Sooner or Later Judgment Must Come – A Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent

There’s an old Johnny Cash song (“God’s Gonna Cut You Down”) that is rooted in today’s Gospel:

You can run on for a long time … Sooner or later God’ll cut you down … Go tell that long tongue liar, Go and tell that midnight rider, Tell the rambler, the gambler, the backbiter, Tell ’em that God’s gonna cut ’em down.

These verses go directly to the end point (judgment), but there is more to the story. First, there is mercy offered, then patience, and finally judgment.

Many today either dismiss judgment entirely or believe that judgment will result in instant entrance to glory.

Today’s Gospel contains a necessary balance. It speaks of God’s patience and care now but also of the day of reckoning, of judgment. On that day, He will adjudicate our “case”; the decision will be final; there will be no turning back.

Let’s look at this Gospel in two main parts:

The Proclamation of the Problem

The Gospel opens with these lines:

Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. Jesus said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

What Jesus is saying is that is easy to focus on the sins of others, failing to discern our own need for repentance and mercy. Before God we are all beggars; all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (cf Romans 3:23). Every one of us is in need of boatloads of grace and mercy. While we may rightly distinguish that there is a difference here on earth between the sanctity of a Mother Theresa and the wretchedness of a Hitler, before God we all fall far short.

Sin surely affects the lives of others and we are not asked to be blind to that. It is important to learn from the example of others, both good and bad; the point is to learn. We miss the point if all we do when we see someone suffer the effects of sin is to say, “My, my, God don’t like ugly!” What about the ugly in us? What about our own sin?

To our all-too-eager question “What about them, Lord?” Jesus replies, “What about you? Work on your own issues and leave their final fate to me. Punishment doesn’t just come to others; if you don’t watch out it will come to you as well.” Just to make sure we get it, the Lord adds, “I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

In effect, the Lord tells us to get serious about our sin and what it can do to us. The most serious problem in life is not the fact that we die or the manner of our death. The most serious problem we face is not Pilate or any political misfortune; it is not falling towers or any physical threat. It is not financial setback, or suffering, or losing our job, or losing our possessions. The most serious problem we face is our own sin.

We don’t tend to think like this. Instead, we minimize the maximum and maximize the minimum. We get all worked up about lesser things while ignoring greater ones. We are forever worrying about passing things like health and money but paying little attention to the things of eternity and to getting ready to meet God. Let our physical health be threatened and we are instantly on our knees begging God for deliverance, but let our sins pile up and sinful drives be eating at our very soul and we take little notice. We don’t seem to care about being delivered from things that are far more serious than mere cancer.

The Lord says, If your right hand causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body cast into hell (Matt 5:30). Pay attention, the Lord is saying that it is worse to sin than to lose your right hand!

If I were to lose my right hand, I think I would lament it for the rest of my life. The very thought of it gives me stabbing grief. Why don’t we think of our sin this way? Do you see how obtuse we are, how distorted our priorities?

One day the Lord looked at a paralyzed man and decided to cure his most serious problem. He said, “Your sins are forgiven.” Could the man’s sins have been more serious than his paralysis? Yes!

Thus, the Lord warns us that we ought to be more serious about our sins lest we perish, not merely losing our earthly life but our eternal life. The fact that the solution to our problem required the death of the Son of God indicates that we are in far worse shape than we think. Without our repentance and the magnificent mercy of God, something far worse than having a tower fall on us or our enemies kill us might happen. Elsewhere in Scripture the Lord says, I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him (Lk 12:4-5). The Lord is not counseling a cringing and avoidant fear but rather a respectful fear such that we are serious about judgment and understand that the result on that day will be eternal, unlike the passing quality of any earthly encounter.

Having portrayed the problem and underscored its seriousness, the Lord then reminds us that He is willing to help us, with His grace and mercy, to get ready. He sets forth a process in which we must cooperate, for judgment will surely come.

The Portrayal of the Process

The Lord tells a parable that sets forth the process in which we are currently engaged: a process of patience and mercy that leads to the finality of judgment. Note the following three steps:

1. ASSESSMENT There was once a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard and when he came in search of fruit on it and found none said to the gardener, “For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this tree and have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?”

Faith is a fruit-bearing tree. It is to bear the fruits of love, justice, and the keeping of the commandments. The Lord looks for these fruits and often, through our conscience and by His Word, assesses whether they are present.

Many claim to have faith, to be fruitful in what the Lord seeks, but it is He, as owner of the field, who sets the terms. We are not the judge in our own case. It is the Lord’s ongoing work to assess our progress and fruitfulness. He determines whether the necessary fruits are present.

Today, many people claim the right to assess their own status. They make bold proclamations that God would not “dare” to find them to be lacking in anything substantial. In presumption, many declare themselves to be safe, fruitful, and righteous.

This is not for us to say, however. In the parable it is the owner, the Lord, who makes the assessment; and note that in this parable He proposes that something significant is lacking.

Yet some interlocutor, here called the gardener but let’s call her the Church, asks for mercy and time. As we shall see, such mercy and time is granted, along with necessary supplies (grace) to help accomplish what is sought: the fruit of faith.

2. ASSISTANCE The text goes on to describe the prayers and requests of the gardener (in this case, Mother Church): Sir leave it for this year also. I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it. It may bear fruit in the future.

The Lord, the owner of the garden, not only grants the request but will also be the one to supply the necessary help to draw forth the fruits patiently awaited.

Indeed, the Lord sends us help and graces in so many ways:.

      • He speaks in our conscience.
      • He has written His law in our heart.
      • He gave us the law.
      • He sent us prophets.
      • He punishes our wrongdoings in order to bring us to repentance.

* Before I was afflicted, I strayed. But now I have kept your word (Ps 119:67).
* But God disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Heb 12:10).

      • He sent us His Son, who established the Church and gave us grace and the sacraments.
      • He gave us grace and the sacraments.
      • It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. [That we be] no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ (Eph 4: 11-17).

Do you see how much God has done for us? He has graced us in every way. He has entrusted to the Church, in answer to her pleas, every necessary grace to bear fruit. Now He patiently waits. He looks to return again to seek the fruits that are necessary for those who claim to have saving faith, fruits that are necessary to be able to endure the day of His coming, fruits that are necessary for us to have the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). Indeed, we cannot see or endure His presence without the fruit of holiness by His grace, for as Scripture says, Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Or Who may stand in his holy place? Only he who has clean hands and a pure heart (Ps 24:3-4). Only God can accomplish this, but He who made us without us will not save us without us. Thus, we must, by His grace, renounce our sin and accept His grace.

3. ACCEPTANCE – The parable ends very simply with this line: If not you can cut it down.

I’ve chosen the word “acceptance” carefully. Judgment is not so much God’s decision as it His acceptance of our decision to bear fruit or to refuse to do so; to accept or refuse His offer of the fruits of faith such as chastity, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, love of the poor, and appreciation of the truth.

On the day of judgment God accepts our final choice. It is not so much the passing of a sentence as it is the final recognition of the absolute choice that we have made. At this point it is no longer possible for us to change; what we are remains forever fixed.

As we get older it is harder and harder to change. We are like concrete that sets over time; like pottery, which begins moist and malleable, but whose shape is fixed when subjected to the fire.

Thus, the Lord teaches us to be serious about sin and about judgment. For now, there is mercy and every grace available to us, but there will come a day when our decision will be accepted and forever fixed.

The Gospel today teaches beautifully of God’s patience but also of our need for mercy. It warns us that the decision we make by the way we live our life will finally be accepted. Yes, there is a day of judgment closing in on each of us.

Pointing out how often we sang “Kumbaya, My Lord” will not suffice.

In today’s second reading, St. Paul warns us against presumption and trying to serve as judge in our own case:

Our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ. Yet God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert. These things happened as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil things, as they did. Do not grumble as some of them did, and suffered death by the destroyer. These things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall (1 Cor 10:1:ff).

For now, there is mercy, but there will come a day of ratification, of judgment; a day when the question will be asked and the final answer supplied, not so much by God as by us.

Your flesh says, “No worries,” but the Lord says, “Repent!”

Here are more of the lyrics from the Johnny Cash song “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”:

You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down

Well, you may throw your rock and hide your hand
and hide your hand
Workin’ in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What’s down in the dark will be brought to the light.

You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down

Go tell that long tongue liar
Go and tell that midnight rider
Tell the rambler, the gambler, the backbiter
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut you down
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut you down
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut you down

 

The Cross Is a Fruit-Bearing Tree – A Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent

The Second Sunday of Lent always features the Transfiguration. The first reason for this is that the trek up Mt. Tabor was one of the stops Jesus made with Peter, James, and John on His final journey to Jerusalem. It is commonly held that He did this to prepare His apostles for the difficult days ahead. There’s a line from an old spiritual that says, “Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down, sometimes I’m almost to the ground … but see what the end shall be.” That is what the Lord is doing here: He is showing us what the end shall be. There is a cross to get through, but there is glory on the other side.

There also seems a purpose in placing this account here in that it helps describe the pattern of the Christian life, which is the Paschal mystery. We are always dying and rising with Christ in repeated cycles as we journey to an eternal Easter (cf 2 Cor4:10). This passage shows the pattern of the cross in the climb, the rising, and in the glory of the mountaintop; then it is back down the mountain again only to climb another one (Golgotha) and through it find another glory (Easter Sunday). Yes, this is the pattern of the Christian life: the Paschal mystery. Let’s look a little closer at three aspects of today’s Gospel passage.

The Purpose of Trials Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray.

We often pass over the fact that they had to climb the mountain, no easy task. Anyone who has been to Mt. Tabor knows just what a high mountain it is. The climb to the top is almost 2000 feet and steep as well. It would have taken the better part of a day and probably had its dangers. Looking down from the top is like looking from an airplane window out on the Jezreel Valley (a.k.a. Megiddo or Armageddon).

So, here is a symbol of the cross and of struggle. The climb was up the rough side of the mountain; it was exhausting, difficult, and tested their strength.

I have it on the best of authority that as they climbed they were singing gospel songs like these: “I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain, and I’m doin’ my best to carry on!” and “My soul looks back and wonders how I got over!” and “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder; every round goes higher, higher.”

This climb is like our life. We have often had to climb, to endure, to have our strength tested. Perhaps it was the climb of earning a college degree. Maybe it was the climb of raising children or building a career. What do you have that you really value that did not come at the price of a steep climb, of effort, of struggle?

Most of us know that though the climb is difficult there is glory at the top if we but persevere. Life’s difficulties are often the prelude to success and greater strength.

Though we might wish that life had no struggles, the Lord intends a climb for us, for only the cross leads to true glory. Where would we be without some of the crosses in our life? Let’s ponder some of the purposes of problems in our life.

God uses problems to DIRECT us. Sometimes God must light a fire under you to get you moving. Problems often point us in new directions and motivate us to change. Is God trying to get your attention? Sometimes it takes a painful situation to make us change our ways. Proverbs 20:30 says, Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inner most being. An old gospel song speaks of the need for suffering to keep us focused on God: “Now the way may not be too easy, but you never said it would be. ’Cause when our way gets a little too easy, you know we tend to stray from thee.” It’s sad but true: God sometimes needs to use problems to direct our steps toward Him.

God uses problems to INSPECT us. People are like tea bags: if you want to know what’s inside them, just put ’em in hot water! Has God ever tested your faith with a problem? What do problems reveal about you? Our problems have a way of helping to see what we’re really made of. Through trials, I have discovered many strengths I never knew I had. There is a test in every testimony. Trials have a way of purifying and strengthening our faith as well as inspecting it to see whether it is genuine. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure (1 Peter 1:6).

God uses problems to CORRECT us. Some lessons we seem to learn only through pain and failure. When you were a child your parents told you not to touch the hot stove, but you probably really learned by getting burned. Sometimes we only realize the value of something (e.g., health, a relationship) by losing it. Scripture says, It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees (Psalm 119:71-72), Before I was afflicted, I strayed. But now I keep you word (Psalm 119:67).

God uses problems to PROTECT us. A problem can be a blessing in disguise if it prevents you from being harmed by something more serious. A man was fired for refusing to do something unethical that his boss had asked him to do. His unemployment was a problem for him and his family, but it saved him from being sent to prison a year later when management’s actions were discovered. In Genesis, Joseph says to his brothers, You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives (Genesis 50:20).

God uses problems to PERFECT us. Problems, when responded to correctly, are character-building. God is far more interested in your character than your comfort. Scripture says, We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us they help us learn to be patient. And patience develops strength of character in us and helps us trust God more each time we use it until finally our hope and faith are strong and steady (Romans 5:3), and You are being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it and your faith is far more precious to God than mere gold; so if your faith remains strong after being tried in the fiery trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day of his return (1 Peter 1:7).

So, the climb symbolizes the cross, but after the cross comes the glory.

The Productiveness of TrialsWhile he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he did not know what he was saying. While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”

All the climbing has been worth it. Now comes the fruit of all that hard work! The Lord gives them a glimpse of glory. They get to see the glory that Jesus has always had with the Father. He is dazzlingly bright. A similar vision from the Book of Revelation gives us more detail:

I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned, I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars … His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said, “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades (Rev 1:12-17).

Yes, all the climbing has paid off. Now comes the glory, the life, the reward for endurance and struggle. Are you enjoying any of the fruits of your crosses now? If we have carried our crosses in faith, they have made us stronger and more confident. Some of us have discovered gifts, abilities, and endurance we never knew we had. Our crosses have brought us life!

The other night I went over to the church and played the pipe organ. It was most enjoyable, but it was the fruit of years of hard work.

Not only have my own crosses brought me life, but the crosses of others have done the same for me. I live and work in buildings that others scrimped, saved, labored to be able to erect. I have a faith that martyrs died to hand on to me and that missionaries journeyed long distances to proclaim. See, trials do produce!

St. Paul says that this momentary affliction is producing for us a weight of glory beyond all compare (2 Cor 4:14). In Romans he says, For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom 8:18).

An old gospel song says, “By and by, when the morning comes, and all the saints of God are gathered home, we’ll tell the story of how we’ve overcome. And we’ll understand it better, by and by.”

So, the glory comes after the climb. This is the life that comes from the cross. This is the Paschal mystery: Always carrying about in ourselves the dying of Christ so also that the life of Christ may be manifest in us (2 Cor 4:10).

The Pattern of TrialsAfter the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. They fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen.

Notice that although Peter wants to stay, Jesus makes it clear that they must go down the mountain and then walk a very dark valley to another hill: Golgotha. For now, the pattern must repeat. The cross has led to glory, but more crosses are needed before final glory. An old spiritual says, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder … every round goes higher, higher, soldiers of the cross!”

Yes, this is our life: Always carrying about in ourselves the dying of Christ so also that the life of Christ may be manifest in us (2 Cor 4:10).

There are difficult days ahead for Jesus and the apostles, but the crosses lead to a final and lasting glory. This is our life, too: the Paschal mystery, the pattern and rhythm of our life.

Here is a rendition of the song “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” The lyrics say that “every round goes higher, higher.” One can picture a spiral staircase as each round is pitched higher and higher musically. This is the pattern of our life: we die with Christ so as to live with Him, and each time we come back around to the cross or glory, we are one round higher and one level closer to final glory.

 

Cross or Couch – A Homily for the First Sunday of Lent

In this desert scene, the Lord Jesus faces down three fundamental areas of temptation, all of which have one thing in common: they seek to substitute a couch for the cross.

In a way, the devil has one argument: “Why the cross?” His question is a rhetorical one. He wants you to blame God for the cross, and in your anger, to reject Him as some sort of despot.

Well, pay attention, Church! The cross comes from the fact that you and I, ratifying Adam and Eve’s choice, have rejected the tree of life in favor of the tree that brought death. We, along with the devil, may wish to wince at the cross and scornfully blame God for it, but in the end the cross was our choice.

If you think that you have never chosen the tree of death and that God is “unfair,” then prove to me that you have never sinned. Only if you can do that will I accept that you have never chosen the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil over the Tree of Life and that you deserve something better than the cross. Only then will I accept that you have never insisted on “knowing” evil as well as good.

If you can’t, then you’ve made the same self-destructive, absurd choice that the rest of us have. It is not God that is cruel but we who are wicked and are to blame for the presence of the cross. The cross comes not from God but from us. We ought to stop blaming God for evil, suffering, and the cross, and instead look in the mirror. The glory of this gospel is that the Lord Jesus came into this twisted world of our making and endured its full absurdity for our sake. If there is evil in this world, it is our choice, not God’s.

Have we finished blaming God? Are we ready to focus on our own issues? If so then let’s look at some areas of temptation that the devil can exploit because we indulge them. Let’s also see the answer that the Lord Jesus has for these temptations; for He, though tempted, never yielded.

Pleasures and Passions – The devil encourages Jesus to turn stones into bread. After such a long fast, the thought of bread is surely a strong temptation. In effect, the devil tells Jesus to “scratch where it itches,” to indulge His desire, to give in to what His body craves.

We, too, have many desires and are told by the devil in many ways to “scratch where it itches.” Perhaps no generation before has faced such strong temptation. We live in a consumer culture that is highly skilled at eliciting and then satisfying our every desire. All day long, we are bombarded with advertisements that arouse desire and then advise us that we simply must fulfill those desires. If something is out of stock or unavailable in exactly the way we want at the instant we want it, we are indignant. Why should I have to wait? Why can’t I have it in that color? The advertiser’s basic message is that you can have it all. This is a lie, of course, but it is told so frequently that we feel entitled to just about everything.

Some of our biggest cultural problems are ones stemming from overindulgence. We are a culture that struggles with obesity, addiction, sexual misconduct, and greed. We experience overstimulation that robs us of a reasonable attention span; boredom is a significant issue for many who are too used to the frantic pace of video games and action movies. We have done well in turning stones into bread.

Jesus rebukes the devil, saying, Man does not live on bread alone. In other words, there are things that are just more important than bread and circuses, than creature comforts and indulgence. Elsewhere Jesus says, A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions (Lk 12:15). I have written further on this in another post: The Most Important Things in Life Aren’t Things.

Popularity and Power – Taking Jesus up a high mountain, the devil shows Him all the nations and people of the earth and promises them to Him if Jesus will but bow down and worship him. This is a temptation to both power and popularity; the devil promises Jesus not only sovereignty but glory.

Because most of us are not likely to become sovereigns and because temptation is only strong in those matters that seem remotely possible for us, I will focus instead on popularity—something we deal with regularly in this life. One of the deeper wounds in our soul is the extreme need that most of us have to be liked, to be popular, to be respected, and to fit in. We dread being laughed at, scorned, or ridiculed. We cannot stand the thought of feeling minimized in any way.

For many people the desire for popularity is so strong that they’ll do almost anything to attain it. It usually starts in youth, when peer pressure “causes” young people to do many foolish things. They may join gangs, get tattoos, pierce their bodies, and/or wear outlandish clothes. Many a young lady, desperate to have a boyfriend (and thus feel loved and/or impress her friends), will sleep with boys or do other inappropriate things in order to gain that “love.” As we get older, we might be tempted to bear false witness, to make “compromises” to advance our career, to lie to impress others, to spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t really need, and/or to try to impress people whom we don’t even like. Likewise, we may be tempted to be silent when we should speak out for what is right.

All of this is a way of bowing before the devil, because it demonstrates that we are willing to sin in order to fit in, to advance, or to be popular. Jesus says, You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.

The real solution to this terrible temptation of popularity is to fear the Lord. When we fear God, we need fear no one else. If I can kneel before God I can stand before any man. If God is the only one we need to please, then we don’t have to expend effort trying to please anyone else. I have written more on this matter elsewhere: What Does It Mean to Fear the Lord?.

Presumption and Pride – Finally (for now) the devil encourages Jesus to test God’s love for Him by casting Himself off the highest wall of the Temple Mount. Does not Scripture say that God will rescue Him? The devil quotes Psalm 91: With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone. In our time the sin of presumption is epidemic.

Many people think that they can go one behaving sinfully, recklessly, and wantonly and that they will never face punishment. “God is love,” they boldly say. “He would never send people to Hell or punish them!” In saying this, they reject literally thousands of verses of Scripture that say otherwise; they have refashioned God and worship a man-made idol. “God doesn’t care whether I go to Church,” they claim. “He doesn’t mind if I live with my girlfriend.” The list of things God “doesn’t mind” continues to grow.

The attitude seems to be that no matter what I do, God will save me. It is presumptuous to speak or think like this. Hell and punishment are surely difficult teachings to fully comprehend and to reconcile with God’s patience and mercy, but He teaches of them and therefore we need to stop pretending He doesn’t.

I have written elsewhere on the topic of Hell and why it makes sense in the context of a God who loves and respects us: Hell Has to Be.

A mitigated form of presumption is procrastination, wherein we constantly put our return to the Lord out of our mind. About this tendency it is said,

There were three demons summoned by Satan as to their plan to entrap as many human beings as possible. The first demon announced that he would tell them there is no God. But Satan wasn’t too impressed. “You’ll get a few, but not many and even those atheists are mostly lying and know deep down inside that someone greater than they made them and all things.” The second demon said he would tell them there is no devil. But Satan said, “That won’t work, most of them have already met me and know my power.” Finally, the third demon said, “I will not tell them there is no God or no devil, I will simply tell them there is no hurry!” And Satan smiled an ugly grin and said, “You’re the man!”

Jesus rebukes the devil by quoting Deuteronomy: You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test. We ought to be very careful about presumption, for it is widespread today.

This does not mean that we have to retreat into fear and scrupulosity. God loves us and is rich in mercy, but we cannot willfully go on calling “no big deal” what He calls sin. We should be sober about sin and call on the Lord’s mercy rather than doubting that we that really need it or just presuming that He doesn’t mind.

The journey of our lives has its beauties but is also difficult and temptation is a reality, but as an old gospel song says, “The gospel train’s comin’, I hear it just at hand. I hear the car wheel rumblin’ and rollin’ thro’ the land. Get on board little children, get on board. There’s room for many more!”

 

 

Bite Your Tongue! A Homily for the 8th Sunday of the Year

The first reading this Sunday reminds us that our speech discloses our character:

When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do one’s faults when one speaks. The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had; so too does one’s speech disclose the bent of one’s mind.

Praise no one before he speaks,
for it is then that people are tested
(Sirach 27:4-7).

What we say reveals a great deal about us—more than we imagine. Speech is among our greatest gifts, yet self-mastery in speech is among the rarest. Some of the most common sins we commit are related to speech: gossip, idle chatter, lies, exaggeration, harsh attack, and uncharitable remarks. With our tongue we can spew hatred, incite fear, spread misinformation, tempt, discourage, promote error, and ruin reputations. With a gift capable of bringing such good, we can surely cause great harm!

The Letter of James says this:

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

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

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be (Jam 3:2-10).

Although one may conquer any sin by God’s grace, those associated with speech are among the hardest to overcome. Sometimes it seems as if our speech is being controlled by a separate, baser part of our brain. We can be halfway through saying something before realizing how foolish and sinful we are being. Scripture speaks artistically of the sinful tongue.

Here are some common sins of the tongue:

The Lying Tongue – speaking falsehoods with the intention of misleading others.

  • The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy (Prov 12:22).
  • A false witness will not go unpunished, and one who utters lies will not escape (Prov 19:5).
  • Not every story should you believe (Sir 19:14).

The Backbiting Tongue – talking about others behind their backs, injuring their reputations through detraction.

  • A man’s tongue can be his downfall. Be not called a detractor; use not your tongue for calumny (Sir 5:13-16).
  • Never repeat gossip, and you will not be reviled. … Let anything you hear die within you … (Sir 19:5).

The Indiscreet Tongue – spreading confidential, unnecessary, or hurtful information about others.

  • He that goes about as a tale-bearer reveals secrets, therefore keep no company with such a one (Prov 20:19).
  • A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much (Prov 20:19).
  • He who repeats an evil report has no sense. Never repeat gossip… Let anything you hear die within you; be assured it will not make you burst. But when a fool hears something, he is in labor, like a woman giving birth to a child … (Sir 19:5, 14).
  • Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people (Lev 19:16).

The Flattering Tongue – exaggerating the good qualities of others in order to ingratiate ourselves to them.

  • May the Lord silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue (Ps 12:4).
  • Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses (Prov 27:6).

The Proud Tongue – speaking boastfully or in an overly certain way.

There is a saying that a proud tongue comes with two closed ears. Those of proud tongue are not easily corrected and do not qualify or distinguish their remarks as they should.

  • May the Lord silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue, Those who say, “By our tongues we will prevail; when our lips speak, who can lord it over us?” (Ps 12:4-5)
  • An evil man is trapped by his rebellious speech, but a righteous man escapes from trouble (Prov 12:13).
  • The prudent man does not make a show of his knowledge, but fools broadcast their foolishness (Prov 12:23).

The Overused Tongue – saying too much, which usually ushers in sin by its excess.

  • A fool’s voice [comes] along with a multitude of words (Ecc 5:2).
  • When words are many, sin is inevitable, but he who restrains his lips is wise (Prov 10:19).

The Rash Tongue – speaking before one should, often without having all the information.

  • Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter anything before God (Ecc 5:1).
  • Be swift to hear, but slow to answer. If you have the knowledge, answer your neighbor; if not, put your hand over your mouth (Sir 5:13).
  • Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue (Prov 17:28).

The Quarrelsome Tongue – speaking in an overly opinionated way, attacking others personally, and/or provoking unnecessary division.

  • Fools’ words get them into constant quarrels; they are asking for a beating (Prov 18:6).
  • A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions (Prov 18:2).
  • Drive out the mocker, and out goes strife; quarrels and insults are ended (Prov 22:10).

The Cursing Tongue – wishing harm upon others, often that they be damned.

  • He loved to pronounce a curse—may it come back on him. He found no pleasure in blessing—may it be far from him (Ps 109:17).
  • Whoever curses his father or mother, his lamp will be extinguished in deepest darkness (Prov 20:20).

The Piercing Tongue – speaking unnecessarily harshly or severely.

  • The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil (Prov 15:28).
  • Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing (Prov 12:18).
  • Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity (1 Tim 5:1-2).

The Silent Tongue – failing to speak up when we ought to warn people of sin, call them to the Kingdom, and announce the truth of Jesus Christ.

In our age, the triumph of evil and poor behavior has been facilitated by our silence. As prophets, we are called to speak God’s Word.

  • Proclaim the message; persist in it in season and out of season; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching (2 Tim 4:2).
  • Israel’s watchmen are blind; they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark (Is 56:10).

Yes, our speech is riddled with what it should not have and lacking in what it should. How wretched is our condition! Well, James did say, Anyone who is never at fault in what he says is perfect. Indeed, if anyone masters his tongue, he is a spiritual superman!

Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips (Ps 141:3).

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

 

 

Be Different, Be a Christian – A Homily for the 7th Sunday of the Year

Are you a Christian? Before you answer, consider these other questions: Do you love your enemy? Do you do good to them who hate you? The honest answers to these questions are at the very heart of Christianity and represent what distinguishes a Christian from others. Let’s follow Jesus’ teachings in several stages. In so doing, we can learn our truest identity and how He seeks to transform us.

The ATTITUDE of a Christian

Jesus said to his disciples, “To you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic. Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

In effect, Jesus is telling us to put an end to the cycle of injustice and violence, by His grace. The Christian is to stand in the gap and say, “It ends with me.” This is Jesus’ game plan, his battle strategy. Defeat Satan’s cycle and thwart his plan to get two birds with one stone. Satan’s usual tactic is to inspire hatred or vengeance in someone, who then attacks us; in response, we lash back and become just like our enemy. In this way, Satan has captured two disciples for the price of one. The Lord tells us not to fall for that. We are to kill our enemies with kindness, get them with goodness, and lure them with love.

Note, then, four attitudes that the Lord distinguishes:

Merciful Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. We ought to remember how merciful God has been to us. Even when we mistreated Him and were His enemies through sin, God show[ed] his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). Allow God to make you aware of His abundant mercy so that you are deeply grateful and thus equipped to love your enemy and mercifully withhold your wrath and vengeance toward him.

Meek To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic. Meekness is the virtue that governs anger. It is the proper middle ground between too much anger and not enough. Even when anger is an appropriate response, meekness moderates it, steering it away from destructive ends to helpful ones. It takes a strong person to control his anger, to refrain from retaliating or seeking revenge. Through meekness, we can also direct our anger toward the proper target: Satan. Use the energy of anger to defeat Satan’s plan!

Magnanimous Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back. We are too easily angered when people seek our time, talent, or treasure; this anger can give way to wrath. Those who are magnanimous are open to being asked, at peace with saying no when necessary, and generous in sharing their gifts. Christians graced by Christ are less apt to say, “This is mine; leave me alone” and more likely to realize that God has been good to them. This joy in what God has given them disposes them to generosity with others. Joy is like an energy that fuels magnanimity.

Meet Do to others as you would have them do to you. An old meaning of “meet” is suitable, proper, fitting, correct, or just. Christians are aware that if we want the world to be more just, it has to begin with us. We understand that we are going to need the help of others in countless ways and therefore treat others as we hoped to be treated. We sow justice, mercy, and patience in order to reap them in others.

The ALTITUDE of a Christian

For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners and get back the same amount. But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Christians are supposed to stand out. By God’s grace, we are to rise above mere human norms. Note what Jesus expects of us:

We are to Excel – In effect, Jesus asks us these questions: How are you excelling? What makes you different from a virtuous atheist or pagan? What credit is it to you if you only do what they do? What makes you different from a sinner? The mark of a Christian is

  • that we love our enemies,
  • that we do good to them who do ill to us,
  • that we lend even when we expect to get nothing back, and
  • that we stop the cycle of injustice and violence.

We are to Exemplify – The text goes on to say, and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Mat 5:44-45). Thus, we are to exemplify, to show forth who God is. We are to demonstrate that we are true children of the Father by doing what He does.

The ASSETS of a Christian

Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give, and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.

Jesus teaches that, by His grace, we should do the following to store up treasures in Heaven:

Forego CondemnationJesus says, Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Condemning means quickly and routinely seeking the worst of punishments for others. There are no second chances, no tempering of punishment or consideration of the context or background of people’s struggles; “Hang ’em high” is the cry of condemnation. Punishment is meant to be remedial. There are times when the strictest of punishments must be meted out, but typically only after lesser measures have been unsuccessful. However, correcting an erring brother is a spiritual work of mercy.

  • My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins (James 5:19-20).
  • Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom (Col 3:16).
  • Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in fact rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him (Lev 19:17).
  • Brethren, if someone is detected in sin, you who live by the Spirit should gently set him right, each of you trying to avoid falling into temptation himself (Gal 5:25).

Nevertheless, be careful. The Lord says, The measure that you measure to others will be measured back to you (Mat 7:2). James also warns, Merciless is the judgment on the one who has shown no mercy (James 2:13). Thus, among our assets in Heaven will be mercy stored up for us at our judgment if we show mercy to others.

Forgive Transgressions – Jesus says, Forgive and you will be forgiven. If we do this, there is the promise of forgiveness being shown to us at our judgment. For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Mat 6:13-15).

Freely Give – Jesus says, Give, and gifts will be given to you. Paradoxically, one of the ways we keep something in the Kingdom of God is by giving it away. When we give it away, we thereby store it up in Heaven.

  • I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much (Luke 16:9).
  • Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. … As it is written, “He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God (2 Cor 9:6-11).
  • Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt 19:21).
  • Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matt 6:19).

Fully Receive a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you. Here, then, is the promise of our assets if we become, by God’s grace, true Christians. In effect, your yardstick will become a boomerang. Let it come back to bless you. If you have been merciful you will find mercy. If you have forgiven you will find forgiveness. If you have given it shall be returned to you many times over. These are the assets of the Christian. Invest wisely!

Blessing or Woe: You Decide. A Homily for the 6th Sunday of the Year

The Gospel passage this Sunday is Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. Being paradoxical, they are difficult to understand. We do not usually refer to the poor as blessed, but rather the well off; we do not typically call those who mourn blessed, but rather the joyful.

The word “beatitude” itself means “supreme blessedness.” In ancient Greek, makarios (blessed) referred to a deep, serene, and stable happiness largely unaffected by external matters. It also corresponds to the Hebrew word asher, which is more of an exclamation.

Each beatitude could easily be translated to begin in this way: “O, the blessedness of ….” Such a translation emphasizes that something is being described and experienced rather than prescribed.

So, it is critical to understand that beatitude is not something we achieve; rather, it is something we receive. The Beatitudes declare an objective reality as the result of a divine act. The use of the indicative mood in the passage should be taken seriously; we should not turn it into an imperative. In other words, as noted, the Beatitudes are more descriptions than prescriptions. Jesus is not simply saying that we should be poor or meek and then God will bless us. Rather, He is saying that this is what the transformed human person is like; this is what happens to us when He lives His life in us and transforms us; this is what our life is like when His grace and the power of His cross bring about in us a greater meekness and poverty of spirit—we will experience being blessed.

This helps to explain the paradox of some of the Beatitudes. We are still blessed even when we are poor, or mourning, or persecuted. Further, we are confirmed in blessedness by such realities because they serve as reminders that we are not at home in this world; God and His kingdom are our preoccupation and the source of our true beatitude.

In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes there are also woes described for those who reject the Lord’s offer. Let’s pair them up and consider them together, seeing the choice the Lord presents in each case: blessing or woe.

Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.

Who are the poor? They are those who, by God’s grace, have their true treasure in Heaven rather than on earth. They are poor to this world but rich to God. They have learned to depend on Him and are not obsessed with the passing riches of this world.

All of us are dependent on God, but we may not realize it. The poor in spirit are those who have come to peace in the knowledge that they depend on God for every beat of their heart, for every good thing they have. Humans strongly resist any such sense of dependence or lack of control. Many people strive to acquire wealth, power, and possessions in order to create the illusion that they are in control—they are not. Ultimately this whole system will fail; it is a recipe for frustration and unhappiness.

Further, control is like an addictive drug. The more we get, the more we need in order to feel less anxious. Our modern age illustrates this. Consider, for example, modern medicine, through which we can control things we never could before. Are all our fears gone as a result? No. Humans have never lived so long nor been so healthy, yet we have never been so anxious about our health. Our medicine cabinets are filled with prescriptions and over-the-counter medications, but we still worry! Control is an illusion, an addiction all its own. In the end, it seems we can never have enough of it to feel sufficiently “safe.”

How blessed are those who delight in depending on God, who realize that every beat of their heart is His gift and that everything they have is from Him and belongs to Him! They are blessed because they are free from the countless fears that flow from an endless quest for illusory control.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

It’s nice to be rich, but if that’s all you live for, that’s all you’ll get. When it’s over it’s over, and then comes the judgment. Paradoxically, the only way to retain riches is to give them away or use them in serving others. Jesus instructs,

Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also will be (Matt 6:20).

St. Paul says,

Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be conceited and not to put their hope in the uncertainty of wealth, but in God, who richly provides all things for us to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, and to be generous and ready to share, treasuring up for themselves a firm foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life (1 Tim 6:17-19).

If we hoard wealth when others are in need or use our wealth in unjust ways, we may enjoy comforts in this world, but a stern judgment awaits. Live with the final judgment in mind; share and be generous. Jesus warns of woe that will come to those who resist his grace to be generous.

Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied.

All of us hunger physically, but the important thing is to hunger for God and the things waiting for us in Heaven. Many people hunger for anything but God—wealth, power, popularity, the latest fad.

It is in our hunger that we make room for God. It is then that we seek Him.

How blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the righteousness and justice of God and the values of His Kingdom! God will satisfy them with the joy of living under His law and they will rejoice to see the wisdom of His ways. They hunger for God’s Word and devour it when they find it. They rejoice to see God put sin to death in them and bring about virtue. They are excited and satisfied at what God is doing in their life. They are blessed indeed.

But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry.

If we are filled with the things of this world, there is no room for God. Worldly things can only satisfy temporarily; being finite they cannot fill the infinite longing we have. We were made to know and love God; He alone can satisfy our longing. If we refuse this true food and true drink (see John 6:55), which is Christ Himself in the Eucharist, there awaits only a longing that will one day be permanent if we reject the Lord to the end. The Lord warns of woe to those who resist His gift to feed them with His Body and Blood and fill their minds with His Word.

Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh.

Who are those who weep? First, they are those who are not obsessed with emotional happiness and who accept sorrow as a part of life. Their sorrow is not about merely worldly things. They weep because they delight in the Kingdom of Heaven yet see the awful state of most of God’s people. They see so many who do not know God nor why they were created. They see people willfully locked in sin and darkness. They see still others who are victims of the sins of injustice and oppression. Because of these things they weep, mourn, and pray. This beatitude is the basis of intercessory prayer and deepening love for sinners. Because we mourn, we pray for the world.

Again, the object of this beatitude is rooted in the Kingdom of God and its values, not the passing values of this world. If our car gets scratched or the stock market goes down and we may mourn, but that’s not the subject of this beatitude.

How blessed are those who mourn over what really matters and who pray! They will laugh in the sense that God will console, strengthen, and encourage them. He will cause their mourning to bear fruit in prayer and action for others. To mourn in this way is to be blessed. It is a grief that “hurts so good,” because we know that it brings abundant blessings for the world as it intensifies our prayer and our own commitment to God and His Kingdom.

Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep.

Rejoicing with the world is like celebrating on the Titanic before it hits the iceberg. The ride is wonderful for a while but then comes the cold and unforgiving depths. Too many in our world live frivolous lives. They “major in the minors.” They call good or no big deal what God calls sin; they even celebrate it and praise it. Jesus says, woe to them. While there are things to enjoy in this world, there is also much to lament. Sin and injustice, moral darkness, and confusion are nothing to celebrate. The Lord warns of woe to those who do not let Him transform their hearts so that they grieve over sin and darkness.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.

In life we are going to suffer, so it might as well be for something decent and noble. How blessed are those who, because they love God and His kingdom, are hated by this world! At least they share a common lot with Jesus. They know that only false prophets are loved by all. There is a paradoxical serenity that comes from this sort of persecution because it is a sign that we are no longer of this world, that the world has lost its hold on us and thus hates us (Jn 15:19). Forsaking this world and being hated by it, they are blessed, because the Kingdom of God is theirs in abundance.

Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.

If the world is cheering for you, you’re playing on the wrong team, the losing team. The “world” is the set of philosophies, power structures, and inclinations at odds with the teachings and truths of God. A friend of the world becomes an enemy of God (James 4:4). Jesus says,

If the world hates you, understand that it hated Me first. If you were of the world, it would love you as its own. Instead, the world hates you, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. Remember the word that I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you as well (Jn 15:18-20).

Jesus warns of woe to those who pitch their tents in this world. It is passing away as are all those who seek its friendship. Jesus warns of the woe that comes from being too friendly with a lost and sinful world.

In all these ways, the Lord paints a kind of picture for us of the transformed human person. He shows us what happens to us as He lives His life in us.

Decisions have consequences. Depending on our choice to let God work in our life or not, there is either blessing or woe. Choose the blessings, dear brethren, choose the blessings.

One of my mentors over the years was the late Fr. Francis Martin, a teacher at the Dominican House of Studies (among many other places), a great scholar of Scripture, and the author of numerous books and articles; he also gave many a retreat for priests. Here are some of his reflections on the Gospel:

 

Children Go Where I Send Thee – A Homily for the 5th Sunday of the Year

This Sunday’s Gospel describes the call of Simon Peter, one that takes place in several stages. While it is presented in a compact time frame, for most of us it takes place over a longer period, as the Lord works to deepen our faith and heighten our call.

The upshot of the Gospel is that Peter’s faith is strengthened by his obedience to the Lord’s command.

Let’s see how the Lord grows Peter’s faith.

The Help that isn’t Hard – The text says, While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret. He saw two boats there alongside the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.

It may astonish us, but God seeks our help. What did Peter have? He had a boat at the ready and, as we shall see, a tender heart. What do you have? All of us have talents, gifts, access, and availability that God can and wants to use. The way the Lord has set things up, He “needs” our help. God, who made us without our help, will not save us without our help. Call this what you will—cooperative grace, collaborative grace, or my personal favorite: responsible grace—but God seeks to engage us in our own salvation and in the salvation of others. He wants our help.

The main point in terms of Peter’s progression in the faith is that this initial request (to put out from shore) is a small one; it’s not hard for Peter and helps him to learn the obedience of faith.

This is where the Lord begins with both Peter and us. He trains us in greater obedience through small things. Don’t overlook the small, daily acts of obedience to the Lord. Through them the Lord trains and equips us for greater things. If the Lord can trust us in small matters, He can and will trust us with larger ones.

The Hesitation that must be Healed – The text says, After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.”

Peter is willing to do something routine for the Lord. After all, how hard is it to let the Lord use your boat for a while? Now the Lord invites Peter to go a little deeper, to “put out into deep water.” For a moment, Peter hesitates. He is tired and discouraged—so much work and so little to show for it. There was probably some doubt in Peter’s heart and a hint of sarcasm in his voice, because later he repents and calls himself a sinful man. Yes, here is a hesitation that must be healed if Peter is ever to see his blessings and reach his destiny.

So, too, for some of us. Perhaps we’ve heard the Lord calling us to some task but hesitated because we were tired or discouraged. I’ll come to Church and say a few prayers, but please, Lord, don’t ask anything more of me.

Perhaps we are fearful. Deep waters bring greater threats. As the water gets deeper the stakes get higher. Somehow, we must step out in faith, to get out of our comfort zone and head for deeper waters. Like Peter, we can hesitate, thinking of all sorts of reasons why what the Lord asks of us is not a good idea.

How is Peter healed of his hesitation? In a countercultural way, Peter is healed by the obedience of faith; that is the central point of today’s Gospel.

Yes, Peter’s healing is caught up in his acknowledgement that the Lord commands it. Peter says, But at your command I will lower the nets. Peter finds strength and consolation in the Lord’s command. Paradoxically, there is something freeing about being under authority.

We live in a culture that tends to regard authority with cynicism, even rewarding some amount of rebellion. Further, our flesh tends to bristle at being under authority. Again, there is something freeing about being under authority.

As a Christian, I derive a lot of serenity and courage when I understand that the Lord commands something of me. While the world may balk at the demands of the moral life and find much of it too difficult or demanding, I often find that it is enough for me to know that the Lord both teaches and commands it. This gives me both serenity and confidence. Even if some aspect of my flesh may hesitate, knowing that my Lord and His lawful representatives (my bishop and the Magisterium) command something frees me and gives me the courage to understand that I am doing God’s will. Any natural hesitancy I might have is often quickly dispatched when I realize that I am being commanded by the Lord.

On a given Sunday morning, a person might consider skipping Mass, preferring to sleep in or perhaps finding it difficult somehow. Knowing that it is commanded (the third commandment) helps him to overcome his hesitancy. The same is true for the rest of the moral law and also certain vocational matters and actions required of the Christian, not under a general command but under a specific call from the Lord.

In this way of obedience, the Lord draws Peter to deeper waters. Peter’s hesitation must be healed if he is to see his faith deepen and his call heighten.

The Harvest that is Hauled – The text says, When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that the boats were in danger of sinking.

In this matter the Lord grants Peter a great grace: enjoying the fruits of obedience in an immediate way. In other cases, the harvest is not so swift, but this much is always true: it is promised, and it will come, whether today or years from now.

The Lord says elsewhere, using a more terrestrial image, the harvest is plentiful (Mat 9:37). The Lord is providing an audiovisual aid. Obviously, the harvest that the Lord heralded was not about fish; it was about human beings. Indeed, the harvest is plentiful. Consider all the people whom the Lord has touched after these humble beginnings in a backwater of Israel. Not only are there more than one billion Catholics in the world today, but there are countless others who lived before us and many (only God knows how many) who will come after us. Yes, it is a bountiful harvest!

Some days and times are better for fishing or harvesting than others. St. Paul speaks of the gospel as being “in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2), but even in those times that the Lord designates for pruning or for the field to lie fallow, He is only preparing for future growth. The Lord says, “the harvest is plentiful,” and His Word prevails.

In the West it seems that the seasons have turned against us, but we must remember that even in winter the farmer must stay busy preparing the soil, removing the rocks, and laying down fertilizer.

Yes, the Lord is heralding a harvest, and we must work no matter the season. Even if we do not see the full harvest, the Lord will, as will others who come after us. Jesus says elsewhere, Thus the saying “One sows, and another reaps” is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor” (John 4:37).

The bottom line is this: just do your work. Obey what the Lord commands and know that a harvest is heralded and will be hauled in someday. The nets will be strained, and the boats heavily weighed down. The harvest will come, and it will come with abundance. Just keep working and obeying what He commands.

The Humility that Heightens – The text says, When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him, and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon. Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.

In falling to his knees, Peter is about to raised higher by the Lord. Peter realizes that his hesitation and doubt have been sinful and that had he persisted in not obeying the Lord, he would have blocked his blessings.

Notice that Peter is not described as having a cringing humility but rather a healthy one.

Healthy humility raises us; it does not cast us down. Bowing in healthy humility does not crush us; it heightens our status. The Lord, having led Peter to a healthy obedience and humility, in effect tells him, “Come up higher. Your concern now will not be fish but rather the care of human souls who are precious to me. You will be my co-worker in a far more important enterprise.” Yes, healthy humility raises us.

Thus, Peter’s humility is a productive one. It is the godly sorrow of which St. Paul writes,

Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done (2 Cor 7:8-11).

Peter’s humility is productive because it is godly. Humility and sorrow equip him for greater duties, duties no longer related fish but to human souls.

How different this is from mere shame (which Paul calls worldly sorrow)! Shame often locks us into unhealthy, paralyzing self-loathing. Godly sorrow increases our zeal to do God’s will and thereby equips, empowers, and enables us when He calls—and the Lord does call.

Peter, through obedience and humility, is now ready to leave everything and follow Jesus. The Lord has led him to this point in stages. It began with a request for help that wasn’t hard, a small obedience, but then the Lord called Peter deeper, to a more difficult obedience. Peter needed to have his hesitation healed. Experiencing this healing, he hauled in a harvest that illustrated what his lack of faith and obedience might have cost him. It humbled him but also heightened him. Having his faith deepened in Jesus, Peter is now ready to follow the Lord. It is always better to walk in humility and obedience than in pride!

In all of this, don’t miss the key, the golden chord: At your command, I will lower the nets. Faith is rooted in obedience and humility. That is the key to our growth as disciples.

St. Peter is still a rookie, but his first season holds great promise. He will not go through life without injury, but in the end, he too will be the rock (in Christ) who is ready to roll.

Perspectives on the Presentation—A Homily for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

The liturgical focus of the Feast of the Presentation, which we celebrate today, is light. Christ is our light, and the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light! In the Gospel, Simeon holds the infant Jesus and calls Him “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” Thus, this feast has long featured the carrying of candles by the faithful in procession and the blessing of candles. For this reason, the feast was often called Candlemas.

Today’s feast celebrates the “purification” of Our Lady. As a Jewish woman, she presented herself forty days after giving birth to be blessed and welcomed back to the community. I have written more on the history of that practice here: The Churching of Women.

In this reflection, we will attend to four teachings or perspectives gleaned from the readings. We are taught that our relationship with Jesus is cleansing, consoling, compelling, and communing.

Cleansing– The Gospel opens with this description: When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord, and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.

It might strike us as oddor even irritating that a woman would need to be purified after giving birth, but ancient Jewish practice exhibited great reverence for the rituals of both birth and death. On account of the deep mysteries of life represented by these events, as well as the fluids (e.g., blood, amniotic fluid) that accompanied them, a purification or blessing was deemed necessary for return to the community. (Read more at the link above.)

Remember that this is nota moral purification, for nothing immoral had been done. Rather, it was a ceremonial purification wherein one was cleansed or made fit again to enter into the public worship and liturgical actions of Israel. Consider, for example, that even in our culture a person who has been outside working and comes back sweaty and in soiled clothes is expected to bathe and put on clean clothing before going to Mass; this does not mean that there is anything sinful in good, honest, necessary work. The Jews extended this idea much further than we do today and there were detailed (frankly, often bewildering) rules about what made one unclean and how/when one should be purified. Very early on, the Church simplified and/or largely abrogated these ideas about certain foods being unclean and what made a person unclean (see Acts 15).

While we may wonder (or even scoff) at these older notions, all of us need purification and cleansing. We are sinners, and we live in a world tainted by sin. The Lord must purify us all; unless this happens, we will never be able to endure the great holiness, glory, and purity of God.

Jesus our savior alone can cleanse and purify us to make us able to endure the glory of God. The first reading describes our need for purification and points to Jesus as the one who purifies us:

But who can endure the day of [the Lord’s] coming? And who can stand when he appears? For he is like the refiner’s fire, or like the fuller’s lye. He will sit refining and purifying silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, refining them like gold or like silver that they may offer due sacrifice to the LORD. Then the sacrifice of Judah and Jerusalem will please the LORD, as in the days of old, as in years gone by(Mal 3:2-4).

Yes, only the Lord Himself can purify us to endure His glory. Thank you, Jesus, our light and our savior, for the sanctifying grace without which we could never hope to endure and rejoice in the glory that awaits. Thank you, Jesus for your grace and mercy, by which we are able to stand before our Father and praise Him for all eternity. Thank you, Jesus, our purifier, our savior, and our Lord.

Consoling Well aware of the burden of sin, ancient Israel longed for a savior. The pious knew well that sin brought strife, pain, and grief. Among the pious who longed for the Messiah were Simeon and Anna, who frequented the Temple looking and longing.

Of Simeon we are told:

[He] was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.

Of Anna, who is described as among those who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem, we are told:

[She was] a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.

Simeon and Anna are two of the pious of Israel longing and looking for the Messiah who would save the people and bring consolation and peace.

What does it mean to have true consolation and peace? It is to be reconciled to the Father, Abba; to once again see Him and be able to walk with Him in the Garden in the cool of the morning. True consolation and peace are found only when the gates of Heaven are opened, and we look once again upon the glorious and serene face of our Father who loves us.

This is a gift that can come only by the ministry of Jesus, for no one knows the Father but the Son and anyone to whom the Son reveals Him. Jesus is our peace and our consolation by leading us back to His Father in and through His Sacred Heart and by His Holy Passion.

Holding the baby Jesus, Simeon is holding the Gift of the Father, a tremendous gift of peace and consolation come to him in a kind of prevenient way. So, Simeon can say,

Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.

Such a consolation it was to hold the infant Jesus and know that God so loved the world that He sent His only Son to save us! Simeon could now go forth in peace from this world for He had beheld the light of God’s saving love in Jesus.

Compelling– In today’s Gospel we are told that Jesus is no inconsequential figure. He is the one on whom all human history, collective and personal, hinges. The “hinge” is our choice either for or against Jesus.

Simeon says to Mary,

Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted—and you yourself a sword will pierce—so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

Jesus compels a choice.We are free to choose for or against Him, but we mustchoose. Upon this choice depends our rise or fall.

Jesus says, Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters(Matt 12:30).

St. Paul writes (in Acts), In the past God overlooked ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead(Acts 17:30). And in Corinthians he writes, We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God(2 Cor 5:20).

Where will you spend eternity? That depends on your stance toward Jesus. Will you choose Him? You are free to choose, but you are not free not to choose! On this choice your very life will rise or fall.

Communing Jesus did not merely save us from on high. He became flesh and lived among us.

In today’s Gospel we read,

When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Consider the intimacy of Jesus dwelling among us then and tabernacled among us now in the Blessed Sacrament and in the temple of our heart through His Spirit. Our Lord seeks communion with us and is not ashamed to call us His brethren (Heb 2:11).

On this Feast of the Presentation, allow the Lord into the temple of your heart. Give Him access to your soul by receiving Him in Holy Communion and seeking His presence tabernacled in our churches. Today, Jesus is presented not only in the ancient temple but to you. Reach out to hold on to Him. Like Simeon, receive Him in your heart. Like Anna, run and tell others to come.

Jesus, our light and our salvation, is here.He brings with Him cleansing, consoling, and communing. He also compelsa choice. Choose Him now; run to Him. He is here, and He is calling!