Four Demands of Discipleship: A Meditation on the Gospel of the 23rd Week of the Year

In today’s Gospel Jesus defines four Demands of discipleship. We can look at them one by one.

1.  The CONTEXT of the discipleship. The text says that large crowds were following Jesus and so he turned to address them. Just about any time you find a mention of a large crowd fasten your seat belts and prepare for a hard teaching. Jesus didn’t trust the big crowds who were often out for the goodies. They were looking for miracles, multiplied and free bread, physical healings and a fiery sermon. So upon sensing a large crowd the texts says, rather provocatively, that Jesus turned to address them. He then gives a series of “hard sayings” which seem almost designed to thin the ranks and to distinguish true disciples from the “lip service” crowd.

We will see in a moment what he says. But let’s take a moment and examine other incidents where the gospels demonstrate Jesus’ tendency to distrust big crowds:

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

There is also the tendency in the gospels for the mentioning of a large crowd to be followed by a “hard saying:”

  • Matt 13:1-9 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear.”
  • Matt 19: 1-6 When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (cf also Mark 10)
  • Luke 11:29 As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.
  • Luke 14:26-27 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
  • Luke 12:54-56 He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?
  • John 6: 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick….and He said to them, I am the living bread come down from heaven…..the crowds murmured.

So, the CONTEXT of discipleship is not usually with the crowd. Though many are called, indeed all are called, only few make the cut and become true disciples. There is a kind of remnant theology at work here, to be sure. But it is a common pattern that Jesus thins the ranks and distinguishes the many who are called from the few who are chosen. This is a fact not only in the Scriptures but it also remains true that the Lord has often had to prune his Church. Even now we are seeing a large falling away, a kind of pruning as large numbers depart who are not able to take the “hard sayings” of Jesus and the Scriptures about sexuality, forgiveness, love of one’s enemies, heroic charity and generosity, and so forth. The CONTEXT of discipleship is with the few, rather than the many.

2. The CENTRALITY of the discipleship. Jesus indicates that we can prefer or love no one more than him if we are going to be his disciples. This extends even to our family relationships: If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Now “hate” here does mean that we are to have contempt for others or nourish unrighteous anger toward them. What we are dealing with here is a Jewish idiom. The Hebrew language, for some reason, has very few comparative words such as: more, less, greater, fewer, and so forth. Hence in ancient Hebrew if one were to prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate one would say, “I love vanilla but hate chocolate.”  But what “hate” means here in context is that I “prefer” vanilla, not that I literally hate chocolate.

So, what Jesus means is that we cannot prefer anyone or anything to Him. He’s first, he’s number one. Jesus says, I must have absolute priority over the closest human relationships in your life. If there’s anyone in your life that can talk you out of obeying God, forget ‘em! Anyone who keeps you away from God has too much power. Anyone who can keep you from your Christian walk has too much power. Anyone who can pull you into unrighteousness has too much power. So if The boss instructs us to do something immoral – sorry boss. If the accountant or lawyers advise saving money by paying unjust wages or cutting necessary benefits – sorry boys. A boyfriend pressures his girl friend to have sex – sorry dear. Peers pressure to use drugs or abuse alcohol, skip school, or steal – sorry buddies. A spouse calls his or her mate away from teaching the children the ways of faith. – sorry honey. A child pressures a parent to that which is unwise or wrong. – sorry child of mine. So, do you get it? No one is to have priority of Jesus Christ and what he teaches., The word “hate” here may not be literal but on second thought, if Jesus really does have priority in our life it may cause some to say, “You’re so devoted to him, I think you hate me!”

3. The CROSS of discipleship. Jesus says if we want to be a disciple we must be willing to carry the cross. Now the cross comes in many forms, but in the end, to be a disciple does not mean we are in any way exempt from the troubles and trials of this world. Jesus indicates that we will be hated by the word (cf  Jn 15:20), persecuted and sorely tempted by this world. But if we hold out, victory will be ours. It is a simple rule: No cross, No crown. There are some who want to preach a prosperity gospel. There are others who demand a gospel stripped of its moral imperatives. Still others demand an updated faith that tickles their ears and affirms their aberrant behavior. But Jesus points to the Cross, not to torture us, but because it is the only way to glory. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (John 16:33). Now, for a little while you may have to suffer various trials…(1 Peter 1:6)

4. The COST of discipleship. Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, ‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’ Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms. In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple. Jesus asks us to count the cost of what he is teaching here. Many of the Protestant preachers like to emphasize that salvation is free,  and it is. But discipleship is costly. Jesus gives the image of someone building a tower or of a king going to battle. But, truth be told, these examples are distant from us. So Jesus brings it home and says to us: anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.

The Greek word  ἀποτάσσω (apotasso) translated here as “renounce” also means, “to say farewell.” And the Lord is reminding us that heaven costs everything. Ultimately we must say farewell to everyone and everything we consider precious here in order to inherit heaven. This of course is not something that waits merely for death.

At one level, we give back everything to God as we go, little by little. We have all given back loved ones. Perhaps too we have given back youthful figures, strength, good health, and so forth. Ultimately we will give it all back.

But at another level the Lord is clear to say here that we must be willing to part with anything that hinders discipleship now, not later. The fact is that many things attach us to this world and make discipleship difficult. Are we willing to de-clutter our life, simplify and get more focused on being disciples? Or will we go on setting down roots here and amassing a worldly kingdom? What’s it going to be, the world or the Kingdom? Count the cost. See what it really means to be a disciple and what it cost, then decide.

What Jesus is looking for are disciples who, having counted the cost and realistically assessed it, are ready, nonetheless, to be his disciples. Tag-alongs, lip service Christians, fair weather folks, need not apply. So today Jesus is looking at a big crowd and teaches in a way that is meant to distinguish true disciples from the “lip service” disciples. We are asked to ponder in which category we most truthfully belong.

This Homily is available in recorded form here: http://frpope.com/audio/23%20Sun%20C.mp3

On Being Sober and Serious in Seeking Salvation

Today’s Gospel is a sobering summons to be serious about our spiritual life.  Now it is a sad fact today that many, if not most people are not serious about their spiritual life. They do not pray, they do not read scripture, do not attend Mass or go to confession. They are playing around and goofing off like life were some big joke. They are often locked in serious and unrepented sin and will not be ready when judgment day comes. It is just a fact.

Perhaps you think I am overly pessimistic but I would argue that I am on strong biblical grounds. In today’s Gospel the Lord dispatches one of the most common errors of today. The error held is that most people are going to heaven. The Lord rather directly refutes this and summons us to be sober and serious in seeking salvation. Let’s look at the readings for today in three stages.

1. The Danger Described. – Jesus passed through towns and villages, teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He answered them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough (Luke 13:22-23). Elsewhere Jesus elaborated on this more:   Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Mat 7:13-15).  So, when asked if those to be saved are many or few the Lord answers, “Few” and goes on to describe that “many” will be unable to enter the Kingdom of Heaven but are on the wide and easy road that leads to destruction – see photo above right!

This of course flies in the face of what most people think today.  We have to be sober about this and realize that many live lives that show little interest in God or the Kingdom of God. At some point this decision becomes final and God accepts their disinterest as their final choice. Beware! To persist in worldliness and to be self absorbed increasingly becomes our final disposition.

Now it is true that every says they want to go to heaven. But it is usually a heaven that they have invented. But the real heaven is the fullness of the Kingdom of God. And the Kingdom of God has values that many people today do not want. It is a place where justice, mercy, generosity and chastity are celebrated. Now it is clear today that many today are not interested in forgiving those who have hurt them. They do not want to love their enemy. They surely do not want to live chastely. The concept of justice annoys them and usually makes them suspicious that someone is after their money. Generosity too annoys them for they would rather not part with a dime. But this is what the Kingdom of God is all about and what is celebrated in heaven.

Further, heaven is described in the Book of Revelation (4,5,8) as  like a liturgy where God is at the center and is praised.  Hymns are sung, a scroll containing the meaning of all things (Scripture) is read  and the Lamb is on a throne-like altar. There are candles incense, prostrations, standing and all the things of the Mass. Now many people today say by their absence from Mass that none of this interests them. OK fine, God will not force it on any of them. Neither will he force them to accept the values of the Kingdom of God. But THIS is what heaven is about, the fullness of the Kingdom.

Now as time goes on, a person grows hardened in their aversion to the Kingdom of God, to heaven. Eventually their aversion becomes forever fixed. So on Judgment Day they are not able to enter heaven and frankly would not be happy there anyway. So here is the danger: walking the wide and worldly road that hardens the heart to God and the things of God so that heaven is “not able” to be tolerated. Hell is not God’s fault, it is the preference of damned who have hardened their hearts to God and the realities of the true (not the fanciful) heaven.

2. The Divine Desire. Now God does not want hell for anyone. He does not rejoice in the decision of the damned but he does respect it. God is clear he wants to save everyone: As surely as I live, says the LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ez 33:11-12)  Thus in today’s First Reading there is described how God widens the call of salvation to the whole world: I come to gather nations of every language;  they shall come and see my glory. …that have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory; and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations. …Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the LORD. (Is 66:18-21) Yes indeed, the Lord wants to bring people from every nation and race to his kingdom. The Lord wants to save us all. So the problem of Hell is not about God and what He wants, it is about us and what we want. God will  ultimately respect our final choice. I have written more on this here: http://blog.adw.org/2010/07/hell-has-to-be/

3. The Delivering Discipline  This then leads to a manner in which we can be sober and serious in seeking salvation. It is described in the 2nd reading today: My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord  or lose heart when reproved by him;  for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines;  he scourges every son he acknowledges.”  Endure your trials as “discipline”;  God treats you as sons.  For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline?  At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain,  yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it (Heb 12:5-7). We have a clear call from the Lord to submit our lives to his discipline and training. Notice how closely related the discipline is to discipleship. The Lord has a discipline for us that makes us true disciples.

Our discipline includes daily prayer, daily scripture, daily repentance, frequent confession, Mass every Sunday. We are to grow in the training of the Lord which comes from the study of our faith and the reception of the Sacraments. As we do this we grow in desire for the things of God and heaven. We come to share the kingdom values and are less worldly. More and more we start to love who and what God loves, we start to have His priorities, are transformed by the renewal of our minds. This is what God’s discipline, what his teaching, grace and mercy do for us.

So, in the end, God is not our enemy, he is our Savior and the only one who can get us ready for judgment day. But we have to be sober and serious in seeking salvation. All the playing around and goofing off, the presumption and worldliness has to end. The Letter to the Hebrews from today’s second reading has three last things to tell us:

  1. So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees – In other words lift up your hands in prayer and have strong knees that are accustomed  to kneeling in prayer.
  2. Make straight paths for your feet – get off that wide road that leads to destruction and get on the narrow path that leads to God. The Next time some one calls you narrow minded thank them and invite them to join you!
  3. that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed – Sin makes us lame, weak and tired of doing good. But get used to walking the straight and narrow path that is uphill to heaven and watch your strength grow, and your weak knees be healed.

 Here’s an excerpt from a Funeral Sermon I posted some time ago that seems apt for today’s theme:

A Recipe for Readiness – Meditation on the Gospel of the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

In the Gospel for this weekend (Luke 12:32-40) the Lord presents a “Recipe for Readiness.”  It is frequent problem in the Christian life that many remain vague about what is necessary to be ready to meet God. What Jesus does in this gospel is to give us some pretty specific and concrete things to do that will help us to be ready when the Lord shall call us. It is not an exhaustive list, for no one passage  of Scripture is the whole of Scripture. But here are some very practical and specific things to reflect on and do. Let’s look at this recipe, this list.

1. REASSESS YOUR WEALTH. Jesus says, Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your belongings and give alms.   Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out,  an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy.   For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be. In effect the Lord is giving us here a triple teaching on wealth. First he says that we ought to

  • Fore-go Fear. In the end it is fear that makes us greedy and worldly. We grab up the things of this world because we are terrified of not having enough for tomorrow. But what if we could receive the gift to trust God more and know and experience that he will give us our daily bread? He has given us the Kingdom, why not everything else besides? He may not give us everything we want but we can learn to trust that he will give us what we really need. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these other things will be given unto to you (Matt 6:21). If we can just allow God to diminish our fear we will be surprised how easy it is for us to be generous with what we have and not hoard it.
  • Forward your Fortune– We store up treasure for ourselves in heaven when we are generous to the needy and poor. Treasure is not stored in heaven by way of a rocket ship or balloon. It is stored there by generously distributing our wealth to others in wise and creative ways. This was discussed in last week’s reading more sustantially see here:  Instructions on Income .   While it may not be appropriate for us to sell everything and go live on a park bench, the Lord is surely telling us to be less attached to and passionate about money and things for they root us in this world. And where our treasure is, there also will our heart be.
  • Fix your focus – Our focus is wrong and worldly because most of us have our treasure here. But once we become less fearful and more generous, our obsession with worldly treasure subsides and our joy in heavenly treasure grows. And this fixes our broken focus. For now our heart is where our treasure really is and ought to be: in heaven with God. So simplify, be less rooted in this world and come to experience that your greatest treasure is God and the things waiting for you in heaven.

So, reassess your wealth. What is it and where is it? That will tell you a lot about your heart too.

2.  READY TO WORK – The Lord says Gird your loinswhich is the ancient equivalent of “roll up your sleeves.”  The Lord has a work for us and wants us to get about it. Surely the Lord has more than a worldly career in mind. He has in mind things like raising kids in godly fear, pursuing justice, and growing in holiness. The Lord wants us to work in his Kingdom. We must commit to prayer, Sunday worship, the reception of the Sacraments, to obedience and holiness. And the Lord has a particular work for us based on our gifts. Some can teach, others are good with senior citizens, still others are good entrepreneurs and can provide good work for others at a just wage. Some are skilled at medicine and the care of the sick. Some are called to priesthood and the religious life. Some are called to suffering and to offer that suffering for the salvation of souls. Some serve in strength, others in weakness. But all are called to serve, called to work. So work with what the Lord gave you to advance his kingdom. Part of being ready means doing our work.

3. READ THE WORD – The Lord says, light your lamps.”At one level, the phrase “light your lamps” is simply a symbol for readiness (eg. the Wise and Foolish Virgins in Matt. 25:1-13) But in another sense “lamp” is also a symbol for Scripture. For example, You Word O Lord is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path (Ps 119:105). Or again, We possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Peter 1:19). So here we can also understand that the Lord is teaching us that an essential part of being ready is to be rooted and immersed in the Scriptures and the Teachings of the Church. It makes sense of course. There is just too much stinking thinking in this increasingly  secular world hostile to the faith to think that our mind is going to be anything but sullied if we are not reading Scripture every day. How will our minds be sober and clear if we are inebriated by the world? Clearly, being ready means reading Scripture each day and basing our life on it.

4. REMAIN WATCHFUL – The Lord says, “And be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks…..Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come”  Now there are different ways to watch and wait. There is the passive watching and waiting that we may do when waiting for a bus. We just sit there and look down the street. But there is another way of waiting that is more active. Consider the kind of watchfulness that one has who waits on tables. This is an active waiting and watching. It observes what is necessary and what will soon become necessary and moves to supply what is needed. And so it is that the the watchful and waiting spirit the Lord has in mind here is like that active waiting when we have invited a guest to our home and prepared the house and all is readiness. We know that his arrival is imminent and so we prepare and place all in order. And to set our house in order is to sweep clean our soul of sin and all unrighteousness by God’s grace and to remove all the clutter of the worldliness. Regular confession, daily repentance,  sweep clean the house, and simplifying our lives and freeing ourselves from  worldly attachments de-clutters the house of our soul.

Have you prepared the home of your soul for the Lord’s arrival? If not the Lord says, you may experience him as a thief. Now the Lord is not really a thief for everything belongs to him. But if you and I have not renounced our worldliness and greed, if we have not de-cluttered our lives of attachments to this world, the Lord WILL come to and take back what is his but he will seem the thief because we think it is ours. It’s never a good idea to call God, the Lord and owner of all, a thief. Bad move.

5. REFLECT on your reWARD – The Lord says, Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival.  Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and  proceed to wait on them.  And should he come in the second or third watch and find them prepared in this way, blessed are those servants. – The Lord is clear that he has a reward for those who are found ready. It is prefigured in the banquet of the Eucharist wherein the Lord prepares a meal and feeds us. The Lord says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20). And again, And I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:30). We have so much easy food today but in the ancient world one of the most pleasant things they looked forward to was a hearty meal in the company of good friends and family. The Lord offers us the magnificent blessing of heaven wherein we will be with him and those whom we love forever in unspeakable joy and peace.

Do you meditate often on heaven and long for its rewards? One of the stranger aspects of the modern world is that, even among believers, we talk so little of heaven. True, it is not a place any of us have been yet so it’s hard to fully understand what it will be like. But reflect often on the joy waiting for you in heaven.Part  of being ready to go home to Lord is to long for that day to come. When we want to do something we eagerly prepare for it, we are motivated and make sacrifices to do it. Last year a group from the Parish went to the Holy Land. Many of them saved and sent in money for two years on a payment plan to be able to go. As the day of departure grew near we gathered, studied maps and read Bible stories prepare for the trip. On the day of departure many in the group were up early and at the airport hours early. Eagerly reflecting on heaven and the joy waiting for us there is the same. When we desire it we will more naturally get ready and lay aside whatever is necessary to make the passage there.

The recording of this sermon is here: http://frpope.com/audio/19C.mp3

So here are five elements constituting a recipe for readiness. Better set your house in order ’cause he may be coming soon!

You Can’t Take It With You But You Can Send It On Ahead

The Gospel for today’s Mass contains some very clear instructions about Income that we do well to heed. Most of us think of money, income, and wealth as a great blessing. To be sure money is a necessary part of life. Without it our very life can be in danger for want of food, clothing and shelter. But the Lord also wants us to soberly understand the problems and perils that are caused by wealth. So, in today’s Gospel he sets forth five basic teachings on wealth that we do well to heed and that we ignore to our peril. Let’s take a look at them one by one.

1. The INSIDIOUSNESS of wealth Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” He replied to him, “Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?”  Then he said to the crowd, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”  – Notice here how the man thinks his problem is an unjust brother. But the Lord diagnoses his problem to be more personal and more serious. His problem is greed (also called avarice and depicted at the right). Now greed is the insatiable desire for more. Greed is considered one of the seven “cardinal” or “capital” sins in that it leads us many other sins. Greed works insidiously within us and causes us to act unjustly, spend more than we have, and despise or ignore the poor. It will often cause people to lie, cheat, or steal. Greed divides families, and may cause grave harm to children. Consider how many children are farmed out to day care because parents want to live a life style that requires double incomes and careers. Greed also causes stress since, by it, we indulge in the lie that wealth brings security. As shall be developed in a moment but we also know by experience, our many possessions and material wealth have led to a very stressful and anxious existence. We have lives with entirely too much clutter, too many options, too many expectations, too many demands and much of this is due to the extravagant and mobile lifestyle we insist upon living because of greed. Greed also leads to ingratitude since, due to greed we are never satisfied and thus not very grateful. Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is vanity.(Eccles 5:10)

This litany could go on, but the Lord is clear here that greed in any form must be guarded against. To say it must be “guarded against” means that it is a threat, an enemy, a destroyer, a thief. We must think of it this way and secure our lives against it. It is a deadly and serious adversary and grace is necessary for us to even consider defeating it. 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 Tim 6:9-10) Despite a strongly worded text like this, most of us still want to be rich. Even when the Lord warns how hard it is for the rich to enter heaven we still want to be rich! Greed is a very strong, unreasonable and insidious foe.

2.  The INCEPTION of WealthThere was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest – Notice that the subject of the verb “produced” is not the man but the Land. It was the land that produced the bountiful harvest, not the man. Scripture says, “What have you that you have not received? And if you have received, why do you boast as though you had not? (1 Cor 4:7) This man receives a bountiful harvest from the land and ultimately from God. For, as Scripture says, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”  (Psalm 24:1) Scripture also says Every good and perfect gift comes from above, comes from the Father of lights (James 1:17). Hence it is God who grants increase. We also see by Psalm 24 just quoted that everything belongs to God. We are but stewards, not owners. And, as stewards, we must use the goods of creation in accord with the desires of the owner, God.

Now it is a plain fact that, through innumerable scriptural texts God has told us that he expects us to be generous to the poor and less fortunate. This universal teaching of scripture is well summed up in the Catechism under the concept of the “Universal Destination of Goods.” This principle states that God gave all the good of the earth for all the people of the earth. This means that the goods of creation are destined for the whole human raceIn his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself. The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family. (Catechism 2402, 2404).

3. The INCONVENIENCE of wealth He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’ – It is a true fact that wealth brings certain blessings but we must also be sober about the fact that it also brings burdens. Consider that we human beings have never been so wealthy as we in the West are. And yet consider again how stressful and distracted our lives are. Consider how burdening many people consider the pace of their lives. Wealth seems great but then come locks, insurance, keys, alarms, insurance, lawyers, repairs, maintenance, upgrades, lawsuits, disputes over inheritance, addiction to credit, and lack of self control. Conveniences soon become necessities and necessities, not resisted, become slavery. Scripture says, The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep (Eccles 5:12). Or again,  Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it. (Prov 15:16)

Hence we see this man with an abundance. But, because he is not generous with it, he is burdened by it. A quick way to store excess food is to store it in the stomachs of the poor, but now he has to hire an architect and get a building permit, and go to zoning court to get a variance, and lay in supplies etc. It is a true fact that one way the rich can help the poor is to use wealth to stimulate industry. Hence it might not be required that he simply give it away, he may use his increase it in a mutually beneficial way so as to create opportunities for others and also to see further increase for himself. But the main focus of this man is to store  up his wealth only for himself. As we shall see the Lord calls this sort of person a fool.

4. The INUSFFICIENCY of Wealth And he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones.  There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?– In the end wealth is still poverty for it cannot solve our biggest problem which is our sin and the death it brings. A mere 80 years and the party is over. You can work all your life to be powerful, wealthy, feared and respected. And maybe you’re successful! Then you die. End of story. The world makes promises it cannot keep. And, in the end it is NOT the end, for a destiny looms after judgement. No amount of money can buy us out of this. Wealth tends to create the illusion of self-sufficiency, but that is all it is, an illusion. Consider some of the following Scriptures:

  • There are men who trust in their wealth and boast of the vastness of their riches. But no man can buy his own ransom, or pay a price to God for his life. The ransom of his soul is beyond him. He cannot buy life without end nor avoid coming to the grave. He knows that wise men and fools must perish and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes for ever, their dwelling place from age to age though their names spread wide through the land. In his riches man lacks wisdom, he is like the beast that perish.(Ps 49).
  • Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (1 Tim 6:17)
  • Whoever trusts in his riches will fall  (Prov 11:28)
  • For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. (James 1:11)
  • Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God. (Prov 30:8)

5. The INSTRUCTION for the Wealthy Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God. – We admire wealth and power. Things like this matter to us. But they do not matter to God. What matters to God is that we are rich in justice, mercy, holiness, love and truth. God is not impressed by my money and economic power. In fact, he warns insistently about it, that wealth will make us hard to save, haughty, proud, arrogant, self-sufficient, compromised, lacking in saving trust and faith, worldly and just plain stupid.

God’s only advice for those who are “cursed” with wealth is that they be generous with it. Perhaps it can be given away, perhaps it can serve as a source of industry and jobs for others, perhaps it can supply low interest loans, perhaps it can be used in countless ways to bless others. The Lord tells us not to store up treasure on earth but to store up treasure in heaven. And how do we store up treasure in heaven? Do we put our gold in a balloon or rocket ship and send it up? Surely not. The way to store up our treasure in heaven is to put it in the hands of the poor and needy. To use it to bless others through wise investment so that it grows and can be a source of industry and capital, so that it can grow the economy and others can benefit from it, to donate to worthy causes and so forth. This is how we store up treasure in heaven.

You can’t take it with you but you can send it on ahead – There is an old saying, “You can’t take it with you.”  But that is not exactly true. The truer scriptural answer is that “You can’t take it with you but you can send it on ahead!” Through the  right use of our wealth, and talents God tells us we are storing up treasure for ourselves in heaven. Hence to be generous is a form of investment, a heavenly 401K.  Scripture says, Cast your bread on the water. It will come back to you after many days. (Eccl 11:1) or again, Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back (Luke 6:38).

Finally, consider these Scriptures that teach how the Lord teaches that through our generous use of worldly wealth, it is possible to store up heavenly treasure:

  • Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. Mat 6:19
  • I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Luke 16:9
  • Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Tim 6:17-19)

So then, here are five instructions on wealth from the Lord. Be very careful about greed. Be sober about wealth too. We so easily bow before it, but it is a snare. And we in the affluent West have to be VERY sober about this because we are all wealthy by any standard. Even our poor live mighty fine compared to the poor elsewhere. The only way we are going to stand a chance is to guard against all forms of greed and be generous. Without this, we will be numbered among the rich of whom the Lord said, “How hard it is for the rich to inherit eternal life!” (Lk 18:24) Only grace and mercy, operative through the sacraments and faith can save us from our greed.

Help us, save us,  O Lord, have mercy one us and keep us by your grace!

 Here is an audio version of this sermon (sorry for the poor sound quality): http://frpope.com/audio/Instructions%20On%20Income.mp3

The Prescribed Priority of Personal Prayer: A Meditation at the House of Martha and Mary

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

Misinterpreted? In my nearly fifty years I have heard many a sermon that interpreted this Gospel passage as a call for a proper balance between work and prayer. Some have gone on to state that we all need a little of Martha and Mary in us and that the Church needs both Marthas and Marys. But in the end it seems that such a conclusion misses the central point of this passage. Jesus does not conclude by saying, “Martha, Now do your thing and let Mary do hers.” He describes Mary as not only choosing the better part but also as doing the “one thing necessary.”  This does not amount to a call for “proper balance” but instead underscores the radical priority and primacy of prayer. This, it would seem is the proper interpretive key for what is being taught here. Many other passages of the Scripture do set forth the need to be rich in works of charity but this is not one of them.

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

1. PROMISING PRELUDE Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. Our story begins by showing Martha in a very favorable light. She opens her door, her life if you will,  and welcomes Jesus. This is at the heart of faith, a welcoming of Jesus into the home of our heart and life. Surely Revelation 3:20 comes to mind here: Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any one hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and eat with him and he with me. While we acknowledge this promising prelude we ought also to underscore the fact that the initiative is that of Jesus. The text says Jesus entered a village…. In the call of faith the initiative is always with God. It was not you who chose me, it was I who chose you (Jn 15:16) Hence, while we must welcome, God leads. Martha hears the Lord’s call and responds. So far so good. What happens next isn’t exactly clear but the impression is that Martha goes right to work. There is no evidence that Jesus asked for a meal from her, large or small. The text from Revelation just quoted does suggest that the Lord seeks to dine with us but implies that it is he who will provide the meal. Surely the Eucharistic context of our faith emphasizes that it is the Lord who feeds us with his Word and with his Body and Blood. At any rate, Martha seems to have had the Lord make himself comfortable and gone off to work in preparing a meal of her own.  That she later experiences it to be such a burden is evidence that her idea emerged more from her flesh than the Spirit.

 2. PORTRAIT OF PRAYER She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Now here is a beautiful portrait of prayer: to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen. Many people think of prayer as something that is said. But prayer is better understood as a conversation and conversations include listening. Vocal prayer, intercessory prayer and the like are all noble and important but the prayer of listening is too often neglected. Prayer is not just telling God what we want, it is discovering what He wills. We have to sit humbly and listen. We must learn to listen,  and listen to learn. We listen by devoutly and slowing considering scripture (lectio divina), by pondering how God is speaking in the events and people in our life, how God is whispering in our conscience and soul. Jesus calls this kind of prayer “the one thing necessary” as we shall see. What Mary models and Martha forgets is that we must first come (to Jesus) then go (and do what he says)….that we must first receive before we can achieve…..that we must first be blessed before we can do our best……that we must listen before we leap into action.

3. PERTURBED and PRESUMPTUOUS –  Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” – And so, sure enough Martha who is laboring in the flesh, but not likely in the Spirit and in accord with the Lord’s wishes, is now experiencing the whole thing as a burden. She blames her sister for all this but the Lord’s response will make it clear that this is not Mary’s issue. One sign that we are not in God’s will is the experiencing of what we are doing as a burden. We are all limited and human and will experience ordinary fatigue. It is one thing to be weary in the work but it is another thing to be weary of the work. All lot of people run off to do something they think is a good idea. And maybe it is a fine thing in itself. But they never asked God. God might have said, “Fine.” or He might have said, “Not now but later.” Or He might have said, “Not you but some one else.”  Or he might have just plain said, “No.” But instead of asking they just go off and do it and then when things don’t work out  will often times blame God: “Why don’t you help me more!”  And so Martha is burdened. She first blames her sister. Then she presumes the Lord does not care about what is (to her) an obvious injustice. Then she takes presumption one step further and presumes to tell the Lord what to do: “Tell her to help me.”  This is what happens when we try to serve the Lord in the flesh. Instead of being true servants who listen to the Lord’s wishes and carry them out by his grace we end up as angry and mildly (or not) dictatorial. She here is Martha, with her one hand on her hip and her index finger in the air  🙂  Jesus will be kind but firm.

4. PRESCRIBED PRIORITY Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.  Now don’t let the Lord have to call you by your name twice! But it is clear the Lord wants her attention and that she has stumbled on a fatal mistake that we all can too easily make. She leapt before she listened. The Lord observes that she is anxious about many things.  Anxiety about many things comes from neglect of the one thing most necessary: to sit at the feet of the Lord and listen to him. In life the Lord will surely have things for us to do but they need to come from him. This is why prayer is the one thing necessary and the better part: because work flows from it and is subordinate to it. Discernment is not easy but it is necessary. An awful lot of very noble ideas have floundered in the field of the flesh because they were never really brought before God and were not therefore a work of grace. Jesus does not surely mean that ALL we are to do is pray. There are too many other Gospels that summon us to labor in the vineyard to say that.  But what Jesus is very clear to say is that prayer and discernment have absolute priority. Otherwise expect to be anxious about many things and have little to show for it.

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

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

The Audio version of this Homily is here: http://frpope.com/audio/16%20Sun%20C.mp3

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

 

Catholic Preaching – What do you Think?

47b6cc20b3127cce9854864ffc0300000027100abuw7rs2zswjgWhen I talk with Catholics who have left the Church, the number one reason I get that they left was poor preaching.This is especially true of those who left for the Evangelical Churches. Catholic priests as a group have the reputation of being poor preachers. I think there are several reasons for this.

  1. The expected length of a Catholic sermon is 7-10 minutes. This is far too brief a time to really develop well a biblical or doctrinal theme. It results in a  slogan based and brief exhortation. In this matter the people of God have to work with us. Most Catholics are upset if the liturgy goes more than 50 minutes. We all need to agree to take more time to be with the Lord. Longer sermons are necessary to really develop and break open most passages. Most Protestant sermons are about a half and hour. True, I don’t want a preacher to go longer unless he really has something to say but it is also true that most priests have to wrap up when they’ve barely gotten started. It’s not a good context for preaching.
  2. This leads to the second point. I think many of us priests confuse exhortation for preaching. Most of the sermons I grew up with could be summarized in two sentences:  “1. Jesus is challenging us to do better today.” And 2. “Let us try to do better and now please stand for the creed.”  This is exhortation but true preaching takes the Word of God and does four things: Analyzes, organizes, illustrates, and applies it. It doesn’t just exhort us to do better it shows how, and sets for the why and wisdom of God’s Word. This as you might guess takes a little more than 7 minutes.
  3. Good preaching is edgy. It comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. But too many priests are afraid of offending or upsetting. Despite the fact that we serve a Lord who got killed  for what he said, too many of us are not willing to suffer even the raised eyebrows of our congregation. We have to be will to talk forthrightly about serious issues today, about sin, about injustice, about promiscuity and so forth. We have to speak the truth in love but the “Jesus loves you sermons”  are not enough. Jesus loved us enough to speak the truth to us even when we killed him for it.  We priests have to get a spine, and a heart and be willing to preach  even the difficult stuff. It has been my experience that Catholics respond well to tough sermons. They don’t want angry priests but they do want priests who are zealous for the truth.
  4. How about a little enthusiasm? If you really care about what you are saying shouldn’t it be reflected in your mannerisms and tone of voice? Too many priests have a kind of lecture like discursive approach instead of a fiery Charismatic approach. True enough there are different personalities but a fiery enthusiasm is hard to hide. But being on fire can’t be faked. It comes only from prayer and a deep love for God and His people.

Now I raise all this because this blog isn’t just supposed to be a cheer leading section. One of the purposes of this blog is to reach out to Catholics who have drifted or outright left. And I KNOW this is one of the big issues.

So alright readers I know you can add to the list  above. Perhaps your feed back will help some of us priests improve. So have at it. Be kind and constructive but speak the truth. We priests can use it. And pray, pray, pray. You get the priests and the sermons you pray for.  Also encourage Father when he does well and gently admonish him if he needs improvement.

Before you write take five minutes and listen to this sermon by Fr. Bill Casey, a great preacher, for his take on this! It’s powerful and talk about edgy! He tells us priests to stand up like men with a backbone. He also thinks that help is on the way. There is hope since the Holy Spirit has not given up on us!

By the way the goofy looking preacher with the big mouth in the picture at the top is yours truly. 🙂