Four Depictions of Discipleship – A Homily for the 23rd Sunday of the Year

In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus defines four demands of discipleship. Let’s look at them one by one.

I. The CONTEXT of discipleship – The text says that large crowds were following Jesus and so He turned to address them. Just about any time you find mention of a big crowd in the Bible, fasten your seat belt and prepare for a hard teaching. Jesus didn’t trust large crowds, who were often merely after what they could get out of Him. They were looking for miracles, for multiplied (and free) bread, for physical healing, and for a fiery sermon.

So, upon sensing a large crowd of people, Jesus turned to address them. He then gives a series of hard teachings, which almost seem designed to thin the ranks and distinguish true disciples from ones who are merely giving “lip service.”

Before discussing what Jesus says to them, let’s examine some other incidents in the Gospels that also illustrate His tendency to distrust big crowds:

        • Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matt 7:13).
        • For many are called, but few are chosen (Matt 22:14).
        • Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets (Luke 6:26).

Often the mention of a large crowd is followed by a hard teaching:

        • When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matt 19:1-6; Mark 10).
        • As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29).
        • Large crowds were traveling with Jesus and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27).
        • … and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick … and He said to them, “I am the living bread come down from heaven” … the crowds murmured (John 6:2).

So, the context of discipleship is not usually with the crowd. Though many are called—indeed, all are called—few make the cut and become true disciples. There is a kind of remnant theology at work here, to be sure, but it is a common pattern that Jesus thins the ranks and distinguishes the many who are called from the few who are chosen.

This is not just a fact in the Scriptures; the Lord has often had to prune His Church. Even now we are seeing a large falling away, a pruning, as many who are not able to accept the hard sayings of Jesus and the Scriptures (about sexuality, forgiveness, love of one’s enemies, heroic charity, and generosity) depart. The context of discipleship is with the few rather than the many.

This insight about the context is also important today because there are many who argue that the Church should “get with the times,” that she should listen to the people, that she should give them what they want, that she should reflect the views of the faithful. The role of the Church is not to reflect the views of its members, as if it were some political party. Rather, it is to reflect the views of its Founder, Jesus Christ, who handed on His teachings through the apostles and evangelists. More often than not, these teachings will not be in lockstep with what is popular or current.

The context of discipleship is often at odds with great crowds of people. We see this when Jesus turns on them. The first reading today reminds us: For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans. For the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns. And scarce do we guess the things on earth, and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty (Wisdom 9:13-16).

II. The CENTRALITY of discipleship – Jesus indicates that if we are going to be His disciples, we can love no one more than we love Him. This extends even to our family relationships: If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

The use of the word “hate” here does not mean that we are to have contempt for others or to nourish unrighteous anger toward them. Rather, this is a Jewish idiom. For some reason, the Hebrew language has very few comparative words such as more/less and greater/ fewer. If one preferred vanilla ice cream to chocolate, one would say (in ancient Hebrew), “I love vanilla but hate chocolate.” This would mean that I prefer vanilla to chocolate, not that I actually hate chocolate.

So, what Jesus means is that we cannot prefer anyone or anything to Him. He is first; He is number one. Jesus says that He must have absolute priority over even the closest human relationships in your life.

If there’s anyone in your life who can talk you out of obeying God, forget ’em! Anyone who keeps you away from God has too much power. Anyone who can keep you from your Christian walk has too much power. Anyone who can pull you into unrighteousness has too much power.

If your boss instructs you to do something immoral, just say, “Sorry, Boss.” If your accountant advises you to save money by paying unjust wages or cutting necessary benefits, say “Sorry, no.” If your boyfriend or girlfriend pressures you to have sex, say, “Sorry, Dear.” If your “friend” pressures you to use drugs, abuse alcohol, skip school, or steal, say, “Sorry, Buddy.” If your spouse calls you away from teaching your children the ways of faith, tell him/her “Sorry, Honey.” If your child pressures you to give him something unwise or sinful, say, “Sorry, child of mine.”

Do you get it? No one is to have priority over Jesus Christ and what He teaches. The word “hate” here may not be meant literally, but if Jesus really does have priority in our life it may cause some people to say to us, “You’re so devoted to Him that I think you hate me!”

We need to attend to this, because too many of our human relationships cause us to compromise our walk with Jesus. Some people have too much power over us, a power that belongs to the Lord.

III. The CROSS of discipleship – Jesus says, Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. If we want to be a disciple, we must be willing to carry the cross.

The cross comes in many forms, but in the end, being a disciple does not mean that we are in any way exempt from the troubles and trials of this world. Jesus indicates that we will be hated (cf Jn 15:20), persecuted, and sorely tempted by the world. If we hold out, though, victory will be ours.

It is a simple rule: No cross, no crown. There are some who want to preach a prosperity gospel. There are others who demand a gospel stripped of its moral imperatives. Still others demand an updated faith that tickles their ears and affirms their sinful behavior.

Jesus points to the cross not to torture us but because it is the only way to glory. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (John 16:33). Now, for a little while you may have to suffer various trials (1 Peter 1:6). This wisdom is already evident if we consider that even in this world, all of what we value most (family, talents, career, achievements) comes at the cost of sacrifice. Sacrifices bring blessings. Jesus is not into pain for its own sake but because sacrifice brings blessings.

IV. The COST of discipleship Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, “This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.” Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms. In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.

In this teaching, Jesus asks us to count the cost. Discipleship is costly. Jesus gives the images of someone building a tower and of a king going into battle. These examples may seem distant to us, so Jesus “brings it home” by saying, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.

The Greek word ἀποτάσσω (apotasso), translated here as “renounce,” also means “to say farewell.” The Lord is reminding us that Heaven costs everything. Ultimately, we must say farewell to everyone and everything we consider precious in this world in order to inherit Heaven. This is not something that happens all at once when we die.

On one level, we give back everything to God little by little as we go through life. We have all given back loved ones. Perhaps we have already given back our youthful physique, strength, or good health. Ultimately, though, we will give it all back.

On another level, the Lord is saying that we must be willing to part now with anything that hinders discipleship. Many things attach us to this world and make discipleship difficult. Are we willing to simplify our life and focus on being a disciple? Or will we continue setting down roots here and amassing a worldly kingdom?

What’s it going to be: the world or the Kingdom? Count the cost. See what it costs and then decide. In the end, Heaven costs everything—but you’re going to lose it all anyway. It is a wise man who gives away what he cannot keep in order to gain what he could never buy.

What Jesus is looking for are disciples who, having counted the cost and realistically assessed it, are nonetheless ready to be His disciples. Tag-alongs, lip-service Christians, and fair-weather friends need not apply. In today’s Gospel Jesus is teaching a big crowd in a way that is meant to distinguish true disciples from those merely giving lip service. We are asked to ponder in which category we fall.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Four Depictions of Discipleship – A Homily for the 23rd Sunday of the Year

The Two Worlds, as Seen in a Commercial

The commercial below contrasts two worlds. The first is the loud, chaotic world, of which Satan is prince—and he wants all your attention. The second is the quieter, more serene, more beautiful world of the Kingdom, of which Christ is King and Mary is Queen Mother. Choose for yourself.

St Anselm writes:

Insignificant man, escape from your everyday business for a short while, hide for a moment from your restless thoughts. Break off from your cares and troubles and be less concerned about your tasks and labors. Make a little time for God and rest a while in him. Enter into your mind’s inner chamber. Shut out everything but God and whatever helps you to seek him. And when you have shut the door, look for him, speak to God … (Proslogion, Chapter 1).

 

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Two Worlds, as Seen in a Commercial

Exorcism or Deliverance?

There is wide interest today in the topic of exorcism. Numerous books and news stories have helped to fuel this. Another reason for the interest is that as our world becomes more secular, families disintegrate, the outright celebration of sinful practices spreads, and there is an increase in psychological trauma, bondage to sinful drives, and openness to demonic influence.

An entire generation of priests were taught to distrust the traditional understandings of trauma and dysfunction, which gave significant weight to spiritual causes. These priests were often trained to view most such things as merely psychological in nature. Thus, parishioners were often sent off on a recommended course of psychotherapy without so much as a prayer being said.

The tide is turning back to a more balanced approach. Catholics are rightly asking for spiritual help along with other approaches (e.g., psychotherapy, psychotropic medicines). However, it must be said that some of the increasing number of people requesting the formal Rite of Exorcism manifest a misunderstanding of that rite as well as a lack of knowledge about other avenues of healing.

Demonic possession remains rare and that is what the formal Rite of Exorcism is meant to address. Most people who present themselves (or someone they love) to the Church are not in fact possessed by the devil or demons. There may be obsession, oppression, or torment at work, along with psychological trauma, and other more natural sources of struggle.

For people who are not possessed, what is needed is deliverance, not exorcism.

What is deliverance? Deliverance is prayer and ongoing ministry that uses numerous approaches to bring healing and wholeness to those who, after baptism, have come to struggle significantly with bondage to sin and sinful drives, the influence of demons, or the effects of psychological and/or spiritual trauma.

Deliverance involves taking hold of the full freedom that God is given us, of helping the faithful who struggle to lay hold of the glorious freedom of children of God (cf Rom 8:21). St. Paul says that the Father has rescued us from the power of darkness and has brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins (Colossians 1:13 – 14).

There is also a magnificent passage in the Acts of the Apostles in which St. Paul is told of his mission to the Gentiles by the Lord: I am sending you to [the Gentiles] to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God (Acts 26:17–18).

Fundamentally, this is a description of the ongoing work of deliverance, which the whole Church must accomplish for God’s chosen people. Deliverance seeks to take people out from under Satan’s power and place them under the authority and Lordship of Jesus Christ, to bring people to, or restore them to, their true identity as sons and daughters of God.

Even after baptism, it is possible that we open doors to Satan enabling him some degree of access to our heart and mind. When this is the case, a Christian, working with clergy and fellow believers alike, must take a stand against the schemes of the devil by repenting of sin and renouncing any form of agreement with the deceptions of the enemy.

So, deliverance first involves coming to an understanding of the tactics of the evil one and recognizing the flawed thinking that often infects our mind. It involves coming to know and name these tactics and the deep drives of sin within us. It involves repenting of them and steadily renouncing their influence so that we come to greater serenity, peace, and healing—to deliverance.

The general deliverance we all need is effected in many ways: by the Word of God proclaimed and devoutly read; through the frequent reception of sacraments of Holy Communion and confession; through spiritual direction; through the experience of the Sacred Liturgy, praise, and worship; through authentic, close fellowship with other believers; through personal prayer; and even through good psychotherapy (when necessary).

For those who are suffering acutely from oppressions (and most of us do at some point on our spiritual journey), a more focused deliverance is often needed. It is usually called “deliverance ministry,” which often involves both clergy and lay praying with those who struggle and offering support and encouragement. It is different from major exorcism in two ways. First, it focuses more on the person than on the demons. There may be some minor exorcistic prayers directing demons to depart, but overall deliverance ministry involves praying with and for the one afflicted helping him identify issues and lay claim to the graces God is offering. Second, it is gentler, and the person and those who pray for him are encouraged to pay little attention to any unusual manifestations such as shuddering or shaking, which sometimes occur in the course of deliverance and healing ministry. Deliverance ministry seeks to broaden healing to the large number of people who need healing and deliverance, who may be going through a crisis, a transition, or just a difficult time; who may be oppressed but are in no way possessed.

Major exorcism, in contrast, is a fierce combat directed against demons. There is nothing gentle about it, and like major surgery it is invasive and wrenching. It should only be used for those who are definitely possessed, as determined by a skilled and appointed exorcist who looks for required evidence and has eliminated other lesser or natural causes.

Most often, deliverance takes time and involves a multidisciplinary approach. Most people just want relief, but God is in the healing business; healing takes time, courage, prayer, patience, and waiting for the Lord. It is linked to uncovering and naming sinful drives and distorted thinking, which provide doorways for the devil to rob us of our freedom. God proceeds very delicately and deliberately in these matters. Healing takes courage and God often waits until we are ready.

So, while recent interest in exorcism is encouraging, we must be careful not to focus too much on what is rare (demonic possession), overlooking what is often more necessary and applicable to most cases: deliverance prayer and ministry.

Here a few resources I would recommend:

Two excellent books on deliverance have been written by Neal Lozano:

Unbound: A Practical Guide to Deliverance

Resisting the Devil: A Catholic Perspective on Deliverance

Here are some deliverance prayers that I and others in this work often pray with the faithful, encouraging them to pray with others as well: Deliverance prayers.

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (James 4:7). I am a witness.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Exorcism or Deliverance?

The Night Prayer of the Church as a Rehearsal for Death

Some years ago, I was addressing a group of young adults at a “Theology on Tap” gathering. One of the attendees asked me to recommend some ways to avoid temptation. Among the advice I offered was this: meditate frequently on death, particularly before going to bed at night. Suddenly it got very quiet. Everyone looked at me as though I had said something in Swahili. “What did you just say? Would you repeat that?” Perhaps my remarks were the right answer and the wrong answer at the same time. In these modern, medically advanced times, those in their twenties don’t really relate to death as a near reality. Meditating on death seems like a strange idea to most of them.

The instinct of the Church has always been to link night prayer to death, considering sleep to be somewhat of a dress rehearsal for death. Consider these prayers:

Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. This is a reference to Jesus’ dying words, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit (Lk 23:46).

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of your people. These are the words of Simeon, who had been promised he would not see death until he had beheld the Messiah. Once he had held the infant Jesus in his arms, he could die peacefully.

May the Lord grant us a peaceful night and a peaceful death. This is the concluding line of night prayer just before the Salve Regina, in which we ask the Blessed Mother to “tuck us in” for the night.

There are also many beautiful references to night prayer in the hymns. For example,

Guard us waking guard us sleeping;
and when we die,
May we in thy mighty keeping
all peaceful lie.

When the last dread call shall wake us,
Do not Our God forsake us
But to reign in glory take us
With thee on high. 

— (Day Is Done, verse 2)

Teach me to live that I may dread
The grave as little as my bed;
Teach me to die, so that I may
Rise glorious at the awful Day.

— (Glory to Thee, My God, This Night, verse 3)

These are just some of the references. Night prayer is a time to remember that we will die and to ponder this with sobriety. Sleep is, to some degree, like death; we become “dead” to the world. We are no longer aware of the rhythms, demands, and fascinations of this world. We are “out” to this world—out of touch with it. We lie still as in death, unaware and uninterested, at a kind of comatose distance from the things that obsess us during our waking hours. Although we awake from sleep, one day we will never awake, never return to the demands of this world. Our coffin, like a little bed, will claim us. It will be closed, and this world will know us no more.

Night prayer serves as a gentle reminder of this looming summons. We entrust ourselves to the care of our Lord, who alone can lead us over the valley of the shadow of death. We also ask Our Lady for her prayers. We ask that she, as a good mother, console us and assure us that after this our exile we will see the glorious face of her Son and be restored to our Father in the warm love of the Holy Spirit.

Even if you don’t have time to pray the other hours of the Divine Office, I strongly recommend night prayer (Compline). It is brief and beautiful, sober and serene. It is the great dress rehearsal for our death. If we are faithful, this will be the greatest day of our life on this earth. On that day, we will be called to Him who loves us. Surely our judgment looms, but if we are faithful it will usher in our final purification and our release from the shackles of sin and the woes of this world.

May the Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.

God, who made the earth and heaven,
Darkness and light:
You the day for work have given,
For rest the night.
May your angel guards defend us,
Slumber sweet your mercy send us,
Holy dreams and hopes attend us
All through the night.

And when morn again shall call us
To run life’s way,
May we still, whatever befall us,
Your will obey.
From the power of evil hide us,
In the narrow pathway guide us,
Never be your smile denied us
All through the day.

Guard us waking, guard us sleeping,
And when we die,
May we in your mighty keeping
All peaceful lie.
When the last dread call shall wake us,
Then, O Lord, do not forsake us,
But to reign in glory take us
With you on high.

Holy Father, throned in heaven,
All holy Son,
Holy Spirit, freely given,
Blest Three in One:
Grant us grace, we now implore you,
Till we lay our crowns before you
And in worthier strains adore you
While ages run.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Night Prayer of the Church as a “Rehearsal for Death”

Who Was Jeremiah the Prophet?

God called Jeremiah a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall (Jer 1:18); a tester and refiner of metals, a tower and fortress (Jer 6:27); a man through whom He would speak against false prophets and shepherds who mislead their sheep. Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? (Jer 23:29) Jeremiah would be the voice of that word. Hated and feared by many, yet secretly sought by the king, He belonged to no one but God, was indebted to no one but God. He was totaliter aliter (totally other).

Indeed, Jeremiah was the best kind of prophet, a reluctant one (Jer 1:6). Beware the eager prophets, the self-appointed ones who seize the mantle as a pretext for their anger and opinions. They claim to speak for God, but He says of them, I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied (Jer 23:21).

God had always known Jeremiah and had laid the foundation for his ministry: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations (Jer 1:5).

Jeremiah ben Hilkiah was born in 640 B.C. in Anathoth, a small town just three miles north of Jerusalem. At age twelve or thirteen he had a mystical experience in which God spoke to him:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord.” Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said to me, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer 1:5-10).

Jeremiah’s early years were his happiest and it was of these that he likely wrote, When I found your words, I devoured them; your words were my joy, the happiness of my heart, Because I bear your name, LORD, God of hosts (Jer 15:16). The rediscovery of the Book of Deuteronomy and the sober example of the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel (721 B.C.) had spurred a religious revival led by King Josiah, beginning in 622 B.C. Foreign entanglements and the religious errors that accompanied them were eliminated. These days of reform would be brief, but for this short time there would be one Lord, one temple, one worship. It was a kind of Jewish renaissance, the best since the days of King David.

But then came disaster. Instead of trusting God, Josiah engaged in a foolish war against King Neco of Egypt, who was marching to assist Assyria against Babylon. Josiah was killed at Megiddo in 609 BC. The kings that followed were puppets of Neco, and foreign entanglement and religious syncretism resumed.

Jeremiah wrote of Israel’s infidelity and Judah’s failure to learn from Israel’s poor example:

The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah: “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce.

Yet her treacherous sister Judah does not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Israel took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord (Jer 3:6-10).

Jeremiah’s next forty years would be spent laboring under four different Kings (Jehoiakim, Johoiachin, Zedekiah, and Gedaliah). None of them would trust God, instead compromising with the world for a false peace. For them, Jeremiah had only scorching denunciations about a coming catastrophe for their religious laxity and political cowardice.

Even as a boy he had seen disaster coming from the north:

I see a boiling pot, facing away from the north. Then the Lord said to me, “Out of the north disaster shall be let loose upon all the inhabitants of the land. … each king shall come, and every one shall set his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem, against all its walls all around and against all the cities of Judah. And I will declare my judgments against them, for all their evil in forsaking me (Jer 1:13-16).

Against the priestly class who trusted merely in the location of the Temple and in sacrifices offered without obedience of the heart, Jeremiah railed:

Do not trust in your deceptive words, chanting, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.” For only if you really change your ways and deeds, if you act justly toward one another and no longer oppress the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow, and no longer shed innocent blood in this place or follow other gods to your own harm, only then I will allow you to live in this place, in the land I gave to your fathers forever and ever. But look, at you, you keep trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal, and follow other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before Me in this house, which bears My name, and say, “We are delivered, so we can continue with all these abominations”? Has this house, which bears My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Yes, I too have seen it, declares the LORD. But go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for My name and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel (Jer 7:4-12).

An even greater source of distress to Jeremiah were the court prophets and priests who lost their way in the halls of power and told the king what he wanted to hear and what was expedient rather than what God had to say. To them he said,

All are greedy for gain; from the prophet to the priest, all practice deceit. They dress the wounds of the daughter of My people with very little care, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all, not even enough to blush. … But the snorting of enemy horses is heard from Dan. At the sound of the neighing of mighty steeds, the whole land quakes. They come to devour the land and everything in it, the city and all who dwell in it (Jer 8:10-12, 16).

Such talk, such an action, is sure to generate a reaction. Jeremiah was soon assailed by foes, family, and friends alike as an enemy of the state and of the Temple. He was labeled a doomsayer and “no friend of Judah.” A prophet’s lot is not a happy one.

Was Jeremiah simply an angry man, unpatriotic and hypercritical of his people and the leaders of the day? Time would tell. Too often people and cultures that are heading toward ruin become locked in avoidance, lies, denial, self-deception, and half-truths; they cannot envision a love that is anything other than approval. Dysfunction and disordered drives become the norm.

Jeremiah loved his people and sought their repentance. The medicine they needed was reality, not the smoke and mirrors of lies and half-truths. Jeremiah would pay dearly for his disclosure of the truth. To a people used to darkness, the light is obnoxious.

The king’s officials, including Pashur the priest, convinced King Zedekiah that Jeremiah should be put to death because his prophecies were discouraging the soldiers as well as the people. Zedekiah did not oppose them, and so Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern, where he sank down into the mud. They intended to starve him to death, but Ebed-melech the Cushite rescued Jeremiah by pulling him out of the cistern. However, Jeremiah remained imprisoned until Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian army in 587 B.C.

The tide had turned against Jeremiah:

And the LORD informed me, so I knew. Then You showed me their deeds. For I was like a gentle lamb led to slaughter; I did not know that they had plotted against me: “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit; let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name will be remembered no more” (Jer 11:18-19).

Pursued and opposed, Jeremiah went into a dark place and lamented his role and the constant pain of hatred directed against him. He was isolated and sensed no consolation from God:

Woe to me, my mother, that you have borne me, a man of strife and conflict in all the land. I have neither lent nor borrowed, yet everyone curses me (Jer 15:10).

You have deceived me, O LORD, and I was deceived. You have overcome me and prevailed. I am a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I proclaim violence and destruction. For the word of the LORD has become to me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, “I will not mention Him or speak any more in His name,” His message becomes a fire burning in my heart, shut up in my bones, and I become weary of holding it in, and I cannot prevail. For I have heard the whispering of many, “Terror is on every side! Report him; let us report him!” All my trusted friends watch for my fall: “Perhaps he will be deceived so that we may prevail against him and take our vengeance upon him.” But the LORD is with me like a fearsome warrior (Jer 20:7-11).

Prophets suffer because they love and care for the ultimate well-being of God’s people, not merely their present comfort. They suffer because they do not fit into tidy political or tribal categories. They speak for God, who transcends such groups. Yes, although the prophet is totaliter aliter (totally other), the human cost is high, and he comes to resemble Christ on the cross. The prophet’s own notions of grandeur must be crucified. The idea that most people will ultimately accept the truth must be crucified. (I have written more about Jeremiah’s struggle here.)

Just before the end of Judah, King Zedekiah summoned Jeremiah from prison and asked for a prophecy regarding the war he proposed against the Babylonians. Jeremiah prophesied against it, implying that the present Babylonian oppression was punishment for Judah’s sin. He told the king that God would spare Judah the worst if they accepted this and did not take matters into their own hands.

This is what the LORD, the God of Hosts, the God of Israel, says: If you indeed surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, then you will live, this city will not be burned down, and you and your household will survive. But if you do not surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, then this city will be handed over to them. They will burn it down, and you yourself will not escape their grasp (Jer 38:17-18).

Zedekiah did not listen, and the end came swiftly:

In the ninth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the tenth month, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon advanced against Jerusalem with his entire army and laid siege to the city. And on the ninth day of the fourth month of Zedekiah’s eleventh year, the city was broken through. … [The] king of Babylon slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and he also killed all the nobles of Judah. Then he put out Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him with bronze chains to take him to Babylon. The Chaldeans set fire to the palace of the king and to the houses of the people, and they tore down the walls of Jerusalem (Jer 39:1-8).

Jeremiah was freed from prison and likely spent the remainder of his days in Egypt (against his will). The remnant of Judah refused his prophecy and made alliances with Egypt. Jeremiah spent the rest of his life there trying to dissuade the Jewish people in Egypt from foreign alliances and from being enamored of the Egyptian gods. His warnings went unheeded and the remnant in Egypt received the following condemnation from God through him:

The Lord says, “Those who escape the sword to return from Egypt to Judah, will be few in number, and the whole remnant of Judah who went to dwell in the land of Egypt will know whose word will stand, Mine or theirs (Jer 44:28).

It was likely in Egyptian exile that Jeremiah died, although there is no certain account of his death. He died preaching and warning.

Yes, he was a pillar of brass against a stubborn people. He suffered greatly for his work; he had the often-thankless task of summoning people away from worldly thinking and political alliances that compromised their devotion to God.

This work must continue both in and out of the Church. In our world there is a great darkness, but Jeremiah would warn us that the problem should be seen within before we look outside. We can surely hear the echoes of warning to shepherds who mislead their flock. Collectively, we are compromised; we are too politically aligned with secular agendas and prone to giving God lip service rather than wholehearted obedience.

From the depths of Jeremiah’s dark period come some of the most beautiful promises of all from God:

I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have drawn you with loving devotion. Again I will build you, and you will be rebuilt, O Virgin Israel. Again you will take up your tambourines and go out in joyful dancing. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant and enjoy the fruit. For there will be a day when watchmen will call out on the hills of Ephraim, “Arise, let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God” (Jer 31:3-6).

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. … “But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD. I will put My law in their minds and inscribe it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they will be My people. … For I will forgive their iniquity and will remember their sins no more (Jer 31:31-34).

Yes, Jeremiah, you were like a brass wall and a pillar of iron among a shaky people. Your name means “The Lord founds.” May the Lord who has founded us find us again in His word through you.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Who Was Jeremiah the Prophet?

Being More Faithfully Catholic Is the Only Valid Response to Shrinking Numbers

Numerous surveys have documented the steady decline of religious belief in the U.S. and the rest of the Western world. The category of people known as “nones” consists of atheists, agnostics, and those who state that they are not affiliated with any particular religious denomination. There is little that unites them other than this lack of belief. In trying to bring others to the Catholic faith, we are not facing people with a single mindset but rather a bewildering and complex hodgepodge of stances and ideas; the “nones” disagree with one another as much as they do with us Catholics.

There is a simplistic perception that believers are losing ground to a united group of non-believers; this is not the case. We are losing ground, but to a host of disconnected groups/trends: atheists, agnostics, and the “spiritual but not religious,” as well as those who embrace Eastern religions, yoga, reiki, Wicca, Santeria, Wicca, Santa Muerte, and Satanism. There are also people who follow a syncretic religion, incorporating aspects of two or more different religions into a unique new one. The people we are trying to convert represent a mishmash of confusing and self-referential “movements,” some of which have a single member! Some who abandoned the Catholic faith did so in anger over a specific issue or teaching; others just drifted. Some oppose us intensely while others are merely indifferent. Almost nothing unites these groups except that none of them accept our faith.

This can be consoling, but it can also make our task more difficult. The consolation comes from the fact that is this not some strong, united force arrayed against us. If anyone in this non-believing “group” boasts, “We now outnumber you,” I would point out that there isn’t a lot of “we” going on in their supposed movement! Little if anything unites them besides unbelief.

Melanie McDonagh, writing in the Catholic Herald, describes a recent secular movement in England centered around the “Sunday Assembly.” In many ways this assembly mimics Sunday religious services: people sing songs, listen to a secular talk, and share coffee and fellowship afterwards. It turns out, though, that even this group is seeing a substantial decline in attendance. McDonagh writes,

Yet now, it would seem, the difficulties in maintaining attendance turn out to be common to believers and unbelievers alike. According to Faith Hill, writing in The Atlantic, “Sunday Assembly has reported a significant loss in total attendees over the past few years—from about 5,000 monthly attendees in 2016 to about 3,500 in 2018. … After a promising start, attendance declined, and nearly half the chapters have fizzled out ….” If it’s hard getting people to come to Mass when there’s the Body and Blood of Christ on offer, it must be far harder when you’ve got an unanchored community with nearly nothing in common. In fact, some Assembly members are agnostics and others are atheists, so even the absence of religion doesn’t mean unity.

So, it is not really a case of “us versus them.” Rather, it is more that we are against something no more cohesive than a morning mist as the sun rises.

While this may be consoling it also illustrates the difficulty of our response or strategy. Apologetics has always been multi-faceted: Catholic vs. Atheist, Catholic vs. Agnostic, Catholic vs. Mainline Protestant, Catholic vs. Evangelical, and so on. In the current quagmire of highly subjective denominations, the decline in belief resembles more a death by a thousand cuts. While certain commonalities may exist among the myriad varieties of unbelief and designer deities, it has become clear to me that the best thing we can do in response is to be the Church, clearly and unambiguously; we must be clear in our doctrine and identify ourselves as Catholics to others. St. Paul says,

We do not lose heart …. We do not practice deceit, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by open proclamation of the truth, we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor 4:1-2).

 What we certainly do not want to do is to follow the example of the mainline Protestant denominations, who have comprised nearly every doctrine and moral teaching to please the world rather than God. In the same article, Ms. McDonagh memorably describes some Protestant sects

[they] slid from non-conformity to Unitarianism and eventually to mere political activism. Unitarianism, in fact, strikes me as the American way of doing agnosticism, or at least deism—a way of being religiously observant without having anything in particular to observe.

What could be more useless than to become the very thing we set out to convert? How can we convert the world by becoming the world? What distinguishes the Protestant denominations and their teachings on moral issues like sexuality, marriage, and the value of life? One might argue that they stand against greed and for social justice. Those are not controversial stands in the liberal West, which loves to trot out such things as a form of virtue signaling.

No, I think that the best and only way forward is being fully, faithfully, and joyfully Catholic. There is still a place for arguments and apologetics, but in the era of competitive atheism and consumerized belief, being “happy customers” of the Lord Jesus and insisting on no cheap substitutes or imitation brands is our best way forward. This may seem bold or hard in an age of never-ending scandal and disappointment with our leaders. However, those are examples of not being Catholic enough or of living in outright contradiction to the Catholic faith. Be Catholic, joyfully. St. Teresa of Calcutta is purported to have said, “Joy is a net of love in which you can catch souls.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Being More Faithfully Catholic Is the Only Valid Response to Shrinking Numbers

Labor Day Reflection: We Need One Another to Survive

Labor Day makes me mindful of our interconnectedness; we need one another in order to survive. Consider how we are each called to contribute as well as how we benefit from the labor of others:

Even that simple can of corn you pull from the grocery store shelf has thousands of people standing behind it: from those who stock the shelves to the truckers who transport the product to the store; from the regional warehouse workers to the rail operators who supply the warehouse; from the farmers and harvesters to the granary workers. Then there are others such as those who supply fertilizers that aid in growth and those who developed innumerable agricultural technologies over the years. People also labored to build the roads and rails over which the products travel. Others supply fuel for the trucks, combines, and locomotives. Coal miners work hard to supply the electricity needed all along the way. Still others in banking and business take risks and supply the funds to run agricultural, transportation, and food distribution businesses and networks. The list of people who have worked so that you and I can buy that can of corn at the store is almost endless.

Thanks be to God for human labor; we help each other to survive!

As today is Labor Day in the United States, it seems good to reflect on some teachings about human labor from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). In the list below, the text from the catechism is italicized while my comments appear in plain red text.

1. Human labor precedes Original Sin and hence is not an imposition due to sin but rather part of our original dignity.

God places [Man] in the garden. There he lives “to till it and keep it.” Work is not yet a burden, but rather the collaboration of man and woman with God in perfecting the visible creation (CCC #378).

Note that our dignity is that we are to work with God to perfect creation. Adam and Eve were told by God to fill the earth and subdue it (Gen 1:28). Radical environmentalism often presents a far more negative view of humanity’s interaction with the environment. While we have not always done well in treating the environment, it is wrong to think of the created world as better without humanity’s presence. Rather, it is our dignity to work with God in perfecting nature. Note also the description of work as not burdensome prior to the advent of sin. Man and woman did have work to do, but it was not experienced as a burden. Only after Original Sin did work come to be perceived in this way: Eve would bring forth her children in pain and Adam would only get his food by the “sweat of his brow” (Gen 3:16, 19).

2. Human work is a duty and prolongs the work of creation.

Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty: “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” [2 Thess 3:10]. Work honors the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him (CCC #2427).

See again the emphasis on our dignity as collaborators with God in the work of creation and in perfecting what God has begun! Not everyone can work in the same way. Age and handicap may limit a person’s ability to perform manual labor. Further, talents and state in life tend to focus one’s work in specific areas. All, however, are called to work in some way. Even the bedridden can pray and offer their suffering for the good of others.

3. Work can be sanctifying and redemptive.

[Work] can also be redemptive. By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish. Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ (CCC #2427).

In his mercy God has not forsaken sinful man. The punishments consequent upon sin, “pain in childbearing” and toil “in the sweat of your brow,” also embody remedies that limit the damaging effects of sin (CCC # 1609).

Sin has brought upon us many weaknesses and selfish tendencies. Work can serve as a remedy through which we are strengthened unto discipline, contribution to the common good, and cooperation with others in attaining good ends.

4. Work is an acceptable sacrifice to God.

[The] laity, dedicated as they are to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvelously called and prepared so that even richer fruits of the Spirit maybe produced in them. For all their works, prayers, and apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body, if they are accomplished in the Spirit—indeed even the hardships of life if patiently borne—all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. In the celebration of the Eucharist these may most fittingly be offered to the Father along with the body of the Lord (CCC # 901).

5. To work is to participate in the common good.

Participation [in the common good] is achieved first of all by taking charge of the areas for which one assumes personal responsibility: by the care taken for the education of his family, by conscientious work, and so forth, man participates in the good of others and of society (CCC # 1914).

We work not only to benefit ourselves but also to contribute to the good of others and society in general. We do this first by caring for our own needs to the extent possible, thus not burdening others unnecessarily. We also contribute to the common good by supplying our talent and work in such a way as to contribute to the overall availability of goods and services in the community. We supply our human talent and the fruits of our labor to others, while at the same time purchasing the goods and services of others.

The key word seems to be “dignity.” Human work proceeds from our dignity as collaborators with God in perfecting and completing the work of creation. Everyone can work and should do so in the ways possible for him or her, not merely out of a sense of duty but also because it is the essence of dignity.

To return to our opening theme, here are some lyrics from the song “I Need You to Survive”:

I need you, you need me.

It is God’s will that every need be supplied.
You are important to me, I need you to survive.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Labor Day Reflection: We Need One Another to Survive

You Have to Serve Before You Sit – A Homily for the 22nd Sunday of the Year

In the Gospel for Sunday’s Mass, the Lord Jesus summons us to a deeper appreciation for what brings true honor, for what makes a person truly great. As you may imagine, what the world considers great and honorable is rather different from what God thinks and sees. Let’s look at this Gospel in three parts and discover its paradoxical vision.

I. THE PERSON who HONORS – The Lord is at a banquet and notices people vying for seats of honor. In response, He gives the following teaching: When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him, and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say, “Give your place to this man,” and then you would proceed with embarrassment to take the lowest place.

What the Lord is really reminding us is that at formal banquets, it is the host who determines where we sit. This is most common at wedding receptions, where seats are assigned by the couple ahead of time. For someone to walk in and sit at the head table reserved for the wedding party is rude, pompous, and presumptuous. The polite and expected behavior is to report to the entrance table, receive your table assignment, and graciously take your seat there.

Of course, the banquet we are invited to is God’s Kingdom. God has a place for us, but it is He who assigns each person his place.

Recall that when a dispute arose among the apostles as to who was the greatest, Jesus responded, I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:29).

Another time, when James and John approached Jesus for seats at His right and left (places of honor), Jesus responded, to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared (Mk 10:40).

So, our places in the Kingdom are determined by God.

Many miss this point and like to assign themselves places and honors in God’s Kingdom. That right belongs to God. Some go through life resentful that they are not as rich or powerful as others. Some wish they were taller, thinner, smarter, or more attractive. They are jealous of what they see as the advantages of others.

Be very careful here. It is not for us to determine what is best for us. It is not for us to assign our own seat. Just because we think it is better to be rich than poor does not mean that it is so. The Lord warns how difficult it is for the rich to inherit the Kingdom of God, so being rich isn’t necessarily the blessing we think it is. It is for God to decide what is best for us. Riches, power, popularity, and good looks are all things that tend to root us in this world; they are not necessarily blessings. Having a “good” job like someone else’s, a family like someone else’s, or a talent like someone else’s may not be what is best for us.

God gives each of us the talents and blessings as well as the burdens and challenges He knows are best for us. Don’t just walk into God’s Kingdom and seat yourself! Check in with the host and find out His will in terms of your seat. He’s got just the right one in mind for you.

II. THE PARADOX of HONORS – Jesus was noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table. In effect, He was struck by how people perceive honor and how they vie for what they think is honor. They want to impress others and be thought of as important.

Remember that this is God’s banquet. The qualifications for the seats of honor there are very different from those necessary for worldly honors. In the world, we are impressed by things like brawn, beauty, and bucks. We’re impressed by big cars, big houses, and a big entourage. When a limo pulls up, just watch all eyes turn. The popular, the powerful, the glitterati, and the game changers emerge to flashing cameras and thunderous applause. These are the things that we notice; this is what draws our eyes.

What about God? As God looks around the banquet hall of His Kingdom, who catches His eye? The Lord provides the answer in many places in Scripture:

        • Whoever would be great among you must be the servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:43).
        • Rather let the greatest among you become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who do you think is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves (Luke 22:26).
        • Though the LORD is on high, he looks upon the lowly, but the proud he knows from afar (Ps 138:6).
        • But God chose the foolish and low born things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him (1 Cor 1:27).
        • Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? (James 2:5)
        • Many who are last shall be first, and many who are first shall be last (Luke 13:30).
        • He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly (Luke 1:52).

So, back to our question: In the banquet hall of God’s Kingdom, who catches His eye? Is it those at the “head table”? It is those on the red carpet? No. If we apply God’s words, we see that those who draw God’s attention are not even at the table; they are the ones waiting on tables, the ones serving, the ones back in the kitchen cooking and washing dishes. It is the lowly, the humble, the servants of all, who catch God’s eye.

This is the paradox of honor in God’s kingdom. It is not about being powerful in a worldly sense. God is not impressed by the size of our house, car, or bank account. Our popularity does not impress Him. It is our service, humility, and love for others that catches His eye. The seats of honor, the places closest to God’s heart, are for those who serve.

III. THE PRESCRIPTION for HONORS – The prescription is clear. Jesus instructs us, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, “My friend, move up to a higher position.”

If we want to be great in the Kingdom of God, then we had better become a servant. Jesus says that we should take the lowest place, that we should serve before we sit. It is serving others that makes a person great. The greatest thing about us is not our big paycheck or our fancy house; it is that we serve.

We are great when we identify with the lowly and humble and seek to serve rather than to be served. We are great when we use our wealth, power, talents, and abilities to build up the people of God and extend His Kingdom. Even things we do for which we are paid can be service, provided that serving is our primary motivation.

Jesus then adds, When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. This is a complete change in the way we see what is great in this world.

Jesus is giving us more than a moral directive (be generous to the poor). He is offering us a new vision for who is greatest in His Kingdom. We ought to run to the poor, the blind, the lame, and the afflicted, because they give us the ability to serve. In the end, our greatest honor is serving others, especially the poor and afflicted who cannot repay us.

A final dimension is learning that some of the greatest and most honorable people we know are those who serve us. Because serving is the greatest honor in the Kingdom of God, we ought to hold in high honor those who wait on our tables, clean our houses and workplaces, do our “dirty work,” serve in our hospitals, and care for and serve us in countless other ways. They are doing something honorable and we ought to treat them with respect, kindness, and honor. We ought to give generous tips when that is appropriate, but above all we are to honor them.

For the greatest among you is the servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all (Mk 10:43).

Yes, you have to serve before you sit in any place of honor at God’s banquet.

The song in the video below says, “Sit down, servant. I can’t sit down … My soul’s so happy that I can’t sit down.” The video depicts quite a varied cultural expression: a Thai choir singing an African-American spiritual!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: You Have to Serve Before You Sit – A Homily for the 22nd Sunday of the Year