You Can’t Take it with You, But You Can Send it on Ahead! Five teachings on Wealth from the Gospel of the 18th Sunday of the Year.

The Gospel today is not merely a warning against greed, it is an instruction on income and wealth given by Jesus to help us root out greed. As the Gospel opens the problem of greed is presented, and then a prescribed perspective about wealth is offered. Lets take a look at both parts of this gospel.

I. The Problem that is Portrayed – The text begins:  Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” He replied to him, “Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?” Then he said to the crowd, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”

Note that Jesus turns to the crowd (to avoid personally indicting the man of something of which all can all be guilty), and warns without ambiguity that greed must be guarded against. Greed is the insatiable desire for more. It is to want possessions inordinately, beyond what is reasonable or necessary.

Greed is often downplayed today where accumulation and ostentatious display of wealth is often celebrated.  Great rooms with cathedral ceilings, 72″ flat screen TVs and even private home theaters (entertainment centers), fancy cars etc., are shamelessly flaunted.

But greed is at the root of a lot of evils and suffering. Scripture says,

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 6:7-10)

Note that these are very strong words. Greed causes us to be discontented and ungrateful, both of which are forms of unhappiness. It also leads us into temptations, into a snare or trap that sets loose the pangs of many harmful desires which seem to expand in ever increasing ways. And this desire for more and more too easily leads us to personal destruction, and to inflict great harm, insensitivity  and injustice on others.

On account of greed we almost never say, “I have enough, I will give away the rest or use it for others.” Many also wander from the faith since wealth is generally tied to this world and its demands, and they have “too much to loose.” Hence the faith is set aside in favor of the world, greed overrules God and the demands of the gospel.

The Lord will develop more of this in the parable ahead. But for now note that the Lord warns about the serious and destructive problem of greed. This is the problem that is portrayed.

II. The Perspective that is Prescribed – But the Lord does not simply condemn greed. He next goes on to tell a parable which strives to give a proper perspective about wealth. In itself, wealth is not evil. But without a proper perspective, we too easily fall into greed. Hence the Lord gives five teachings on wealth to help us keep it in perspective and avoid greed.

A. The INITIATION of Wealth – The text says, There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. 

Notice that the subject of the sentence is the land, not the man. It was the land, not the man who yielded the increase. And hence, whatever we have has come from God and what God has given. Scripture says,

  1. Deuteronomy 8:18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth
  2. Psalm 24:1 The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein;
  3. James 1:17  Every good and perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.
  4. 1 Cor 4:7 What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?

As such wealth is not bad or evil. But, in all our things, we must never forget that God is the true owner and we are the stewards. An old song says, God and God alone created all these things we call our own: From the mighty to the small the glory in them all is God’s and God’s alone.

God gives the increase and is the initiator of every blessing, but God remains the owner. And as stewards we are expected to use what belongs to God in accord with what God, the true owner wills. Too easily we forget this and usher in many woes on account of wealth.

And what is the will of God regarding our wealth? The Catechism speaks of God’s will as the “Universal Destination of Goods:”

God gave all the goods of the earth for all the people of the earth. This means that the goods of creation are destined for the whole human race…In his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself. The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family. (Catechism 2402, 2404)

If we will remember that we are stewards of God’s gifts, and that he ultimately intends all to be blessed, we can understand that greed is a form of theft, for it inordinately clings to what should be given to another out of justice. If I have two coats, one of them belongs to the poor.

Remembering that the initiation of my wealth is God, I can help to avoid greed by using my wealth for the purposes God gave it. It is not just for me, it is for all the people of this earth.

B. The INCONVENIENCE of wealth– the Parable continues, He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?

The man sees his wealth and because he does not consider generosity an option, is somehow burdened by it: “What shall I do?” he asks anxiously. To be honest, great wealth brings comfort but  it is also a source of inconvenience. Consider just a few things that usually go with wealth:  locks, insurance, keys, alarms, storage facilities, worries, fears, repairs, maintenance, upgrades, cleaning, utilities, etc. We live in an affluent age but consider the stress. Consider also the loss of other more important values, we have bigger houses but smaller families, and our McMansions are really more houses than homes.

Scripture says,

  1. Eccl 5:12 The rest of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep.
  2. Prov 15:16 Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it.
  3. Proverbs 17:1 Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife.
  4. Ecc 5:10 Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless.

So, wealth certainly has its comforts, but it also brings with it many inconveniences which make our lives stressful and complicated. Better to be free of great or excessive wealth in accord with God’s will than to be burdened and inconvenienced by it. Here is another perspective that helps us avoid greed.

C. The ILLUSION of wealth- The parable goes on to say,  And [the man] said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”

And here we are taught that riches easily lead us to an illusion of self sufficiency. We start to rely on self, and on riches, instead of God. But as we shall see the man’s wealth will utterly fail him before the night is out.

Riches can buy us out of temporary troubles, but cannot help with the central problem we face. No amount of money on this earth can postpone our appointment with death and judgment. Riches can get us a first class cabin on the ship, but on the “Titanic” of this earth we are no more set than the people in steerage. Indeed, because of the illusion it creates, wealth will more likely hinder us in our final passage. For it is only in trusting in God that we can make it to the other shore. But too much wealth and self reliance hinders our capacity to call on the Lord and trust him. Yes, wealth tends to create an illusion which cripples us from reaching our goal.  Scripture says:

  1. Ps 49:12 But man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish. This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings.
  2. 1 Tim 6:17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.
  3. Prov 11:28 Whoever trusts in his riches will fall,
  4. James 1:11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.
  5. Prov 30:8 Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.

An old gospel song says, Well the way may not be easy, but you never said it would be. Cause when my way get’s a little too easy you know I tend to stray from thee.

The illusion of riches is well illustrated in the modern age. Our wealth has tended to make us less religious. Less dependent on God. But really, can all our wealth and power, technology and science ultimately save us? We know it can not.

Yet strangely we entertain the illusion of wealth anyway. And we think, like the man in the parable, “Now I’ve got it, now I’m set.” This is an illusion, a set up. And coming to see it for the illusion that it is will help us avoid greed.

D. The INSUFFICIENCY of wealthBut God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’

And thus we see the illusion give way to the reality of insufficiency. Scripture says,

  1. Psalm 49:5 There are men who trust in their wealth and boast of the vastness of their riches. But no man can buy his own ransom, or pay a price to God for his life. The ransom of his soul is beyond him. He cannot buy life without end nor avoid coming to the grave. He knows that wise men and fools must perish and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes for ever, their dwelling place from age to age though their names spread wide through the land. In his riches man lacks wisdom, he is like the beast that perish.
  2. Mat 16:26 For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?

Money, wealth, power popularity and prestige can never really get us what we need. And it’s not just money, At the end of the day, all this world and all its riches cannot save us. Only God can do this. Here too is another perspective on wealth that helps us avoid greed.

E. The INSTRUCTION about wealth – The parable concludes:  Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”

As we have already remarked, wealth is not intrinsically evil. It is our greed that is sinful and gets us into trouble. And greed clings to wealth unreasonably and excessively. With greed we “store up treasure for our self and are not rich in what matters to God.”

So, what matters to God? What matters is that we be rich in justice, mercy, love, holiness and truth, that we be generous sharers of the bounty he bestows. And thus the Lord teaches us to generously share what we have over and above what we do not need. Consider the following teachings:

  1. Luke 16:9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
  2. Mat 6:19 Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.
  3. 1 Tim 6:17-19 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

There is an old saying: “You take it with you.” And this is true, but only partially. The Lord suggests that we can send our wealth on ahead, that we can store it up in heaven, that we can invest it in eternity. How? Do we put our gold in a balloon and float it up? No, we send it up, we send it on ahead by bestowing it on the poor and needy. This can include our children and family members, for Charity begins at home. But it does not end there. Thus our generosity should extend beyond the family to many of the poor.

If we do this the Lord teaches that the poor we bless will welcome us to heaven and speak on our behalf before the judgment seat. The Lord says when we bless the poor our treasure will be great, and safe in heaven. Further, our generosity and mercy will benefit us greatly on the day of judgment and help us, as St. Paul says above, lay hold of the life that is truly life.

So, you can’t take it with you, but you can send it on ahead.

Therefore, this final teaching or perspective on wealth is to be rich in what matters to God by being generous, not greedy.

And thus we have five teachings on wealth meant to give us perspective, so as to avoid greed.

And trust God! Greed is rooted in fear, but generosity trusts that God will not be outdone in generosity! And while our greatest rewards remain in heaven, God sends “interest payments” even now upon the generous. Scripture says,

  1. Prov 11:24 One man gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.A generous man will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.
  2. Ecclesiastes 11:1 Cast your bread upon the waters: after many days it will come back to you.
  3. Luke 6:38 Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give, will be the measure you get back.”

Since you can’t take it with you, you might as well send it on ahead. Guard against greed by allowing these five teachings on wealth to give you a proper perspective on wealth.

Three Teachings from the Lord on Prayer – A Homily on the Gospel of the 17th Sunday of the Year

072713Last week’s Gospel featured the Lord insisting that prayer was the “one thing necessary.” In this week’s gospel we see, then, the request by the disciples that the Lord teach them on prayer. In answer the Lord gives us three basic teachings or prescriptions for prayer.

Lets look at these three prescriptions he gives.

I. Pattern of Prayer – The Gospel opens: Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said to him,”Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us, and do not subject us to the final test.”

In giving the “Our Father” we must be careful to understand that the Lord Jesus is not simply giving us words to say. More than this, he is giving us a pattern for prayer. He is “teaching us to pray.” He does this in response to the disciples, who did not ask to be given words to say, but to taught how to pray.

Thus, while the words of the Our Father are precious, it is also important to look at the underlying structure implicit in the prayer so as to learn “how to pray.” Jesus is illustrating by these words what ought to be going on in us interiorly, in our mind and heart as we pray: Here is what the mind and heart of a person of prayer is like.

Let’s consider then, five basic disciplines, taught by Jesus in the Our Father that form a kind of pattern or structure for prayer. I use here the Mattean version of the prayer only because it is more familar, but all the basic elements are the same:

1. RELATE – Our Father who art in heaven – Here begins true spirituality: Relate to the Father! Relate to him with family intimacy, affection, reverence and love. We are not merely praying the “the deity” or the “Godhead.” We are praying to our Father who loves us, who provides for us and, who sent his only Son to die for us and save us. When Jesus lives his life in us and His Spirit dwells in us we begin to experience God as our Abba, (Father).

As developed in other New Testament texts, the deeper Christian word Abba underlies the prayer. Abba is the family word for the more generic and formal word “father.” When my Father was alive I did not call him “Father” I called him “Dad.” This is really what the word Abba is getting at. It is the family word for Father. It indicates family ties, intimacy, close bonds. Why the word Abba is not used here in the Our Father is uncertain. St. Paul develops the theme here: For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:15 ) and here: And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”(Gal 4:6).

Ask God for the gift to experience him as Abba. At the heart of our worship and prayer is a deep and personal experience of God’s love and fatherly care for us. The first discipline or practice of the Spiritual life is to RELATE to God as to a Father who loves us and to experience him as Abba.

2. REJOICE – hallowed by thy name! The praise and love of God is the essential discipline and element of our spiritual lives. He is the giver of every good and perfect gift and to Him our praise is due. Praise and thanksgiving make us people of hope and joy. It is for this that we were made. God created us, so that we…might live for his praise and glory (Eph 1:12).

Our prayer life should feature much joyful praise. Take a psalm of praise and pray it joyfully. Take the Gloria of the Mass and pray it with gusto! Rejoice in God, praise his name. Give glory to him who rides above the clouds.

There may be times when, due to some sadness or difficulty, we do not feel emotionally like praising God. Praise the Lord anyhow! Scripture says, I will bless the LORD at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth (Psalm 34:1). Praise is to be a regular discipline of prayer, rooted even more in the will, than just the feelings. God is worthy our praise.

Ultimately praise is a refreshing way to pray, since we were made to praise God, and when we do what we were made to do, we experience a kind of satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment. The second element and discipline of the spiritual life is a life of vigorous praise: REJOICE!

3. RECEIVE – thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven – At the heart of this petition is an openness to God’s will, to his word of instruction, to his plan for us and for this world. When Jesus lives in us we hunger for God’s word and strive to know his will and have it operative in our life.

A basic component and discipline of the prayer and the spiritual life, is to receive the Word and instruction of God, so that his will might be manifest to us, and we can obey. We ought to pray the Scriptures (lectio divina). We ought to study the faith through the Catechism or other means. These are ways that we become open to God’s will that his Kingdom might be manifest in our lives.

The Third element and discipline of prayer and the spiritual life is an openness to to God’s teachings through the Church and Scriptures: RECEIVE!

4. REQUEST – Give us today our daily bread – Intercessory prayer is at the heart of the Christian life. Allow “bread,” in this case, to be a symbol of all our needs. Our greatest need of course is to be fed by God, and thus bread also points to the faithful reception of the Eucharist.

Intercessory prayer is the prayer of asking for God’s help in every need. Take every opportunity to pray for others. When watching the news or reading the newspaper, pray the news. Much of the news contains many things for which to pray: victims of crime, disaster or war, the jobless, homeless and afflicted. Many are locked in sin and bad behavior, corruption, confusion, bad priorities and the like. Many are away from the sacraments and no longer seek their Eucharistic bread who is Christ. Pray, pray, pray.

There are also good things we hear of and we should be grateful and ask that solutions be lasting. This intercessory prayer flows from our love and solidarity with others. We see the world with the compassion of Christ and pray. The fourth element and discipline of prayer and the spiritual life is to INTERCEDE for ourselves and others.

5. REPENT – and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. – Sin is understood at two levels here: 1: sin – (lowercase) our personal sins and trespasses, also referred to as our “trespasses.” 2. Sin (upper case) – referring to the whole climate of sin, the structures of sin that reinforce and underlie our own sins. Referred to here as “evil.”

An essential element of our spiritual life is that we come to recognize the sins, and deep drives of sins, in our own life, to beg deliverance from them as well as mercy.

It is also true that we live in a sin soaked world were the powers and principalities of evil have great influence. We cannot fail to recognize this and pray that it’s power will be curbed.

Then too, we must also pray for the grace to show mercy to others. For it often happens that sin escalates through resentments, and retribution rooted in unforgiving attitudes. We must pray to be delivered from these hurts and resentments so as to be able to break the cycle of violence and revenge that keeps sin multiplying.

But in the end we must pray for the Lord’s grace and mercy to end evil in our own lives and that the whole world. The Fifth element and discipline of prayer and the spiritual life is to REPENT of evil.

So here then is a structure for our prayer and spiritual life contained in the Our Father. Jesus teaches us to pray, and gives us a basic structure for prayer. Some may use this an actual structure for daily prayer. Hence,  if they are going to spend 25 minutes praying, they spend about five minutes on each aspect. Others may use this structure for an over all reference for their spiritual life in general. Hence, one might ask if these aspects and disciplines are reflected well in their overall prayer life.

Thus the first teaching of the Lord is to give us a patten for prayer. We now go on to the next preisciption.

II. The Persistence of Prayer – Jesus goes on to say, “Suppose one of you has a friend to whom he goes at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey and I have nothing to offer him,’ and he says in reply from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked and my children and I are already in bed. I cannot get up to give you anything.’ I tell you, if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence. “And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Jesus tells a similar parable in Luke 18 of an unjust judge and a persistent widow. Finally the judge gives her justice because of her demanding persistence.

The upshot of both of these parables is that if even a grouchy neighbor and an unjust judge will respond to persistence, how much more will God the Father who is neither unjust or grouchy respond to those who call out to him day and night.

The teaching that we persist in prayer is something of a mystery. God is not deaf, he is not forgetful, he is not stubborn. But yet, he teaches in many places that we are to persevere, even pester him, in our prayer.

Why he teaches this cannot be for his sake, it must be for ours. Perhaps he seeks to help us clarify what we really want, perhaps he wants to strengthen our faith, perhaps he wants to instill appreciation in us for the finally answered prayer. What ever it may be there is something of a mystery here as to the exact reason. But persistent prayer is taught and insisted upon by Jesus, here and elsewhere.

Some may ponder as to why our prayers are not always effective. Some of the usual explanations from Scripture are:

  1. Our faith is not strong enough – Jesus said: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:22) And the Book of James says, But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; (James 1:6-7)  There is also the sad fact of Nazareth where the Lord could work few miracles so much did their lack of faith disturb him (Matt 13:58)
  2. We ask for improper things or with wrong motives – The Book of James says : “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures
  3. Unrepented sin sets up a barrier between us and God so that our prayer is blocked –  “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor His ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities (sins) have separated you from God; your sins have hidden his face from you so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:1-2).
  4. We have not been generous with the requests and needs of others – “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13)
  5. God cannot trust us with blessings for we are not conformed to his word or trustworthy with lesser things – If you remain in me and my word remains in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you” (John 15:7) and Again: So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? (Lk 16:11-12)

Now all these explanations are fine. But even if none of them apply God often delays anyway.

A man one day prayed to God and asked: “How long is a million years to you?” And said, “About a minute.”  And the man said, “How much is a million dollars to you?”  And God said, “About a penny.”  The man said, “Can I have a penny?” And God said, “In a minute.”

God’s “delay” and our need to persist and persevere in prayer are mysterious aspects of God’s providence but they are taught, there is no doubt about that.

Pray, Pray Pray – The insistence on persistence is taught to us all, not only to the sinful and weak in faith. The Lord says here quite simply: pray, pray, pray pray, pray. Realize that this is part of what is required of the Christian. Prayer is about more than “calling and hauling” or “naming and claiming.” It is also about persevering, about persisting. Monica prayed thirty years, it would seem, for Augustine to accept the Faith. Some of us have prayed even longer for loved ones. In the end God seems to require persistence for some things and we dare not give up or become discouraged. We just have to keep praying: Pray, pray, pray.

Note that the two of the three images for persistent prayer given by Jesus involve an on-going action. We are to ask, seek and knock. Asking can be done only once, but can be repeated. But seeking implies an on-going even lengthy search. Knocking involves a persistent and repeated rapping at the the door. One does not simply give a single pulse, they usually give sever rapid and repeated pulses. When there is no answer the pattern is repeated a few times.

Prescription two for prayer is to persist, to persevere.

III. The Point of Prayer – Jesus then concludes: What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?

The rhythm of the Lord’s analogy seems a bit odd here. If and earthly father knows how to “give good gifts” to his son, then we expect Jesus to say that the Heavenly Father also knows how to give “good gifts” to those who ask. But Jesus does not say “good gifts.” He says, the Father gives “The Holy Spirit.”

Why is this? Because it is the highest gift that contains all others. To receive the Holy Spirit is to receive the love of God, the Glory of God, the life of God, the Wisdom of God. It is to receive God Himself, who comes to live in us as in a temple. And with this gift comes every other gift and consolation. For, by the Holy Spirit we begin to think and see more as God does. We attain to his priorities and desire what he desires. We see sins and worldly attachments begin to go away. And thus the word loses its hold on us and can no longer vex us.

Jesus says elsewhere, Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matt 6:33). Yes, to receive the gift of God the Holy Spirit, it to receive all things besides for nothing more can disturb us. St Thomas Aquinas one day sense the Lord asking what he would like. St Thomas replied nil nisi te, Domine, (Nothing except you O Lord).  And for those who love God and have progressed in prayer, that really is all that is wanted. God can give cars and new jobs, and financial blessings, and for some, such things are well needed. But why not aim for the highest and best gift too? Ask for the Gift of the Holy Spirit. Nil nisi te Domine!

Ultimately the point of all prayer is deep communion with the Lord. This is our high calling, to be in communion with the Lord, here and one day fully in the glory of heaven. Don’t miss the ultimate point of prayer.

Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
Thy wings shall my petition bear
To Him whose truth and faithfulness
Engage the waiting soul to bless.
And since He bids me seek His face,
Believe His Word and trust His grace,
I’ll cast on Him my every care,
And wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer!

The Priority of Personal Prayer – A Meditation on the Gospel of the 16th Sunday of the Year

Today’s Gospel at Mass is the very familiar one of Martha and Mary. Martha is the anxious worker seeking to please the Lord with a good meal and hospitality. Mary sits quietly at his feet and listens. One has come to be the image of work, the other of prayer.

Misinterpreted? In my fifty-two years I have heard many a sermon that interpreted this Gospel passage as a call for a proper balance between work and prayer. Some have gone on to state that we all need a little of Martha and Mary in us and that the Church needs both Marthas and Marys.

But in the end it seems that such a conclusion misses the central point of this passage. Jesus does not conclude by saying, “Martha, Now do your thing and let Mary do hers.” He describes Mary as not only choosing the better part but also as doing the “one thing necessary.” This does not amount to a call for “proper balance” but instead underscores the radical priority and primacy of prayer. This, it would seem is the proper interpretive key for what is being taught here. Many other passages of the Scripture do set forth the need to be rich in works of charity but this is not one of them.

With that in mind let’s take a look at the details of the Lord’s teaching today on the  Priority of Personal Prayer.

I. PROMISING PRELUDE – Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. Our story begins by showing Martha in a very favorable light. She opens her door, her life, if you will, and welcomes Jesus. This is at the heart of faith, a welcoming of Jesus into the home of our heart and life. Surely Revelation 3:20 comes to mind here: Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any one hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and eat with him and he with me.

While we acknowledge this promising prelude we ought also to underscore the fact that the initiative is that of Jesus. The text says Jesus entered a village…. In the call of faith the initiative is always with God. It was not you who chose me, it was I who chose you (Jn 15:16) Hence, while we must welcome Him, God leads. Martha hears the Lord’s call and responds. So far so good.

What happens next isn’t exactly clear but the impression is that Martha goes right to work. There is no evidence that Jesus asked for a meal from her, large or small. The text from Revelation just quoted does suggest that the Lord seeks to dine with us, but implies that it is he who will provide the meal. Surely the Eucharistic context of our faith emphasizes that it is the Lord who feeds us with his Word and with his Body and Blood.

At any rate, Martha seems to have told the Lord to make himself comfortable and has gone off to work in preparing a meal of her own. That she later experiences it to be such a burden is evidence that her idea emerged more from her flesh than the Spirit.

II. PORTRAIT OF PRAYER She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Now here is a beautiful portrait of prayer: to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen.

Many people think of prayer as something that is said. But prayer is better understood as a conversation, and conversations include listening. Vocal prayer, intercessory prayer and the like are all noble and important but the prayer of listening is too often neglected.

Prayer is not just telling God what we want, it is discovering what He wills. We have to sit humbly and listen. We must learn to listen, and listen to learn. We listen by devoutly and slowing considering scripture (lectio divina), and by pondering how God is speaking in the events and people in our life, how God is whispering in our conscience and soul.

Jesus calls this kind of prayer “the one thing necessary” as we shall see. What Mary models and Martha forgets is that we must first come (to Jesus) then go (and do what he says)….that we must first receive, before we can achieve…..that we must first be blessed before we can do our best……that we must listen before we leap into action.

III. PERTURBED and PRESUMPTUOUS Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” – And so, sure enough Martha who is laboring in the flesh, but not likely in the Spirit and in accord with the Lord’s wishes, is now experiencing the whole thing as a burden. She blames her sister for all this but the Lord’s response will make it clear that this is not Mary’s issue.

One sign that we are not in God’s will is the experiencing of what we are doing as a burden. We are all limited and human and will experience ordinary fatigue. It is one thing to be weary in the work but it is another thing to be weary of the work.

A lot of people run off to do something they think is a good idea. And maybe it is a fine thing in itself. But they never asked God. God might have said, “Fine.” or He might have said, “Not now, but later.” Or He might have said, “Not you but some one else.” Or he might have just plain said, “No.” But instead of asking they just go off and do it and then when things don’t work out will often times blame God: “Why don’t you help me more!”

And so Martha is burdened. She first blames her sister. Then she presumes the Lord does not care about what is (to her) an obvious injustice. Then she takes presumption one step further and presumes to tell the Lord what to do: “Tell her to help me.”

This is what happens when we try to serve the Lord in the flesh. Instead of being true servants who listen to the Lord’s wishes and carry them out by his grace, we end up as angry and mildly (or not) dictatorial. She here is Martha, with her one hand on her hip and her index finger in the air 🙂 Jesus will be kind with her but firm.

IV. PRESCRIBED PRIORITY Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her. Now don’t let the Lord have to call you by your name twice! But it is clear the Lord wants her attention and that she has stumbled on a fatal mistake that we all can too easily make. She lept before she listened.

The Lord observes and says that she is anxious about many things. Anxiety about many things comes from neglect of the one thing most necessary: to sit at the feet of the Lord and listen to him.

In life, the Lord will surely have things for us to do but they need to come from him. This is why prayer is the “one thing” necessary and the better part: because work flows from it and is subordinate to it.

Discernment is not easy but it is necessary. An awful lot of very noble ideas have floundered in the field of the flesh because they were never really brought before God and were not therefore a work of grace.

Jesus does not mean that ALL we are to do is pray. There are too many other Gospels that summon us to labor in the vineyard to say that. But what Jesus is very clear to say is that prayer and discernment have absolute priority. Otherwise expect to be anxious about many things and have little to show for it.

Scripture makes it clear that God must be the author and initiator of our works: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).

And old prayer from the Roman Ritual also makes this plain: Actiones nostras, quaesumus Domine, aspirando praeveni et adiuvando prosequere: ut cuncta nostra oratio et operatio a te semper incipiat, et per te coepta finiatur. Per Christum Dominum nostrum (Direct we beseech Thee, O Lord, our prayers and our actions by Thy holy inspirations and carry them on by Thy gracious assistance, so that every work of ours may always begin with Thee, and through Thee be ended). Amen

This song reminds that when we really ARE working in the Lord’s will and as the fruit of prayer we love what we do and do so with joy. This song says, “I keep so busy working for the Kingdom I ain’t got time to die!”

Love Lightens Every Load – A Homily for the 15th Sunday of the Year

One could easily reduce this Sunday’s Gospel to trite moral advice such as this: Help people in trouble; be kind to strangers. While these are certainly good thoughts, I would argue that it is about far deeper things than human kindness or ethics. This is a Gospel about the transformative power of God’s love and our need to receive it. It is not a Gospel that can be understood as a demand of the flesh.

Let’s look at the Gospel in three stages.

I. The Radical Requirements of Love – As the Gospel opens, there is a discussion between Jesus and a scholar of the law as to a basic summation of the law. The text says, There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” He said in reply, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

The scholar quotes the Shema, a summary of the law known to every Jew. Notice how often the word “all” occurs. There is a radical nature to the call of love that cannot be avoided. When it comes to love, the requirement is not to give what is reasonable, to give a little, or perhaps to give a tithe. No, the call is to give God all our heart, mind, being, and strength, and to love our neighbor as though he were our very self.

Our flesh recoils at this sort of open demand; immediately we want to qualify it and quantify it somehow. The flesh seeks refuge in law, asking, “What is the minimum I can do while still meeting the requirements?”

Love, however, is by its very nature open-ended and generous. Love is extravagant; it wants to do more. Love wants to please the beloved. A young man in love does not say to himself, “What is the cheapest gift I can get her for her birthday?” No, he will see an opportunity to show his love; he may even spend too much. Love does not think, “What is the least I can do?” Love thinks, “What more can I do?” Love is expansive and extravagant.

The flesh, that fallen and sin-soaked part of our nature, blanches at such expansive talk and brings out the lawyer in us, negotiating for lesser terms.

II. The Reductionism that Resists Love After giving the beautiful answer about love, the scholar of the law (and there is a lawyer in all of us) reverts to form and speaks out of his flesh. The text continues, But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In other words, he wants to say, “If I have to love my neighbor, let’s make this ‘neighbor’ category as small and manageable as possible.”

Note how quickly he has retreated into a kind of fearful reaction to the broad expanse of love. His fear is likely rooted in the fact that he has reduced the Shema into a moral platitude, as if he could pull the whole thing off out of his own power. He recoils and demands more favorable terms of surrender. Because he thinks he has to do it all on his own, he tries to reduce the scope to something manageable. Perhaps he is willing to consider the people on his block to be his neighbors, but those two or three blocks away? That’s just too much.

The fearful lawyer in him has started negotiating a kind of debt relief. He seeks to narrow down this “neighbor” category. The Lord isn’t buying it; He will expand the concept even further than the Jewish notions of the day.

To be fair, there is a lawyer in all of us, always negotiating for more favorable terms. And while it is not wrong to ask for some guidance in understanding the law, we all know that the lawyer in us is trying more to evade the terms than fulfill them.

In a way each of us is like the typical teenager. Every teenager seems to be a natural-born lawyer. Give a teenager a rule and he will parse every nuance of it in order to escape its demands or water down the terms.

Some years ago, I was teaching 7th grade religion in our parish’s Catholic school. I told the kids, “Do your work … and no talking!” Within moments, a young lady started singing. Interestingly, her name was Carmen (which means song in Latin). When I rebuked her for breaking the rule, she replied, “I wasn’t talking; I was singing … and you didn’t say anything about singing.”

I remember my thoughts when I was in high school: I couldn’t break the 6th commandment (forbidding adultery) because I wasn’t married and certainly wouldn’t be intimate with a married woman since they were all “old.” Yes, the lawyer in me was at work.

This is how we are in our rebellious, fearful, and resentful flesh. Hearing a law, we go to work at once, parsing every word, examining every nuance so as to evade its intent in every way possible. If we are going to follow the law at all, we’re going to try to find a way that involves the least possible effort.

So often Catholics and other Christians talk more like lawyers than lovers: Do I have to go to confession? How often? Do I have to pray? How long? Do I have to give to the poor? How much? Why can’t I do that? It’s not so bad; besides, everyone else is doing it.

Sometimes, too, we seek to reduce holiness to perfunctory religious observance. Look, I go to Mass; I put something in the collection basket; I say my prayers. What more do you want? Perhaps we think that if we do certain ritual observances (which are good in themselves) we have bought God off and do not need to look at other matters in our life. Because I go to Mass and say a few prayers, I can put a check mark in the “God box” and don’t really need to look at my lack of forgiveness, my harsh tongue, or my lack of generosity.

This is reductionism. It is the lawyer in us at work, seeking to avoid the extravagance of love by hiding behind legal minimalism. It emerges from a kind of fear generated by the notion that we must be able to do everything on our own, by the power of our own flesh. But that’s not possible. You can’t pull it off on your own. But God can, and that is why He commands it of us.

Our fleshly notions have to die. Our spirit must come alive with the virtue of hope that relies trustingly on God’s grace to bring out a vigorous and loving response in us. Law and the flesh say, “What are the minimum requirements?” Love says, “What more can I do?” This is the gift of a loving heart that we must seek.

III. The Response that Reflects Love The Lord then paints a picture of what His love and grace can accomplish in someone: Jesus replied, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise, a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn, and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’ Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

There is a very important phrase that must not be missed, for it gives the key to the Samaritan man’s actions: “… [he] was moved with compassion ….” Note that the sentence uses the passive voice (“was moved”). That is to say, it was not so much that the Samaritan acted, but that he was acted upon.

More specifically, love and grace have moved within him and are moving him. The Greek verb used here is ἐσπλαγχνίσθη (esplagchnisthe), a third-person singular passive verb meaning “to be deeply moved” or “to be moved to compassion.” The verb is also in the aorist tense, signifying that something has happened but also that it has a kind of ongoing dimension to it.

Why is this phrase “was moved” so important? Because it indicates the power of the gift of grace. So many of our fears about what God asks and what love demands are rooted in the idea that we must accomplish them out of our own flesh—that is not the message of this Gospel. In the New Covenant, the keeping of the Law is received, not achieved. The keeping of the commandments is a work of God within us to which we yield. Keeping the commandments and fulfilling the law are the results of love, not the causes of it.

We do not know the Samaritan’s history; the Lord does not provide it to us. He is telling a story and the Samaritan is only a literary character in it.

We must clearly understand the teaching of today’s Gospel: Our receiving and experiencing of love is and must be the basis of our keeping of the law. Experiencing and receiving God’s love for us equips, empowers, and enables us to respond extravagantly as joyful lovers rather than as fearful lawyers.

Love lightens every load. When we love God and love other people, we want to do what love requires. Even if there are difficulties that must be overcome, love makes us eager to respond anyway.

When I was in the 7th grade, I found myself quite taken by a pretty girl named Shelly. I was “in love.” One day she was walking down the hall struggling to carry a pile of books to the library; I saw my chance! I jumped in and offered to carry her books. Mind you, I was skinny as a rail with no muscles at all, and those textbooks were heavy—but I was glad to do it despite the effort. Love does that; it lightens every load and makes us eager to help, even at great cost.

Perhaps it’s just a silly story of an awkward teenager, but it demonstrates what love does. It “moves” us to be generous, kind, merciful, patient, and even extravagant. We don’t do what we do because we have to, but because we want to.

The Samaritan in this story, was “moved” with and by love to overcome race, nationality, fear, and danger. He generously gave his time and money to save a fellow traveler.

Let love lift you. Let it empower you, equip you, and enable you! Go to the Lord and pray for a deeper experience of His love. Open the door of your heart and let the love of God in. Go to the foot of the cross and remember what the Lord has done for you. Let what He has done be so present in your mind and heart that you are grateful and different. Let God’s love come alive in you.

As a witness, I promise you that love lightens every load and makes us eager to keep the commandments, to help others, to forgive, to show mercy, to be patient, to be kind, and to speak the truth in love to others. Yes, I am a witness that love can and does change us. I’m not what I want to be, but I’m not what I used to be. Love has lifted me and lightened every load of mine.

Again, today’s Gospel is not mere moral advice. The main point is that we must let the Lord’s love into our heart. If we do, we will do what love does and we will do it extravagantly—not because we have to but because we want to.

The grace of love lightens every load and equips us for every good work.

This song says, “More of His saving fullness see, more of His love who died for me

 

Five Disciplines of Discipleship – A Homily for the 13th Sunday of the Year

This Sunday’s Gospel portrays through the life of Jesus some important disciplines for disciples. Let’s look at them and see how to apply them to our lives today.

I. Purposefulness – The text says, When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem, and he sent messengers ahead of him.

Note that Jesus was resolute. He was heading to Jerusalem to suffer, die, and rise; to undertake the great battle and the great mission entrusted to Him. Everything He did was to be oriented toward this goal.

What about us? Are we as determined to seek Christ and head for His Kingdom? Is our direction clear? Have we set our sights resolutely, or do we meander about? Are we on the highway to Heaven, or do we make compromises with this passing world, seeking to serve two masters? Notice how easily we take exits for sin city, vicious village, and injustice junction.

Our goal is to set our face like flint and pursue the Jerusalem of Heaven, just as Jesus set His face toward the Jerusalem of this earth to accomplish His mission.

Scripture speaks often of developing a firm and unequivocal resolve, of being purposeful and single-hearted in our determination to follow Jesus and set our sights on Heaven.

This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13).

A double minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:4).

No one can serve two masters; for 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 God and mammon (Mat 6:24).

There is one thing I ask of the LORD, this alone I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life and gaze upon the beauty of the LORD (Ps 27:4).

Are you focused? Purposeful? What is the one thing you do? Concentration is the secret of power. Water over a large area is a stagnant pond, but in a narrow channel it is a powerful river.

The first discipline of discipleship is to be purposeful, determined, single-hearted, and focused in our pursuit of the Lord and His kingdom.

II. Perseverance – The text says, On the way they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his reception there, but they would not welcome him because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they journeyed to another village.

James and John are angry at and discouraged by the rejection of Jesus and the values of the Kingdom, but He Jesus rebukes their desire for retaliation.

Notice how Jesus stays focused on His task. Rejected here, He moves forward. He does not let the devil distract Him or His disciples from the task of proclaiming the Word whether in season or out of season, popular or unpopular, accepted or rejected. Keep preaching; keep plowing; keep walking. Do not give up; do not grow angry; just keep working. Leave judgment to God. For now, just preach, teach, warn, and admonish.

Scripture says,

And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town. … and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next (Matt 10:14, 22).

Yes, persevere! Remember, we’re called to be faithful, not successful. We need to persevere not just in the face of rejection, but in the face of trials, temptations, setbacks, sorrows, hurts, hardships, failures, and frustrations. Preach, teach, and be tenacious. Remember to trust in Jesus. They killed Him, but He rose.

Many have announced the end of faith. Many have sworn that they will bury the Church, but she has buried every one of her would-be undertakers. They dug our grave but fell into it themselves. Yes, we read the funeral rites over them. We have outlived every opponent.

No weapon waged against us will prevail. Long after the current confusion and pride of the decadent West has gone, the Church will still exist, preaching Christ and Him crucified.

III. Poverty – The text says, As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”

Here is another critical discipline of discipleship: following Jesus even if worldly gain not only eludes us but is outright taken from us. Do you love the consolations of God or the God of all consolation? Do you seek the gifts of God or the Giver of every good and perfect gift? What if following Jesus gives you no earthly gain? What if, in fact, being a disciple brings you ridicule, loss, prison, or even death? Would you still follow Him? Would you still be a disciple?

In this verse Jesus’ potential disciple seems to have power, prestige, or worldly gain in mind. Perhaps he sees Jesus as a political messiah and wants to get on the “inside track.” Jesus warns him that this is not what discipleship is about. The Son of Man’s Kingdom is not of this world.

We need to heed Jesus’ warning. Riches are actually a great danger. Not only can riches not help us in what we really need, they can actually hinder us! Poverty is the not the worst thing. There’s a risk in riches, a peril in prosperity, and a worry in wealth.

The Lord Jesus points to poverty and powerlessness (in worldly matters) when it comes to being disciples. This is not merely a remote possibility or an abstraction. If we live as true disciples, we are going to find that wealth is seldom our lot. Why is this? Well, our lack of wealth comes from the fact that if we are true disciples, we won’t make easy compromises with sin or evil. We won’t take just any job. We won’t be ruthless in the workplace or deal with people unscrupulously. We won’t lie on our resumes, cheat on our taxes, or take easy and sinful short cuts. We will observe the Sabbath, be generous to the poor, pay a just wage, provide necessary benefits to workers, and observe the tithe. The world hands out (temporary) rewards if we do these sorts of things, but true disciples refuse such compromises with evil. In so doing, they reject the temporary rewards of this earth and may thus have a less opulent place to lay their heads. They may not get every promotion and they may not become powerful.

Yes, poverty is a discipline of discipleship. What is “poverty”? It is freedom from the snares of power, popularity, and possessions.

Jesus had nowhere to rest his head. Now that’s poor! But it also means freedom from the many duties, obligations, and compromises that come with wealth. If you’re poor no one can steal from you or threaten take away your things. You’re free; you have nothing to lose.

Most of us have too much to lose and so we are not free; our discipleship is hindered.

IV. Promptness (readiness) The text says, And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

The Lord seems harsh here. However, note that the Greek text can be understood in the following way: “My Father is getting older. I want to wait until he dies and then I will really be able to devote myself to being a disciple.”

Jesus’ point is that if the man didn’t have this excuse, he’d have some other one. He does not have a prompt or willing spirit. We can always find some reason that we can’t follow wholeheartedly today because we have to get a few things resolved first. It’s the familiar “I’ll do tomorrow.”

There is a peril in procrastination. Too many people always push things off to tomorrow, but tomorrow is not promised. In the Scriptures there is one word that jumps out over and over again; it’s the word now.

Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD (Isaiah 1:18).

behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2).

Today if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart (Ps 95:7).

Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for you know not what a day may bring forth (Prov 27:1).

That’s right, tomorrow is not promised! You’d better choose the Lord today because tomorrow might very well be too late. Now is the day of salvation.

There were three demons who told Satan about their plan to destroy a certain man. The first demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no Hell.” But Satan said, “People know that there is a Hell; most have already visited here.” The second demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no God.” But Satan said, “Despite atheism being fashionable of late, most people know, deep down, that there is a God, for He has written His name in their hearts.” The third demon said, “I’m not going to tell them that there is no Hell or that there is no God; I’m going to tell them that there’s no hurry.” And Satan said, “Now that’s the plan!”

Yes, promptness is a great gift to be sought from God. It is the gift to run joyfully and without delay to what God promises.

V. Permanence – The text says, And another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” To him Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”

When we accepted Christ, we set our hand to the gospel plow and we left certain things behind. We are not to return to those things, things like harmful habits, ruinous relationships, soul-killing sinfulness, and perilous pleasures.

Yes, there are some things that we used to do that we have no business doing now. We need to give up our former ways and not look back.

Scripture says,

Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart; they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness. You did not so learn Christ, assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus. Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:17-23).

Therefore, brothers, make every effort to make permanent your calling and election, because if you do these things you will never stumble (2 Peter 1:10).

An old spiritual says,

“Hold on, Hold on! If you want to get to heaven let me tell you how, keep your hands on the Gospel plow! Keep your hands on the plow and hold on! Hold on. When you plow that field don’t lose your track, can’t plow straight and keep a-lookin’ back. Keep your hands on the plow and hold on, hold on!”

Persevere. Hold on and don’t let go.

Here, then, are five disciplines of discipleship. Learn about them and seek them from the Lord. Without them we will surely perish.

 

One and One and One are One. A Homily for Trinity Sunday

Trinity

There is an old spiritual that says, “My God is so high you can’t get over Him. He’s so low you can’t get under Him. He’s so wide you can’t get around Him. You must come in, by and through the Lamb.”

It’s not a bad way of saying that God is “other.” He is beyond what human words can describe, beyond what human thoughts can conjure. On the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity we do well to remember that we are pondering a mystery that cannot fit in our minds.

A mystery, though, is not something wholly unknown. In the Christian tradition, the word “mystery” refers to (among other things) something that is partially revealed, something much more of which remains hidden. As we ponder the Trinity, consider that although there are some things we can know by revelation, much more is beyond our understanding.

Let’s ponder the Trinity by exploring it, seeing how it is exhibited in Scripture, and observing how we, who are made in God’s image, experience it.

I.  The Teaching on the Trinity Explored

Perhaps we do best to begin by quoting the Catechism, which says, The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons: [Father, Son, and Holy Spirit] … The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God, whole and entire (Catechism, 253).

There is one God and each of the three persons of the Trinity possesses the one divine nature fully. The Father is God; He is not one-third of God. Likewise, the Son, Jesus, is God; He is not one-third of God. And the Holy Spirit is God, not merely one-third of God.

It is our human experience that if there is only one of something, and someone possesses it fully, then there is nothing left for anyone else. Yet mysteriously, each of the three persons of the Trinity fully possesses the one and only divine nature while remaining a distinct person.

One of the great masterpieces of the Latin Liturgy is the preface for Trinity Sunday. It compactly and clearly sets forth the Christian teaching on the Trinity. The following translation of the Latin is my own:

It is truly fitting and just, right and helpful unto salvation that we should always and everywhere give thanks to you O Holy Lord, Father almighty and eternal God: who, with your only begotten Son and the Holy Spirit are one God, one Lord: not in the oneness of a single person, but in a Trinity of one substance. For that which we believe from your revelation concerning your glory, we acknowledge of your Son and the Holy Spirit without difference or distinction. Thus, in the confession of the true and eternal Godhead there is adored a distinctness of persons, a oneness in essence, and an equality in majesty, whom the angels and archangels, the Cherubim also and the Seraphim, do not cease to daily cry out with one voice saying, Holy, Holy, Holy

Wow! It’s a careful and clear masterpiece, but one that baffles the mind. So deep is this mystery that we had to “invent” a paradoxical word to summarize it: Triune (or Trinity). Triune literally means “three-one” (tri + unus), and “Trinity” is a conflation of “Tri-unity,” meaning the “three-oneness” of God.

If all of this baffles you, good! If you were to say that you fully understood all this, I would have to say you were likely a heretic. The teaching on the Trinity, while not contrary to reason per se, does transcend it and it is surely beyond human understanding.

Here is a final image before we leave our exploration stage. The picture at the upper right is from an experiment I remember doing when I was in high school. We took three projectors, each of which projected a circle: one red, one green, and one blue (the three primary colors). At the intersection of the three circles the color white appeared. Mysteriously, the three primary colors are present in the color white, but only one shows forth. The analogy is not perfect (no analogy is or it wouldn’t be an analogy) for Father, Son, and Spirit do not “blend” to make God, but it does manifest a mysterious “three-oneness” of the color white. Somehow in the one, three are present. (By the way, this experiment only works with light; don’t try it with paint!)

II. The Teaching on the Trinity Exhibited – Scripture also presents images of the Trinity. Interestingly enough, most of the ones I want to present here are from the Old Testament.

As a disclaimer, I’d like to point out that Scripture scholars debate the meaning of these texts; that’s what they get paid the big bucks to do. I am reading these texts as a New Testament Christian and seeing in them a doctrine that later became clear. I am not getting into a time machine and trying to understand them as a Jew from the 8th century B.C. might have. Why should I? That’s not what I am. I am reading these texts as a Christian in the light of the New Testament, as I have a perfect right to do. You, of course, are free to decide whether you think these texts really are images or hints of the Trinity. Here they are:

1. Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness …” (Gen 1:26)

God speaks of himself in the plural: “Let us … our …” Some claim that this is just an instance of the “royal we” being used. Perhaps, but I see an image of the Trinity. There is one (“God said”) but there is also a plural (us, our). Right at the very beginning in Genesis there is already a hint that God is not all by himself, but rather is in a communion of love.

2. Elohim

In the passage above, the word used for God is אֱלֹהִ֔ים (Elohim). It is interesting to note that this word is in the plural form. From a grammatical standpoint, Elohim actually means “Gods,” but the Jewish people understood the sense of the word to be singular. This is a much debated point, however. You can read more about it from a Jewish perspective here: Elohim as Plural yet Singular.

(We have certain words like this in English, words that are plural in form but singular in meaning such as news, mathematics, and acoustics.) My point here is not to try to understand it as a Jew from the 8th century B.C. or even as a present day Jew. Rather, I am observing with interest that one of the main words for God in the Old Testament is plural yet singular, singular yet plural. God is one yet three. I say this as a Christian observing this about one of the main titles of God, and I see an image of the Trinity.

3. And the LORD appeared to [Abram] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I fetch a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said (Gen 18:1-5).

From a purely grammatical standpoint this is a very difficult passage because it switches back and forth between singular and plural references. The Lord (singular) appears to Abram, yet Abram sees three men (some have said that this is just God and two angels, but I think it is the Trinity). Then when Abram addresses “them” he says, “My Lord” (singular). The tortured grammar continues as Abram suggests that the Lord (singular) rest “yourselves” (plural) under the tree. The same thing happens in the next sentence, in which Abram wants to fetch bread so that you may refresh “yourselves” (plural). In the end, the Lord (singular) answers, but it is rendered as “So they said.” Plural, singular … which is it? Both. God is one and God is three. For me as a Christian, this is a picture of the Trinity. Because the reality of God cannot be reduced to mere words, this is a grammatically difficult passage, but I can “see” what is going on: God is one and God is three; He is singular and He is plural.

4. Having come down in a cloud, the Lord stood with Moses there and proclaimed his Name, “Lord.” Thus the Lord passed before him and cried out, “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity” (Exodus 34:5).

When God announces His name, He does so in a threefold way: Lord! … The Lord, the Lord. There is implicit a threefold introduction or announcement of God. Is it a coincidence or is it significant? You decide.

5. In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the Seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Is 6:1-3).

God is Holy, Holy, and yet again, Holy. Some say that this is just a Jewish way of saying “very Holy,” but as Christian I see more. I see a reference to each of the three persons of the Trinity. Perfect praise here requires three “holys.” Why? Omni Trinum Perfectum (all things are perfect in threes). But why? As a Christian, I see the angels praising each of the three persons of the Trinity. God is three (Holy, holy, holy …) and yet God is one (holy is the Lord …). There are three declarations of the word “Holy.” Is it a coincidence or is it significant? You decide.

6. Here are three (of many) references to the Trinity in the New Testament:

  1. Jesus says, The Father and I are one (Jn 10:30).
  2. Jesus also says, To have seen me is to have seen the Father (Jn 14:9).
  3. Have you ever noticed that in the baptismal formula, Jesus uses “bad” grammar? He says, Baptize them in the name (not names (plural)) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). God is one (name) and God is three (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

Thus Scripture exhibits the teaching of the Trinity, going back even to the beginning.

III. The Teaching of the Trinity Experienced – We who are made in the image and likeness of God ought to experience something of the mystery of the Trinity within us, and sure enough, we do.

  • It is clear that we are all distinct individuals. I am not you; you are not I. Yet it is also true that we are made for communion. We humans cannot exist apart from one another. Obviously we depend on our parents, through whom God made us, but even beyond that we need one another for completion.
  • Despite what the Paul Simon song says, no man is a rock or an island. There is no such thing as a self-made man. Even the private business owner needs customers, suppliers, shippers, and other middlemen. He uses roads he did not build, has electricity supplied to him over lines he did not string, and speaks a language to his customers that he did not create. Further, the product he makes was likely the result of technologies and processes he did not invent. The list could go on and on.
  • We are individual, but we are social. We are one, but we are linked to many. Clearly we do not possess the kind of unity that God does, but the “three-oneness” of God echoes in us. We are one, yet we are many.
  • We have entered into perilous times where our interdependence and communal influence are under-appreciated. The attitude that prevails today is a rather extreme individualism: “I can do as I please.” There is a reduced sense of how our individual choices affect the community, Church, or nation. That I am an individual is true, but it is also true that I live in communion with others and must respect that dimension of who I am. I exist not only for me, but for others. What I do affects others, for good or ill.
  • The attitude that it’s none of my business what others do needs some attention. Privacy and discretion have important places in our life, but so does concern for what others think and do, the choices they make, and the effects that such things have on others. A common moral and religious vision is an important thing to cultivate. It is ultimately quite important what others think and do. We should care about fundamental things like respect for life, love, care for the poor, education, marriage, and family. Indeed, marriage and family are fundamental to community, nation, and the Church. I am one, but I am also in communion with others and they with me.
  • Finally, there is a rather remarkable conclusion that some have drawn: the best image of God in us is not a man alone or a woman alone, but rather a man and a woman together in the lasting and fruitful relationship we call marriage. When God said, “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26), the text goes on to say, “Male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). God then says to them, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). So the image of God (as He sets it forth most perfectly) is the married and fruitful couple.

We must be careful to understand that what humans manifest sexually, God manifests spiritually, for God is neither male nor female in His essence. We may say that the First Person loves the Second Person and the Second Person loves the First Person. So real is that love that it bears fruit in the Third Person. In this way the married couple images God, for the husband and wife love each other and their love bears fruit in their children (See, USCCB, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan”).

So today, as we extol the great mystery of the Trinity, we look not merely outward and upward so as to understand, but also inward to discover that mystery at work in us, who are made in the image and likeness of God.

Four Gifts of Grace – A Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter

The Gospel for Sunday has a number of “sayings” of the Lord Jesus, which together amount to a kind of litany of love. It is a setting forth of the gifts that He, by His grace, is accomplishing and will accomplish in us. Let’s consider the wonderful gifts of grace.

I. PowerJesus said to His disciples, “Whoever loves me will keep my word.”

Here is a fundamental theology of grace: keeping the commandments and mandates of the Lord’s Word is the fruit of His love, not the cause of it. The Lord says that if you love Him, the keeping of the commandments is sure to follow. Note that we do not initiate this love, God does. Scripture says, We love because he first Loved us (1 John 4:19).

No one can give what he does not have, and no one can possess what he has not received. God is the author and initiator of love. Love always starts with Him. The Lord is not setting up some sort of loyalty test here, as if He were saying, “If you love me, prove it by keeping my commandments.” That is not the gospel! The gospel is that God loved us before we were ever born, before we could do anything to merit His love. He loved us when we were dead in our sins, and He took the initiative to love us even when we hated Him and crucified Him.

If we will accept this love, it will enable us to love God with the same love with which He loves us. With His love in us, we will begin to love what He loves and whom He loves. We will love holiness, forgiveness, mercy, justice, compassion, chastity, and generosity. We will love our brethren—even our enemies. Why? Because God loves them. When His love is in our heart, so is His love for them.

Do you understand this? Love enables us to keep His Word, to live it and to love it. When I was young, I dated a girl who liked square dancing. At the time, I thought square dancing was silly, but my love for her meant that I started to love what she loved; I came to love her family, too. If we let love have its way, it changes our heart and our desires.

If you let love have its way you will keep the commandments. The keeping of the commandments is the fruit of love, not its cause. Love is the power of grace at work in us to love what and whom God loves. Jesus says, If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15).

II. Presence – [Jesus says,] and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.

One of Jesus’ great desires was to restore us to unity with the Father. Jesus was crazy about His Father and earnestly desired to have us know Him and love Him more deeply.

If we will but accept the Father’s love and His shalom, offered through Jesus, we will have a tender and joyful relationship with our Abba, our Father. Jesus often described His Father almost as doting. He is like a shepherd who leaves the 99 in search of the one. He is like a woman who loses a coin, sweeps diligently to find it, and then celebrates by throwing a party more costly than the coin itself. He is like a father whose son effectively tells him to “drop dead,” but who, when the son finally returns, runs out to meet him and has a feast in celebration.

Do you grasp this? The Father loves you and Jesus has reconciled you to Him. Now run to Him; run to Abba, God. If you take one step, He’ll take two, and then He’ll start running to embrace you!

This is the gospel message: Jesus Christ has reconciled us to the Father at the Father’s own request. The Father loves you. Now run to Him and watch Him run to you. He does not want distance; He wants intimate presence, love, and embrace.

III. Perfection – [Jesus says,] I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.

We all know that the Christian journey is not accomplished in an instant. Rather, we make this journey with God, the Holy Spirit, who teaches us and makes us mindful of all that Jesus has done for us and taught us. Little by little, we are given a new mind, a new heart, a new walk, and a new and better life. May God who has begun a good work in bring it to perfection (cf Phil 1:6).

If we are open to Him, He is faithful, and He will do it. The process may be slow, but that is only because we have foreheads of brass and necks of iron (cf Is 48:4). God is faithful and patient. I am a witness; if He can change me, He can change you. He has promised to do so, and He will.

We will be transformed by the renewal of our mind (cf Rom 12:2), for the Holy Spirit will bring to our mind all that the Lord is and all that He taught. Let the Lord change your mind and heart. If He does that, the rest will follow. Sow a thought, reap a deed; sow a deed, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny—and it all begins with the mind.

One of the gifts of grace is the renewing of our mind, and it leads to total transformation.

IV. Peace – [Jesus says,] Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. You heard me tell you, “I am going away, and I will come back to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe.

What is the gift of peace? Peace is shalom; it is more than the absence of conflict. It is the presence in the relationship of everything that should be there. Peace is the experience that everything is all right.

For us, peace is access once again to the Father. It is being able once again to walk with Him in love, in and through Jesus Christ. We don’t just walk with Him in some earthly garden paradise, as Adam and Eve did. Rather, we walk with Him in Heaven. In Jesus we are seated with the Father in honor at His right hand.

So, what does it mean when the same Jesus who said, “The Father and I are One” (Jn 10:30), also says, “The Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28)?

Theologically, we can distinguish two ways of understanding this text. Many theologians emphasize that Jesus is referring to His human nature when he says, “The Father is greater than I.” As God, He is equal to His Father, but as man, He is less than His Father. Other theologians remind us that, even in terms of His divinity, the Father has a certain greatness as the source in the Trinity. All the members of the Trinity are co-eternal, co-equal, and equally divine, but the Father is the Principium Deitatis (the Principle of the Deity). The Father eternally begets the Son, the Son is eternally begotten, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from them both. Because Jesus proceeds from the Father from all eternity, He is in effect saying, “I delight that the Father is the principle of my being, even though I have no origin.”

Devotionally, Jesus is saying that He always does what pleases His Father. Jesus loves His Father. He’s crazy about Him. He’s always talking about Him and pointing to Him. By calling the Father greater, He in effect says, “I look to my Father for everything. I do what I see Him doing (Jn 5:19) and what I know pleases Him (Jn 5:30). His will and mine are one. What I will to do proceeds from Him. I do what I know accords with His will.”

This is the source of our peace. With Jesus, we love the Father and always do what pleases Him. Jesus “goes to the Father,” but He takes us with Him, for we are members of His mystical Body. In Jesus, we enter the holy of holies and sit next to the Father in love and intimacy.

Here, then, are some important gifts of grace. It is up to us to lay hold of them and to live out of them. The Lord promises them to us, so they are ours. If at times they seem distant, reach out and take back what the devil stole from you. These are gifts of the Lord’s resurrected grace.

This song that speaks of peace and presence, not to mention power:

 

The Legacy of Love – A Homily for the 5th Week of Easter

The title of this sermon uses the word legacy, which refers to something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor.

Perhaps the most accessible image of this is money. If I receive 100 million dollars from a dying relative, I can the money to start living differently. My bills, which now seem overwhelming, can be paid with just the interest earned from my newfound wealth. I can start enjoying things I thought I could never afford in the past. In other words, a legacy can completely change the way I live and open up new possibilities.

It is in this sense that we explore today’s Gospel, wherein our Lord sets forth for us a new power: the power of love. If we tap into it and draw from its riches, we are able to live differently. If we will but lay hold of it, there is a kind of legacy, a deposit of riches from which we can draw.

Let’s look at today’s Gospel in three stages and discover what the Lord has done for us and has left us by way of a legacy.

I. The Provision and Pivot of the Passion – The text says, When Judas had left them, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and God will glorify him at once.

Note how the text speaks in the present tense: the Son of Man is glorified. Judas’ going forth has started a process that is now underway and will, by God’s grace, result in liberation and glorification for Jesus and for us. The Lord Jesus is no mere victim. Everything is unfolding exactly as foretold. The Son of Man will suffer but, in the end, will be glorified. This glory will make available for us a whole new life.

Now this leads us to a question: What happened when the Son of God died and rose for me? This question is not posed in order to receive merely the answer from the catechism. Expressed more deeply, these are the questions: What difference does the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ make for me today? Are they just ancient historical events that are meaningful only because others say so? Or have I grasped and begun to lay hold of what Jesus has done for me?

Scripture says that Jesus’ death is glorification and new life for us: We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin…We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might have a whole new life (Rom 6:4-7).

In other words, Jesus, the Son of Man, is glorified in His passion and is destroying the power of sin and death by His cross and resurrection. We need to spend our life pondering what happened when the Son of God died for us. It is not merely some historical event. It is that, but it is far more. To the degree that we will lay hold of this saving work, we will come to see and experience the power of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ to put sin to death and to bring new life forth in Christ.

Of this, I am a witness, for I have seen the power of the cross to quell sinful fears, worldly lusts, and endless preoccupations. On account of what Jesus endures for us, He ascends on high not to leave us but to open the way for us to a greater and fuller life. It is a life in which we see sin put to death and many graces and charisms come alive: charisms of confidence, joy, and hope; it is an increasingly victorious life. It is up to us to grasp this saving work and the new life it offers us by the power of the cross of Christ and Him crucified.

This is the moment of glory, the pivotal point of all things. This the glory and the basis of a new life. Because of what Jesus does at this moment, His glory and ours is ushered in; it is all based on this.

II. The Power and Produce of the Passion – The text says, I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.

When we hear the phrase “Love one another as I have loved you.” we can fall into the trap of thinking, “Uh oh, I have to do more! I have to try harder. Because He loved me, now I, with the power of my own flesh, have to love others.” However, this is not about rules; it’s about relationship. Jesus is not just saddling us with more responsibilities. He is equipping, empowering, and enabling us to love with the same love with which He has loved us.

The point here is to let Jesus love you, to experience His love, and with this love, experienced and embraced, be empowered to love others.

The Lord does not just say, “Love.” Rather, He says, “Receive love and then love with the love that you have received.” Scripture says,

      • We love, because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
      • As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love! If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love (John 15:9).

In other words, we have the power to keep His commandments and to love others to the degree that we receive and abide—that is, remain—in His love. We love with His love, not merely with our own love.

Do not miss this point! Do you see it? This is the message: by the power of His love and grace we are empowered to love, to keep His commandments, and to see our life changed. Today’s Gospel is not a moralism that tells us to obey a bunch of rules. It is that God has sent His Son, who died for us and rose to give us a wholly new and transformed life, a life that keeps the commandments and loves others with the power of God’s own love, received and experienced.

III. The Proof Positive of the Passion – The text says, This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

We have discussed many times on this blog the fact that the usual Greek word for “know” is richer than our modern notion of “intellectual knowing.” The Greek word for merely knowing something intellectually is oida, but the verb used in today’s Gospel is γινώσκω (ginosko), which refers to experiential knowing, to knowing in a deep, personal, and experiential way.

Thus, the point is that others will notice the legacy of love living us in a very real and experiential way. The faith, hope, and love that we proclaim will not, and cannot, be a mere intellectualism; it must be something that others can see and experience at work within us.

Hence, the proof, the evidence, the picture of God’s love, is not some vague feeling or a mere intellectual attribute in us. It is a powerful and dynamic force that equips, empowers, and enables us to love. The Lord says here that His love is something that changes us in a way that others will notice. It changes our relationships in a palpable, tangible, and noticeable way. We notice and experience its power and so do others.

Yes, we will love even our enemies, and we will do this not out of the power of our own flesh or because have to, but because we want to receive, and have received from the Lord, a new heart and the power to love.

Note also that the love we have will not be a merely sentimental one. It will be a true love, a love rooted in truth. It will be a love like Jesus has, one that does not compromise the truth or water down its demands. It will be a love that speaks the truth but does so not merely to win an argument but to summon the other to fulfillment and flourishing. This is what Jesus did. He loved, but He loved in truth and integrity. Nothing would compromise His love for His Father or the glorious vision and plan of the Father for all His children to abide in truth and holiness.

The proof positive that the legacy of love is at work within us is, first of all, our own transformed lives, which others can see. Second, it is the love that others can and do experience from us. Granted, this love will sometimes challenge and irritate others, but it is a love that is difficult to deny, an integrity that is hard to impugn, a love that, even if disconcerting, is real, palpable, and obvious.

This, then, is the legacy of love. It is a treasure, an inheritance that the Lord Jesus has left us to draw upon. This love is not our work; it is not our wealth, not our power. It is all His. He has left it for us to draw upon. Will we? Or will we make excuses about how we are not able to do the things to which He has summoned us? Don’t you get it? It is not our power, not our love; it is His, and He has left us this legacy, this inheritance, to draw upon.

Lay hold of this power, this love, and let it transform your life. Let it turn you into proof positive of the power of the cross to transform lives and to bestow new life.