Were Your Ashes Real Ashes or Just Ritual Ones?

So, Ash Wednesday has come and gone. But what impact did the message and sacramental of ashes have on you? Was it just a ritual, a kind of act of Catholic belonging, or did you fruitfully receive the Ashes and the messages contained in the Mass of Ash Wednesday?

I’m amazed by how many people pack into the church to get ashes. Sadly, some don’t seem to want Holy Communion nearly as much. In fact, in some of the parishes where I served in the past, a significant number walked out the door immediately after receiving ashes, not even staying long enough for Communion. Of course most people who come to Mass on Ash Wednesday are faithful and have their priorities straight, but it still interests me how large the numbers are for something that seems at one level to be so unappealing  (having dirty ashes smudged on your face), and a message that seems harsh to modern ears: “You are going to die and you need to repent and believe to be ready.” 

Indeed, the sign of ashes is quite challenging if we understand what it really means. I wonder if everyone really embraces all the implications of Ash Wednesday: 

Ashes signify humility Job said, “You [Oh Lord] asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3-6).

Notice that Job does not merely repent in a general sense. Rather, having encountered God, he realizes that God is God, and that he, Job, is a creature, mere dust and ashes in the presence of God, who is being itself, who is all in all. Yes, Job is a son in the presence of a father; he is not God’s equal that he might question Him or put Him on trial.

Hence in this case the ashes represent not only repentance, but humility as well. The Church’s liturgy echoes this theme of humility in quoting Gen 3:19 as the ashes are placed on the individual: “Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”

Ashes are a reminder of death and a call to wisdom – After Adam sinned, God told him, By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Gen 3:19).

As he imposes the ashes, the priest usually recites some form of this passage. Memorable though it is, consider an even blunter form: “You are going to die.”

This is a salient and sobering reminder that we often get worked up and anxious about passing things, while at the same time being unmindful of the certain and most important thing, for which we must be ready. We tend to maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. Sadly, like the man in one of the Lord’s parables, we can amass worldly things and forget the final things. To him the Lord said, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?” So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God (Luke 12:21-22).

Thus, to consider our final end is wise; to fail to do so is foolishness defined.

Ashes are a sacramental that points to the Sacrament – The Old Testament declared, You shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and put them in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp. They shall be kept by the Israelite community for use in the water of cleansing; it is for purification from sin … For the unclean person, put some ashes from the burned purification offering into a jar and pour fresh water over them. Then a man who is ceremonially clean is to take some hyssop, dip it in the water and sprinkle the tent and all the furnishings and the people who were there (Numbers 19:9, 17).

This text shows ashes obtained from a burned sin offering and mixed with sprinkled water as a cleansing ritual. In the Old Testament, this ritual could not actually take away sin (cf Heb 9:9-13) but it did provide for ritual purity. It also symbolized repentance and a desire to be free from sin.

In the same way, ashes on Ash Wednesday (mixed with holy water) cannot take away sin. They are a sacramental, not a sacrament.

To receive ashes on Ash Wednesday and then not go to confession during Lent is really to miss the point. If one really desires to repent and be cleansed from and free of sin, then from the sacramental of ashes one goes to the Sacrament of Confession. Otherwise the ritual of Ash Wednesday is pointless.

Ashes are a sign of a true changeWhen the news [of Nineveh’s possible destruction in forty days] reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust (Jonah 3:6).

Repentance is symbolized in this passage as well, but the symbol alone is not enough; actual repentance is required. The king does not just “get ashes”; he issues a decree calling for fasting, prayer, and true reform: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish (Jonah 3:7-9).

Hence another option for the priest to say as he places the ashes is, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”

It is not enough to get a sooty forehead. True repentance is called for, an actual intent to change. Otherwise the ashes are a false sign.

Ashes are a summons to faith and a new mind – Jesus said, Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes (Matt 11:21).

Jesus rebukes ancient towns for their lack of faith in what He said. It is good to recall that the Greek word translated here as “repented” is μετενόησαν (metenoesan), which more literally means “to come to a new mind” or “to come to a new way of thinking.”

The fact is, there are many ways that we think about things that are more of the world than of God. Our ongoing challenge is to come to a new mind and to think more as God thinks. This is only possible by His grace, working through Scripture and Church teaching.

It is significant that the ashes are smeared on the forehead or sprinkled on the head. We are called to a faith that transforms our mind. We are called to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2).

Hence another option for the priest is to say, “Repent and believe the Good News” as he imposes the ashes.

So, how real are your ashes? Do you intend the things described above as you go forth? Or is it just a ritual, something you do because it’s “sorta neat”? Pray and reflect on the deeper meaning of the ashes.

Compare and Contrast: The Super Bowl and the Mass, Football and Faith

I write to you in the midst of a semi-“religious” event: the Super Bowl. People have donned their sacred attire and are shouting praises. I enjoy football, but see it a lot less than most since I’m a priest and tend to be busy on Sundays! Yet I remain quite fascinated at how passionate and dedicated many Americans are to their team and to the game.

Would that more Catholics had the same dedication to the Mass and the Church that true football fans have to the game. (Fan is short for fanatic.) Would, too, that all priests and religious had the same sacrificial dedication that football players have.

Consider for a moment the players. They spend years coming up through a system of high school, college, and professional levels. Priest and religious do as well. Football players give their all to the game; their whole life is centered on it. Exhausting, year-round practice, weightlifting, and punishing games. They risk injury and suffer many pains, all for the game. Do priests and religious show the same dedication? Are they willing to make the same kind of sacrifices for Jesus? Will they risk injury and attack? I pray we will and do, but I wonder. True, we are not paid millions, but we don’t do it for the money. Are we as dedicated and sacrificial?

And what of the faithful? So many Catholics are dedicated to the game of football. They even come to Church wearing the jersey of their team, often sporting someone else’s name on their back! Let’s compare and contrast some of the aspects of football and see if the same thrill and dedication are exhibited for our Lord, the Mass, and the Church.

Disclaimer – I write a lot of this “tongue in cheek.” I am not brooding over this, just observing. I am also using a technique known as hyperbole. Hyperbole uses exaggeration to make a point. For example the phrase, “There must have been a million people there” is an exaggeration that is not literally true but does convey the idea that a lot of people were present. Please take these comparisons in the light-hearted manner in which they are intended.

That said, the point remains a serious one: we often exhibit unusual priorities when it comes to worldly vs. spiritual matters. We do well to look at ourselves with humor in order to ask God for greater passion for what matters most. Football is about a bag full of air going up and down a field. Faith is about our eternal destiny.

Consider the following Super Bowl behaviors and contrast them to Mass and the faith:

  • Super Bowl – Many fans prepare for the game for weeks. They follow the playoffs, review stats, and listen to commentaries and predictions. They make sure they are “up on” the game.” At a bare minimum, they know who is playing, and usually a great deal more. They often plan parties and invite others to join them. They discuss with fellow fans their wishes and the likely outcome of the game. They often boast of their team and loudly proclaim their intent to watch the game and see their team emerge victorious! They anticipate the game and look forward to it joyfully.
  • Mass – Little preparation is evident on the part of most who go to Mass. Generally, they do not review the readings or spiritually prepare by frequent confession. Fasting has disappeared from the Catholic landscape. In fact, ¾ of Catholics don’t go to Mass at all. And even of those who do, many don’t anticipate it joyfully. Many even dread going; they try to “fit it in” at the most convenient time and hope for the shortest possible Mass. This is true even on the great feasts like Christmas, Easter, and Holy Week. Most Catholics do not talk to others about going to Mass or invite them to join them.
  • Super Bowl – Many fans wear special clothes for the occasion, even at regular-season football games. They wear jerseys, hats with insignias, and other “sacred” apparel. Some even paint their faces and bodies.
  • Mass – Sacred apparel for Mass is all but gone. There isn’t much special attire and little care is given to display one’s faith through clothing or other marks of faith. Sunday clothes were once special. Women wore hats and veils; men wore suits and ties and would never dream of wearing a hat into Church. But all that is gone. “Come as you are” seems to be the only rule.
  • Super Bowl – People who go to football games often spend hundreds of dollars for tickets. Those who are fortunate enough to go to the Super Bowl spend thousands, gladly. Those who stay home often spend a lot of time and money on parties.
  • Mass – Most Catholics give on average 5-7 dollars per week in the collection plate. Many are resentful when the priest speaks of money.
  • Super Bowl – Most fans arrive early for the game, and do so eagerly. At regular-season games, many have tailgate parties. Fans at home joyfully anticipate the kick off and spend time in preparatory rites such as parties and beer. Even ordinary games find the fans watching pre-game shows and gathering well before the kickoff.
  • Mass – Many Catholics time their arrival for just before the Mass begins. Many—as high as 50%—arrive late. Arriving early to pray or to greet fellow worshippers is generally not something that is planned for.
  • Super Bowl – People LOVE the game. They are enthusiastic; they shout, cheer, and are focused and interested in each play. They are passionate, alive, and celebratory. They also care a great deal, exhibiting joy at good plays, and sorrow at bad ones. They are alive, exhilarated, and expressive.  They care passionately about what is happening on the field.
  • Mass – Many look bored at Mass. In many ways, the expressions on people’s faces remind one more of a funeral than of a resurrected Lord. Rather than a sea of joyful faces, it looks like everyone just sucked a lemon: bored believers, distracted disciples, frozen chosen. One finds exceptions in many Black parishes, at charismatic Masses, and in some Latino parishes. But overall, little joy or even interest is evident. It is true that many would not think of loud cheers as appropriate in Church, but even a little joy and interest would be a vast improvement.
  • Super Bowl – Many fans sing team songs. Here in Washington we sing, “Hail to the Redskins, Hail victory! Braves on the warpath! Fight for ol’ D.C.!”
  • Mass – Most Catholics don’t sing.
  • Super Bowl – Even a normal football game lasts four hours including the pre- and post-game shows. Toward the end of each half, the game is often intentionally slowed down; incomplete passes stop the clock, etc. Fans gladly accept this slowdown and are even happy and excited if the game goes into overtime.
  • Mass – Frustration and even anger are evident in many of the faithful  if Mass begins to extend beyond 45 minutes. Some people even begin to walk out. Many leave right after Communion even if the Mass is “on time.”
  • Super Bowl – Fans understand and accept the place of rules and expect them to be followed. Often they are angry when they are broken or when penalties are not called. They respect the role of the referee and the line judges and, even if they are unhappy, accept the finality of their judgments. They seem to understand that a recognized and final authority is necessary for the existence of the game.
  • Mass – Some Catholics resent rules and routinely break them or support those who do. They also resent Church authorities who might “throw a flag” or assess a penalty of any sort. Often they do not respect bishops or the authority of the Church. Many refuse to accept that recognized and final authority is necessary for the existence of the Church. Many Catholics resent pointed sermons at Mass in which the priest speaks clearly on moral topics. Praise God, many Catholics are faithful and respect Church authority. Sadly, though, others do not.
  • Super Bowl – Many who go to a football game endure rather uncomfortable conditions for the privilege: hard seats, freezing cold, pouring rain. Often the game is hard to see and the sound system is full of echoes. Still the stadium is full and few fans complain.
  • Mass – Many complain readily at any inconvenience or discomfort. It’s too hot; it’s too cold; the Mass times aren’t perfectly to my liking. Why aren’t the pews cushioned? (They’re harder to keep clean, that’s why.) Why wasn’t the walk to my usual door shoveled clear of snow? When will the sound system be better? Why do they ask me to move to the front in an empty Church?

OK, that’s enough. Remember, I use hyperbole here and intend this in a lighthearted manner. We humans are funny, and what we get excited about is often humorous. The truth is, people love their football. But this one point is serious: would that we who believe were as passionate as football fans. We need to work at this on two levels.

Clergy and Church leaders need to work very hard to ensure that the liturgy of the Church is all that it should be. High-quality, sacred music, good preaching, and devout and pious celebration are essential. Perfunctory, hurried liturgy with little attention to detail does not inspire.

The faithful, too, must realize more essentially what the Mass really is and then ask God to anoint them with a powerful and pious awareness of the presence and ministry of Jesus Christ. They must ask for a joy and zeal that will be manifest on their faces, in their deeds, and in their dedication.

Here’s one of the better Superbowl commercials from this year:

Losing our Leprosy (In Four Easy Steps) – A Meditation on the Gospel for the Sixth Sunday of the Year

In today’s Gospel we see the healing of a leper (this means you and me). Leprosy in Scripture is more than just a physical illness, it is also a euphemism for sin. Leprosy itself is not sin, but it resembles sin and what sin does to us spiritually. For sin, like leprosy, disfigures us; it deteriorates us, it distances us (for Lepers had to live apart from the community), and it brings death if it is not checked. Yes, sin is a lot like leprosy.

Psalm 38 is a biblical example of how sin is compared to leprosy:

There is no soundness in my flesh because of thy indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me. My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning… there is no soundness in my flesh…My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my kinsmen stand afar off.

Perhaps a brief description of physical leprosy might be in order, just so we can further appreciate both the physical illness and also, by analogy, how sin devastates us in stages. I have compiled this description from several sources; among them, William Barclay’s Commentary on Mark. I reading this, you will see how Psalm 38 above quite vividly compares sin to leprosy:

Leprosy begins with an unaccountable lethargy and pains in the joints. Then there appear on the body, especially on the back, symmetrical discolored patches with pink and brown nodules and the skin becomes thickened. Gradually the symptoms move to the face and the nodules gather especially in the folds of the cheek, the nose, the lips and the forehead. The whole appearance of the face is changed till a person loses his human appearance and looks more like a lion. The nodules grow larger and larger and they begin to ulcerate, and from them comes a foul discharge of puss. The eyebrows fall out and the eyes become staring. The voice becomes hoarse and the breath wheezes because of the ulceration of the vocal cords. Eventually the whole body becomes involved. Discolored patches and blisters appear everywhere. The muscles waste away, the tendons contract until the hands look more like claws. Next comes the progressive loss of fingers and toes until a whole hand or foot may drop off. It is a kind of a terrible and slow, progressive death of the body.

The disease may last from ten to thirty years and ends in mental decay, coma, then finally death.

Yet this was not all. The lepers had not only to bear the physical torment of the disease, they also had to bear the mental anguish and heartache of being completely banished from society and totally shunned. They were forced to live outside of town in leper areas. Everyone they knew and loved was lost to them and could only be seen from a distance.

In the middle ages when a person was diagnosed with leprosy, they were brought to the Church and the priest read the burial service over them for in effect they were already dead, though still alive.

This description of leprosy shows how the illness develops, disfigures deteriorates and distances the leper, and ultimately there is death. As we shall see, not every diagnosis of Leprosy was accurate, since many skin aliments, (such as psoriasis) can resemble the early stages of leprosy. Later, if the skin cleared up or remained stable, the supposed leper could be readmitted to the community.

But what of us, spiritual lepers? How are we to lose our leprosy and find healing? The Gospel suggests four steps to find healing from our spiritual leprosy of sin.

I. Step One – Admit the Reality – The text says simply, A leper came to Jesus, and kneeling down, begged him and said, “If you wish you can make me clean. But see, he knows he is a Leper, he knows he needs healing. He humbles himself, kneeling and pleads for cleansing.

And what of us? Do we know our sin? Do we know we need healing? Are we willing to ask? We live in times where sin is often made light of and confessional lines are short. Too easily, we excuse our faults by blaming others (It’s not my fault, my mother dropped me on my head when I was two). Or perhaps we point to some other sinner, apparently worse and think, “Well at least I’m not like him.”

But the fact is we are loaded with sin. Too easily we are thinned-skinned, egotistical, unforgiving, unloving, unkind, mean-spirited, selfish, greedy, lustful, jealous, envious, bitter, ungrateful, smug, superior, vengeful, angry, aggressive, unspiritual, unprayerful, stingy, and just plain mean. And if all the things on the list don’t apply to you, many do and, frankly the list is incomplete. We are sinners with a capital “S” and we need serious help.

Like the leper in the Gospel, step one is to admit the reality of our sin and humbly ask the Lord for help.

II. Step Two – Accept the Relationship – Notice two things. First the Leper calls on the Lord Jesus. In effect he seeks a relationship with Jesus, knowing that it can heal him.

Note secondly how the Lord responds. The text says Jesus is moved with pity and touches him. The Greek word translated here as pity is σπλαγχνισθεὶς (splagchnistheis) and is from from splanxna, meaning  ‘the inward parts,’ especially the nobler organs – the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. These gradually came to denote the seat of the affections.

Hence the Lord is moved with a tender love for this man. The English word “pity,” though often considered a condescending word today, is rooted in the Latin pietas, referring to family love. So Jesus sees this man as a brother and reaches out to him. The touch of Jesus was an unthinkable action at that time. No one would touch a leper, or even come close to one. Lepers were required to live out of town in the nearby caves. But Jesus is God, and loves this man. And in his humanity, Christ sees this leper as a brother. Scripture says,

For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why HE IS NOT ASHAMED TO CALL THEM BRETHREN, saying, “I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee. (Heb 2:11)

As for us, it is in our saving relationship to the Lord, a relationship established by faith, that we are justified, transformed, healed and ultimately saved. If we would be free of the leprosy of our sin we must accept the saving relationship with Jesus and let him touch us.

III. Step Three – Apply the Remedy – Having healed him, note that Jesus instructs him to follow through in this manner: Jesus said to him, See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.

Among the ancient Jews it was the priests who were trained and empowered to recognize leprosy and its healing. For, as already stated, leprosy in its early stages can resemble other skin aliments. Perhaps it is leprosy, or perhaps it is just dermatitis, or psoriasis, or eczema. Priests were trained to make observations and either banish someone, or readmit them to the community. For sometimes, out of an abundance of caution, a person was dismissed on suspicion of leprosy, but the condition cleared up or remained stable. It was the priest who made the decisions for the community.

And, of course we have here a metaphor for sacramental confession. For what does the priest do in confession? He assesses a person’s spiritual condition, and having seen God’s healing mercy at work in a person’s repentance, reconciles, or, in the case of serious sinners, readmits them into the full communion of the Church. It is God who forgives, just like the leper in this story, but the Lord ministers through the priest.

And thus for us, spiritual lepers, the Lord gives the same instruction. “Go show yourself to the priest.” That is,  “Go to confession!” And the Lord adds, “Offer for your cleansing what is prescribed.” That is, say,  “Offer your penance.”

But someone might say, Why should he bother? The Lord has already healed him. To which we can only answer, “Just do what Jesus says: Show yourself to the Priest, offer your penance.” It is true, God can forgive directly, but it is clear enough from a passage like this, that confession is to be a part of the believer’s life, especially in the case of serious sin. To those who balk, the simple answer must be, “Just DO what Jesus says.”

So, having admitted the reality, accepting the relationship and applying the remedy, there remains a fourth step.

IV. Step Four – Announce the Result – When God heals you, you have to tell somebody. There’s just something about joy. It can’t hid. And people know when you’ve been changed.

That said, there are perplexities about this part of the Gospel. For, as the text says, Jesus “sternly warns him” NOT to tell a soul, other than the priest. The Greek text is even stronger, for it says Jesus warned him ἐμβριμησάμενος (embrimēsamenos); which means to snort with anger, to exert someone with the notion of coercion, springing out of displeasure, anger, indignation, or antagonism. It means to express indignant displeasure with some one; and to thus charge them sternly. So we see a very strong and negative command of Jesus. There is nothing ambiguous about the fact that he angrily warns this man to remain silent.

That this, and other places where the Lord issues similar commands, is puzzling, is an understatement. And yet, the reason is supplied; namely that Jesus did not want his mission turned into a circus act where people gathered to watch miracles and merely to see “signs and wonders.” Clearly this man’s inability to remain silent means that Jesus can no longer enter a place quietly, and that many sought him for secondary reasons.

That said, commands to remain silent cannot remain true for us who are under standing order # 1: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt 28:19)

Hence it is clear we NEED to shout what the Lord has done for us and give him all the glory. And, honestly, when God acts in your life there is joy, and joy cannot be hid or suppressed. If our healing is real, we can’t stay silent. To quote Jesus at a later stage, and when the Temple leaders told him to silence his disciples, I tell you, if they keep quiet, the very rocks will cry out (Lk 19:40).

At the heart of evangelization is announcing what the Lord has done for us. An Old Gospel song says, “I thought I wasn’t gonna testify…but I couldn’t keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me!

Yes, tell somebody what the Lord has done. If the healing is real, you can’t keep silent.

Loosing our Leprosy in Four Easy Steps.

A Test for Pridefulness

None of us likes to think we are prideful. It’s always someone else; that guy over there is the arrogant one. One way of gauging is to ponder how well we accept being corrected. Consider the following verses from Proverbs:

He who corrects an arrogant man earns insult; and he who reproves a wicked man incurs opprobrium. Reprove not an arrogant man, lest he hate you;

But, reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Instruct a wise man, and he becomes still wiser; teach a just man, and he advances in learning (Proverbs 9:7-12).

Which one are you?Do you bristle when someone corrects you or do you grow wiser from the input you receive?

It’s not easy to accept criticism or correction without feeling some degree of humiliation, particularly when it is public in some manner.

Of course, there are different kinds of correction.There is the sort that involves facts about which we are mistaken. At other times need to be set straight on the proper procedures to be followed in some situation. Finally, there are times when we have failed in a moral sense and need to be summoned back to what is right. Whatever the case, being corrected can be difficult, and how we handle it is a good indicator of pride or humility in our soul.

There are, to be sure, times when people do not correct us in the best way possible.Perhaps they are smug or seek to embarrass us. Even in those cases, though, if we are wrong, we should view correction as beneficial, regardless of how poorly it is delivered.

Note also that the passage from Proverbs above links humility to wisdom and learning.Thus, something we call docility is related to humility. The word docility comes from the Latin word for being teachable. Too often, we can be stubbornly opinionated and resist being taught. It is important to ask the Lord for greater docility.

In preparation for Lent, take this short self-test for pridefulness: How do you take correction? How teachable are you?

When Troubles Rise – A Homily for the 5th Sunday of the Year


In life we face many difficulties; they challenge us and our faith. Deep struggle can lead us to question God, His love, or even His existence. The readings today speak to us of these sorts of difficulties and prophetically interpret them for us. Let’s take a look at these readings in three stages.

I.  The Disillusionment of Deep Despair – The reading from the book of Job clearly articulates the feeling we have all experienced at one time or another. Job said, Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? … I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me … then the night drags on; I am filled with restlessness until the dawn. My days … come to an end without hope … I shall not see happiness again.

Job is weary and worried, angry and anxious, depressed and discouraged. We’ve all been there, and although we pray it won’t happen, life sometimes cycles back to difficulties even if times are good now.

Notice Job’s disillusionment. He says, I shall not see happiness again. Suffering has a way of drawing us into the illusion that things will never be good again, that we will never again be happy or content. Yet Scripture says that troubles don’t last forever, that weeping may endure for a night, but joy will come with the morning light (Psalm 30:5). This is true even for those of us who are soon to die; death opens to a new and lasting joy provided we are faithful.

Job is caught in the illusion that his life is over, that it will never be good again. This is not the case; he will once again be blessed, blessed with an even greater abundance than he once had.

We, too, can get lost in illusion when suffering sets in. A thousand questions, usually starting with “why,” beset us. And while the mystery of suffering cannot be fully explained, we ought to remember that God permits some trouble in our life so that certain purposes can be accomplished (if we are faithful). God permits trouble to

DIRECT us – Sometimes God must light a fire under us to get us moving. Problems often point us in a new direction and motivate us to change. 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 innermost being. When our way gets too easy, we tend to stray from God.

INSPECT us – Our problems have a way of helping to show what we’re really made of. Through trials and tests in my life, I’ve discovered many strengths I never knew I had. There is a test in every testimony, and trials have a way of purifying and strengthening our faith as well as inspecting it to see whether it is genuine. Trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure. (1 Peter 1:6).

CORRECT us – Some lessons can only be learned through pain and failure. Sometimes we only learn the value of something (e.g., health, money, a relationship) by losing it. 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 your word (Psalm 119:67).

PROTECT us – A problem can be a blessing in disguise if it prevents us from being harmed by something more serious. It might be as simple as getting stuck in traffic, thereby avoiding a terrible accident up ahead. It might be something more serious like losing our health, but along with that losing our ability to sin so seriously. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph said to his brothers (who had sold him into slavery), You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

PERFECT us – When responded to properly, problems are character builders. God is far more interested in our character than our comfort. 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. (Romans 5:3). You are being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it (1 Peter 1:7).

So Job’s disillusionment needs a little correction. God hasn’t given up on him. There’s no doubt that he is in trouble, but trouble doesn’t last forever. God is permitting it for a reason and for a season, but seasons change.

In the depths of despair, such encouragement may not seem emotionally satisfying, but the first step in improving our mental outlook is to root our thoughts appropriately in what God teaches.

II.  The Destination of Distressed Disciples – Simply put, when troubles come, run to the Lord in prayer. In today’s Gospel we are told, Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told him about her … When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons.

Note the instinct of the people to turn to the Lord “immediately.” A few old songs come to mind:

  • I love the Lord, he heard my cry and pitied every groan. Long as I live and troubles rise, I’ll hasten to his throne.
  • What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear. What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer! Oh what peace we often forfeit, oh what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer.
  • King Jesus is a-listenin’ all day long to hear some sinner pray.

Indeed, while God may have reasons for permitting us to experience difficulties, it does not mean that He does not want us to ask for grace, strength, and healing. The Book of James says, simply, Ye have not because ye ask not (James 4:2).

In seeking the Lord, we ought to remember that perseverance is also an important aspect of prayer.

  • Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up (Luke 18:1).
  • I tell you, though [the grouchy neighbor] will not get up and give [his neighbor] bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs (Luke 11:8).
  • The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much (James 5:16).

Here, too, the words of a song come to mind: “If I hold my peace my Jesus will be coming for me one day, King Jesus is a-listenin’ when you pray.” Thus, in times of distress and difficulty, the instinct of a true disciple is to hasten to the Lord in prayer, to seek comfort, consolation, healing, and peace.

III.  The Doctrine of Divine Decision – We have reviewed two truths that are in some tension: that God sometimes permits trouble for a reason and for a season, and that we ought to run to the Lord in prayer when trouble comes, seeking help and relief. One teaching has us seek immediate relief from God. The other reminds us that weeping may endure for a while, but it is always for a reason, a reason deemed by God to be both necessary and productive.

In the end, the “Doctrine of Divine Decision” says that we should accept with trust that God knows what is best. We run to Him for relief and permit Him to say either “now” or “later” in response to our prayers.

In the Gospel today, we see both these teachings illustrated First, many came to Him for healing and He healed them all. But then we read this:

Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, “Everyone is looking for you.” He told them, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” So he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee.

Therefore, note that although some have remained back in the town seeking immediate healing, Jesus chooses to move on, for He is not here simply to be a medical miracle worker but rather (as He says) to preach the Kingdom and ultimately to die for our real problem: our sin. It may be difficult for us to hear Jesus say no to this town and move on. In fact, Peter indicated some frustration at Jesus’ having left the town to pray and then ultimately moving on. Nevertheless, for those back in Capernaum, Jesus said to some of them, “now,” and to others, “wait.” This is His decision and He knows what is best.

Consider this: either way we are blessed. Either we experience healing now and then have a testimony to give, or our faith is strengthened because we receive the Good News that that everything is going to be all right. Scripture says,

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love the Lord, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

In other words, even the difficult things in life, by God’s grace, work unto good; they bring some benefit. God permits the struggle for now because he knows of the benefit. Scripture also says,

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6).

Thus our sufferings have a purpose: to strengthen and purify us.

The Doctrine of Divine Decision leaves things up to God. Whether now or later, everything is going to be all right if we trust in God. If there is a delay, it’s because He has His reasons, and even if these reasons are mysterious and irksome for us, the decision is God’s.

Here, then, are some directions for disciples when dealing with difficulties. Briefly put, reject disillusionment, run to Jesus, and respect His decision.

The words of this song say,

You don’t have to worry
And don’t you be afraid
Joy comes in the morning
Troubles they don’t last always
For there’s a friend in Jesus
Who will wipe your tears away
And if your heart is broken
Just lift your hands and say
I know that I can make it
I know that I can stand
No matter what may come my way
My life is in your hands

The Problems Produced by the Polygamy of the Patriarchs

In daily Mass this week (4th Week in Ordinary Time) we read of the rebellion and subsequent death of David’s son Absalom. Among the causes of Absalom’s rebellion is the rivalries that set up among. the sons of David by his different wives. More on that below. But more generally we ought to ponder the problem of polygamy which is reasserting itself in Europe and other places where “thrupples” (three to get married) and other polygamous unions demanding recognition as marriage. Let’s ponder a biblical and Catholic response to this reemerging moral error.

In the Book of Genesis, God’s plan for marriage is set forth clearly: one man and one woman in a stable, lasting, fruitful relationship of mutual support. God said, It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable helpmate for him (Gen 2:18). Note that the word used is “helpmate,” not “helpmates.” After teaching the man that animals are not suitable companions, God puts Adam in a deep sleep and, from his rib, fashions Eve (cf Gen 2:21). Note that in presenting a suitable helpmate for Adam God created a woman not another man; He also created one woman—not two, not three. So, we see that both homosexual “marriage” and polygamy are excluded.

Scripture goes on to insist that marriage is a lasting union, for it says that a man shall “cling” (Hebrew דָּבַק = dabaq) to his wife (not wives), and the two (not three or more) of them shall become one flesh (Gen 2:24). God then went on to tell them to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28).

Given the clear plan for marriage, what should we make of the polygamy of the patriarchs (e.g., Jacob, Moses, Gideon, David, and Solomon)? Does God really approve of this? There is no evidence that He thunders from on high at their seemingly adulterous and clearly polygamous behavior; in fact, it seems to go unrebuked. The fact that they have several wives is noted in Scripture more in passing, with little if any shock. For example, Nathan the Prophet rebukes David for many things, but having multiple wives is not among them.

Let’s begin by noting that the Scriptures teach truths in various ways: there is direct rebuke and punishment described for wrong-doing, but there is also subtle instruction through stories. This is the way in which the Scriptures teach against polygamy. Through various stories we learn that polygamy causes nothing but trouble: factions, jealousy, envy, and even murder. The problem was not so much the multiple wives as it was the sons they bore.

Polygamy was common among the Old Testament patriarchs. Here is a “brief” list:

1.  Lamech (a descendant of Cain) had two wives (Genesis 4:19).
2.  Abraham had more than one wife (Genesis 16:3-4, 25:6 (some were called concubines)).
3.  Nahor (Abraham’s brother) had both a wife and a concubine (Genesis 11:29, 22:20-24).
4.  Jacob was tricked into polygamy (Genesis 29:20-30) and later received two additional wives bringing the grand total of four wives (Genesis 30:4, 9).
5.  Esau took a third wife to please his father Isaac (Genesis 28:6-9).
6.  Ashur had two wives (1 Chronicles 4:5).
7.  Obadiah, Joel, Isshiah, and those with them had multiple wives (1 Chronicles 7:3-4).
8.  Shaharaim had at least four wives, two of whom he “sent away” (1 Chronicles 8:8-11).
9.  Caleb had two wives (1 Chronicles 2:18) and two concubines (1 Chronicles 2:46, 48).
10.  Gideon had many wives (Judges 8:30).
11.  Elkanah is recorded as having two wives, one of whom was the godly woman Hannah (1 Samuel 1:1-2, 8-2:10).
12.  David had at least 8 wives and 10 concubines (1 Chronicles 1:1-9; 2 Samuel 6:23, 20:3).
13.  Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:1-6).
14.  Rehoboam had eighteen wives and sixty concubines (2 Chronicles 11:21) and sought many wives for his sons (1 Chronicles 11:23).
15.  Abijah had fourteen wives (2 Chronicles 13:21).
16.  Ahab had more than one wife (1 Kings 20:7).
17.  Jehoram had multiple wives (2 Chronicles 21:17).
18.  Jehoiada the priest gave king Joash two wives (2 Chronicles 24:1-3).
19.  Jehoiachin had more than one wife (2 Kings 24:15).

Clearly, polygamy—at least among wealthy and powerful men—was common and brought little condemnation from God or His prophets.

The silence of God does not connote approval, however. Just because something is mentioned in the Bible does not mean that it is approved. For example, God permitted divorce because of the hard hearts of the people (cf Matt 19:8), but to permit reluctantly is not to endorse or be pleased.

Polygamy, whenever prominently dealt with in Scripture (i.e., mentioned more than just noted in passing), always spelled trouble with a capital T!

Consider some of the following internecine conflicts and tragedies:

Jacob had four wives whom he clearly loved unequally: Leah (whom he considered unattractive and felt himself “stuck with”), Rachel (his first love), Bilnah (Rachel’s maid), and Zilpah (Leah’s maid). Leah bore him six sons and a daughter: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulan, and Dinah. Rachel was infertile for many years, but finally gave birth to Joseph and later Benjamin. Bilnah bore him Naphtali and Dan, while Zilpah bore him Gad and Asher.

All these sons by different mothers created tension, the greatest of which surrounded Joseph, whose brothers grew jealous and began to hate him, for their father, Jacob, favored Joseph as Rachel’s son. The brothers hatched a plot to kill Joseph, but due to a combination of their desire for monetary gain and the intervention of Reuben, he was instead sold into slavery. At the root of this sad story of this bitter conflict was a polygamous mess. The clear teaching (among others) is this: Don’t do polygamy.

Gideon had many wives and by them many sons. Scripture tells the story of violence and death that resulted from this situation, with the sons all competing for kingship and heritage.

Now Gideon had seventy sons, his direct descendants, for he had many wives. His concubine who lived in Shechem also bore him a son, whom he named Abimelech. At a good old age Gideon, son of Joash, died and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash in Ophrah of the Abiezrites. Abimelech, son of Jerubbaal (i.e., Gideon), went to his mother’s kinsmen in Shechem, and said to them and to the whole clan to which his mother’s family belonged, “Put this question to all the citizens of Shechem: ‘Which is better for you: that seventy men, or all Jerubbaal’s sons, rule over you, or that one man rule over you?’ You must remember that I am your own flesh and bone.” When his mother’s kin repeated these words to them on his behalf, all the citizens of Shechem sympathized with Abimelech, thinking, “He is our kinsman.” They also gave him seventy silver shekels from the temple of Baal of Berith, with which Abimelech hired shiftless men and ruffians as his followers. He then went to his ancestral house in Ophrah, and slew his brothers, the seventy sons of Jerubbaal (Gideon), on one stone. Only the youngest son of Jerubbaal, Jotham, escaped, for he was hidden (Judges 9:1-5).

At the heart of this murderous conflict was polygamy. The sons competed for kingship, power, and inheritance. They had little love for one another because they had different mothers. Abimelech’s loyalty was not to his half-brothers but to his mother and her clan; he did not hesitate to slaughter them to gain power.

Among other things evident in this terrible tale is that polygamy leads to chaos and hatred. The story is cautioning, “Don’t do polygamy.”

King David had at least eight wives (Michal, Abigail, Ahinoam, Eglah, Maacah, Abital, Haggith, and Bathsheba) and ten concubines. Trouble erupts in this “blended” (to put it mildly) family when Absalom (David’s third son, whose mother was Maacah) sought to move to the head of the line of succession. When his older brother Chileab died, only his half-brother Amnon stood in the way. The tension between these royal sons of different mothers grew intense. Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar. She was Absalom’s full sister and he grew furious when King David only mildly rebuked Amnon. Absalom later had Amnon murdered for it (cf 2 Sam 13).

Absalom fled and over time nourished hatred for his father David, eventually waging a war against him in an attempt to overthrow his power. Absalom is killed in the war, and David can barely forgive himself for his role in his son’s death (2 Sam 18:33). The family intrigue wasn’t over, however.

David’s son Solomon (by Bathsheba, David’s last wife) would eventually become king but only through the machinations of his mother. As David lay dying, his oldest son Adonijah (by Haggith), who was the expected heir (1 Kings 2:15), was proclaimed king in a formal ceremony. Bathsheba conspired with Nathan the Prophet and deceived David into thinking that Adonijah was mounting a rebellion. She also reminded David of a secret promise he had once made to her that Solomon would one day be king. As a result, David intervened and sent word that Solomon would be king. Adonijah fled, returning only after Solomon assured his safety. Despite this he was later killed by Solomon.

What a messy situation! We have sons of different mothers hating one another, wives playing for favor and conspiring behind the scenes, and so forth. Once again, the implicit teaching is this: Don’t do polygamy.

Solomon, it is said, had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Again, nothing but trouble came from this. Scripture says,

King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women. … He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord (1 Kings 11:1-6).

The tolerance of pagan religious practices encouraged by these wives, along with other policies, led to great hostility and division in the kingdom. After Solomon’s death, the northern kingdom of Israel seceded from Judah. They were never reunited, and both kingdoms were eventually destroyed by surrounding nations.

Lurking in the mix of this mess is polygamy and this lesson: Don’t do polygamy.

Abraham’s sexual relations with his wife Sarah’s maid, Hagar, while a case of adultery rather than polygamy, also led to serious trouble. Although Hagar became pregnant with Ishmael at Sarah’s behest, Sarah grew jealous and mistreated her, causing her to flee (Gen 16). Hagar eventually returned and gave birth to Ishmael. Later, when Sarah finally bore a child (Isaac), she  decided that Ishmael was a threat and had Abraham drive him and Hagar away (Gen 21).

Ishmael went on to become the patriarch of what we largely call the Arab nations; Isaac’s line would be the Jewish people. The rest, as they say, is history.

Once again, polygamy is lurking behind a whole host of problems. Don’t do polygamy.

So, the Bible does teach on polygamy. Through stories, we learn of its problematic nature. We ought not to be overly simplistic and conclude that polygamy was the only problem or that such tragedies never occur in other settings, but it clearly played a strong role.

It would seem that in the Old Testament God tolerates polygamy, as he does divorce, but nowhere does He approve of it.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus signals a return to God’s original plan and excludes divorce.

Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, unless the marriage is unlawful, and marries another woman commits adultery (Matt 19:8-9).

Have you not read 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 19:4-6).

Whatever one may argue with regard to the Old Testament’s approach to marriage, Jesus makes it clear that we are going back to plan A: One man and one woman in a stable, lasting, fruitful relationship of mutual support.

Beware, polygamy is the next taboo targeted for overturning. In the wake of the legalization of gay “marriage,” polygamists and their supporters are insisting that the Bible approves of this way of life. Do a web search on “polygamy” and you’ll see many sites devoted to this thinking and to its promotion.

The basic message must be this: While reporting the existence of polygamy, the Bible also describes the consequences, which were nearly always violent. The biblical teaching, therefore, is clear: Don’t do polygamy.

Here is a clips from the movie Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  It illustrates the growing problems in Jacob’s family between the sons of different mothers. 

A Portrait of Jesus the Preacher – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of the Year

In Sunday’s Gospel Jesus models four aspects of powerful and effective preaching.

In using the word “preaching” we ought to be careful not to limit it to what takes place in a church. All Catholic parents should learn from Jesus’ example here for they have the church of their home in which to preach; they have the pulpit of the dining room table, the living room couch, and even the family car. We all must learn from Jesus’ model of powerful preaching and teaching. Note, then, four basic qualities of Jesus as preacher and teacher:

I. PERSONAL – The text says, Then they came to Capernaum, and on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.

(The picture at the upper right is one of me and fellow parishioners standing in the ruins of the synagogue mentioned in this passage. It is quite moving to stand atop the ruins of the synagogue where Jesus preached both this sermon and the Bread of Life discourse. Some of the ruins are from later than Jesus’ era, but the foundations are clearly from that time. It’s amazing.)

Note that the text says that Jesus spoke “with authority.” The Greek word translated here as “authority” is ἐξουσίαν (exousia), whose root meaning is “to (speak) out of one’s being or substance.” In other words, one speaks of what one knows by experience. Jesus is not simply quoting what others have said nor is He merely quoting slogans or common sayings.

In this, Jesus is distinguished from the scribes, who were famous for quoting only one another and other reputable, safe sources. Quoting other sources is fine, but if it merely stops there, how is listening to a preacher any better than staying home and reading a book?

Too many Christians, including Catholic preachers, are content to live and preach by inference rather than experience. Too many are content to repeat what others have said rather than to speak out of what they know, have seen, and have experienced.

To preach with authority means to be able to proclaim the Word of God with personal knowledge and experience. It means to be able to say this: “What the Lord and the Church have always proclaimed, I know personally, for I have tested and experienced the Word of God in the laboratory of my own life and found it to be true. And now I speak to you not merely of what others have said but what I know and experience to be true. Out of the substance of my own being I announce this truth to you.”

This is what it means to preach personally and with authority. Jesus did not simply quote what others said; He said what He personally knew.

What of you and me? Are you able to speak with authority? Well, do you know what the Lord is doing in your life? Have you personally experienced the truth of what the Scriptures and the Church have always announced? Or are you just quoting slogans, passages, and what others have said? Of course the Scriptures and the authoritative teachings of the Church are the essential foundation of what we know, but do you personally know it to be true? How? Do you speak to your children of what you know or do you merely say, “The Church says … “? Certainly you should say what the Church says, but teaching with authority means knowing and having experienced the truth of what the Church says. It means being able to attest to it personally. This is the basis of preaching and teaching with authority.

II. PROVOCATIVE – To say that something is “provocative” is to say that it elicits a response. When Jesus preached His words did not leave His listeners unmoved. His preaching called forth a response, whether it made people mad, sad, or glad.

The text pointed out that many were glad, but there was one man who was mad. The text describes his reaction: In the synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit; he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

Every experienced, authentic preacher knows that if he preaches effectively, a response will be forthcoming from his listeners. While it is natural to want a positive response, every preacher must be willing to accept that his word may incite anger or ridicule. The Church announces good news but she is also a sign of contradiction to a sinful world. Thus every preacher faithful to the Gospel must expect some degree of negativity and even persecution, ridicule, and anger.

Jesus’ Word angers a demon-possessed man in the congregation and he confronts Jesus, blaming Him with being hateful and causing hurt, saying that Jesus wants to destroy him. (Similarly, many today react with anger and call the Church hateful, bigoted, intolerant, and hurtful—even claiming that she destroys lives.) As we shall see, Jesus does not back down.

The problem in the synagogue is not the Word that Jesus proclaims; it is the man’s inner condition. When the authentic Gospel is proclaimed, the wrath that sometimes follows does not bespeak a problem with God’s Word but with the listener’s inner condition. Note that the man is demon-possessed. That is, his heart and mind are under the influence of Satan and the sin he inspires. The greatest obstacle to our being able to appreciate and understand the Word of God is our sin; the greatest help is a docile and humble spirit, granted by the grace of God.

A powerful preacher, priest or parent, preaches in order to provoke a response, whether one of joy and consolation or of repentance and godly sorrow. While no authentic preacher intends to incite a hostile response, he must be willing to accept such a reaction. When someone is accustomed to the darkness, he finds the light harsh, and calls it such. Anyone who preaches the Gospel authentically will both comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable; he will both console and confront (where necessary); he will reassure but also awaken the need for healing. He will speak the truth in love.

Good preaching provokes a response and one who hears the Gospel preached with authority cannot come away unchanged.

III. PRODUCING – Powerful and effective preaching brings results. As Jesus preaches, a man is set free. The text says, Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!” The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him. All were amazed and asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.

The aim or point of the Word of God is not merely to inform but to transform. It’s not enough for the Word of God to be attractive, informative, or entertaining. Its full purpose is to, in power, drive out demons and bring God’s grace. Good preaching works to drive out the demons of ignorance, sorrow, rebellion, and sin. It works to give godly sorrow, joy, hope, confidence, knowledge, courage, and conviction. Good preaching changes people’s lives.

IV. PERSEVERING – Note that Jesus did not immediately back down in the face of opposition. He persevered with the opposing man and, by His Word, drove out the demons that were afflicting him. We see the man go through three stages:

  1. He is mad, for he confronts Jesus.
  2. He is sad, for he struggles and convulses as Jesus works to free him by His Word.
  3. He is glad, for he is set free and is able to rejoice with the others.

Every preacher, every parent, and every prophet must persevere, not giving up easily; it is often the case that people must go through these stages.

In my own life there was a time when, afflicted by the demons of ignorance and youthful rebellion, I would cross my arms and listen angrily to the priest. I was mad. I would often scoff at the “silly priest” who was trying to tell me what to do. After some years of hearing the preaching of the Church, however, I gradually understood that I had to change. Change does not come easily, though, and thus came the stage of sad; it was a time of struggle, learning new virtues, and forsaking old vices. Now I can truthfully say that I am glad, for the Lord has brought me a mighty long way. His preached Word is powerful. When effectively preached, it has the power to transform. I have experienced transformation personally.

I am glad that the Church persevered, that my parents persevered, that good priests and religious persevered in preaching to me and teaching me. I am glad that my parishioners continue to persevere in witnessing to me and preaching by their lives.

Here is reenactment of Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum (on a different occasion).

 

Working for the Kingdom – A Homily for the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time

The readings of “Ordinary Time” focus on the call to discipleship and the living of the Christian Faith. The readings for today’s Mass are no exception, as they present us with a number of disciplines for disciples. These disciplines free us to serve Christ and His Kingdom joyfully, energetically, and wholeheartedly. We can group these disciplines into three broad areas; discipleship is undefiant, unfettered, and untiring. Let’s consider each area of discipline as reflected in the readings.

I.  Undefiant – The first reading today covers the ministry of the reluctant prophet, Jonah. In today’s reading we hear only the end of the story, but as most of us know, Jonah was not merely reluctant in accepting his mission as a prophet, he was downright defiant. Recall his story:

Refusal The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it …” But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish (1:1-3). Jonah defiantly runs from God; he refuses the mission.

Running – Nineveh was 550 miles east of Israel. Tarshish was 2500 miles west of Israel. Do you get the picture? Jonah was doing some serious running! Rather than go 550 miles to do God’s will, he was ready to travel 2500 miles to get away from God’s will. It’s always a longer trip when you defy God.

Resistance – As Jonah runs away from God, great storms arise at sea. The storms of defiance rage, but Jonah sleeps—and the storms affect not only him but those who sail with him as well. Yes, our moral decisions do affect others around us despite our egocentric notion that what we do is no one else’s business. Thus, for some of us, there can be great storms that come into our lives. Has it ever occurred to you that some of the storms in your life may be related to a situation in which God said, “This way,” but you defied him and said, “No, that way”? Maybe we all need to wake up and say, “What does this storm mean?”

Return – Swallowed by the great fish, Jonah is brought back to the very place (Joppa) where he sailed away from God. In effect, God says, “Let’s try this all over again.” So Jonah makes ready and goes to Nineveh, according to the LORD’s bidding. Yes, Jonah was smart this time.

The point is that disciples (we) must learn to be undefiant. God wants to “save us some mileage.” Obedience to His will is always easier than disobedience.

Consider, too, how undefiant the Ninevites are as they hear and heed Jonah’s message and notice how this saves them from destruction.

It’s always easier to follow God. I did not say that it’s easy, just that it’s easier. Sin may be more pleasurable and easier in the moment, but it brings a world of difficulties and complications in its wake. If you do not think this is so, just read a newspaper and consider how many of our difficulties are directly tied to our sinful attitudes and choices. The vast majority of this world’s suffering is directly attributable to the rebellious sinfulness of humanity.

The first discipline of discipleship is undefiance. With this discipline we remain teachable and open to God’s wisdom and are thereby spared many difficulties.

II.  Unfettered – To be unfettered means to be unchained, unshackled, free to move about. The second reading today presents a vivid and sober portrait of what being unfettered and detached looks like:

I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world, as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away (1 Cor 7:29ff).

This passage does not mean that we have no recourse at all to these things and people but rather that we live “as” not having them. In other words, we must seek the gift to realize that nothing in this passing world remains. Nothing here, not even marriage, is the sole reason for our existence or the sole source of meaning for us. God and God alone is the source of meaning and the lasting goal of our life. All else will pass.

For most of us, detachment form this world is the battle, the central struggle we face. Our attachment to this world hinders us from freely following Christ. A couple of passages come to mind:

Jesus, said [to the rich young man], “If you would be perfect, go and sell all that you have, (and you will have treasure in heaven) and then come and follow me.” At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:22 ff).

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money … So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:24).

The world has a thousand hooks in us. We are chained and fettered; our freedom to follow Christ is severely compromised.

The battle to be free and unfettered is a process. God can give us this freedom but it requires time and obedience from us. Little by little, God breaks the shackles of this world; all its treasures come to seem as of little value to us. Slowly we come to what St. Paul said:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ (Phil 3:7-8).

III.  Untiring – Consider that among Jesus’ first followers were several fishermen. The text of the Gospel today says, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Is there some meaning in the fact that fishermen were among His first and most prominent disciples? Perhaps so.

Consider that fishermen have some important qualities that are helpful for discipleship. Fishermen are:

Patient – Fishermen often need to wait for many hours, even days, for a catch. Disciples need patience, as do evangelizers.

Professional – Fishermen need to spend time learning about the types of fish and their behaviors, learning to observe the water and navigate, learning the right time of day and the right season to fish. They need to know the right bait and the proper use of the net. All of these traits are good for disciples and are especially helpful in evangelization, which is “job one” for the disciple. Through growing in practical knowledge we come to know our faith and learn effective ways to be fishers of men.

Purposeful – When fishermen are out fishing they are entirely focused on their endeavor. That’s all they do; everything is centered on the main task. They are single-minded. Disciples surely need more of this attitude. The Book of James says, The double-minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). St. Paul says, But this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14). Every disciple needs to be more single-minded.

Pursuing – Note that they simply go to the fish. Too many Catholic parishes merely open the doors and hope that people will come to them—that is not evangelization. The key word for disciples and evangelizers is this: go.

Partnered – Fishermen work in teams. Jesus sends the disciples out, two by two.

Persistent – If fishermen don’t make a catch one day, they’re back out the next. Disciples surely need to persist, both in their own journey and in making disciples of others.

In today’s readings there are a number of disciplines of discipleship. The green vestments of Ordinary Time remind us of growth, both our own and that of the Church. Ultimately, a free heart is a joyful heart. It is a heart that is not easily tired because it is not divided by serving two masters. It is a heart that ungrudgingly serves the Kingdom.

Here is a song that speaks of patient, purposeful, and persistent action on behalf of God’s Kingdom. It is a song that can only come from a heart that is undefiant, unfettered, and untiring; from a heart that says, “I keep so busy workin’ for the Kingdom, I ain’t got time to die!”