, so rooted in passing things, and make them willing to forsake all things for the Kingdom of Heaven.  Only God can take our disordered love and direct it to its proper end: the love rooted in God and the things awaiting us in Heaven. Only God can remove our obsession with the Titanic and place us squarely in the Noah’s Ark that is the Church, the Barque of Peter.

Yes, God can give us a new heart, a properly ordered heart, a heart that desires first and foremost God’s love, a heart that can say, “I gratefully receive what you give me, Lord, and I covet nothing more. Thank you, Lord. It is enough. You, O Lord, are enough.”

Don’t miss the look of love that Jesus gave the young man, the look that He gives you. In the end, only a greater love, God’s love received, can replace the disordered love we have for this world.

St. Augustine wrote,

Such, O my soul, are the miseries that attend on riches. They are gained with toil and kept with fear. They are enjoyed with danger and lost with grief. It is hard to be saved if we have them; and impossible if we love them; and scarcely can we have them, but that we shall love them inordinately. Teach us, O Lord, this difficult lesson: to manage conscientiously the goods we possess and not covetously desire more than you give to us (Letter 203).

I prayed, and prudence was given me;
I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.
I preferred her to scepter and throne,
and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her,
nor did I liken any priceless gem to her;
because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand,
and before her, silver is to be accounted mire.
Beyond health and comeliness I loved her,
and I chose to have her rather than the light,
because the splendor of her never yields to sleep.
Yet all good things together came to me in her company,
and countless riches at her hands
(Wisdom 7:7-1).

https://youtu.be/u62uYEssk7o/p>

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

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

Today’s readings bring before us some fundamental teachings on marriage. Let’s look at today’s Gospel in five stages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If that is truly the case, then there seems little basis to protest same-sex couples getting “married,” or, frankly, any number of adults in any combination of sexes, getting “married.” (Polygamy and/or polyandry are surely coming next.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV. Reemphasis – Now comes an interesting twist, which includes a reminder of one of the most essential purposes of marriage:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the end, only God can accomplish strong marriages and strong families for us. We must run to Him as Father and seek His help. Even if one has failed in his/her marriage, one must still impart to the next generation what God teaches.

God’s plan remains His plan for everyone, no matter our personal failings. We have every obligation to run to Him, trust Him, and ask for His help. Even in the midst of our own personal failures, we can and must announce and celebrate the truth to others. In the end, God does not give us His teaching in order to burden us or to accuse us but rather to bless us. We must be assured of His mercy and His ability to write straight, even with the crooked lines of our lives.

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

Of Friends and Foes: A Homily for the 26th Sunday of the Year

In this Sunday’s Gospel there is a certain tension between legitimate freedom and truths we must insist upon. We also have a lot to learn in sorting out friends and foes.

I. Foe or Friend? – The text begins, John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” Jesus replied, “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us.”

The Apostle John’s consternation bespeaks confused priorities. Task number one is to advance the Kingdom of God, taking back territory from the Evil One. If someone can drive out demons in Jesus’ name, we ought to praise the Lord! Such a one is not a foe; the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

The apostles seem more concerned with pedigree and control. Perhaps notions of personal advancement, power, prestige, and pride beset them as well. Souls being set free seems to have been a secondary concern.

Misplaced priorities! There should be more about Jesus and His Kingdom, less about me and my glory. Don’t stop others from driving out demons. Help them, or at least get out of the way!

This command not to prevent him is of course a general norm not an absolute one. There are certain things that the Lord gave only for the apostles to do. It was they, not just anyone, who were to preach and formally teach in Jesus’ name, to baptize, to confirm, to celebrate the Eucharist, to forgive sins, to lead with authority, and to appoint successors and helpers by the laying on of hands. In addition, the Rite of Major Exorcism is reserved to appointed priests, though many lay people have charisms to heal and to drive away the influence of demons through approved methods such as unbound and other forms of deprecatory prayers.

Thus, even though priests have certain exclusive duties, it is foolish to think that every gift is reserved for the priesthood. Lay people bring many gifts: prayer, holiness, and the abilities to teach and to share leadership in parishes. They bring practical skills, too, such as administration, organization, and works of charity.

“Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth” are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.” Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to “Catholic unity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #819).

Indeed, I have found that many wonderful Catholics come to us from the evangelical denominations. They bring some many gifts with them. They love Scripture. They love Jesus. They have a wealth of zeal. In the Rite of Reception, we thank God for the communities where they first learned of Christ even as we welcome them to full unity with the Church.

Thus, some whom we see as foes are actually friends in the Lord’s eyes. We should rejoice in the graces of Christ wherever we find them and seek to find full unity in the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.

II. Friends are Fundamental – The Lord admonishes the apostles, Whoever is not against us is for us. Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will surely not lose his reward.

This, of course, implies that the apostles will in fact need help, encouragement, and basic necessities as they undertake to proclaim the gospel. Scripture says, Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up (Ecclesiastes 4:10).

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

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

III. Falsehood is the Fiercest Foe – Through the use of several analogies, the Lord illustrates just how serious it is to lead others into sin by scandal or false teaching: Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’

Here, then, are the worst enemy of all: false teachers and those who give scandal. The “little ones” Jesus refers to here are not just children; all of his disciples are His “little ones.” The Lord uses the strongest language possible here to express His wrath at those who lead His disciples into sin by false teaching or seduction. It would be better for them to die or be maimed than to do such a thing. The Lord says in Jeremiah, Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, declares the LORD. … You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the LORD (Jeremiah 23:1-3). My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray and caused them to roam on the mountains. They wandered over mountain and hill and forgot their own resting place (Jeremiah 50:6).

Yes, to mislead or give scandal to God’s people is so awful that Jesus says being cast into the sea with a millstone around one’s neck is a better option. Otherwise, hellfire and worms will be their lot. Jesus says that it is more serious to sin in this way than to lose a hand or a foot or an eye! Elsewhere, Jesus calls false shepherds “wolves.”

The ancient prophets held up the sins of the people before them and called them to return to the Lord wholeheartedly. What about us? In the midst of a moral meltdown and a cultural collapse there are too many silent pulpits. Even more deplorable are those shepherds who outright mislead the faithful through false teaching, deliberate ambiguity, and bad example. Too many today make light of, or excuse, what God calls sin. These problems are not limited to the clergy. They are found in Catholic schools where the faith is contested rather than taught. They are also found among parents who have strayed from the faith and mislead their children.

All of us in any leadership position should consider the strong language Jesus uses here. We do well to ponder whether we are a friend of the Lord or an enemy. The Book of James warns, You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:4). A false or misleading teacher or one who gives scandal to God’s people is the worst sort of enemy to God.

The Gospel opened with John seeing a foe where there was really a friend. Jesus says, in effect, “That’s not what an enemy looks like. He’s driving out demons, and that’s good work for the Kingdom. Do you want to know what an enemy really looks like? Anyone who causes one of my disciples to sin is an enemy in my eyes.”

True friends of the Lord drive out demons by holy teaching, good example, and prayer. Enemies of the Lord drive in demons by false teaching, bad example, and outright seduction. True friends of the Lord lift Him up for all the world to see.

Enjoy this old hymn; try not to tap your toe while you listen!

Don’t exalt the preacher,
don’t exalt the pew,
Preach the Gospel simple,
full, and free;
Prove Him and you will find his promise is true,
“I’ll draw all men unto Me.”

Lift Him up, lift Him up;
Still He speaks from eternity:
“And I, if I be lifted up from the earth,
Will draw all men unto Me.”

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

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

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

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

First, note that not only are many different opinions put forth, but all of them are wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

The question remains: Who is Jesus Christ and how will the answer be given?

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

Now we may wish to rush ahead to Peter’s answer, but first let us note that, as a body, the apostles are not able to return a verdict. What we get is silence.

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

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

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

Peter’s declaration is true and correct: Jesus is the Christ. However, Peter and the others still need to grow to a deeper understanding of the full implications of the true Faith. Just as Jesus will lead them to understand it, so too has He led the Church to a deeper understanding over the centuries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about not taking an opinion poll! Could anything rate lower on an opinion poll than the cross? Indeed, if one were to take a poll today, there would likely be no crosses at all, only pillows and buffet tables.

The cross is a paradox if there ever was one: from the cross comes life.

Even the world once had some notion of this. What do we have (that we value) that does not involve some sacrifice? A college degree, a career, children, a home, a television—all of them are the fruit of labor, of sacrifice. Too many today want blessings without sacrifice. If we want something, we “charge it.” We spend money we don’t have in order to possess things we have not earned. Welcome to $13 trillion in U.S. household debt, which of course no one should have to “suffer” to pay down. Indeed, the cross has largely been set aside.

But not for Jesus and not for us. To be true Christians we must embrace the cross. Oftentimes this means doing what is hard. It is easy to give way to temptation; it is harder to withstand it. It is easy to be greedy; it is harder to be generous. It is easy to fornicate; it is harder to be chaste. It is easy to file for divorce; it is harder to work things out. It is easy to do what everyone else is doing; it is harder to be a witness or a martyr. It is easy to do what is sinful and self-serving; it is harder to do what is right.

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

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

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

No, He’s not your average Messiah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hence, we need to have God’s Law in our heart. It is not enough to have a cursory and intellectual awareness of His Law; it must drop the foot or so from our intellect to our heart.

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

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

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

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

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

Two Hard Sayings in One Day – A Homily for the 21st Sunday of the Year

Hard Sayings

Hard SayingsThe readings this Sunday feature two “hard sayings,” one on the Eucharist, the other on marriage. One is hard because it defies our sensibilities, the other because it is out-of-season and politically incorrect. This is a long reflection. What I present here is really two separate sermons, but both merit some attention.

The first “hard saying” is Jesus’ insistence that the Eucharist is actually His Body and Blood. He says that we must eat His true Flesh and drink His true Blood as our true food, as our necessary manna to sustain us on our journey through the desert of this life to the Promised Land of Heaven.

We have examined this teaching extensively in previous weeks and it is clear that the Lord is not speaking figuratively or symbolically. His listeners understand Him to be speaking literally; He is insisting that they eat His flesh, really, truly, and substantially. The severe reaction of His listeners can only be explained if they believe that Jesus is speaking literally. The listeners scoff and murmur, but Jesus only doubles down, insisting that unless they gnaw (trogon) on His flesh and devour His blood they have no life in them (cf Jn 6:53-54).

This leads to the crowd’s response: This saying is hard; who can accept it? The Greek word translated here as “hard” is Σκληρός (skleros) and does not mean hard in the sense of being difficult to understand. Rather, it means hard in the sense of being violent, harsh, or stern. It describes a position (or person) that is stubborn and unyielding; it describes something (or someone) that won’t bend or submit.

Despite every protest, Jesus will not back down. He will not qualify what He said or in any way try to minimize its impact. So essential is the food of His Flesh and Blood that He will not even hint that there is some way out of this “hard saying.”

The upshot is that many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Knowing this and seeing it, Jesus still sticks to His teaching. He poses this question: Do you also want to leave?

The Eucharist remains a “hard saying” because it goes against our senses. Of the five senses, four are utterly deceived, for the Eucharistic elements still look, taste, smell, and feel like bread and wine. Only the sense of hearing is safely believed: “This is my Body … This is my Blood … The Bread that I will give is my flesh.”

Yes, it is hard; will you leave? Maybe you won’t leave, but will your faith in the Eucharist be tepid, the kind of faith that is not devoted? Will you drift away from regular reception of the Eucharist? Where do you stand on this “hard saying”?

How consoled the Lord must have been by Peter’s words: Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God. How joyful He must be hearing your “Amen” each Sunday as you are summoned to faith: “The Body of Christ.” Yes, you stand with Christ.

Sadly, others leave. Only about a quarter of Catholics today go to Mass. Further, many others reject the dogma of the True Presence in the Holy Eucharist even though Jesus paid so dearly to proclaim it to us. In light of the recent scandals and the loss of trust, I am immensely grateful that many of the faithful can look beyond the mess and still find Jesus. He is still here and some live beautifully this old saying: “Don’t leave Jesus because of Judas.”

Is it a hard saying? Yes, but say Amen anyway! Stand with Jesus!

The second “hard saying” is hard for a different reason: it is (way) out-of-season and politically incorrect. It insists not only on headship within marriage but male headship. The Holy Spirit and the apostles apparently never got the memo that this teaching is a “no go” in our modern, “enlightened” age. Indeed, the text Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord is like a stick in the eye to most moderns. Talk about a hard saying!

There are cultural and worldly notions that underlie the rejection by many Catholics and Christians of the biblical teaching on the headship of the husband. This concept is unpopular in our culture, which usually gets pretty worked up over questions of authority in general, but that is because the worldly notion of authority usually equates it with power, dignity, rights, and being somehow better than someone else.

That is not the biblical view of authority. Consider what Jesus says about authority:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority and make their importance felt. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:41-45).

Jesus sets aside the worldly notion of authority, wherein those in authority wield their power by “lording it over” others using fear and the trappings of power. In the Christian setting there is authority (there must be), but it exists for service.

Consider a classroom teacher. She has authority; she must, so that she can unify and keep order. However, she has that authority in order to serve the children, not to berate them and revel in her power over them. The same is true for a police officer, who has authority not for his own sake but for ours, so that he can protect us and preserve order.

Having authority in a Christian setting does not make one person better than another, for authority is always exercised among equals. Our greatest dignity is to be a child of God, and none of us is more so just because we hold a position of authority.

Worldly notions of authority do affect Christians. Many harbor resentments against authority because they think of it in worldly ways. Further, many who have authority (and most of us have some authority in some capacity) can fall prey to these worldly notions and abuse their leadership role.

The key to understanding the authority of a husband and father within the home is to set aside worldly notions of authority and see the teaching in the light of the Christian understanding of authority: that it exists for love and service, to unite and preserve.

With that in mind, let’s turn to the highly unpopular and politically incorrect notion of wives being submissive to their husbands. The teaching is found in several places in the New Testament: Ephesians 5:22ff (today’s text); Col 3:18; Titus 2:5; and 1 Peter 3:1. In all these texts, the wording is quite similar: wives are to be submissive to, that is under the authority of, their husbands. In each case, however, the teaching is balanced by an exhortation that the husband is to love and be considerate of his wife.

The most well-known of these passages is today’s text from Ephesians 5: Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is Head of the Church … so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything (Eph 5:20-21, 23).

This may grate on your nerves, but don’t just dismiss what God teaches here. One of the great dangers of this passage is that it is so startling to modern ears that many people just tune out after the first line and miss the rest of what God has to say. There is text that follows. And before men gloat over the first part of the passage, or women react to it with anger or sadness, they should pay attention to the rest of the text, which spells out the duties of a husband.

You see, if you’re going to be the head of the household there are certain requirements that must be met. God is not playing around here or choosing sides. He has a comprehensive plan for husbands that is demanding; it requires them to curb any notions that authority is about power and to remember that, for a Christian, authority is always given so that the one who has it may serve. Before we look at submission we might do well to look at the requirements for the husband:

Love your wife – Pay attention, men! Don’t just tolerate your wife. Don’t just bring home a paycheck. Don’t just love her in some intellectual sort of way. Love your wife with all your heart. Beg God for the grace to love your wife tenderly, powerfully, and unconditionally. Do you hear what God says? Love your wife! He goes on to tell husbands to love their wives in three ways: passionately, with a purifying love, and with a providing love.

Passionate love – The text says that a man is to love his wife even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her. The Greek word παραδίδωμι (paradidomi), translated here as “handed over,” always refers in the New Testament to Jesus’ crucifixion. Husbands, are you willing to give your life for your wife and children? Are you willing to die to yourself and give your life as a daily sacrifice for them? God instructs you to love your wife (and children) with the same kind of love He has for His Bride, the Church. That kind of love is summed up in the cross. Love your wife passionately. Be willing to suffer for her. Be willing to make sacrifices for her and for your children.

Purifying love – The text says of Christ (and of the husband who is to imitate Him) that He wills to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Now a husband cannot sanctify his wife in the same way that God can, but what he is called to do is to help his wife and children grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ. First, he is to be himself under God’s authority, thus making it easier for his wife and children to live out their baptismal commitments. He ought to be a spiritual leader in his home, praying with his wife and children, reading scripture, and seeing to it that his home is a place where God is loved and obeyed, first of all by him. His wife should not have to drag him to Mass. He should willingly help her to grow in holiness and pray with her every day. He should become more holy himself as well, thus making it easier for his wife to live the Christian life. He should be the first teacher of his children, along with his wife, in the ways of faith. In too many American homes, the man does not act as the spiritual leader of his household. If anyone at all is raising up the children in the Lord, it is usually the wife. Scripture has in mind that the husband and father should be the spiritual leader to his wife and children. Scripture says, Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4). Fathers and husbands need to step up and not leave all the burden on their wives.

Providing love So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it. Husbands, take care of your wife in her needs. She needs more than food, clothing, and shelter. These days, she can get a lot of that for herself. What she needs more is your love, understanding, and appreciation. She needs for you to be a good listener. She needs an attentive husband who is present to her. Like any human being, she needs reassurance and affirmation. Tell her of your love and appreciation; don’t just assume that she knows. Show care for your wife; attend to her needs just as you do instinctively for your own. Encourage her with the children. Confirm her authority over them and teach them to respect their mother. Show her providing love by taking up your proper role and duty as a father who is involved with his children. That is what God is teaching here.

So, scripture does teach that a wife should submit to her husband, but what kind of husband does Scripture have in mind? A husband who really loves his wife, who is a servant-leader, who makes sacrifices for his wife, who is prayerful and spiritual, who submits to God’s authority, and who cares deeply for his wife and her needs. The same God who teaches submission (and He does) also clearly teaches these things for the husband. The teaching must be taken in its entirety, but all that said, there is a teaching on wives submitting (properly understood) to their husbands.

There is just no way around it. No matter how much the modern age wants to insist that there doesn’t need to be headship, there does. Every organization needs a head. Consider your own body. With two heads you’d be a freak; with no head you’d be dead. The members of your body need a head to unify the parts, otherwise there would be disunity, decay, and decay. Every organization needs headship. It needs an ultimate decision maker, a person to whom all look when consensus on a significant issue cannot be reached. The Protestants have tried to have a “Church” without a head, without a Pope, and behold the division. Even this country, which we like to call a “democracy,” is not actually a pure democracy. There are legislators, judges, law enforcers, and many other people and mechanisms that exercise local, state, federal, and final headship and authority.

Thus, in a family, where consensus and compromise may often win the day, there nevertheless must be a head, a final decider to whom all look and submit, in order to resolve conflicts that cannot otherwise be worked out. Scripture assigns this task to the husband and father. Headship just has to be, but remember to shed your worldly notions of it when considering the teaching of Scripture. Headship (authority) is for love and service; it is for unity and preservation not for power, prestige, or superiority.

Believe What Jesus Says – A Homily for the 19th Sunday of the Year

The Gospel this Sunday amounts to a summons to faith by Jesus. He is summoning us to faith in Himself and in the truth He proclaims about His presence in the Holy Eucharist. Last week’s Gospel ended with Jesus declaring that He was the bread come down from Heaven. This Sunday’s Gospel opens with His Jewish listeners grumbling because He claims to have come from Heaven. Throughout the Gospel Jesus stands firm in His call to faith; He teaches them of the necessity of faith, its origins, and its fruits. Let’s look at what the Lord teaches in four stages.

I. The Focus of FaithThe Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

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

Recall that Jesus had just fed over 20,000 people with five loaves and two fishes, leaving 12 baskets full of scraps. It was this very miracle that led many of them follow Him to the other side of the lake. All the miracles Jesus worked were meant to summon people to faith and to provide evidence for the truth of His words. The Gospel of John recounts Jesus saying, for the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing, bear witness that the Father has sent me (John 5:36).

Yes, their lack of faith, their grumbling, and their murmuring was scandalous. The multiplication of the loaves and fishes was not the first miracle Jesus had worked to this point and it would not be the last. Recall that he had

Changed water into wine, healed lepers, healed the centurion’s servant, cast out demons, healed the lame, healed the woman with a hemorrhage, raised Jairus’ daughter, cast out blindness, cured the man with a withered hand, walked on water, calmed storms at sea, healed the deaf and mute, caused miraculous catches of fish, raised the widow’s son, and raised Lazarus!

What do they focus on? On what Jesus does or on where He is from? It seems clear they are more focused on His human origins: where He is from and who His human kin are.

How many people today really put their focus on what God is doing, on the many daily miracles of simple existence, and on the many ways that even defeats become victories?

Jesus focuses on faith because we humans are a hard case and our faith needs to grow.

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus also teaches that this work of God generally meets considerable resistance from us. This is evident in Jesus’ words: the Father must “draw” us to the Son. The Greek word used here is ἑλκύσῃ (helkuse), which means to drag, draw, pull, or persuade; it implies that the thing being drawn or dragged is resisting. This same word is used in John 21:6 in describing drawing a heavily laden net to shore.

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

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

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

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

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

The danger is in reducing faith to an event or an act. Some say that they answered an altar call; others point to their baptism. That’s good, but what is going on today? What is prescribed here by the Lord is lasting, ongoing faith. It is a lasting faith because faith is more than a one-time event; it is an ongoing reality. Faith is more than something you have; it is something you do, daily. It involves learning and trusting in God. It is a basing our whole life on His Word, the daily obedience of faith.

Here are a few other Scripture passages about the ongoing need for faith:

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

IV. The Fruit of Faith – Having taught of the ongoing quality of faith, Jesus also speaks of its fruit: eternal life.

The Christian use of the word “eternal” does not refer only to the length of life but to its fullness or quality. The Greek word that is used here is αἰώνιος (aionios), from which we get the English word (a)eon). According the Greek lexicon of Scripture, the word does not focus on the future per se, but rather on the quality of the age.

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

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

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

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

This final verse points to next week’s Gospel, in which this concept will be developed more fully and more graphically.

Having warned them of the necessity of faith, Jesus now points to one of His most essential teachings: the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.

Without faith, they cannot grasp or accept this teaching. As we shall see in next week’s Gospel reading, most of them turned away and would no longer follow Him because they could not accept what He was saying; they did not have the faith to trust Him in this matter. Instead, they scoff and leave Him. We will say more about this next week as John 6 continues to unfold.

For now, let the Lord ask you, “Do you have faith to believe what I teach you on this?” Perhaps, like the centurion, we can say, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” Perhaps, like the apostles, we can say, “Increase our faith.” Perhaps we can imitate St. Thomas Aquinas and say,

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

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

How few come to the Lord’s table today, in these times when faith is so lacking. Only about a quarter of American Catholics attend Mass regularly. How can we stay away if we have faith in the Eucharist? We cannot. If we truly we believe, we will never deliberately miss Sunday Mass. Our devotion to the Lord will grow daily and our experience of the fullness of life (eternal life) will grow.

It’s faith or famine. Do you believe?