Biblical Teaching on Marriage and Family—A Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family

It is not difficult to demonstrate that most of our modern problems center around marriage, sexuality, and the family. In our thinking and our behavior in these three fundamental areas, we have departed significantly from the teachings of God and from common sense.

Today’s Feast of the Holy Family provides a rich tapestry of Scripture readings and presents us with an opportunity to reflect. Many of these teachings are not politically correct, but for that I make no apology. They remain God’s teachings and it is hard to argue that modern notions of sexuality, marriage and family have produced anything short of catastrophe. And, as is often the case, it is children who suffer the most.

Any look at statistics reveals facts and trends that are not merely alarming but downright astonishing, especially given how suddenly they have occurred. More than 40% of children in this country today are raised in homes without both parents. The numbers are even lower within minority communities.

In 1961, the year I was born, 80% of black children were raised in a two-parent family; today that number is 20%. And for whatever assertions may be made regarding ongoing poverty, the poverty rate overall and in the black community is substantially lower today than it was in 1961. Even with far greater pressures, black families used to stay together and work through their difficulties. Today, despite far greater affluence, this is no longer the case. White families and other ethnic/racial groups may have numbers that are slightly less shocking, but when we factor in age and generational differences, the numbers are not that far apart across the races/ethnicities.

The two-parent, heterosexual family is becoming an endangered species. Many grave consequences have resulted from this decline: lower student test scores and graduation rates; higher rates of divorce, cohabitation, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, declared homosexual inclination, and juvenile delinquency. Clearly, as the model of the stable, faithful heterosexual marriage becomes rarer, young people become less and less likely to be able to establish strong families of their own.

Despite the claims that this disordered state of affairs is just fine and that “alternative families” are just as good as traditional ones, most people know that this is a lie. It’s just common sense that the best for any child is to be raised in what nature and nature’s God has set forth as the proper environment: a father and a mother, a male and female, in a stable, committed, lasting marriage. In this safe environment of trust, children learn the male and female genius of being human. A mother alone or a father alone or two fathers or two mothers or any other combination is far less than ideal; to intentionally subject children to this is an injustice to them.

Yet such departures from God’s plan for marriage and family are increasingly the norm today. There is much about which to pray and reflect on this Feast of the Holy Family.

Having reviewed in a general way the problems regarding sexuality and family life today, let’s take a look at some of the highlights of today’s readings and see five basic teachings or themes.

Honor The opening of the first reading says, God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons (Sirach 3:2). The reading goes on to state the blessings that come from this honor and obedience.

Yet, in modern culture, honor directed toward parents and elders has increasingly disappeared. The steady diet of most children, whether through television, music, or other media, leads them to think that they are the smart ones while adults are clueless and out-of-touch. And when fathers are even present, they are often depicted as buffoons.

When I was a child, my father forbade us to watch The Flintstones. He said that he would not allow his children to watch a cartoon that presented adults as stupid because this would discourage respect for elders. He was right. Of course, The Flintstones is pretty mild in its depiction of adults compared to what is common today.

God teaches and commands children to honor their father and their mother. Without respect and honor, there can be no teaching or handing on of wisdom from previous generations. The lack of honor and respect for parents, elders, and authority figures in our culture goes a long way to explain why we are repeating foolish mistakes long since discarded by our forebears.

While previous generations of Christians were by no means sinless, it is evident that we are moving rapidly backwards; the folly and sinfulness of the pagan world described by St. Paul in Romans Chapter 1 have reemerged on a wide scale. Our folly is even worse, though, because unlike the pagans of old, we have access to the gospel and our culture has emerged from the Judeo-Christian wisdom. But in a kind of adolescent rebellion, we have collectively cast off the respect and honor that is due our elders as well as the traditions and wisdom that they and the Church can offer us.

We must restore honor to our parents, elders, and lawful authority (e.g., the Church) if we want to see our families and culture strong again. Parents and those in lawful authority must also learn to teach and act as those worthy of commanding respect.

Hierarchy – Although it is currently politically incorrect, the Lord through Scripture teaches that the family must be hierarchically ordered, with the father and husband as its head.

Today’s text from Colossians says clearly,

Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord (Col 3:19-21).

Headship is required of every group. A body with two heads is freakish, and a body with no head is dead. It is the same for organizations and groups. Even in consultative bodies, headship is required. God sets a husband and father as head of the household, the domestic church. This is consistently taught in scripture (Col 3:18; Eph 5:22; 1 Peter 3:1, inter al).

The authority a husband and father has is for service, not domination. He exercises it among those of equal dignity before God, but he has this authority and it ought to be acknowledged and observed. He is not to be bitter toward his wife or lord it over her, but he must be willing, with love, to manifest headship in his household. (I have written more on this topic here: A Unpopular Teaching on Marriage.)

Many today have set this teaching aside, and the result is that many marriages resemble more an ongoing power struggle than a loving, cohesive unit. It is not necessary or even wise for a husband to micromanage everything in his household; he does well to keep deep communion with his wife and often defer to her judgment. However, there are some matters that require a final decision-maker, someone to whom everyone turns for direction and for a final decision. Scripture assigns this role to the husband and father.

Scripture says, Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord (Col 3:20). God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons (Sir 3:2). While we have already commented on these verses in terms of respect and honor, we ought to note them here in terms of hierarchy. Children are to respect the hierarchy of the family. They are not on par with their parents and should not act as if they are.

When I was growing up, my Father made sure to confirm my mother’s authority over us children; he would not tolerate us being disobedient or disrespectful toward her. A good husband and father is careful to do this. Even when we were adults, my father would not allow us to speak ill of our mother or behave disrespectfully toward her.

Thus, while all the members of the family have equal dignity before God, not all have the same role. Hierarchy is important in the family for good order and teaching. God sets it forth and it ought to be observed carefully.

Helpful virtues – The first part of the second reading today from Colossians 3 provides a veritable encyclopedia of virtues to cultivate.

Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another… put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts…And be thankful (Col 3:12-15).

When I am preparing couples for marriage, I spend an entire session talking about this passage. All the virtues here are essential for good family life.

Notice how many of the virtues emphasize compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. Families are composed of sinful human beings who have issues and struggles. Day-to-day life, too, can be difficult, causing strain on marriage and family. How essential, then, to develop these virtues!

Every now and again people come to me for advice in preparing for Confession; I often refer them to this very passage. I ask them to read Colossians 3 and assure them that if they read it carefully, they’ll have plenty to confess before they’re halfway through!

So many stresses and strains could be either avoided, endured, or handle charitably if the virtues of Colossians 3 would only be cultivated.

Holy teaching – The text from Colossians goes on to say, Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God (Col 3:16).

Nothing can be more essential in having a godly and holy family than having godly and holy teaching.

With rare exception, we have utterly failed in this regard. There is nothing more important than instruction for eternal life. Yet in how many families is this instruction seldom or never given?

If a child is failing math or some other subject in school, most parents react with alarm, realizing that their child’s future may be at stake. They will often spend money to secure tutors and other help. If their child knows little or nothing about God, about why they were made, about the purpose of their life, though, who cares?

Parents put bumper stickers on their car boasting that their child is on the honor roll but have little interest in whether he or she can recite the Hail Mary or the Glory Be or knows the difference between the Old and the New Testaments. Where’s the bumper sticker that says, “My child knows the Lord!” or “My child is smart enough to pray!”

Parents will spend tens of thousands of dollars so their child can get a college degree, a career, a car, a house. Yet do they even inquire as to whether their child attends Mass or is living anything close to a Christian moral life?

This is a tragic situation: the ladder of “success” is leaning up against the wrong wall. Great effort is expended on things that pass away and almost none on things that will last forever, come Heaven or Hell.

Scripture is clear: the home must be a place where godly wisdom is taught, lived, modeled, and proclaimed. Parents should read their children Bible stories every day. Children must be taught God’s law and how to walk in the holy fear and reverence of Him. Family members should not only teach one another; they must admonish as well, summoning back to what is right and true.

Parents are the principal educators of children in the ways of faith. While much is rightly said about the dearth of teaching coming from the pulpit, ten minutes a week is not going to accomplish what is necessary or called for in a text like this. Even if a particular parish lacks a good preacher, that is no excuse for failing to teach one’s children. There’s nothing to prevent parents from carefully studying the catechism and teaching their children from it or reading them stories from a children’s Bible every day and teaching them God’s Word. Holy teaching should be the hallmark of every family.

Heroic sacrifice – In this matter we look to St. Joseph in today’s Gospel reading. Through an angel, God instructs Joseph to protect his wife and child by taking them to Egypt immediately, for King Herod seeks to kill the child.

How many fathers, indeed parents in general, struggle to get their priorities right? Too often career eclipses their vocation. For many fathers, their work takes priority over their role as husband/father. While the two are not directly opposed, there are times when the focus on career can to damage the capacity to be a good husband and father.

What Joseph has to do in going to Egypt will clearly have an impact on his career and his agenda. Scripture speaks of him as a tekton, which many think means “carpenter,” but it is more literally translated as “builder.” Joseph probably worked in the building trades. Going to Egypt in the middle if the night will certainly hurt his business. In addition, he would likely have preferred to return home than to go to a foreign land. But his child and wife need him. He is their protector; the husband, father, and head of the household.

Heroically, Joseph obeys God and immediately takes his wife and child out of harm’s way. He does not count the personal cost. This is the kind of heroic sacrifice sometimes required of parents and family members. Joseph approaches this situation as a husband and father, not a businessman.

Doing this is hard, and it is heroic; many a man’s ego is strongly linked to his work. As would most human beings, men naturally fear losing their livelihood. Joseph heroically trusts God and witnesses that his vocation as husband and father is more important than even his “paycheck.”

More than ever today we need more heroism of this sort. The pursuit of wealth and a comfortable lifestyle too often trump the essential work of being a parent and spouse. Lifestyles today are often too costly to maintain, requiring two incomes and/or long hours. But children need their parents at home more than they need a big house or nice cars. Having a vacation home may be nice but having your parents at home is better.

Too many parents today are willing to let strangers raise their children so that they can earn more money. For what? For the children? Really? If it is “for” them, why are they often pushed to the margins? Life is complicated, but every now and then it is good to re-examine our priorities and be willing to sacrifice for what is more important than what we merely desire.

Here, then, are some teachings on marriage and family from today’s feast. We do well to heed what the Lord teaches. Our families are in crisis. Individual choices have led us here and individual choices will have to lead us out.

God has a plan for marriage and family: one man and one woman in a stable, faithful, and fruitful union, raising their children in that context and bringing them up in the holy fear of the Lord. We must heed this plan or suffer the consequences.

Finally, there is a tendency when hearing teachings with which one has struggled to lash out in anger (“You’re judging me!”) or to become despondent and retreat into silence. Please do not do either. All of us, whether we have been able to keep to God’s teaching or not, ought to proclaim it. Perhaps you have not been able to get married and/or stay married. Perhaps you wanted to remain married, but your spouse was unwilling. Perhaps you had a child outside of marriage. This is all the more reason to speak clearly to your children and grandchildren and urge them to seek God’s graces early. God has a plan, and it is for our good not our ill. Teach it boldly and with courageous love!

Here is a video that describes typical family homes in Jesus’ time.

Lessons in Humility from The First Christmas – A Homily For Christmas

Feature-122413The Christmas Gospel from Luke provides us with many teachings. One thing that surely stands out, however, is the permeating theme of humility. Throughout the account, God confounds our prideful expectations and insists on being found in the lowest of places.

The newborn Christ is not found where we expect Him to be nor does His birth conform to any script we would design. Right from the start, He gives us many lessons in humility and begins His saving work of healing our wound of pride. Let’s look at these lessons in four stages.

I. The Procession to the Place In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So, all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

There is a sort of “cast of thousands” that leads Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to be in Bethlehem. The distant Caesar Augustus sends out a decree affecting millions. He wants a census taken in order to update his tax rolls. He also likely wants to measure his power and may have military deployments and a draft in mind. Soon enough, dozens of governors deploy thousands of troops to enforce the edict. Even in the small town of Nazareth, a town of barely 300 people, Roman troops enforce the decree. Mary is nine months pregnant, but there will be no exceptions.

For many of us, this offends our sense of what should justly happen. Jesus, who is Lord and Savior, should be born in comfort; Mary should be surrounded by loving family and in the care of midwives.

The first lesson in humility is our surprise and even indignation at the events surrounding Jesus’ birth.

God, however, is neither surprised nor stymied. All this fits into His plan to get Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and all of us to the place of blessing. Whatever evil the Emperor intends, God intends it for good (see Genesis 50:20). The Messiah, it was prophesied, would be called a Nazarene (Matt 2:23), be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), and die in Jerusalem (Lk 13:33). God is setting things in place for the blessing.

And here is the second lesson in humility: Your life is not just about you. You and I are part of something far larger. Just as millions were set on the move at the birth of Christ, so you and I are part of the larger plan and providence of God involving billions of people now living, countless others who have lived, and still others who will live in the future. God sees the bigger picture, yet not one detail is lost to Him. Humility! God has more in mind than our comfort and personal agendas. We are part of something bigger as well.

The third lesson in humility is that God must get us to certain places in order to bless us. And they may be strange places, ones we would not choose. Getting us there may involve hardship for us: disappointment that our own plans have not come through, and the painful loss of places, things, and people we love. Yes, God has blessings waiting for us in strange places, involving circumstances we never imagined.

For Joseph and Mary, the procession to the place called Bethlehem involved hardship. But this procession is necessary for them and for us. Bethlehem was where the blessing would be found—there and no other place. And the same is true for us in so many ways.

God has been good to me and blessed me in ways and in places I never expected or planned. God must get us to certain places in order to bless us. I am and have been blessed; I am a witness.

Don’t miss the procession to the place that opens this Gospel. It is a paradigm for our lives. Where is your Bethlehem? Where does God need to get you in order to unlock your blessings? Are you humble and teachable enough to go there?

Remain humble and don’t quickly despair when the surprises and vicissitudes of life emerge. God may be up to something. He can make a way out of no way and write straight with crooked lines.

II. The Paradox of His PovertyWhile they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Don’t miss the poverty that is manifest here—it is a chosen poverty. St. John Chrysostom said,

Surely if [the Lord] had so willed it, He might have come moving the heavens, making the earth to shake, and shooting forth His thunderbolts; but such was not the way of His going forth; His desire was not to destroy, but to save… And, to trample upon human pride from its very birth, therefore He is not only man, but a poor man, and has chosen a poor mother, who had not even a cradle where she might lay her new born Child; as it follows, and she laid him in the manger (Quoted in the Catena Aurea – Lection 2 ad Luc 2:6).

The paradox of poverty is the fourth lesson in humility! We who are worldly think that poverty is the worst thing, but it is not—pride is the worst thing. And thus the Lord teaches us from the start that greatness and blessings are not found merely in what is high, mighty, pleasant, or pleasing. Blessings are often found in unusual ways and under unexpected circumstances.

The greatest blessing ever bestowed is not found in a palace, or in Bloomindales, or on beachfront property; He is not even found in a cheap Bethlehem inn. He is found in a lowly manger underneath an inn. It is poor and smelly and He rests in a feeding trough. But there He is, in the least expected place, the lowest imaginable circumstances. In this way He confounds our pride and our values.

Are we humble enough to admit this and to stop being so resentful and crestfallen when things don’t measure up exactly to our standards?

He chooses this poverty. Whatever its unpleasant realities, poverty brings a sort of freedom if it is embraced. The poor have less to lose and thus the world has less of a hold on them. What does a poor man have to lose by leaving everything and following Jesus? Wealth has many spiritual risks. It is hard for the rich to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Wealth is too easily distracting and enslaving. And even knowing all this, we still want it. In choosing poverty, Jesus confounds our pride, greed, lust, and gluttony.

The Lord does not just confound us; He also chooses this to bless us. St. Paul said,

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich (2 Cor 8:9).

He also said,

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be clung to, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:5).

Bede, the 7th century Church Father, wrote,

He who sits at His Father’s right hand, finds no room in an inn, that He might prepare for us in His Father’s house many mansions; He is born not in His Father’s house, but [under] an inn and by the way side, because through the mystery of the incarnation He was made the way [for us back to our Father’s House] [Catena, Ibidem].

Thank you, Jesus, for the paradoxical perfection of your poverty. Through it you confound our human ways and bless us more richly than we could ever expect! Thank for this lesson in humility.

III. Proclamation to the People Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

The fifth lesson in humility throws into question our overemphasis on politics and worldly power. This section of the nativity narrative serves to strongly remind us that our salvation is not to be found in the statehouse, the courthouse, or the White House. We are not to put our trust in princes. Our salvation is in Jesus, only in Jesus. Are we humble enough to admit this and stop exalting worldly power?

Note that in this Gospel, lots of “emperor words” are used to describe this newborn infant, Jesus. Yet here He is in a lowly manger!

Emperors had heralds that preceded their arrival and summoned their subjects. The infant Jesus has the angel of the Lord to announce Him. Later, this heralding angel will be joined by a “host” of angels. The Emperor Augustus has his Legions, but Jesus has His myriad angels.

The angel also uses words appropriate for an emperor. He says, “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” This is how the declarations of emperors began. The Greek text makes this even clearer: the angel uses the word εὐαγγελίζομαι (evaggelizomai), which means “I evangelize you,” “I announce good or life changing news.” This word for “evangelize” was associated especially with an edict or announcement from the Emperor. But what the emperors questionably claimed for their edicts is really true with Jesus!

The emperors also claimed the titles “savior” and “lord.” The angel calls Jesus Savior (σωτὴρ – Soter) and Lord (κύριος – Kyrios), and He alone deserves these titles.

Here is the irony that we must humbly accept: this true Lord and Savior, this God of Armies with plenary authority, is not in some palace drinking from goblets and being fanned by slaves. He is lying in a lowly feed box, attended to by animals.

It is a divine comedy. One can almost imagine the shepherds wrinkling their noses or scratching their heads as they hear this great announcement of a King, Savior, Lord and Messiah, and then hearing that He is to be found in a stable, lying in a feeding trough. Perhaps one shepherd said to the other, “Did that angel say ‘manger’?” And another replying, “Yup, a feeding trough.”

It’s a bit anticlimactic! But thank the Lord, they humbly accept the procession that they must now make to the place of true blessing. It is an unexpected place to be sure, but that is where He is to be found. He is King and Lord to be sure, but He is humble and comes to serve and to save. He will wash the feet of the worst sinners and die for the love of them.

Humility!

IV. Praise that is Perfect And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Note the praises of the angels! Who or what could ever match them? They are a multitude. They are perfected in their glory and acclaim God’s praises more gloriously than any human choir could ever hope to do.

Yet even here there is a humility to consider. For the Lord has taken a human nature to Himself, not an angelic one. In the order of creation, angels are far higher and more noble than we are. Their mere appearance overwhelms us and strikes fear in us. Yet to none of these did God ever say, “You are my Son. This day I have begotten you” (See Hebrews 1:5).

God humbly takes up our human nature and bestows on us an astonishing dignity that comes only from Him. It is due to His choice, not our merits. And though the angels can surely praise the Lord in far more glorious way than we, they cannot say, “One of us is God.”

And glorious though the angel’s praise is, there is a perfect praise that only we can give to God. It was beautifully expressed by the poet Christina Rossetti:

Angels and Archangels may have gathered there.
Cherubim and Seraphim thronged the air.
But only his mother in her maiden bliss
could worship the beloved with a kiss.

And thus, our final lesson in humility is to accept that it is our lowliness which the Lord embraced. We have no glory to give that is even close to what the Lord deserves, but a simple kiss will do, a simple act of love. It is our lowly and sinful hearts that the Lord seeks, so as to heal and exalt them. Our palaces, honors, and titles are of no interest or value to Him. It is our humility that pleases Him most, and He desires to meet us there.

Humility!

Crisis At Christmas – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent

j-and-m-and-jToday’s Gospel gives us some background for the Christmas feast that we need to take to heart. It speaks to us of a crisis at Christmas.

We tend to sentimentalize the Christmas story as we think of the baby Jesus in the manger. It is not absolutely wrong to be sentimental, but we must also be prayerfully sober about how difficult that first Christmas was, and about the heroic virtue required of Mary and Joseph in order to cooperate with God in making it come to pass.

Let’s look at this Gospel in three stages: distress, direction, and decision.

  1. DISTRESS This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.

The marriage is off. When we read that Mary was found to be with child before she and Joseph were together, we need to understand how devastating and dangerous this situation was. Pregnancy in this circumstance  brought forth a real crisis for both families involved in Joseph and Mary’s marriage plans. Quite simply, it put all plans for the continuation of the marriage permanently off.

Why is this? We read that Joseph was a “righteous man.” To our ears this like saying that he was a “good man.” Most of the Fathers of the Church interpreted “righteous” here to refer to Joseph’s gracious character and virtue where he steps back from a sacred situation. And we surely suppose all this of him. More recent biblical scholarship includes the idea that it meant Joseph was also an “observer of the Law.” He would thus do what the Law prescribed. This explains his decision to divorce Mary because of her apparent lack of virginity prior to their coming together in the  marriage. Here is an example of the Mosaic Law in reference to such a matter:

But if the tokens of virginity were not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has wrought folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father’s house; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you (Deut 22:20-21).

While this seems quite extreme to us, we can also recognize how far we have gone in the other direction in modern times, making light of promiscuity. I doubt that anyone would argue that we should stone such a woman today, and rightly so, but this was the landscape in Joseph’s time.

What about stoning? It would seem that Jews of the first century had varying interpretations about whether stoning was required or whether it was simply permitted (cf John 8). As a virtuous and patient man, Joseph looks for and senses some freedom in not “exposing” Mary to the full effects of the Law (stoning). But it does not seem he can find a way that he can take her into his home. Thus, as a “righteous man” (i.e., follower of the Law) he decides that divorce is required even if stoning is not.

This leads us to two important reflections, one about Mary and one about Joseph.

Mary – We can see into what a difficult and dangerous position her yes (her fiat) to the angel placed her. She risked her very life by being found with child outside the normal marital act with her husband. We know that it is by the Holy Spirit she conceives, but her family and Joseph and his family do not yet, or at least cannot verify it. And even if Mary explained exactly how she conceived, do you think you would accept such a story? Mary’s fiat placed her in real danger. It is a great testimony to her faith and trust in God that she said yes to His plans.

Joseph – We can also see the kind of pressure he would be under to do what the Law and custom required. There is no mention of Joseph’s feelings at this point, but we can assume that when Mary was found to be with child prior to their being together in marriage, the social pressure on him to be legally freed from Mary were strong, regardless of his feeling or plans.

  1. DIRECTION Such was his intention [to divorce] when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

Be not afraid. The principal exhortation of the angel was that Joseph “not be afraid” to take Mary as his wife. This exhortation is powerful because fear was a very big factor. Joseph had much to fear in taking Mary. Some of the Fathers of the Church believed that what the angel meant was that Joseph should not fear God’s wrath, since he would not actually be taking an adulterer or fornicator into his home. Others think that the angel meant that Joseph should not fear taking God’s chosen instrument (Mary) as his wife.

One can also imagine some other fears that needed to be allayed by the angel. For example, Joseph could easily be rejected by his family for taking Mary in. The community could likewise shun him, and as a businessman, Joseph needed a good reputation to be able to ply his trade. All of these threats loom if Joseph “brings evil” into his house rather than purging the (apparent) evil from the midst of his house. But the angel directs him not to fear; this will take courageous faith.

The angel’s explanation is unusual to say the least. What does it mean to conceive by the Holy Spirit? It’s not exactly a common occurrence! Would his family buy such an explanation? What about the others in the small town of Nazareth? Yes, people were more spiritual in those days, but it all seems so unusual!

Further, Joseph hears all this in a dream. We all know what dreams can be like. They can seem so real at the time, but when we are fully awake we wonder if what we experienced was real at all. Joseph has to trust that what he was told is real, and that he should not be afraid because God has given him direction. As is often the case with things spiritual, we have to carefully discern and walk by faith, not by fleshly sight and certitude. Joseph has a decision to make.

  1. DECISION When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.

We can see the strong faith of Joseph and the kind of trust he had to put in God. He had been told not to be afraid, to rebuke fear. Manfully, Joseph does this. He makes the decision to obey God whatever the cost. We are given no information about how his family and others in the town reacted. However, the fact that the Holy family later settles back in Nazareth indicates that God did come through on His promise that Joseph need not be afraid.

Heroes of Faith! Recognize the crisis of that first Christmas and the powerful faith of Joseph and Mary. Their reputations were on the line, if not their very lives. They had great sacrifices to make in the wondrous incarnation of our Lord. Quite simply, Mary and Joseph are great heroes of the faith. For neither of them was their “yes” easy. It is often hard to obey God rather than men. Praise God that they made their decision and obeyed.

Mary and Joseph’s difficulties were not yet over. There was a badly timed census, which required a journey to Bethlehem in the ninth month of Mary’s pregnancy. Imagine walking 70 miles through mountainous terrain in such a condition! There may or may not have been a donkey, but I doubt that riding a donkey in the ninth month of pregnancy is all that comfortable either. And then there was no room in the inn; Jesus had to be born in a smelly stable. Shortly thereafter they had to flee through the desert to Egypt because Herod sought to kill Jesus.

Jesus is found in a real Christmas, not a “Hallmark” one. The crisis of the first Christmas prefigures the passion. This where Jesus is found: in the crisis of the first Christmas. You may wish for the perfect Christmas, but there is no perfect Christmas. Jesus will find you where you are, in real life, in the imperfect Christmas, where loved ones have passed away and there is grief, where a job has been lost and there is anxiety, where health is poor and there is stress, where families are experiencing strife. That’s where Jesus will be found, in your real Christmas. A Christmas of joy, yes, but also of imperfections, even crises. He is there waiting for you to find Him, in the real Christmas of your life.

This is an old African-American spiritual that reflects on the fact that true discipleship isn’t always easy. Joseph and Mary surely experience and exemplify what these words express.

I tol’ Jesus it would be all right
If He changed my name

Jesus tol’ me I would have to live humble
If He changed mah name

Jesus tol’ me that the world would be ‘gainst me
If He changed mah name

But I tol’ Jesus it would be all right
If He changed mah name

Sermon Lengths Should Vary

A recent analysis by the Pew Research Center shows the rather unsurprising fact that sermons at Catholic masses are much shorter than those at Protestant and Evangelical services. The Catholic News Agency reports:

An analysis of nearly 50,000 sermons, given across a variety of Christian denominations during the months of April and May this year, found that the median length of a sermon was 37 minutes, but for Catholic priests, the average length was just 14 minutes.

Pew found that historically black Protestant sermons had the longest median length of 54 minutes, while mainline Protestant sermons were an average of 25 minutes long, with evangelical churches falling in between at 39 minute [sic] per sermon (CNA).

Catholic clergy are generally considered to be poorer preachers than their Protestant counterparts, and I would argue that the shorter sermon length has something to do with that. The expectation that a sermon be brief, about twelve minutes, affects what is said and how it is said. It also makes a number of forms of preaching, some of them among the most satisfying for the congregation, impossible.

Some years ago, a brother priest asked one of his parishioners who had left for a large Protestant denomination why he had done so. “They teach the Word,” was the man’s answer. We can certainly lament that the man would not have left the faith had he understood the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but people also have a hunger for God’s Word effectively taught and presented. For this reason, a good sermon deeply rooted in a biblical text is very satisfying. Long before I was ordained a priest, I listened to recordings of Protestant preachers like Adrian Rogers and Tony Evans. I marveled at how these men could take a text and teach from it line by line, creatively applying it to life. Even if I did not agree with every point they made or thought that they missed something that a Catholic would see, they saw the text as full of meaning and served up rich spiritual fare for their listeners.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen had this ability, too. He’d find a crucial point most others would miss and develop it beautifully. I remember once he noted that the disciples had forgotten to bring bread with them on the boat and emphasized the detail in the text that said, “They had only one loaf with them in the boat.” With the authority that only Sheen could command he proceeded to say, “And the loaf was Christ, who alone is our necessary Bread.” From this insightful teaching he went on to develop four aspects of it.

This sort of teaching and preaching takes time. I would argue that the relative inferiority of Catholic preaching isn’t just that Catholic clergy are poorly trained; it is also the limited time tolerated by the faithful. With such an abbreviated length, Catholic sermons tend to present a single principle drawn from the readings without being able to fully develop it. Good biblically based preaching usually involves going through a passage in the following steps: read it, analyze it, organize it, illustrate it, and then apply it. This sort of preaching isn’t likely to happen in a twelve-minute homily.

I also am told by many Catholics that priests need to teach more from the pulpit. There is a very long list of topics that they want to hear preached about more. I would argue that this also requires more than a mere twelve minutes.

I do not say that every member of the clergy should preach longer. Some simply don’t have the skill to do so. Others are in situations were a longer sermon is not possible due to the overall Mass schedule. There are also going to be ethnic/racial differences that factor in. So, neither do I argue that longer sermons teaching in depth out of a biblical text should be used in all situations. However, I do argue that if they want the “better” sermons of the denominations noted for excellent preaching, more Catholics might want to consider tolerating a longer sermon, at least at certain Masses.

I have spent most of my priesthood in predominantly African-American parishes. In such congregations, longer sermons are assumed. The people have high expectations of the sermon; they also interact with the preacher through encouraging interjections such as “Amen” and “All right now.” In these settings I routinely preach about thirty minutes; it is a great luxury. This permits me to preach through a biblical text examining its stages or exploring several aspects of the teaching it sets forth. Most of you who read my Sunday sermons posted here or listen to them online know this. One sermon might cover four aspects of discipleship derived from a Gospel pericope. Another might explore the stages of faith the man born blind goes through in the Gospel of John. Most of my parishioners would be surprised if I gave a ten-minute sermon, wondering what had happened. Once when I gave a short sermon a woman playfully rebuked me, saying, “Father, you left too much fruit in the tree this morning. We need a better harvest next week.”

Some Catholics have told me that they think long sermons are a mistake no matter who is in the pulpit because the purpose of the Mass is not to be a glorified bible study; it is an act of worship. Perhaps, but isn’t the Lord being worshipped when the faithful are attending to His proclaimed and preached Word with devotion?

Over the years, I have found that people have pretty strong opinions about sermons, both length and content. I suppose the best way for me to end this piece is by saying that perhaps we can all make a little room for one another in the Church. Some priests preach longer and are good at it. Some are not and better off keeping the sermon short and to the point. Other priests preach brilliant, memorable homilies that are quite brief. Vive la différence! Even in my own parish, not every liturgy is the same: our 11:00 AM Mass runs well over an hour, while our 7:00 PM Mass is no longer than forty-five minutes. Hence, in my own sermons, both content and length vary.

The one thing that is most clear to me is that rigid declarations that no sermon should be longer than a certain number of minutes (8, 10, 12, or whatever) are disrespectful of legitimate differences across cultures, liturgical traditions, and even personal temperaments. Pastors and congregations can and should work out their own situations and provide variety even there. Live and let live.

This sermon clip shows that, when I have to, I can preach in under four minutes. This was a half-hour TV Mass and only four minutes for the sermon is allotted. I certainly don’t consider it one of my better efforts and would liked to have developed the possibility that St. John did have supernatural grace. But all that one can do in so brief a moment is to throw out a few thoughts and exit gracefully. In my written online sermon I developed, in three stages, going from the imperfect gift we merely want to the perfect gift that God is actually offering.  In my recorded parish homily, given the generous time allotted in that setting I was able to sample well from the Prophets as well as the Gospel text itself. 

The Perfect Gift: A Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent.

What is the perfect gift? We tend to answer this question more in terms of what we want, but today’s Gospel teaches us that the perfect gift is what God is offering. One of the goals of the spiritual journey is to come to value, more than our latest desire, more than our perceived need—more than all else—what God offers.

In reviewing today’s Gospel, I am going to take a stance regarding St. John the Baptist that I realize is not without controversy. The Gospel opens with John (who is in prison) sending his disciples to Jesus with a strange question: “Are you he who is to come, or should we look for another?” This is a strange question coming from the one who pointed Jesus out and spoke so powerfully of Him!

Many of the Fathers of the Church (e.g., John Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, Theodore of Mopsuestia) interpreted John’s question as a rhetorical one, designed to teach his reluctant disciples to follow Jesus.

I, however, would like to present a different interpretation: that John’s question is a sincere one, and manifests some puzzlement—even discouragement.

While some will take offense no matter how many disclaimers I provide, I still insist that I mean no impiety in my interpretation. It is a common biblical stance that even the greatest scriptural heroes are presented in very human terms. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, the judges and prophets, on down to the Apostles are all depicted as humans who are imperfect from the start, who struggle to understand and have perfect faith. Some of them committed great sins—even including murder. One of the most powerful themes of the Bible is that God is able to work with imperfect, struggling human beings and draw them to great sanctity and great accomplishments.

And thus out of regard for that biblical tradition, I take today’s Gospel at what seems to me to be face value. If St. John is merely asking a rhetorical question, it seems odd that Jesus would not be aware of that. Instead, Jesus sends an answer back to John, asking him not to be scandalized (shocked) by the manner in which He goes about fulfilling Messianic texts.

I am not claiming that St. John is sinning or has failing faith; only that he, like all the prophets and patriarchs (and us), must sometimes struggle to understand God’s ways. Even Mother Mary, when Jesus was twelve and said that He must be in His Father’s house, did not understand what He was saying and had to ponder these things in her heart (cfLuke 2:50-51).

Today’s Gospel is best seen in three stages, as John the Baptist is encouraged to make a journey from puzzlement, through purification, to perfection; a journey to understand that the perfect is gift is not one of our own imagining but of God’s true offer. It is a Gospel that encourages us to find and appreciate the perfect gift.

 

Puzzlement When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

This is a strange question given what St. John had already done!With delight, John had pointed out Christ as He approached, saying, Behold, the Lamb of God(John 1:29). With humble hesitation, John had baptized the One who would change everything. He encouraged his disciples to follow after the One who was mightier than he. So why this unusual question?

Is John puzzled? Is he discouraged?It’s hard to say. Some argue that John doesn’t really mean the question seriously; he is just encouraging his disciples to ask it. But that had not been John’s approach in the past.

So perhaps John is puzzled or even struggling to understand.Consider that John had been looking for a Messiah who would root out injustice, crush the wicked, destroy the oppressors, and exalt the poor and the oppressed. Recall his words from last Sunday’s Gospel:

Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire(Mat 3:10-12).

John is now in prison, relegated there by a tyrant, an oppressor—the very sort of man John was sure that the Messiah would cut downand cast into the fire. Where was the hoped-for deliverance? Where was the exaltation of the lowly and the casting down of the mighty? Where was the axe being laid to the root of the tree? Jesus was not doing this sort of thing at all. Although He had some confrontations with religious leaders, His main work seems to have been healing the sick and summoning average people to repentance and faith.

So perhaps John’s question is genuine and he is puzzled or discouraged. The very one who had announced Jesus and pointed Him out when He came, sends his disciples to Jesus with a question: Are you he who is to come, or should we look for another?

John was not wholly off-base in his expectation of a Messiah coming in wrath. There are many texts that spoke of it. Here are a few:

        • Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come. … Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it! … I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the haughtiness of the ruthless. Therefore, I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the LORD of hosts in the day of his fierce anger(Is 13:6-10).
        • Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken asunder by him(Nahum 1:6).
        • But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? (Mal 3:2)

John had worked hard calling people to repentance in order to get them ready for the great and terrible dayof the Lord. John’s puzzlement is thus understandable; Jesus goes about healing and preaching, and instead of slaying the wicked, endures scorn and ridicule from those in power.

The perfect gift for John would be to see all injustice rooted out, to see the threshing floor cleared and the distinction between the wheat and the chaff made obvious, to see the wicked burned with fire and the righteous shine like the firmament. Like many of the prophets, John sensed that the perfect gift was this: let judgment run down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream(Amos 5:24).

Of itself this is a good and biblical vision that will one day be accomplished. But at this point is it the perfect gift? Is it the gift that Jesus wants to offer? What is the perfect gift?

Purification Jesus gives an answer to John’s disciples that draws from a different tradition of Messiah texts than those John had emphasized. The Old Testament texts that spoke of the Messiah were complicated and at times hard to interpret. While some texts spoke of His wrath toward the wicked and unjust, others spoke of His healing and mercy.

The differences in the description of the Messiah had a lot to do with the context, the audience, and also the possibility that the Messiah’s ministry might be accomplished in stages. Hence, while John the Baptist was not wrong in his application of the wrathful and vindicating texts to the Messiah, the New Testament tradition came to understand such texts more in terms of the Messiah’s second coming than his first.

Jesus thus gives the following answer to those sent by John:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.

In this answer, Jesus stitches together many quotesand prophecies about the Messiah, mostly from Isaiah. For example, consider the following:

        • In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel(Isaiah 29:18-19).
        • The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn(Is 61:1-3).
        • The dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For thy dew is a dew of light, and on the land of the shades thou wilt let it fall(Is 26:19).
        • Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy(Is 35:5-6).

There is a need to purify our sense of what is best for God to do, to come to a better appreciation of the perfect gift.

To those who are disappointed in His lack of wrathful vengeance, Jesus says something quite remarkable: And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.

Many of us have been hurt by others or have been deeply troubled by the fact that the wicked seem to prosper while the just struggle.When will God act? Why doesn’t He do something? It is very easy for us to be puzzled, discouraged, or even offended by God’s seeming inaction.

To all this Jesus simply says, And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.

It is essential to accept Jesus’ teaching in order to have our sense of the perfect gift purified.Rejoicing in any other gifts than grace and mercy is very dangerous. Hoping for a wrathful punishment to be inflicted on the proud and all sinful oppressors, or wishing this upon individuals or even whole segments of the world, is very dangerous. The last time I checked, all of us are sinners.

Here, then, is the necessary purification in our thinking: God’s greatest gift is not the crushing of our enemies; it is His Son, Jesus.Heis the Perfect Gift.

Further, it is not Jesus’ wrath that is His greatest gift; it is His grace and mercy. Thatis the perfect gift from the Perfect Gift.Without Jesus and a whole lot of His grace and mercy, we don’t stand a chance.

Even John the Baptist,of whom Christ said, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist—even he needs lots of grace and mercy.

Perfection – And thus we see that the perfect gift is the grace and mercy of Jesus. It is not the destruction of our enemies. It is not a sudden, swift ushering in of justice before God’s chosen time. The perfect gift is the grace and mercy of Jesus, which all of us without exception desperately need.

In order to emphasize the absolute necessity of grace and mercy, and the perfect gift that they are, Jesus turns to the crowds and speaks of St. John the Baptist:

Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you. Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.”

And thus St. John the Baptist is the best that this world has produced. But pay attention to what the Lord says next:

Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Do you see what grace and mercy can do?Do you see that they surpass any worldly excellence? The world can produce only human, worldly excellence. Grace and mercy produce heavenly excellence and make us like unto God. Without these gifts of God, we don’t stand a chance. John the Baptist needed grace and mercy; Mother Teresa needed grace and mercy. Grace and mercy are perfect and necessary gifts.

One day the perfect justice of God that we all seek will roll in. But unless and untilyou receive the perfect gift of grace and mercy through Jesus, you will not be able to endure the perfect justice of God. So until that time, it has pleased God to offer us the perfect gift of His Son, who by His grace and mercy will prepare us for that day.

If you are looking for the perfect gift this Christmas, look to Jesus.He alone can bestow the grace and mercy that we so desperately need. If even the holy St. John the Baptist was in need, how much more so you and I? Grace and mercy far exceed anything we can ask for or imagine.

Do you want to give the perfect gift to others?Then bring them to Jesus; bring them to Mass. Jesus awaits us in prayer, in the liturgy, in His Word proclaimed, and in the sacraments. Jesus is the perfect gift. The destruction of sinners is not the perfect gift; their conversion and salvation is.

Find the perfect gift this Christmas; find Jesus. Give the perfect gift this Christmas; give Jesus. Give Jesus the perfect gift this Christmas; give Him the give of your very self—the perfect gift.

The Priority of Personal Prayer

mary-and-marthaToday’s Gospel 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 lifetime 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 go do your thing and let Mary do hers.” Rather, 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 interpretation of 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. The 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 that 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 given is that Martha goes right to work. There is no evidence that Jesus asked for a meal from her. The text from Revelation quoted above does suggest that the Lord seeks to dine with us, but it 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. That she later experiences it to be such a burden is evidence that her idea emerged more from her flesh than from 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: sitting at the Lord’s feet, listening.

Many people think of prayer as something that is said. But prayer is better understood as a conversation, and conversations include both speaking and 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 we must listen in order to learn. We listen by slowly and devoutly 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.

As we shall see, Jesus calls this kind of prayer “the one thing necessary.” What Mary models and Martha forgets is that we must first come (to Jesus) and 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 first 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.” 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 experiencing 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 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 often, they never asked God about it. God might have said, “Fine.” But He might have said, “Not now, later.” Or He might have said, “Not you, but someone else.” Or he might have just said, “No.” But instead of asking they often just go off and do it, and then when things don’t work out will often blame God: “Why don’t you help me more?”

And so Martha is burdened. First she blames her sister. Then she presumes that 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 angry and mildly (or more) dictatorial. She here is Martha, with her one hand on her hip and her index finger in the air . Jesus will be kind to 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! It is clear that the Lord wants Martha’s attention and that she has made a fatal mistake (that we all can easily make): she leapt before she listened.

The Lord observes her and comments that she is anxious about many things. Anxiety about many things comes from neglect of the one thing most necessary: sitting at the feet of the Lord and listening to him.

The Lord will surely have things for us to do in our lives 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 to pray. There are too many other Gospels that summon us to labor in the vineyard to make that conclusion. 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.)

This song reminds us that when we really are working in the Lord’s will, 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!”

Practical Principles for Proclaiming the Kingdom

July2-blogIn the Gospel today, Jesus gives a number of practical principles for those who would proclaim the Kingdom. Let’s look at each of them in turn.

I. Serious – The text says, At that time the Lord appointed seventy-two others whom he sent ahead of him in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit. He said to them, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.”

The Lord describes here a very serious situation. There is an abundant harvest, but there are few willing to work at it. Consider the harvest in our own day. Look at the whole human race and think about how many don’t yet know the Lord. There are over 7 billion people on the planet; 1.1 billion are Catholics (many of them lukewarm) and about 750 million are other Christians. This means that more than 2/3 of people on this planet don’t know and worship the Lord Jesus. Here in the U.S., 75% of Catholics don’t even go to Mass.

There are many people today who shrug at this, presuming it’s no big deal because nearly everyone will be saved anyway. Never mind that Jesus said the opposite quite explicitly: many if not most are heading down the road of loss and damnation (e.g. Matt 7:13; Luke 13:24). This myopic presumption and false optimism is unbiblical and, frankly, slothful.

The Second Vatican Council has this to say:

Those can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. But very often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasoning and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention (Lumen Gentium 16).

Note that the council Fathers say that very often people are deceived by the Evil One. Did you notice those words, “very often”? The great mass of “ignorant” humanity is not walking into Heaven. Rather, they are deceived and have let themselves be deceived.

Jesus himself said, This is the judgment: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil (John 3:19).

Yes, the need is urgent. We need to be serious about this. There are many even among our own families and friends who have left the practice of the faith and who are somewhere on the continuum from indifference to outright hostility toward the Holy Faith. We must work to restore them to the Church and to the Lord; otherwise, they are likely to be lost.

Scripture also speaks of many who walk in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed (Eph 4:17-19).

There is work to do, and we must get serious about it. Sadly, too many have not. The decline of the West has happened on our watch. Too many have thought that evangelization is a job for someone else. Welcome to what the silence of the saints has produced.

Note, too, that while this translation says, ask the Lord of the Harvest, the Greek is more emphatic and personal. The Greek word is δεήθητε (deethete, from deomai), which means to beg as if binding oneself. In other words, we are so urgent in this request that we are willing to involve our very self in the solution. This is not a problem just for the Lord or for other people; it is so serious that I am willing to go myself! Do you feel this way about evangelization? It’s time to get serious; many are being lost!

II. Sobriety – The text says, Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.

We must be cognizant that we are being sent into a word that is hostile to the faith. We should not despair or be dismissive of this hostility; we must be sober and clear about it.

Yes, there is an enemy. He is organized, influential, and powerful. Nevertheless, we are not counseled to fear, but to sobriety. We must be aware, but unafraid. Scripture says,

  1. And this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.  Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world (1 John 4:3 -4).
  2. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.  Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over (Ps 23:4-5).
  3. But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be a time for you to bear testimony. Settle it therefore in your minds, not to meditate beforehand how to answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict (Luke 21:12-15).
  4. For the accuser (Satan) of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night (Rev 12:10).

Therefore, we must be sober without being afraid or discouraged. There is an enemy and the conflict is real, but the victory is already ours.

And old song says,

Harder yet may be the fight,
Right may often yield to might,
Wickedness awhile may reign,
Satan’s cause may seem to gain;
There is a God that rules above,
With hand of power and heart of love,
If I am right He’ll fight my battle,
I shall have peace some day.

III. Serenity – The text says, Into whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this household.” If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you. … Whatever town you enter and they do not receive you, go out into the streets and say, “The dust of your town that clings to our feet, even that we shake off against you.” Yet know this: the kingdom of God is at hand. I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for that town.

Note how the Lord counsels us to shake off the dust in the face of rejection. We ought not to take it personally. We ought to remember that it is Jesus they are rejecting, not us. Further, we ought to be serene in the knowledge that just because someone is angry at us, it does not mean that we have done anything wrong.

Yes, we are to be serene and secure in the truth of the message and not consumed with how people react. We need not be strident or argumentative, we don’t have to raise our voices, we don’t need to be fearful, angry, or resentful. All we need to do is to preach the truth serenely and leave the judgment up to God.

IV. Simplicity – The text says, Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals; and greet no one along the way.

One of the things that keeps many of us from fully preaching the Kingdom is that we are encumber by so many things and so many activities. The Lord tells us to travel light, for then we shall be unencumbered, available, and free. Too often today, spiritual truths are neglected and crowded out by worldly concerns. Parents will make sure to get their kids to the soccer game, but Sunday school and Mass are neglected. Likewise, many of us are too wealthy, too invested in this world. As a result, we are not free to preach because we feel we have too much to lose.

The Lord calls us to simplicity in three areas:

  1. Purse – The Lord says to carry no moneybag. Riches root us in this world and make us slaves of its ways. Riches are bondage; poverty (freedom from greed) is a kind of freedom, because those who are poorer have less to lose. Scripture says, 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 Timothy 6:9-10).
  2. Possessions – The Lord says to carry no sack, no extra sandals. We are encouraged to resist the tendency to accumulate possessions. These things weigh us down. On account of them we are forever caught up with acquiring the latest fashions, the most recent upgrades, and the most deluxe models. And then all this stuff requires insurance and maintenance. Too much stuff roots us in the world and distracts us from more essential things. Too much stuff, will wear you out. Don’t carry around too much stuff. The Lord advises: travel light; simplify. Scripture says, Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it (Proverbs 15:16).
  3. People – The text says to greet no one along the way. We have to admit that some folks in our life do not help us in our Christian walk or duty. Instead, they hinder us, tempt us, or simply get us to focus on foolish and passing things. In the Gospel passage, the Lord has something for the seventy-two to do and He wants them to get there and do it. This is not a time to stop along the way and chat with every passerby. The same is true for us. We ought to be careful of the company we keep and ponder if our friends and acquaintances help us or hinder us in our task of proclaiming the Kingdom. Scripture warns, Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals” (1 Cor 15:33). And again, I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men … I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one (1 Cor 5:9).

Thus the Lord counsels us to travel light, to simplify. Our many possessions weigh us down and make life difficult. Look at the opulence of today, yet notice all the stress. Simplify; travel light. Also, avoid complicating and compromising relationships.

V. Stability – The Lord says, Stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered to you, for the laborer deserves his payment. Do not move about from one house to another.

In other words, find out where home is, where the Lord wants you, and then stay there. Stop all this modern running around. Develop in-depth relationships and stability. In the old days, long-term relationships served as the basis for the communication of the truths of the faith, not just between individuals, but across generations and in close-knit communities.  In today’s mobile society, things tend to be more shallow.

The Lord counsels that we stay close to home, that we frequent holy places. We ought to do everything we can to find stability and roots. It is in stable contexts and deep roots, deep relationships, that the Gospel is best preached. Many parents today seldom have dinner with their children. Indeed, with all the running around there is little time left to teach or preach the faith!

Scripture warns,

  1. She is loud and wayward, for her feet do not stay at home; now in the street, now in the market (Proverbs 7:11-12).
  2. Like a bird that strays from its nest, is a man who strays from his home (Proverbs 27:8).
  3. Sensitivity – Jesus says, Whatever town you enter and they welcome you, eat what is set before you, cure the sick in it and say to them, “The kingdom of God is at hand for you.”

Be gracious and kind. Simple human kindness and a gracious demeanor go a long way toward opening doors for the Gospel. Eat what is set before you. In other words, wherever possible reverence the local culture; build on common ground; find and affirm what is right. Don’t just be the critic. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Sure there are ways we can be gracious. Little kindnesses are long remembered and pave the way for trust and openness.

That the sick should be cured is clear in itself. But in a more extended sense, we see how kindness, patience, and understanding are also healing. We must speak the truth, but we must learn to speak it in love, not merely in confrontation or harsh criticism.

Simple kindness and sensitivity are counseled here: eat what is set before you.

VII. Soul Saving Joy – The text says, The seventy-two returned rejoicing, and said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” Jesus said, “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky. Behold, I have given you the power to ‘tread upon serpents’ and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”

They have the joy of success that day. There will be other days of rejection and even martyrdom. That’s why Jesus counsels us to have a deeper source of joy: merely that they have been called and have their names written in Heaven.

There is no greater evidence to the truth of our faith than joyful and transformed Christians. Mother Theresa said, “Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.”

Thus the Lord counsels that we cultivate joy at what He is doing for us, how He is delivering us and giving us power over the demons in our life. There is no greater joy than to remember what the Lord has done for us, that He has saved us and written our names in Heaven. Yes, remember! Have so present in your mind and heart what the Lord has done for you so that you are grateful, joyful, and different! This is soul-saving joy, a joy that will save your soul and the souls of others as well.

Here, then, are seven principles for proclaiming the Kingdom. Now let’s get serious; there’s work to be done; many are being lost. It’s time to cast our nets!

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

Blog-06-25The Gospel today portrays for us some disciplines that are important for disciples. They are portrayed in the life of Jesus, but are to be applied in our lives. Let’s look at each of them in turn.

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

Note that Jesus was resolute. He was heading to Jerusalem to suffer, die, and rise, just as He announced in last week’s Gospel. He is heading there to undertake the great battle, and the great mission entrusted to Him. Everything He did was to be oriented toward this goal.

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

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

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

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

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

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (Mat 6:24).

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

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

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

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

Note that James and John are angry and discouraged at the rejection of Jesus and the values of the Kingdom. But Jesus rebukes their desire for retaliation.

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

Scripture says,

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

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

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

No weapon waged against us will prevail. Long after the current confusion and pride of the decadent West is gone, the Church will still exist, preaching Christ and Him crucified. Persevere! It is a critical discipline of discipleship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poverty is an important discipline of discipleship.

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

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

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

It’s the familiar problem: I’ll do tomorrow!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scripture says,

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

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

An old spiritual says,

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

Persevere, hold on, don’t let go. Keep a-inchin’ along like a poor old inchworm. Stay, hold, keep walkin’, and don’t look back!

Perseverance is a discipline of discipleship.

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