What’s it like to be “chosen” by God?
When I was in grade school, before cell phones and video games, we played a game at recess called “Red Rover”. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game, the teacher appointed two “captains” who then took turns selecting their “team” from the other kids. Usually the most popular kids were picked first; the biggest, toughest and fastest, and then those less qualified for busting lines, working down the list to the smallest and weakest. Eventually, everyone ended up on one side or the other.
Once the teams were selected, each team would create a “wall” by joining hands, and then the captains took turns calling out to the other side, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send so-and-so on over.” That person would then have to run with all of his or her might and try to break through the wall. If they succeeded, then they got to choose a player from that team to come back to their side; if they failed, they had to join the opposing team. Whoever ended up with the most team members at the end of recess was the winner.
Now I realize this may be hard to understand looking at me now, but I was never the first one chosen for a team. Nor the second … in fact, there were times I was one of the last picked because I was pretty scrawny back then.
But because I was so small, I was often one of the first called to attack by the other side – they knew that I would find it pretty hard to break through any line. And once in a line, they would usually put a big or tough kid on each side of me because they could hold my hands tight, even if I couldn’t hold theirs. Needless to say, it was tough being small. Last chosen, first thrown into battle.
But we see in today’s Gospel how, with God, the selection process is just the opposite. Those who were the smartest, popular, the “strongest” in the community were not the ones that Jesus called first. Jesus’ preference was for the poor, the lowly, the outcast. He first chose his disciples, and then He showed them the way. He invited others to “join His wall”.
What kind of people were his disciples? They were just ordinary people – people like us. Today we hear about the call of four of them: Simon-Peter, Andrew, James and John. Jesus’ simple request of them? “Come”.
Several years ago this month I was on a mission trip to Honduras with a priest friend of mine and several fellow parishioners. The Sunday Gospel was the one you just heard, and my priest friend, who spoke fairly good Spanish, was asked to give the homily. But as is so often when we speak, he had a little problem with two very similar words – he said that when Jesus called Simon-Peter, Andrew, James and John he would make them fishers of men – for those of you familiar with Spanish, “Pescadores de Hombres”. However, what he said was “Pecadores de Hombres” – sinners of men. It got a good laugh, and yet, in a sense he was correct, for Peter and the rest WERE sinners – just like you and me.
In Matthew’s Gospels, there is also a sense of urgency in the actions of Jesus and those who follow him. Peter and Andrew leave their livelihood at once; James and John immediately leave their family; For what? Surely they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into.
True, it must have been pretty exciting at first, being part of the “Jesus Movement”. Jesus was obviously a dynamic preacher given the crowds that followed Him, and it must have been quite a rush to be part of His physical and spiritual healings. It wasn’t until later in the “ministry” that the disciples began to get an inkling of what was ahead for them. For those of you who have been watching “The Chosen” series, it does a pretty good job of just how clueless they might have been.
But Jesus doesn’t immediately send them forth on their own. He works with them, prepares them, strengthens them. God doesn’t choose the qualified; God qualifies the chosen. Jesus shares with them the purpose for which He came and, as seen when He sends them out two by two to preach and perform miracles, He unites them to His work.
St. Paul talks of the importance of that unity in his letter to the Corinthians when he said, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.” Sadly, as we celebrate the “International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” this week, it can seem that the sense of dis-unity is stronger than ever.
Where are we as a community, as Christians? Are we divisive, finding fault with those we disagree with? We're called to remain firm and strong in our faith and not compromise our values, but can we do so without hatred? Can we say that we love each other, and treat each other with respect, even if we disagree with them? Or do we harbor hatred in our hearts for those that we disagree with – whether it be because of their faith, their politics, or even their sports affiliation?
(OK, maybe we don’t HATE them because of their favorite teams.)
When I hear the first four words of the Apostles’ Creed, “I Believe in God…” which we recite each time we begin a Rosary, I’m reminded that belief in God is being challenged by society today more than almost any other time in history. And there may be even those here at Mass today who question those words.
Ironically, given our entertainment industry’s fascination with portraying the devil as either hideously grotesque or as misunderstood entity that might be admired, they prove the existence of God. You cannot believe in a devil (the divider) without believing in God (the unifier).
In his letter to the Corinthians today, St. Paul admonishes the Corinthians over the divisions in their fledgling community. He points out to them that they are losing their focus on the only one they were to follow – Christ. Not Peter; not Apollos; not even Paul himself. No matter who they “liked” or “disliked”, they had only one purpose: to witness to Christ. They followed the command of Christ to Love God and to Love their Neighbor. The same is true for us today - it isn't our political leaders, our sports favorites, or even our friends that we are called to follow, but Christ.
One final thought. In the game, when I was united with stronger guys, the line usually held. At times it seemed like I got beat up, but the line held. The same was true of Jesus’ disciples. They would not have been able to accomplish the signs and wonders that they did when Jesus sent them out, nor withstood the trials they experienced if they were not united to Jesus through the Holy Spirit. We too are part of that union, that communion, when we share in the Eucharist as one body in Christ.
Today, listen for God’s call. When you hear His voice – and you will, if you listen – harden not your heart. You do not want to be picked for the wrong team.
Sunday, January 22, 2023
What’s it like to be “chosen” by God?
Sunday, December 18, 2022
‘Twas the week before Christmas, and in homes far and near,
People were seeking true holiday cheer.
But caught in the stress of holiday giving,
Peace on Earth wasn’t what they were living.
“What should I buy? What should I get?”
Will my expectations for Christmas be met?
Mom in her apron, in a very foul mood,
Worried about cooking: would there be enough food?
Dad, too, was cranky, showing ill-will,
Worried about paying those big Christmas bills.
And the children were impatient – the girls and the boys,
As they thought only of presents: the gifts and the toys.
As with many things in life, they were caught unprepared,
Forgetting that it was Jesus who was meant to be shared.
But then what to my blood-shot eyes should appear,
But an angel of God, with good tidings to share.
“A child will be born – he’s on his way,
That if you will let Him, will change all your ways.”
“The gifts He brings are Joy, Mercy and Love,
Sent by the King of Kings from above.”
Are you ready for Christmas? At this time of year, that question is often used as a mundane conversation starter, similar to and with the same intent as “What do you think of the weather?” – we really don’t care what the answer is, but it tends to break the ice for further conversation.
But an answer I received to that question a couple of weeks ago really caused me to stop and think. Oh, I’ve heard the same answer before, and I’m sure some of you might even feel this way today. But for some reason it really disturbed me this year.
“I’ll just be glad when it is all over.”
Almost as bad was the sign on the door of one of our residents where I work: “Please no Christmas gifts. I’m allergic to them.”
Why do we allow the Advent season leading up to Christmas to sour us toward the spiritual celebration that should take possession of our hearts? After all, although the story of Santa Claus and gift-giving in general in one of its various forms or another has come to be part and parcel of our holiday tradition, the real Christmas story is that God so Loved the World that He sent His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, into our salvation history as a baby, and we celebrate it not because it is a birthday party (well, maybe a little), but because it reminds us of the wonderful gift that we have received from God of Himself, becoming Man to be with us and to save us from ourselves. And we celebrate to remind ourselves that Jesus not only became one of us in history, but He will come again in Glory.
It can be easy to forget that. For many, Christmas will be a joyous occasion with lots of gifts, lots of food, and maybe even a bit of overindulgence. But for many, it will also be a time of sadness, stress, worry or, frankly, more than a little aggravation. And I’m sure that it wasn’t any better 2,000 years ago.
Today’s Gospel gives us some insight into the worry, the stress, the sadness, of one of the key players in Jesus’ birth – St. Joseph.
Of all of the significant players included in the entire Bible – both Old and New Testament – whose lives played an integral part in salvation history, there are few as enigmatic as St. Joseph. Considering the role he played as the foster-father of Jesus, when compared to all other characters in the Bible he is, if not the only one, one of the very few who had no lines whatsoever in the story of our faith. What little we know of him comes from today’s Gospel and a handful of other asides scattered here and there, and through Church tradition:
So what do we know of St. Joseph? Well:
• According to Matthew’s geneology, Joseph was a son of Jacob. But according to Luke, he was the son of Heli. And when the Angel in today’s Gospel calls him “son of David”, it of course doesn’t mean literally, but that he is direct descendant of David. It is through that relationship that Jesus comes to fulfill the prophesy and promise of the coming of a savior made by the prophets.
• It is also through Matthew’s Gospel that we learn that Joseph was a carpenter. In Mark’s Gospel, Joseph is never mentioned by name. In fact, he only refers to Jesus as the carpenter – and as the son of Mary. And while in the infant narratives of Luke he gets a lot of coverage, Luke never identifies either Joseph or Jesus as carpenters.
• Finally, in all of the Gospels Jesus himself never refers to Joseph as his father. He only refers to God as being his father, as when as a child his mother asks him: “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety” and he replies: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” and he didn’t mean Joseph’s. And again, when he was told that his family was outside wanting to talk with him: “Who is my (family)? … (W)hoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.”
Anything else concerning Joseph as a person comes from today’s Gospel:
• He was to be married to Mary, who was betroved to him.
• He was a righteous man.
• He had a strong faith in God – enough to believe the visions he received in his dreams from God’s angel messengers, and
• He did as he was told by angels:
o When told not to be afraid to Mary as his wife, he obeyed and took her into his home.
o When told that the child’s life was in danger and to flee to Egypt, he obeyed and did it.
o When told to return from Egypt, he did, and upon returning he was directed to the region of Galilee, where he went.
In a sense, St. Joseph might be considered the first deacon, as he called to serve Jesus through Mary.
I don’t know about you, but I personally would find it hard to believe anything I was told to do in a dream – especially if it was as dramatic as what Joseph was commanded to do.
And why do we assume that Joseph was overly poor? After all:
• He was a craftsman, a necessary trade of the times and he must have been somewhat successful since his personal skill was recognized by those in the region.
• There was no room at the Inn – but not because he couldn’t afford it. They sought lodging but, probably due to Mary’s condition, they had to travel slowly and so arrived later than expected. Knowing that Mary needed shelter, Joseph did the best that he could.
One thing for certain, even without ever recording a word spoken by Joseph, we know that through his actions that he had to have had an impact on Jesus as he grew up. And like Joseph, good or bad, the presence – or in many cases the absence – of our fathers have shaped us in into the people we are today. It then becomes up to us to shape our children and those who God puts into our lives, knowing that if our personal examples were poor we still have a loving Father-God who has shown us the loving and merciful way to serve our family and friends.
Which brings us back to our Christmas poem. During this next week and into the Christmas season, it can be easy for us to get caught up in the stress and worry of this season instead of celebrating the joy that it represents – the gift of God from God to us. We may not feel like celebrating – we may be grieving the loss of a loved one, or we might even be angry or scared or worried or just overwhelmed by life.
But the true gift of Christmas – Jesus – and His peace and joy and strength is for each and every one of us. Drawing on that gift can help us in how we face our challenges and will affect those we encounter – as parents and co-workers and neighbors and friends. And we have an opportunity to share the Good News with all who we encounter. So let us embrace the gift of Jesus and next week proclaim to one and all:
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a Good Night.
Sunday, November 13, 2022
Here we are, once again celebrating the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, cycle C. It is sort of ironic that I stood here before you just three years ago, reflecting on these same readings. For those of you who remember that weekend, I started with a general comment about how, as we approach the end of our liturgical calendar, the readings for the next few Sundays’ reflect an “es-cata-logical” theme. I still hate the word as I continue to mispronounce it, but the definition for it is clear: it’s the study of 'end things', whether it’s the end of an individual life, the end of the age, or the end of the world. Or, to quote the R.E.M. song used in the movie, “Chicken Little”, “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It”.
I then went on to talk about the five main scenarios that are usually used to predict the end of the world in our movies today: an Alien Invasion; being hit by an Asteroid; a Catastrophic Geological Phenomena; our own Self-Inflicted Armageddon (whether that be from nuclear war, biological war or Climate Change; or (of course, my favorite): the Zombie Apocalypse. And, at least in the movies, we usually seem to avert annihilation.
However, who would have predicted – outside of maybe an ancient biblical prophet like Isaiah or Jeremiah – that other than an invasion by zombies or aliens we would experience all those other events which, by any measure, would be worthy of a movie of impending doom. For within roughly a month of my preaching, CoVid-19 hit – one of the worst pandemics in modern history. During it we experienced massive natural disasters such as the catastrophic fires in the western US and Australia, record-setting heat waves in the Northwest and indeed globally, and a war between two “civilized” industrial countries which has displaced millions of people and which continues to this day. All this has happened within the short span of the last three years. And no, I had no idea of what we were about to face when I preached that Sunday.
By the way, the total number of deaths from CoVid, which at one point was thought by some to be the end of the world, is estimated to be just over six point six million, which is only about one-fifth of the number of deaths attributed to HIV/AIDS just a couple of decades earlier.
And yet, I think we once again find ourselves becoming, after the initial panic associated with these tragic events, like the villagers in the Aesop’s Fable story about the little shepherd boy who cried “wolf”: complacent about our own future.
Maybe even more so. In past crises, people would turn to God for help and protection, but today it seems that as a society we are turning away from God. At least when people blamed God for bad things, it indicated that they still believed He existed. Today, I’m not so sure. It’s like the recent Netflix movie about a planet-killing asteroid hurling toward Earth (movie scenario #2) called “Don’t Look Up”: everyone knows that it’s coming, but they don’t care. God can work to heal one’s anger and pain; but how does He reach someone who doesn’t care if He exists?
And we should care, for even if the times are not signaling the End of the World As We Know It, there will always be events which will make it seem like it is. And just as we need God to help us through those difficult times when we face them, we also need Him to help us care for those who are affected by tragedies of their own. We all need someone who cares, and no one cares for us more than God, even if we don’t believe in Him or are angry with Him.
Now, since these things have been happening for over 2,000 years, does that mean that we are not living in the “end times” that Jesus warned us of? No – of course we are. But He points out that, while there will be many tragic events that may occur in our lives before the second coming, they, in and of themselves, do not mean that the second coming is here.
Each of us still has a mission to fulfill, despite the scary-ness of the times in which we live. And each of us will face our own “End of the World” – we just don’t know when or where.
So each of today’s readings are just as important to us today as they were to the Israelites and the Jews of Jesus’ time, both as a warning to us against becoming too complacent in our lives and as a pointer to who we should be looking to in order to help us face those challenges: God. And the true challenges we face are not aliens, zombies, nuclear wars, pandemics or other catastrophes. The challenges are much more personal than that.
In the movie, “Rim of the World”, four misfit pre-teens are caught up in a doomsday scenario – the end of the world by alien invasion (that’s movie option number one, by the way). Although these kids have to fight aliens and even their own people in order to save the world, their biggest challenges are in overcoming their own personal battles – the boy who is afraid of everything; the kid who has been labeled a criminal because he has a learning disability which caused him to make some serious mistakes; the girl who is an orphan because her parents didn’t “want” her; and the kid who has lost everything because his dad was sent to jail. It wasn’t the aliens who threatened them the most; it was their own fears.
That’s US. And it is how we face our individual fears, those challenges, those OPPORTUNITIES to witness to others the love and mercy of God through the light of Christ, which will define how we will meet our own “end times.” Not everyone will agree or accept our testimony. We may face persecution; we may lose everything we have including our friends, our livelihoods – yes, even our lives. But if we persevere; if we do not become complacent; God will save us.
And we will receive the best of all possible end times – an eternity with God.
Sunday, October 16, 2022
Of the five types of prayer – Praise, Thanksgiving, Blessing or Adoration, Petition and Intercession – while I would venture that the first three types may arguably be the most important to our relationship with God, the greatest majority of our prayers fall into one of the two last categories: prayers for ourselves or prayers for others.
In a way, it is only natural. There is often a sense of urgency when we offer the last two types of prayer that we don’t feel present for the first three. If something happens that is beneficial to us or to those closest to us, we will thank God after the fact; we might praise Him out of awe and reverence just because of our witness of His goodness throughout all of creation; and we should adore God out of sheer love of Him.
But there is a sense of timelessness associated with these prayers. There is no expectation that something should happen as a result of them, other than our development of a closer personal relationship with God, which, by the way, is crucial for us to get to Heaven. It is through these three types of prayer that we get to know God the Father and His Son, Jesus through the interaction of the Holy Spirit. That is why the first three prayers types are so important and should not be neglected. We NEED them if we expect God to listen to the last two types of prayer.
We offer prayers of petition or intercession asking God to grant our request whenever we, or someone we love, have a problem to be faced or an obstacle to be overcome, or there’s something we think we need or desire strongly. And while all five types of prayer need it, the last two will always call for persistence.
What is persistence? First of all, persistence doesn’t mean stubbornness. It isn’t likely that God, unlike the dishonest judge in the Gospel, will be worn down by our prayers and just give into our demands. I’ve known people (myself included) who have thought, “If I just pray harder and more often, God will give into me.” And if I don’t get what I want, I’m not praying hard enough.”
It’s not as if we can manipulate God like a puppet on a string. God isn’t a puppet, but a loving Father who “knows what we need before we do” and grants our requests “according to His Will”. But He also wants to know if we are serious in our prayers and if WE have the right mindset when we ask them. And that’s where persistence can come into play.
If there’s one word which can be used to describe the theme of all three of our readings today, it is persistence.
• Persistence in prayer, as seen in the parable from today’s Gospel;
• Persistence in action, as seen in our 1st reading about the Israelites at war; and
• Persistence in faith, which we are encouraged to have as seen in St. Paul’s letter to Timothy.
Of what value is persistence to us? We’ve all probably heard the little ditty that has been taught to school children since the mid 1800s: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” (I love the scene in the original “Miracle on 34th Street” where a young Natalie Woods recites it to her mother in response to her mother’s statement that she needs to have faith. Of course, she was referring to Santa Claus, but you get the idea.)
So, why keep trying? Why not W.C. Field’s version; “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again – and then give up”? Can you imagine the old recruiting slogan, “When the going gets tough, the tough give up”? But it seems that that has become the mantra for far too many people today.
St. James stated the reason quite clearly: “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” (Ja 1:12)
We live in a world that is full of challenges, but despite what some people think, the challenges of today are no more or less severe than those faced by previous generations. War, natural and man-made disasters and life-threatening illnesses were part of the world that faced those in Jesus’ time and the early Christians, just like we do today. So what’s different?
Maybe it is because as a society, we are losing a sense of hope for a better world. And that loss begins with our loss of faith.
In a Pew report from 2018, while 80% of adults in the United States said they believed in a “god”, only 56% believed in the God of the Christian faith, while a total of 33% said they believed in some other sort of god or some higher power. And about 10% stated no belief in a higher power at all! Sadly, I believe the numbers are even lower today.
Unfortunately, as belief in God diminishes, so does hope. A recent report from the Center for Disease Control states that despair is at an all-time high, especially for young men and women in the ages between 15 and 34. That’s OUR children! Is it any wonder that our world seems to be more cynical and less loving today?
BUT, there really is HOPE. God has promised to never abandon us, and Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise. The Gospels are full of hope, and with every generation God continues to call upon his saints-in-the-making to help us see the brightness of our futures, or, as God said through the prophet Jeremiah: “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you – plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope. When you call me, and come and pray to me, I will listen to you.” (Jer 29:11-12)
Which brings us back to our readings. The hope of our future lies in our persistence in the face of adversity, as seen in the three examples given to us today:
1. St. Paul calls to us to “proclaim the Word of God and to be persistent in doing so, whether it is convenient or inconvenient” – in other words, whether we, or others, like it or not. We must persistently live our faith; we must persistently profess our faith. And we must do so with humility and charity.
2. Jesus tells us that in order to proclaim the Good News, we too must reach out to God and “pray always without becoming weary”, for God will always listen and answer our prayers, and will give us the strength to persevere in our efforts.
3. Finally, we are reminded that we cannot do it alone – it takes the Church to help us. Moses, although God’s favored one, was still unable to sustain his “prayer” in the heat of the battle without the help of Aaron and Hur, his priests. If we ever think that we don’t need our “religion” because we can go “directly to God”, this should remind us that we need friends of faith to sustain us. God has placed others in our lives to help us to get to heaven. Just as important, He has provided us to others to help them as well. We should not be afraid to turn to others when we need help – and to be persistent in our efforts to help others in need.
This is what gives meaning to life – a belief in God, the promise of heaven, and help for the journey. And we need persistence in our lives: persistence in our prayers, persistence in our actions; persistence in our faith. Praying to God leads to Faith; Faith leads to Hope; Hope leads to Action; and Action leads to God.
And it is God Who gives meaning to our lives. Because He loves us, He is persistent in His pursuit of us.
One final thought. As I said earlier, persistence isn’t stubbornness. God ALWAYS answers our prayers, although it may not be with the answers we want. I think I’ve shared this poem before, but it bears repeating:
“Our prayers to God, they come and they go.”
Sometimes with “Yes”, sometimes with “No”.
But when we demand that He do our bidding,
Sometimes God answers, “You’ve got to be kidding!”
Sunday, September 18, 2022
Are you at peace with yourself? Is your life quiet and tranquil? I’m afraid that most of the time, mine isn’t – unless you count the times I’m asleep – and even then my dreams are rarely quiet and tranquil. When you mix 3 people, 4 dogs, a cat, two TVs, and multiple electronic devices under one roof, there’s bound to be a lot of action and noise. You with kids know exactly what I mean.
The world outside of my house might actually be worse. At least there is a level of civility within my household - most of the time. But it doesn’t take much to show me that once I step across the threshold into the world at large the challenges to peace become even greater.
I think that’s why I find St. Paul’s letter to Timothy particularly insightful. Most scholars believe that it was written near the end of St. Paul’s life, or that it might have even been a synthesis of several letters that he composed, but whatever its source it strikes to the root of much of our problems today – living in peace. In the letter Timothy is described as the young administrator of the Church in Ephesus, and Paul is providing instructions on how to shepherd the people in his Christian community through the challenges they faced both within their church and with the pagan culture at large. The problems Timothy faced are no different than what we face today.
Today, we pick up with the beginning of Chapter 2 and Paul’s specific instructions to Timothy: “First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.”
Notice that Paul links a quiet and tranquil life to devotion to God and dignity in our behavior. They go hand in hand with each other. But to get there, we must first pray. Not first for ourselves, although it is natural that we should think of ourselves first. But first we pray for others, especially for those who are in authority over us.
Remember, at the time that Paul is writing this, Christians were being persecuted for their faith in Jesus. The leaders and their policies in the Roman world were in direct conflict with Christ’s teachings – just like we often see in our world today. How then do we orient ourselves so that we can be at peace with the world – and with ourselves?
We look to the rest of today’s readings to provide some insight for us as they intertwine with each other.
The first reading from Amos could just have easily been written to us today. We once had “Blue Laws” on the books which were meant to safeguard the Sabbath and to give us time to be quiet and focus on God. Now that they are virtually non-existent, those who are focused on getting ahead in life economically, expecially at the expense of others, see leisure time as a waste. Of course, there are also those who take leisure activities to the other extreme, seeing the time set aside for God as a burden to tolerate and not as a joy to experience. Amos warns the Israelites that short-changing or ignoring God on the Sabbath and focusing only on personal gain at the expense of others would have dire consequences. And we’re seeing those consequences in our world today.
Which leads to today’s Gospel. I admit that I struggle with this particular passage from Luke’s Gospel as it seems to reward secular cleverness instead of the virtue of honesty. But if we know Jesus, then we know that there is always a deeper meaning to his parables.
What do we know about the steward? First, since richness was an indication of power in Jewish times, his wealthy boss would be a person of great influence, and as his steward, he in turn would wield power in his boss’ name. Second, he must have been abusing that power since he must be living a life of some luxury at the expense of his boss. Third, he might or might not have been directly cheating those who owed the boss since it says he was taking advantage of his boss’ resources, but in his attempt to ingratiate himself with the debtors he must have had some positive relationship with them in order for his gestures to be met with any quid pro quo on their part. Finally, the commendation by his boss as being prudent doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t be fired.
From a spiritual point of view, I think we tend to forget that God is our master, just like the rich man is the master of the steward. We are stewards of all of the gifts that have been entrusted to us. His differentiation of honest vs. dishonest wealth is a distinction between earthly (dishonest) wealth and spiritual (honest) wealth. Jesus’ admonition that we should be trustworthy with the gifts that we have, from whatever source they come, reminds us that anything we have is a gift from God. If we want to enjoy the spiritual gifts promised to us for eternity, we must also be prudent with the earthly gifts we receive first.
Finally, we return to Paul’s letter and his wish for all Christians stated in the last line of today’s passage: “… in every place (people) should pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument.” While hopefully this is true during an hour of Sunday Mass, given the lack of civility and respect we often show to others during the other 167 hours of the week I wonder if we are taking this admonition truly to heart. And yet, when we can embrace a civil tongue and show respect to others, there is a lack of conflict in our lives and we tend to find ourselves at peace.
Sadly, I believe that we are a cynical nation today, and rather than praying that everyone, including those in authority, to be saved we instead pray that those who do not conform to our belief – especially those in authority – are struck down or otherwise removed from power. And with Midterm elections coming in a few weeks we only have to look to the news and the talking heads on social media to realize that we are far from Paul’s insistence on prayer for all.
So, what’s the answer? How do we experience that calm and peaceful life that Paul describes? First, the prophet Amos tells us to appreciate the gift that God gave us with the Sabbath and to use it as it was meant – a time to thank God for the many gifts He has given to us and to use that time for the purpose He intended. Second, as Jesus reminds us, we are stewards of the many gifts we have received, whether earthly wealth or spiritual health, and we need to be wise in our use of both. And finally, Paul reminds us to pray, especially for those with authority over us or with those that we disagree with, not in anger but in love.
It is then that we will find peace.
Sunday, August 28, 2022
At first glance, today’s first reading and the Gospel from Luke appear to be lessons on humility, and we would not be wrong in believing that. But if we stopped there and only focused on how we should act with humility, we might miss an important insight into the mind of God.
Let’s start with our first reading, which sets the stage for today’s Gospel. It is from the Wisdom Of Ben Sira, better known to most Catholics as the Book of Sirach. Sirach contains numerous maxims, or sayings, that deal with a variety of subjects pertaining to individuals, the family, and the community in their relations with one another and with God. It addresses areas of friendship, education, poverty and wealth, laws, religious worship, and many other important matters which are still applicable to life today. Written around 175 BC, you won’t find it in most Protestant bibles and it, along with the book of Tobit, Maccabees and the other Deuterocanonical books, are important reasons to make sure you own a proper and complete Catholic bible. By the way, a good Catholic Study Bible is reasonably priced and makes for a great Christmas gift for any of your non-Catholic friends – or even your own children. (And since it is August, I know you are already shopping for Christmas.)
Getting back to Sirach, today’s first reading talks of the importance of humility, and the rewards for those who are truly humble – the love of others and the favor of God. It also offers good advice on how to practice humility, which leads us to Luke’s Gospel for today.
It begins with Jesus at dinner party hosted by a leading Pharisee. This is probably not just an intimate gathering of a few friends for drinks, since it alludes to the number of people seeking places of honor. And since Jesus wasn’t known to be buddy-buddy with any of the leading Pharisees (with the possible exception of Nicodemus), if he was invited then the odds were good that there would have been a lot of people there, if only see Jesus.
Now, this is the third time in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus dines with the Pharisees. The first time was with the Pharisee named Simon and it concluded with the pardoning of the sinful woman and Jesus directing a parable about mercy at Simon. The second time an unnamed Pharisee commented on how Jesus’ disciples did not wash before dining and he was subsequently chastised for emphasizing legalistic rituals without understanding them.
And now, Jesus cautions the Pharisee’s guests about the dangers of feeling self-important, and then he turns to the host and comments on his choice of dinner guests. You’d think people would learn about what would happen to them if they invited Jesus to dinner, wouldn’t you?
In any case, Jesus is there and it appears that a lot of people are there. He begins by observing how they are interacting with each other. On the surface, his comments appear to be just about humbling oneself by not seeking seats of honor. But there’s more to it than that, I believe.
Think about it. If we are invited to a party and there is no assigned seating, wouldn’t we look for a place to sit near our friends or at least someone we knew? Would that be wrong? After all, God created us to be social creatures with a sense of community – a desire to be part of something larger than ourselves. So, if it isn’t just an issue of taking the lowest place at the table (which would cause its own problem if EVERYONE tried to sit there), then what should determine where we choose to sit? After all, think about Mary and Martha – wouldn’t sitting at the feet of Jesus be considered a position of honor, and shouldn’t we want to be as close to Him as possible?
I think it is motivation, the “why” of what we choose. In his encounter with people, Jesus always looked for a person’s motivation. While his miracles had to do with a person’s faith or those around them, even that reflected the motivations of those involved. Ultimately, our motivations are more important to God than just action, although our actions often reflect our motivations. It’s our motivations that separate us from other creatures.
And that which motivates us should be tied directly to our faith in God.
What motivates us to act, to choose, as we do? I confess, I wonder if I’m like Jesus as I watch people come in for Mass. We laugh and joke about how at one time Jewish people would pay to have the seats of honor at the front of the synagogue but that Catholics would pay to sit in the back. And make no mistake about it, everyone here is invited to sit near the front. After all, wouldn’t it be better to sit at the feet of Jesus like Mary?
In any case, after commenting on the guests’ choice of seats, Jesus turns to the host and suggests that he should have invited those who could not return the favor. And that becomes particularly challenging to us. Are we willing to do that? For the braver ones among us, we might go and serve food at a soup kitchen or help with a holiday meal for the poor, but are we afraid to invite strangers into our home to share a meal with us? I confess I would find it particularly difficult.
Once again, it is our motivation which is important to God. Even if the Pharisee had invited the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind – that in and of itself might not have been a noble act in the eyes of God if his motivation was that others might see and compliment him of being a good person.
And that is the problem with society today – our motivation or mindset, the “why” we do something. We often do things because we like thank-you’s or other acknowledgments whenever we do something nice for someone. But if, as Jesus said, when giving alms we should not let the right hand know what the left hand is doing, then how many buildings or other monuments should be named “Anonymous”? I wonder – are the saints horrified when we name something after them? In fact there are not many examples of humility today – just look at the egos of many of those we publicly honor: those with wealth or power, sports figures, media celebrities, or even politicians. (Well, maybe not many of them.)
Merely being a humanist, one who is motivated to do good for others but doesn’t love God, often ends up like the person whom Jesus refers to in his Sermon on the Mount concerning prayer, fasting and almsgiving: “Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward” – (Mt 6:1-18).
In summary, the gospel offers us two points to ponder concerning humility today:
* Are we motivated by what we think of others? Or,
* Are we motivated by what others think of us?
Both have to do with our opinion of ourselves. If humility lies in knowing our proper relationship to others and to God, then we can only be humble if we place God first in our lives and follow His Will. It’s like when we say that St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) accomplished great things (which she did); in true humility she’d say God did great things and allowed her to be part of it.
True humility IS hard. But God is here to help us if we let Him. Mac Davis used to sing, “Lord, it’s hard to be humble / When you’re perfect in every way. / I can’t wait to look in the mirror / for I get better looking each day.”
Thank God I’m not perfect.
Sunday, July 24, 2022
What would you do if you won the lottery? A really BIG one – like next Tuesday’s estimated $790 Million jackpot? If you had all that money, what is the first thing that you’d want for yourself? (I mean, after paying off your bills. And after giving St. Paul’s ten percent of your winnings – before taxes, of course.) In other words, if money was no object, what’s the ONE thing that you want most of all? A new car? A new house? A trip around the world?
But, maybe what you want can’t be bought with any amount of money. Maybe you’re fighting health issues, and you just want them to go away – an end to the suffering and pain, or healing for an illness that others have said is incurable?
Or maybe what you really want is something that you don’t think you could ever get, or that you even deserve. Maybe it’s just something as simple as having someone to love, or someone to love you?
I really want you to think seriously about this for a moment - if you asked God for ONE thing for yourself today, what would it be?
Now – I want you to ask yourself another question: “WHY”? Why do I want a new car or a new house or for the pain to go away or to live longer – or whatever it is that you want? I’m sure that whatever it is, you have a good reason for wanting it, but since you want it, you obviously don’t have it. So, ask yourself, why do I want this one thing over anything else? Now, hold onto that thought for a few minutes.
Today’s Gospel from Luke is one that’s often quoted by those who proclaim the “Gospel of Prosperity”. Similar¬ passages include:
• Matthew, chapter 7, verse 11: “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him” and Matthew, chapter 21, verse 22: “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”
• Or, Mark, chapter 11, verse 24: “Therefore I tell you, all that you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it and it shall be yours.”
• Or in the Gospel of John, chapter 14, verse 14: “If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it”; and John, chapter 15, verse 7: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.”
And there are many other examples.
According to these scripture passages, if you pray hard enough, or just had enough faith, you should get what you ask for, right? Maybe not. I didn’t win the Mega Millions jackpot earlier this month, and I even bought two tickets for it. So I guess I didn’t pray hard enough?
Or maybe, just maybe, God knew it wouldn't be good for me.
In any case, let’s take a closer look at today’s Gospel reading. It begins with Jesus’ disciples asking him how to pray, and Jesus teaching them a shortened form of the Lord’s Prayer. (The “Our Father that we usually recite comes from Matthew’s Gospel). But look at how today’s Gospel ends: “how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?”
The answer to everything we need or want lies in the most precious gift of all, the gift that God wants to give us: the gift of His Holy Spirit. And if we look at what Jesus is telling His disciples from that perspective, we see that the other gifts that God offers us through His Holy Spirit are far greater than mere cars or houses or money or even health.
Do you remember the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the 12 Fruits of the Holy Spirit from your CCD or faith formation classes? I’m embarrassed to say that I have to usually look them up. The 7 gifts are: Knowledge. Understanding. Wisdom. Counsel. Courage. Piety. Fear of the Lord. (I prefer “Awe and Respect of the Lord” as “Fear of the Lord” makes God sound like someone to avoid instead of someone to love.)
And the 12 fruits of the Holy Spirit are: Peace, Joy, Love, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Generosity, Gentleness, Faithfulness, Modesty, Chastity, and Self-control. These are the Good Gifts that God has in store for us, available to us if we just ask.
Why are these gifts so valuable? Why should we want them instead of wealth, health or power? How do they answer the question of “what’s the one thing I want most?”
Because if you think about the question I asked you earlier, “Why do I want what I want?”, we find that it is because we are lacking in one or more of these Gifts. We want what we want because we don’t have what we need – peace, joy, love, courage, wisdom – and so on. We mistakenly think that more money, or better health, or earthly hookups will satisfy us, and they don’t.
But, God knows what we need, and He wants to give it all to us. Like we hear in the classic Rolling Stone’s song, You Can't Always Get What You Want”:
“You can't always get what you want /
But if you try sometimes, you might find /
You get what you need.”
If we pray for the Holy Spirit, then we'll get what we need, for all we really need is the Holy Spirit, and with it comes an inner peace and joy which fulfills our longings and leads to a holiness that bring us closer to God.
In return, what does God want from us? Nothing – and Everything. Maybe if we first think about why God wants to give us the ultimate of gifts of the Holy Spirit, we will have a clue to God’s motivation: He Loves Us. Not because we love Him, or follow His commandments, or because of anything we say or do. He loves us because He is Love, and we, as His children, His creations, He wants what is best for us. In other words, He wants to give us the gift of Himself.
We in turn, should offer all of our being to Him. All that we have; all that we are. Not because we are offering it as a trade for something better; not because we are trying to “buy” or “earn” His gifts; not because we are commanded to – but because, if you love someone, you WANT to offer everything to them. And through our prayers and petitions, what we really are doing is developing a closer relationship with Him out of our love of Him.
One final thought. In order for our prayers to be answered we need to pray with persistence. Persistence in prayer isn’t just us knocking on God’s door with a list of our earthly wants, but it is about helping us come to a better understanding of what we need from God – and God’s Will for us. And, with that understanding – that wisdom – we also come to recognize that God indeed answers our prayers. We only have to accept those gifts that He offers us so that we can also experience the one Gift we need most: His Love.
I leave you with this ode to prayer:
Our prayers to God, they come and they go.
Sometimes with “Yes”, sometimes with “No”.
But when we demand that God do our bidding,
Sometimes He answers, “You got to be kidding”.