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

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

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

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

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

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

For we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. (1 Tim 6:7-10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scripture says,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lets look at these three prescriptions he gives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prescription two for prayer is to persist, to persevere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King of the Universe and King of Thieves? A Homily for the Feast of Christ the King

112313Jesus Christ is King of Thieves, though he never stole. He is savior of sinners though he himself never sinned.

The Gospel chosen for today’s feast presents Jesus as reigning from the cross. Nothing could be more paradoxical. Perhaps we can look at this Gospel and feast from four perspectives:

I. Vision – In the Gospel for today’s feast we have vision or an image for the Church. We like to think of more pleasant images such as the Church being the Bride of Christ or the Body of Christ. Today’s image is less exalted and more humbling to be sure, but it is an image just the same: The Image of the Church is Christ, crucified between two thieves.

Yes, this is the Church too. Somehow we are all thieves. The fact is, we are all sinners and we have all used the gifts and things that belong to God in a way that is contrary to his will. To misuse things that belong to others is a form of theft and we are thus thieves for we have all misused what belongs to God.

Consider some of the things we claim as our own and how easily we misuse them: Our bodies, our time, our talents, our money, our gift of speech, our gift of freedom and so forth. We call them ours but they really belong to God and if we use them in ways contrary to the intention of the owner we are guilty of a form of theft.

So the Church is Christ, crucified between two thieves.

II. Variance – But consider also that these two thieves were very different;  even as in the Church we have saints and sinners, and in the world there are those who will turn to Christ and be saved and those who will turn away and be lost. 

  1. One thief derides Jesus and makes demands of him:Are you not the Christ! Save yourself and us! The text says this thief “reviles” Jesus. To revile means to speak against another with contempt and to treat some one as vile, or loathsome.
  2. The other thief reverences Christ and rebukes the other saying, – Have you no fear of God? This thief recognizes his guilt – We have been condemned justly. And he requests – Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom. But he leaves the terms of it up to Christ. He acknowledges he is a thief and now places his life under the authority of Christ the King.

So here are two different men. Christ came to call sinners, thieves, if you will. Yes, we are all thieves, that is true. But pray God we are the good thief, the repentant thief, The one thief who is now ready to resubmit himself to the authority of Christ, who is King of all creation, and King of us thieves.

Now heaven is a real steal, something we don’t deserve. But it is only accessed through repentance and faith. The bad thief wants relief but will not open the door of his heart by repentance and faith so that Jesus can save him. Mercy is offered and available there right next to him, but it is accessed through repentance and faith. He does not open the door, but the good thief does and thereby will be saved.

III. Veracity – But is Christ really your king? Well a King has authority. So another way of asking is, “Does Christ have authority in your life? Do you and I acknowledge that everything we call our own really belongs to Him? How well do we use the things that we call our own but which really belong to God?”

  1. How do we use our time?
  2. Are we committed to pray and be at Mass every Sunday without fail?
  3. Do we use enough of our time to serve God and others or merely for selfish pursuits?
  4. What of our capacity to talk?
  5. Do we use our gift of speech to witness, to evangelize, or merely for small talk and gossip?
  6. What of our money?
  7. Are we faithful to the Lord’s command to tithe? (Mal 3:7-12; Matt 23:23).
  8. Are we generous enough to the poor and needy?
  9. Do we spend wisely or foolishly?
  10. Do we pay our debts in a timely way?
  11. What of our bodies?
  12. Do we exhibit proper care and nutrition of them?
  13. Are we chaste?
  14. Do we observe proper safety or are we reckless and unsafe?
  15. Do we reverence life?
  16. Do we love the poor and help sustain their lives?

Well you get the point. It is one thing to call Christ our King, it is another to truly be under his authority. The Lord is clear enough in telling us that he expects our obedience: Why do you call me Lord Lord and not do what I tell you? (Luke 6:46)

Is Christ your King? Which thief are you, really?

IV. Victory – The thief who asks Jesus to remember him manifests a kind of baptism of desire as well as repentance and faith. As such he moved straight-way in the victor’s column. Jesus words, Today you shall be with me in paradise indicate a dramatic and sudden shift for the thief. In other words Jesus says, Your faith has saved you. As of this moment you are now at my side, and I am your saving Lord.

Now to be with Jesus, wherever He is, is paradise and victory. Soon enough the heavens will be opened as well, but the victory is now, and paradise begins now.

And thus he claims the victory through his choice for Jesus Christ. Will you have the victory? Well, that depends on if you choose the prince of the world, or the King of the Universe, Jesus.

Some think they can choose neither Jesus nor Satan, but tred some middle way. Well if that’s your choice, I’ve got news for you, you’ve chosen the prince of this world, who loves compromise. Jesus says, Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. (Matt 12:30)

As for me, I’ve decided to make Jesus my choice. Now I pray that he will truly be my King in all things and that my choice will be more than lip service. Come Jesus reign in my heart! Let me begin to experience victory and paradise even now!

The Passage through a Passing World. A homily for the 33rd Sunday of the year

111613In the month of November the Church has us ponder the Four Last Things: death judgment, heaven and hell. As the golden gown of autumn gives way to the lifeless look of winter we too are encouraged to see that our own lives are on a trajectory that leads ultimately to autumn and then the winter of death. But for those who have faith this passage to death leads ultimately to glory.  Scripture says, And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever (1 John 2:17).

In today’s gospel the Lord Jesus gives us a kind of road map of life and calls us to have a sobriety as to the passing and perilous nature of this world in which we live.

There is an historical context in which our Lord speaks. There were political rumblings in Israel in the early 30s AD that would eventually lead to war. Hatred of the Romans is growing among the Jews. The Zealot party and other factions are building power. Jesus, in this passage, prophesies that war will come and lead to Jerusalem’s ultimate destruction. Everything that they knew was going to pass away. By the Summer of 66 AD a three and half year war ensued that resulted in the complete destruction of Jerusalem and the death of 1.2 million Jews. Josephus records the war in great detail in his work The Jewish War.

That is what this text we read today meant historically. But we also need to know what it means for us today. So let’s look at the text from that perspective. The Gospel can be seen in three major sections.

I. PORTRAIT OF PASSING THINGS – The text says, While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, Jesus said, “All that you see here( the days will come when there will not be left  a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” Then they asked him,  “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?” – Notice how they admire the temple and its beauty. But the Lord reminds them that, glorious though it now is, it is all going to be thrown down. We too must hear that whatever glory we see or experience in this world will not ultimately last. It is all going to pass away.

The Temple is a portrait of passing things. Just as it was in splendor and now is gone, so too everything we see now and admire will pass. This is a sober truth we must come to accept, even if it is difficult. Other scriptures remind us of this truth. For example, The world as we know it is passing away (1 Cor 7:29). And again,  And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever (1 John 2:17). Hence this world is passing and we too are passing from it one day soon.

Note however, for them as well as for us, one world was ending, but another was beginning. The Old Testament, Old Covenant and ritual order of the Temple was ending, but the New Testament age of the Church was beginning. It was already breaking forth, even as the old was coming to an end.

And so for us, we should not lament the end of this current world or even our death, for a newer great world of heaven awaits if we are faithful. In fact, through the liturgy and sacraments that new world is already breaking forth if we partake of it.

II. POINTS OF PASSAGE TO PROMISED THINGS – Having been informed at the passing of all things,  the apostles ask for signs that will precede the coming end to the temple and all things they know. We too can learn from what Jesus teaches them and apply it to our lives.

Jesus warns them of four perils on the passage to the promised land of the New Testament of the age of the Church. We too will experience perils in our journey to the Promised Land of Heaven.

A. FALSE MESSIAHS – The text says,  “See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying,  ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’ Do not follow them!– Do you want Jesus Christ to be the Lord of your life? Then you’ve got to get rid of false messiahs.

There are just too many people giving worldly  things and people greater authority in their life than Jesus Christ and what he teaches. Fads, fashions, philosophies, all those people, things and philosophies we  submit our lives to in hope that we be happy.

The danger is that something or someone is reigning in your life other than Jesus Christ. Perhaps it is someone in power we admire, or someone in the media whom we give authority and allow to influence us inordinately. Perhaps it is political positions that we allow to trump the scriptures and the teachings of the Church. Perhaps it is just our own convictions or ideas that over-rule God’s teachings.

A false messiah is any one or any thing that is telling you how to organize your life other than Jesus Christ. Before Christ can reign unambiguously in your life false powers and influences have to go.

Too many people look only to science, popular culture, economics, medicine, education, politics and the like. They have been deceived.

It is not that we can’t use these things at all, but they are not the Messiah. None of these things or people every died for you. Only Jesus did that.

The power to save you is not in the statehouse, courthouse, or White-house – it’s in the blood, the saving blood of the Lamb, Our Lord Jesus Christ.

B. FIERCE MILITARISM – The text says: When you hear of wars and insurrections,  do not be terrified; for such things must happen first,  but it will not immediately be the end.”  Then he said to them,  “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. A war was looming for those ancient people.

And we too are in a war, a battle. Before Christ can reign unambiguously in you the false powers in you have to be defeated. They will not go without a fight. The world, the flesh, and the devil can be expected to wage a fierce battle to keep their power.

Are you in a battle?  You should be! Too many Christians have lost the sense of battle. Scripture says, Resist the devil and he will flee from you(James 4:7). And yet  too many not only do not resist him, they welcome him. Scripture also says, Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace;  besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph 6:14).

An old hymn says, I’ve seen lightning flashing, and hear the thunder roll, I’ve felt sin-breakers dashing, which tried to conquer my soul; I’ve heard the voice of my savior, he bid me still to fight on. He promised never to leave me never to leave me alone.

On our way to the promised land of heaven we will encounter necessary battles. Battles for what is right, battles against sin, battles for proper priorities.

C. FAR-FLUNG MARVELS – the Text says: There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues  from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky. In the time of Jesus and the era just preceding the war there were in fact many earthquakes, droughts and even heavenly signs. Historians of the time speak of a comet and strange views of what we know today as the Aurora Borealis.

But what of us? For us What are earthquakes of life? Earthquakes involve the shaking of the ground! The shaking of that which is most stable and basic to us. What are you basing your life on? What is the foundation of your life?

For most of us the foundations of this world are things like, Money, Politics, Friends, Family, our own skills. All of these things are shaken in life and all of them will eventually fail. Our talents and personal powers fade as we age, family members and friends die, move or fail us. Political power and worldly access fails. Haven’t we all experienced our world shaken, our soul famished, the plagues of sin that infect our world and ourselves?

Further, haven’t the stars, all the things that orient us, fallen from the sky from time to time and the sun, the light we see by darkened. Has not the world turned upside down? Maybe it was the sudden death of a loved one, the loss of a job, trials, tragedies, testings, and tumult, a diagnosis of cancer or Alzheimer disease.

This is why God has to be our ultimate foundation, and our ultimate navigation point. Either Jesus is our foundation, or something else is. Without God as our foundation we cannot stand. The foundations of this world will cave, Christ must be our sure foundation.

D. FEARFUL MALICE – The text says, Before all this happens, however,  they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors  because of my name…..You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends It will lead to your giving testimony.  Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking  that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. and they will put some of you to death.  You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. The early Christians had much to suffer through persecutions. Most of us in the Christian West have had less to suffer but more difficult days may well be ahead as the secular West grows increasingly hostile to the traditional Christian Faith.

Persecution however is an expected part of the Christian journey to the promised land of heaven. Even if we’re not handed over it is a truth of our time that many of us are not taken seriously, are written off or called names even by our closest family and friends?

Christ tells us not to worry of such things. They are part of the normal Christian life. And even if some of us eventually lose our life for the faith, the Lord promises that not a hair of our head will be harmed. That is, our souls will be saved. The world can only harm our body but not our soul, unless we allow it.

So these are the perils that we must soberly accept on our journey home to the promised land of heaven. This leads to the final exhortation of Christ.

3. PRESCRIPTION for the PASSAGE to PROMISED THINGS – The text says, By your perseverance you will secure your lives. Despite these perils we can only journey on and not lose faith or lose heart. There is glory waiting for us if we persevere.

Scripture says elsewhere: But he who endures to the end will be saved (Mat 10:22) and again, For yet a little while, and the coming one shall come and shall not tarry;  but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.”  But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls (Heb 10:37).

An old Spiritual says, Hold on just a little while longer, everything’s gonna be alright.

In this regard the end of the Book of Daniel also seems pertinent: So [Daniel asked the Archangel Gabriel],  My lord, what will the outcome of all this be?He replied, “Go your way, Daniel, because the words are rolled up and sealed until the time of the end. Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand….“As for you, go your way till the end. You will die,  yet at the end of the days you will rise to receive your reward.” (Daniel 12:8-10, 13)

Yes, on our passage through this passing world it is necessary to persevere unto the end. If we do, there is glory on the other side. If we do not, there will be only worse woes that will usher in.

I’m Gonna Ride the Chariot in the Morning Lord! – A Sermon for the 32nd Sunday of the Year

110913In the readings today, the Church presents for us a strong reminder and teaching on the resurrection. Jesus himself leads the charge against those who would deny the resurrection from the dead and the seven Brothers of the first reading along with their mother bring up the rear. Let’s take a look at what we are taught in three stages.

I. Ridicule of the Resurrection – The Gospel opens with the observation that Some Sadducees, who deny there is a resurrection, came forward and put [a] question to Jesus. These Sadducees propose to Jesus a ridiculous example about a woman who was married seven times to successively dying brothers and had no children by any of them. They suggest that the resurrection will cause there to be a real confusion in determining whose husband she really is! Now we’re all supposed to laugh, according to these Sadducees, and conclude that the idea of resurrection is ludicrous.

Jesus will dismiss their absurdity handily as we shall see in a moment. But let’s take a moment and consider why the Sadducees disbelieved the resurrection.

Fundamentally, they rejected the resurrection due to the fact that they accepted only the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Now this is somewhat debated among scholars but for our purposes we can surely say that if something was not explicitly in the Law of Moses, they were unlikely to accept it. All the other Old Testament books such as the prophets, the historical books, the psalms, and the wisdom tradition were set aside by them as authoritative sources.

They further claimed that, in these first five books, the resurrection of the dead was not taught. Most other Jews of Jesus’ time did accept the complete Old Testament, and teachings such as the resurrection of the dead which are set forth there, but the Sadducees simply did not. They were a small party within Judaism (Josephus said they were able to persuade none but the rich). Nevertheless they were influential due especially to their wealth and to the fact that they predominated among the Temple leadership. You can read more of them here: Sadducees

Hence the Sadducees arrive to poke fun at Jesus and all others who held that the dead would rise.

They are no match for Jesus who easily dispatches their arguments. And Jesus uses the Book of Exodus, a book they accept, to do it. In effect Jesus argument proceeds as such:

  1. You accept Moses, do you not?
  2. (To which they would surely reply yes)
  3. But Moses teaches that the dead will rise.
  4. (Jesus must have gotten puzzled looks but he presses on).
  5. You accept that God is a God of the living and not the dead?
  6. (To which they would surely reply yes).
  7. Then why does God in Exodus identify himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all of whom have been dead some 400 years? How can he call himself their God if they are dead?
  8. Obviously they are alive, for he could not call himself their God, for he is not a God of the dead but of the living.
  9. So they are alive to God. They are not dead.

Hence Jesus dispatches their view. For us, the point is to see how forcefully and clearly Jesus upholds the fact that the dead are alive in the Lord. He powerfully asserts an essential doctrine of the Church and we should rejoice at how firmly Jesus rebukes their disbelief in the resurrection of the dead.

Rejoice! For your loved ones are alive before God . To this world they may seem dead, but Jesus tells us firmly and clearly today, they live. Likewise we too, who will face physical death will also live on. Let the world ridicule this, but hear what Jesus says and how he easily dispatches them. Though ridiculed, the resurrection is real.

II. Resplendence of the Resurrection Jesus also sets aside the silly scenario that the Sadducees advance by teaching in effect that earthly realities cannot simply be projected in to heaven. Marriage scenarios, perceived in earthly ways, cannot be used to understand heavenly realities. The Saints in heaven live beyond earthly categories.

Heaven is more than the absence of bad things and more than the accumulation of good things. Heaven is far beyond anything this world can offer. Scripture says, No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no human mind has conceived — the things God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9). And Again, The sufferings of this world cannot compare to the glory that will be revealed in us (Rom 8:18).

Do you see the majesty of this teaching? We have a glory waiting for us beyond imagining. Consider your greatest pleasure, your happiest experience, your most fulfilled moment. Now multiply them by ten trillion. You are not even close understanding the glory that waits.

And this glory will personally transform us. The Lord once told Catherine of Siena that if she ever saw the glory of a Saint in heaven she would fall down and worship because she would think she was looking at God. This is our dignity, to be transformed into the very likeness of God and reflect his glory. Here is an elaboration of Catherine’s vision of the soul of a saint in heaven:

It was so beautiful that she could not look on it; the brightness of that soul dazzled her. Blessed Raymond, her confessor, asked her to describe to him, as far as she was able, the beauty of the soul she had seen. St. Catherine thought of the sweet light of that morning, and of the beautiful colors of the rainbow, but that soul was far more beautiful. She remembered the dazzling beams of the noonday sun, but the light which beamed from that soul was far brighter. She thought of the pure whiteness of the lily and of the fresh snow, but that is only an earthly whiteness. The soul she had seen was bright with the whiteness of Heaven, such as there is not to be found on earth. ” My father,” she answered. “I cannot find anything in this world that can give you the smallest idea of what I have seen. Oh, if you could but see the beauty of a soul in the state of grace, you would sacrifice your life a thousand times for its salvation. I asked the angel who was with me what had made that soul so beautiful, and he answered me, “It is the image and likeness of God in that soul, and the Divine Grace which made it so beautiful.” [1].

Yes, heaven is glorious and we shall be changed. Scripture says we shall be like the Lord for we shall see him as he is(1 John 3:2).It also says, He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified Body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself. (Phil 3:19) I have written more on our resurrected bodies here: What will our resurrected bodies be like?

Further, too many people have egocentric notions of heaven where “I” will have a mansion, I will see My relatives, I will play all the golf I want. But the heart of heaven is to be with God for whom our heart longs. In God we will experience fulfillment and peace beyond any earthly thing. There is more to heaven than golf, reunions and mansions, certainly more than clouds and harps. The “more” can never be told for it is beyond words. St Paul speaks of a man (himself) who was caught up into heaven and affirms it cannot be described, it is ineffable, it is unspeakable:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven…. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. (2 cor 12:2-3).

Do you long for heaven? Do you meditate on it? Is there a part of you that can’t wait to get there? There’s an Old Spiritual that says, “I’m gonna ride the Chariot in the mornin’ Lord. I’m getting ready for the judgment say, Mah Lord, Mah Lord! And this leads us to the final point.

III. Response to the Resurrection What difference does the resurrection make other than to give us joy if we meditate upon it? To see that answer, look to the first reading today, where the seven brothers are willing to accept torture and death. If there is a great reward waiting for those who remain faithful and we see that reward as the greatest thing we have , then we will endure anything to get there. Notice how the vision of heaven spurs them on to reject demands of their persecutors that they deny their faith:

We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors…. You are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying….. the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s courage, because he regarded his sufferings as nothing (2 Maccabees, 7:2,9, 12)

Only their vision of the rewards waiting for them could motivate them to endure the awful sufferings described in the 7th Chapter of 2nd Maccabees

And what of us? Do we meditate on heaven and value it’s reward enough to be willing to endure suffering to get there? We need a strong vision of heaven to be able to endure and stand fast. Too many today have lost a deep appreciation for heaven. Too many pray to God merely for worldly comforts and rewards. But these will pass. We ought to ask God for a deep desire and drive for heaven and the things waiting for us there.

What athlete will discipline his body, as severely as they do, without the deep motivation of reward and the satisfaction of meeting goals? What college student attends thousands of hours of school, reads lengthy books and writes lengthy papers if it is not for the pot of gold and career at the end of the trail? Then, who of us will endure the trials of faith if we are not deeply imbued with the vision of glory and deeply desirous of its fulfillment no matter the cost? Without this our moral and spiritual life become tepid and our willingness to endure trials falls away. An old hymn says:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.

Meditate on heaven often. Although we can never fully grasp its glory here, we ought not let that stop us from imagining what we can. Read Revelation Chapters 4,5, 8, 21 & 22. But above all, ask God for an ever deepening desire for Him and the good things waiting for you in heaven. Look to heaven, long for heaven, desire God and deeply root your life in him. Heaven will not disappoint!

This African American Spiritual says, I’m gonna ride the chariot in the morning Lord! I’m gettin ready for the judgment day, My Lord, My Lord! Are you ready my brother? (Oh yes!) Are you ready for the journey? (Oh Yes!), do you want to see Jesus (Yes, Yes!) I’m waiting for the Chariot ’cause I ready to go. I never can forget that day, (Ride in the chariot to see my Lord), My feet were snatched from the miry clay! (Ride in the chariot to see my Lord!)

To Make a Long Story Short – A Homily for the 31st Sunday of the Year

110215The Gospel today is of the familiar and endearing story of Zacchaeus, a man too short to see Jesus, who climbs the tree (of the Cross), encounters Jesus, and is changed.

The danger with familiar stories is that they are familiar and we can miss remarkable qualities. Perhaps it is well that we look afresh and search for the symbolic in the ordinary details.

I. Shortsighted Sinner Zacchaeus was physically short, and so, could not see the Lord. But let me ask you, do you think that Luke has told us this merely to indicate his physical stature? Well, I’m a preacher and I’m counting on the fact that there is more at work here than a physical description.

I suspect it is also a moral description. Zacchaeus cannot see the Lord because of the blindness sin brings. It is his moral stature that is the real cause of his inability to see the Lord. Consider some of the following texts from scripture that link sin to a kind of blindness:

  • My iniquities have overtaken me, till I cannot see. (Ps 40:12)
  • I will bring distress on the people and they will walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the LORD (Zeph 1:17)
  • They know not, nor do they discern; for God has shut their eyes; so that they cannot see, and their minds so that they cannot understand (Is 44:18)
  • Because of the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed within her the blood of the righteous, now they grope through the streets like men who are blind (Lam 4:13)
  • Unless one is born again by water and the Spirit, he cannot see the Kingdom of God. (John 3:5)
  • Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God. (Matt 5:8)

So sin brings blindness, an inability to see the Lord. Now Zacchaeus has fallen short through sin and hence he cannot see Jesus. “How has he sinned?” You might say. Well, he is the chief tax collector of Jericho. Tax collectors were wicked men, I tell you no lie. The Romans recruited the mobsters of that day to collect taxes. These were bad guys. They ruffed people up and extorted money from them. The Romans permitted them to charge beyond the tax as their “cut” of the deal. They were corrupt, they exploited the poor, and schmoozed the powerful. These were men who were both feared and hated, and for good reason. They were, to a man, wicked and unjust.

Zacchaeus was not just any Tax Collector, he was Chief Tax collector. He was a mafia boss, a Don, a “Godfather.” Got the picture? Zacchaeus isn’t just physically short. He’s the lowest of the low, he doesn’t measure up morally, he comes up short in terms of justice, he’s a financial giant, but a moral midget. Zacchaeus is a shrimp, well short of a full moral deck. That he cannot see the Lord is not just a physical problem, it is a moral one.

Now I am not picking on Zacchaeus. For the truth be told we are all Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus is us. You say, “Wait a minute, I’m not that bad.” Maybe, not but you’re not that good either. In fact we’re a lot closer to being like Zacchaeus that to being like Jesus. The fact that we are not yet ready to look on the face of the Lord is demonstrable by the fact that we’re still here. We’re not ready and not righteous enough to look upon the unveiled face of God. How will Zacchaeus ever hope to see the Lord? How will we? Let’s read on.

II. Saving Sycamore Zacchaeus climbs a tree to see Jesus. So must we. And the only tree that can really help us to see the Lord is the tree of the Cross. Zacchaeus has to cling to the wood of that old sycamore to climb it, and we too must cling to the wood of the old rugged cross.

Only by the wood of cross and power of Jesus’ blood can we ever hope to climb high enough to see the Lord. There is an old Latin chant that says, Dulce lignum, dulce clavos, dulce pondus sustinet (sweet the wood, sweet the nails, sweet the weight (that is) sustained). So Zacchaeus foreshadows for us the righteous that comes from the cross by climbing a tree and being able to get a glimpse of Jesus.

III. Sanctifying Savior Jesus stops by that tree, for we always meet Jesus at the cross. And there at that tree, that cross, he invites Zacchaeus into a saving and transformative relationship. It is not a surprise that Jesus invites himself for what amounts to dinner at Zacchaeus’ house. Though dinner is not mentioned here, it was just a basic aspect of Jewish hospitality. But remember, it is Jesus who ultimately serves the meal. Consider these texts:

  • Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. (Rev 3:20)
  • And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:29).
  • As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. (Luke 24:28-30)

Yes, Zacchaeus has now begun to see the Lord, and the Lord invites him into a Holy Communion, a relationship and a liturgy that will begin to transform him. And Zacchaeus is us. We too have begun to see the Lord through the power of the Cross to cast out our blindness and the Lord draws us to sacred Communion with him. The liturgy and Holy Communion are essential for this, as the Lord invites himself to our house, that is to say, our soul and our parishes.

IV. Started Surrender Zacchaeus is experiencing the start of a transformative relationship. But this is just the start. Note that Zacchaeus promises to return four-fold the money he has extorted and also to give half his money to the poor. Now there’s an old song that says, “I surrender all….” but Zacchaeus isn’t quite there yet, and, probably most of us aren’t either.

Eventually Zacchaeus will surrender all, and so will we. But in time. For now he needs to stay near the cross to see and continue to allow Jesus to have communion with him. One day all will be surrendered.

So here is the start for Zacchaeus and us. The best is yet to come. You might say, that the Gospel ends here to make a long story short 🙂

This sermon is recorded in mp3 here: http://frpope.com/audio/31%20C.mp3

This song says, “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the master of the sea heard my desparing cry and from the waters lifted me, now safe am I. Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, love lifted me!”


It’s Me Oh Lord, Standin’in the Need of Prayer – A Homily for the 30th Sunday of the Year

There’s an old saying on pride that goes: “Faults in others I can see, but praise the Lord, they’re none in me!” It’s a steel trap statement because one is snared in sin by the very act of claiming they have no sin. And it’s the biggest sin of all: Pride!

In today’s Gospel, the Lord illustrates this very point in speaking to us of two men who go to to the temple and pray. One man commits the greatest sin of all, pride, and leaves unjustified. The other, though a great sinner, receives the gift of justification through humility. Let’s look at what the Lord teaches us.

1. Prideful Premise Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness. When it comes to parables, it is possible for us to go right to the parable and miss the introductory statement that often tells us what spurred Jesus to give the parable. Many simply see this parable as being about arrogance. But there is more to it than that.

Jesus is addressing this parable to those who are convinced of their own righteousness. They are under the illusion that they are capable of justifying and saving themselves. They think they can have their “own righteousness,” and that it will be enough to save them.

But the truth is, there is no saving righteousness apart from Christ’s righteousness. I do not care how many spiritual push-ups you do, how many good works you do, how many commandments you keep. It will never be enough for you to earn heaven. On your own you are not holy enough, to ever enter heaven or save yourself. Scripture says, One cannot redeem himself, pay to God a ransom. Too high the price to redeem a life; he would never have enough (Psalm 49:8-9)

Only Christ and HIS righteousness can ever close the gap, can ever get you to heaven. Even if we do have good works, they are not our gift to God, they are his gift to us. We cannot boast of them, they are his. Again Scripture says, For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).

But the Pharisee in the Parable has a prideful premise that is operative. Jesus says he is convinced of his OWN righteousness. Notice how, in his brief prayer he says “I” four times:

  • I thank you
  • I am not like the rest of humanity – greed, dishonest, adulterous
  • I fast
  • I pay tithes

It is also interesting that the Lord, when telling the of the prideful Pharisee, indicates that he “spoke this prayer to himself.” Some think it merely means he did not say the prayer out loud. But others suspect that more is at work here, a double meaning if you will. In effect, the Lord is saying that his prayer is so wholly self-centered, so devoid of any true appreciation of God, that it is actually spoken only to himself. He is congratulating himself more than really praying to God, and his “thank you” is purely perfunctory and serves more a premise for his own prideful self adulation. He is speaking to himself alright. He is so prideful that even God can’t even hear him.

Hence we see a prideful premise on the part of the Pharisee who sees his righteous as his own, as something he has achieved. He is badly mistaken.

2. Problematic Perspective and despised everyone else. To “despise” means to look down on others with contempt, to perceive others as beneath us. Now the Lord says the Pharisee did this. Notice how the Pharisee is glad to report that he is “not like the rest of humanity.”

Not only is his remark foolish, it is also impertinent. For, it is a simple fact that you and I will not get to heaven merely by being a little better than someone else. No indeed, being better than a tax collector, prostitute, drug dealer, or dishonest business man is not the standard we must meet. The standard we must meet is Jesus. He is the standard. And Jesus said, Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48). Now, somebody say, Lord have mercy! It is so dangerous, and a total waste of time, to compare our self with others because it wholly misses the point.

The point is that we are to compare our selves to Jesus and to be conformed to him by the work of his grace. And, truth be told, any honest comparison of our self to Jesus should make us fall to our knees and cry out for mercy, because the only way we stand a chance is with boatloads of grace and mercy.

It is so silly, laughable really, that we compare our selves to others. What a pointless pursuit! What a fool’s errand! What a waste of time! God is very holy and we need to leave behind the problematic perspective of looking down on others and trying to be just a little better than some poor (and fellow) sinner. It just won’t cut it.

There’s a lot of talk today about being “basically a nice person.” But being nice isn’t how we get to heaven. We get to heaven by being Jesus. The goal in life isn’t to be nice, the goal is to be made holy. We need to set aside all the tepid and merely humanistic notions of righteousness and come to understand how radical the call to holiness is and how unattainable it is by human effort. Looking to be average, or a little better than others, is a problematic perspective. It has to go and be replaced by the Jesus standard.

Let’s put it in terms of something we all can understand: money. Let’s say that we’re on our way to heaven and you have $50 and I have $500. Now I might laugh at you and feel all superior to you. I might ridicule you and say, “I have ten times as much as you!” But then we get to heaven and find out the cost to enter is 70 trillion dollars. Oops. Looks like we’re both going to need a LOT of mercy and grace to get in the door. In the end, we are both in the same boat and all my boasting was a waste of time and quite silly to boot. We have a task so enormous and unattainable that we simply have to let God grant it and accomplish it for us. And this leads to the final point.

3. Prescribed Practice But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ Given everything we have reflected on, we can only bow our head and cry from the heart, “Lord have mercy!” Deep humility coupled with lively hope are the only answers.

And here too, being humble isn’t something we can do. We have to ask God for a humble and contrite heart. Without this gift we will never be saved. We are just to proud and egotistical in our flesh. So God needs to give us a new heart, a new mind. Notice that the tax collector in today’s parable did three things, three things we ought to do:

  1. Realize your distance the text says he stood off at a distance. He realizes that he is a long way from the goal. He knows how holy God is, and he himself is very distant. But his recognition of his distance is already a grace and a mercy. God is already granting the humility by which he stands a chance.
  2. Recognize your disability – The text says he would not even raise his eyes to heaven. Scripture says, No one can see on God and live (Ex 33:20). We are not ready to look on the face of God in all its glory. That is evident by the fact that we are still here. Scripture also says, “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God” (Matt 5:8). This tax collector recognizes his disability, his inability to look on the face of God for his heart is not yet pure enough. So in humility he looks down. But his recognition of his disability is already a grace and a mercy. God is already granting the humility by which he stands a chance.
  3. Request your deliverance – the text says he beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Notice then how his humility is steeped in hope. He cannot save himself but God can. He cannot have a saving righteousness of his own, but Jesus does. So this tax collector summons those twins called grace and mercy. In this man’s humility, a grace given him by God. He stands a chance. For, by this humility, he invokes Jesus Christ who alone can make him righteous and save him. Beg for humility. Only God can really give it to us. The humble, contrite heart the Lord will not spurn (Ps 51:17). And thus Jesus says, whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Beware of Pride. It is our worst enemy. Beg for the gift of humility, for only with it do we even stand a chance.

I have it on the best of authority that, as he left the Temple, the tax collector sang this song: “It’s Me O Lord, Standing in the Need of Prayer!” Here it is sung by a German choir which explains their unusual pronunciation of “prayer.” It’s OK though, I don’t pronounce “Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung” (speed limit) very well either!